Put Sidewalk and Drive on a Low-Salt Diet*


For safety reasons, we need to keep driveways and sidewalks clear of ice and snow. However, choosing the right product and using it correctly is important to help protect our water resources.

1. Shovel early, shovel often. There’s no substitute for muscle and elbow grease for snow and ice removal. Remove as much snow as you can during the storm if possible. Use a hoe or other tools to chip or scrape ice off the surface before any deicers are applied. Deicers work best when there is only a thin layer of snow or ice that must be melted. Divert the melting snow away from your sidewalk and driveway to an area where ice won’t be a problem.

2. Buy early. Make sure to buy your deicing product well before the big storm hits, otherwise you will be looking at empty shelves, and have few, if any, environmental choices to make at the store.

3. Check the label. The products below shows how the main ingredients of common de-icing products compare. Check the package closely to see what you’re buying—often a product may contain several of the ingredients listed below, but the first one listed is usually the main ingredient. 

Product:  Calcium Chloride
Works Down to:  -25 degrees F 
Cost:  three times more than rock salt 
Environmental Concerns:  Use three times less than rock salt, No Cyanide, Chloride impact Product:  Magnesium Chloride 
Works Down to: 5 degrees F  
Cost:  n/a  
Environmental Concerns:  less toxic and safer for environment than calcium chloride

Product:  NaCl: Sodium Chloride or “rock salt”
Works Down to:  15 degrees F
Cost:  about $5 for a 50 pound bag
Environmental Concerns: Contains cyanide, Chloride impacts

Product:  Urea
Works Down to:  20 to 25 degrees F
Cost:  Five times more than rock salt
Environmental Concerns:  Needless nutrients, Less Corrosion

Product:  Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA)
Works Down to:   22 to 25 degrees F
Cost:  20 times more than rock salt
Environmental Concerns:  Less toxic

Product:  Sand
Works Down to:  No melting effect
Cost:  about $3 for a 50 lb bag
Environmental Concerns:  Accumulates in streets and streams; needs to be swept up

4. Apply salt early, but sparingly. No matter which chloride product you choose, a little goes a long way. Additional salt won’t speed up the melting process, so follow directions for application carefully and remember to first remove as much snow and ice as you can. The recommended application rate for sodium chloride is about a handful per square yard. Calcium chloride works at much colder temperatures and you need a lot less (about a handful per three square yards—about the area of a single bed). Choose calcium chloride over sodium chloride when you can.

5. Avoid kitty litter and ashes. Although these products may seem environmentally friendlier, they don’t work to melt snow and ice—they merely provide some traction and make a mess on your floors. Stick with sand for traction, which is cheaper and easier to clean up.

6. Avoid Products that Contain Urea. Urea has been recommended as a safer alternative, reasoning that it does not contain chlorides and, as a form of nitrogen, will help fertilize your yard when it washes off. However, urea-based deicing products are a poor choice as it is fairly expensive and performs poorly when temperatures drop below 20 degrees F. The application rate for urea during a single deicing is ten times greater than that needed to fertilize the same area of your yard, and ultimately, very little of the urea will actually get onto your lawn, but will end up washing into the street and storm drain and eventually to the nearest lake or stream. Given that nitrogen is a problem for surface water resources, it doesn’t make sense to use nitrogen-based products for de-icing.

7. Consider nearby vegetation. Look at the plants growing within five or ten feet of your driveway, sidewalk and road. Salt-sensitive plants are listed below. If you have salt-sensitive tree, shrub or grass close to these paved surfaces, you should avoid any de-icing product that contains chlorides (magnesium chloride, rock salt or calcium chloride), or use very small amounts. You may want to use CMA as a safer alternative, or use sand for traction.

Species at Risk from Salting
Deciduous Trees:   Tulip polar, Green ash, Hickory, Red maple, Sugar Maple
Conifers:   Balsam fir, White pine, Hemlock, Norway Spruce
Shrubs:   Dogwood, redbud, hawthorn, rose, spirea
Grasses:   Kentucky bluegrass, Red fescue

* Adapted from Snow, Road Salt and the Chesapeake Bay by Tom Schueler, Center for Watershed Protection

5915 Milwaukee St. | P.O. Box 110 | McFarland, WI 53558-0110 | ph: 608-838-3153 | fx: 608-838-3619