LAWRENCE, Mich. (WOOD) — Winter weather returned to West Michigan this week, and so did the trucks treating the roads. Departments are looking at options to replace the rock salt in those trucks with better options, though it won’t happen right away.
The sodium chloride traditionally used on roads can be dangerous for pets, wildlife and even the drinking water supply. It can also cause damage to vehicles and infrastructure even as it de-ices.
“It’s corrosive on vehicles,” explained Greg Brucks, director of operations for the Van Buren County Road Commission. “It can damage the substructure of the road. It allows it to freeze and thaw at different levels, soaks into the water… There’s been a lot of things in the media and legislation about slowly getting away from it.”
That’s why departments and agencies operating salt trucks are prioritizing reducing sodium chloride and adding other compounds, including sand and de-icer fluid, that still do the job.
“Liquid calcium chloride … gets applicated in the salt spreader, directly on the material,” Brucks said, showing a road truck’s system to News 8. “When it comes out of there, it hopefully stays in the road where we want it.”
You’re probably familiar with the materials in that liquid additive, magnesium chloride or calcium chloride, even if you don’t know their names.
“It’s more of a powdered flake. A lot of stuff you buy at hardware stores that you maybe put on your sidewalk that’s pet safe and safer on concrete, all of that stuff is a magnesium or a calcium chloride.” Brucks said.
The non-sodium chloride compounds are also known to melt ice at lower temperatures than traditional rock salt.
“You can get down near-zero (degrees) and still have some functionality,” Brucks explained. “With primarily asphalt roads, you get the heat up from just a little bit of sun. You’ll notice when it’s colder than that, it’ll crack and break much sooner with the sun out.”
The biggest barrier to completely replacing sodium chloride is cost.
“The weather is somewhat uncontrollable, so we have to budget for the worst,” Brucks explained. When you throw the incrementally higher prices of your products without sodium chloride in them, it’s just not feasible to maintain the same level of service we provide now with that additional cost.”
According to Brucks, replacing Van Buren County’s salt supply with non-sodium chloride compounds would be at least double the current cost. But he expects the market to improve soon.
“I see it changing in the next several years. Because of that, there are lots of people working on more cost-effective methods to manufacture that,” Brucks said.