Helping public works departments streamline snow and ice control will keep consultants Diana Clonch and Diane Watkins in snow boots for years. “No single activity is more expensive, or more visible to the public,” says Clonch.

In fact, winter operations can consume 25% to 45% of maintenance budgets. Factor in the season’s unpredictability and all bets are off.

Budgets were blown in 2013-14, when the Midwest and Great Lakes regions endured 25 storms with record or near-record snowfall, cold temperatures, and ice cover. Road crews across the Snow Belt burned through salt stockpiles and dipped into this season’s supplies. District 1 of the Ohio DOT (ODOT), an eight-county region, spent $8.7 million on snow and ice control, more than twice an average year.

Not wanting to be caught short again, agencies increased volume requirements when they put out salt contracts for this season. But supplies were exhausted, vendors couldn’t meet requests, and it was nearly impossible (or cost-prohibitive) to find bidders.

For example, Jefferson County, Ill., used 1,200 tons of salt in 2013-14, all but 50 tons of its stockpile. The agency contacted dozens of suppliers to rebuild reserves to 600 tons. A source was finally found but, at $117 per ton, costs had almost doubled from the previous year. Salt prices in the Midwest were as high as $140 per ton.

Clonch sometimes helps clients revise contract language to be more flexible about quantities, price, and delivery timeframes. But a key part of the solution is to add other deicers and approaches to your arsenal.

“Typically, we plow, throw rock salt until we have no more, and only then do we look for an alternative,” she says.

The past year’s supply-and-demand situation gave many agencies an incentive to start implementing that approach.

ODOT’s District 1 used 62,300 tons of salt and 460,000 gallons of salt brine. This winter was less extreme, so salt usage was about half of last year’s levels. Interesting, however, was an increase in the proportion and variety of alternatives. This year’s mix included 645,000 gallons of deicing liquid — not only salt brine but also beet juice and natural saltwater.

While not new, alternatives sometimes still meet with resistance.

“It’s different than the age-old approach of using solids, and most of us have a bit of a challenge with change,” she says. And safety and liability are always concerns when experimenting with a different product. “But an enormous amount of data from research and practical application strongly supports the use of liquids and the benefit to winter operations.”

It helps to hear success stories. “As a sales rep, I can go in and talk about the results we experienced in Cincinnati,” says Watkins.

For example, Maintenance Supervisor Bryan Pickworth invited Watkins to review the Farmington Hills, Mich., snow and ice control plan with his road crew and maintenance staff. “She brings a fresh perspective and helps them understand deicing with liquids,” he says.

“The largest deterrent in the use of liquids is the lack of understanding of how the products work and how to use them,” says Clonch.

That’s where training comes in. Clonch conducts 15 or 20 winter operations sessions every season, and last year guided 1,200 students through the decision making process, encompassing:

  • Objective—e.g., bare pavement, one passable lane, access to major traffic generators
  • Resources—Labor (full- or part-time, seasonal, contract), fleet (size, type, age, condition, technology), materials (salt, liquids, other chemicals, application rates, and methods)
  • Integrating these factors with each season’s unique parameters—microclimate, changes in roadways, available resources.

What it comes down to, says Clonch, is “What are you trying to do and what do you have to work with?”