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The best defense against lost sales, customer endangerment, and costly litigation is an early application of an ice melter followed by a shoveling. The financial liability is too high to let snow and ice build up on surfaces. When things get slick, people slip and fall. Some will get hurt and some may try to sue. Others will simply avoid parking lots and entries where they see ice–and that means they will take their business elsewhere.

The key to effective use of snow and ice melters lies in knowing the capabilities of each type of product and where it can be used best. Educate yourself regarding specific uses for ice melters, how deicers work, what they’re made of and where the different types of deicers should and shouldn’t be used.

Ice melters are based on several primary chemicals that cause ice and snow to melt, creating a brine or slush. As the brine spreads below the ice, it causes the ice to melt, breaking its bond with the surface on which it had formed. The resulting slush should then be removed to a non-vegetation area by mechanical means such as shoveling, plowing or blowing.

Deicers work by absorbing heat or moisture from the surrounding environment. For example, when calcium chloride comes in contact with moisture, it gives off heat in what is known as an “exothermic” reaction. When sodium chloride, potassium chloride, and urea come in contact with moisture, they absorb heat from the environment in what is known as an “endothermic” reaction.

When temperatures drop below freezing, the rate of heat absorption from ice and snow by these chemicals slows until they are no longer effective as deicers unless the sun is out or the temperature rises.
Each chemical has certain characteristics that make it an effective and safe product under specific use and weather conditions. Each product also has some possible disadvantages that should be considered when determining which melter(s) are the most appropriate for a specific location.

According to manufacturers, the form it’s delivered in impacts an ice melter’s effectiveness. Those who produce their product in pellet form claim that pellets are more effective because they penetrate through the ice faster, boring vertically downward and reaching the pavement more quickly. Once below the ice, pellets mix with moisture, enabling the brine to spread and break the bond between the ice and surface. Makers of chips, crystals, and flakes each say that their product is in contact with a larger area of ice, using energy both horizontally and vertically to get under the ice, create a brine and break up the bond so that the ice can be removed mechanically or will turn into slush, evaporate, and run off when the weather turns warmer.

Some products are also available in liquid form and can be sprayed on surfaces to prevent ice from forming. Deicers sprayed on existing ice or snow are generally not considered to be as effective, as they are rapidly diluted and are more difficult to handle. The wind may also blow them around during application. Another term you may hear is the “eutectic” temperature. This is the lowest temperature at which a product will work when the ideal percentage of the chemical is present. The problem with this is that the ideal may not have much to do with real life situations. As a deicer works, it melts ice and is diluted, so the ideal may seldom be reached. A more realistic measure of a deicer’s low temperature performance may be referred to as the “practical” temperature limit. This is generally accepted as the lowest temperature at which sufficient deicing action is evident within a reasonable period of time with a reasonable amount of deicer applied to the surface.

The most important questions are: does it work, what does it cost, is it safe, and can you live with any negative side effects? Not all products are the same, so let the buyer beware. Reputable companies will tell you about down sides to a product, or that another type of product would be more effective under different circumstances, but for a good overview of this market you must educate yourself.

The best procedure in buying ice melter is to stick with well-known, established brand names that have a proven track record of effectiveness, customer satisfaction, delivery, and a written satisfaction guarantee. In addition, request detailed information as to the contents of each product and require an MSDS. Read the label and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application and use.

These products take time to work. Ice doesn’t melt on contact with these products, so immediate results should not be expected. Another important tip is to apply early. Don’t wait for the temperature to drop below zero or for the snow to get more than two inches deep. Initial application should be made when the first snowflakes begin to fall. This way, the product will already be working to prevent the ice from forming in the first place.

Most damage problems occur due to over application. Instead of sprinkling the product evenly over a given area as it should be, it is sometimes applied too frequently or heavily, in clumps or piles. While this method may work a little faster, it can damage surfaces, kill plants and grass, as well as provide a concentrated source for rapid tracking of deicer into buildings.

Once a product loosens the ice and a slush or brine is created below the ice, get to work with the shovel and push broom to remove ice, snow and water from surfaces. Failure to do so can cause damage when the chemicals repeatedly accelerate freeze/thaw cycles. This type of action can damage concrete and result in pitting or scaling after only one season.

It is important to realize that each type of product works at specific temperatures. If it is below 10 degrees Farenheit, using the chemical calcium chloride is recommended. While this product is necessary at these temperatures it is expensive, and can be corrosive and oily in nature. The best approach may be to use multiple ice melters or a blended product depending on weather conditions, location of use, budget and other factors.

Mortar between bricks and stone is especially sensitive to freeze thaw cycles and is easily damaged, as is new concrete less than one year old. Ice melters are not recommended for use on wood surfaces.
Wood surfaces such as decks and boardwalks are also a concern as to a safe use of deicers. Proper protection of surfaces with a water sealer during the summer months is an important preventative treatment if ice melters will be used during the winter season. Surfaces should also be rinsed well to remove chemical residues once winter is over.

Snow and ice are messy and hard on floors and carpets. Add ice melter and the problem is multiplied. Now you have a white powder, an oily residue, or both to go along with the water and dirt that gets tracked into the building. To limit this, utilize walk-off mats and increase floor cleaning frequencies. Damp mop with hot water and an acid-based floor neutralizer.

Certainly the weather and your geographic location will be the deciding factor, but if you live where the snow blows, the use of deicers and ice melters must be carefully considered by building managers and custodial personnel.