Winters in cold-weather locations, like West Michigan, mean snow, ice and slippery walkways. Salt has been the go-to ice-melt for generations, but as people become more aware of its effects on the soil and their plants (not to mention concrete, hardwood floors and pets’ paws), safer alternatives are always popping up.
But what exactly are the best ways of melting ice if you don’t want to cause damage to your garden, flowers, shrubs, turf and trees? Here are six ice-melters, and why you should or shouldn’t use them, as well as tips for safer use, should you have no other choice. And as with anything in life, before buying something read the label-- and use these guidelines to guide your purchase.
1. Rock salt (sodium chloride). The old stand-by, and by-far one of the cheapest methods of melting ice. The one your grandparents (or parents) have by the bagful in their garage or on their porch, ready to scoop-and-toss at the first sign of nips in the air. This ice melting option is the absolute worst, right? Well, yes…but hold on.
While true that salting your pathways is bad (for plants, cement, flooring, pets, etc), it’s also true that getting salt out of your soil isn’t as hard as it seems. Do you know how to get salt out? You flush it out with water. This happens in the spring with those always-lovely spring showers, but also with the enormous amount of snow melt we usually experience in West Michigan. So…if you use rock salt sparingly, it’s possible that much of it will leech out of your soil by the time the plants start waking back up again. But the key word is “sparingly.” And I do mean sparingly. Like, only use it for the thickest, nastiest, most-jagged sheets of ice of the season. Or if you just absolutely have to have every slick space eradicated on your walk up to the house and porch (like if your frail old granny is coming to visit and she’s already broken her hip nine times and the tenth may do her in permanently).That being said, rock salt is still the absolute worst when it comes to keeping your cement in one piece and it does horrible things to hardwood floors. It can also hurt your pets’ paws. As organic lawn and garden people, we’re not absolutely opposed to it—when used in moderation. Sparingly. Parsimonously. Don’t make me break out the thesaurus. Only use it when you gotta.
2. Calcium choloride. This is what you find in most of those “alternative,” non-rock-salt ice melts you find in stores. Don’t be fooled. It’s not safer than salt, in fact in many ways it’s worse. It’s bad for your concrete, it’s bad for your pets, it’s bad for your plants and it can damage your skin if it comes into contact with it while wet. What it is good for is melting ice fast in very cold temperatures. We don’t recommend using it unless you absolutely have to, and even then, once it’s done it’s melting, push the residue off your cement with a shovel and into a “non-green” area as soon as possible to keep it from running into your soil and destroying the things and people you love. No joke.
3. Potassium chloride. This is a solid choice for environmental preservation, although it doesn’t work very well below 25-degrees F, and it requires a lot of product to melt the ice. You’ll likely have to purchase this online, as it doesn’t show up in most stores.
4. Magnesium chloride. This is what you might consider a balance—it’s not great environmentally, but it’s not horrible either. It also not as effective at melting ice as some of the harsher options, although it will usually be effective in frigid sub-zero (F) temperatures.
5. Entirely organic alternatives: alfalfa meal, sugar beet juice, sand. Right now, we’re experimenting with alfalfa meal on our property to see how it works. We’ve done the reading about how it can melt ice and it also provides enough grit to give you traction even as it works to melt the ice. We’ll let you know our findings once they’re finished. Sugar beet juice is another organic option that helps melt ice, and is often mixed with sodium chloride by people who clear snow and ice for a living, so they’ll need less of the harsh salt. And sand is a good one to provide traction over the ice. I’d recommend using it on driveways rather than porches and walkways, otherwise you’ll end up with sand piles in your home.
6. Finally, the best way to clear ice from your property safely is just to shovel snow as soon as it hits (don’t let it get packed down by foot or car traffic), and break ice up with a shovel or hoe. As always, with a little elbow grease, you can do a lot to protect the environment, and not rely on chemicals to do the job for you.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.