If you have lived in the Greater Wenatchee area longer than 20 years, you have probably noticed that our winters have become milder. Now a larger portion of our winter precipitation is rain rather than snow.
And, of course, rain makes ice when it becomes cold.
Stores sell a wide array of ice melters, but not all of them are equally safe for you, your pets, children and the environment. The majority of the ice melters are salt-based — that is sodium, calcium or magnesium chloride. The chloride is the problem with the product, especially when it is not applied correctly. Salts corrode metal siding, weakens concrete — and its application is even a serious concern to the DOT because some concentrations can damage bridge steel.
Naturally, I always start with the advice to read the package’s ingredients and then read instructions for the product’s application. Do not buy a product that promises fast melting but does not list the ingredients.
A thin, even layer of product is recommended. A thicker, sporadic application on your sidewalk will not melt ice more effectively despite your best hopes. Salt added to ice creates salt water, so too much salt has serious consequences:
• The excess salt can get in your pet’s paws and fur and cause burning and an upset tummy when they lick their body. Salt-free products are available and should be considered if you have pets.
• Excess salt will pool at the edge of the driveway and cause growth problems and leaf burning on nearly all plants in the spring.
• Excess salt can damage concrete — especially newly poured concrete.
• Excess salt washes into the storm sewer and into streams and rivers and damages water quality.
Ice melt works best if applied before the ice forms because it slows the formation of ice. I know this is hard if it is still raining when you go to bed at night, but the next day, when the sun has melted some of the ice, then the product can be applied. Ice melt mostly works between 15 and 25 degrees. Most are not effective in below-zero temperatures.
How do you select a product from the dozens available? The EPA has set criteria for “least-impact” products. The package labels have a DfE designation that stands for Design for the Environment. This means that there is 30 percent less sodium chloride and other chlorides and no cyanide used as an anti-caking agent.
Fertilizers used to be recommended as ice removers because they are essentially a mixture of salts. Using fertilizer as an ice-melt is a NO-NO.
The fertilizer contaminates water because the ground is frozen, the plants are dormant, and all of it runs off. In addition, no matter how generously you apply fertilizer to your lawn and garden in the spring and summer, the amount you apply to melt the ice is hundreds of times more concentrated than the recommended amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) for your landscape.
Look for a product made with calcium, magnesium and acetate (CMA) — essentially the components of limestone and vinegar. It works in temperatures above 20 degrees and is the least corrosive salt mixture.
I have a concern about what happens to the slush that you pile up on the edge of the driveway that is a combination of melted ice and salt in an even more concentrated mass. When it melts totally, it goes down the storm sewers.
It is best to use ice melt on the walking path to the mailbox, bird feeder, etc. rather than on the entire driveway because of the detrimental effects of the de-icers. I am very thankful that the people who built my house made the front steps and the sidewalk with a stone aggregate so that the sidewalk does not get slippery.
Suggestions for traction aids on sidewalks range from sand — terrible on hardwood floors when it is tracked into the house — to kitty litter — for goodness sakes, don’t use clumping litter.
It is important to be safe and sensible. Your walking areas need to be ice-free. Managing the ice removal before it forms, and using the products smartly will protect our environment and your landscaping.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears regularly in the At Home section. Bonnie Orr is one of three columnists featured.