Skip to main content

Battling the Ice Storm


My husband and I have a sacred winter tradition. We wait until the first ice/ snow storm begins and then we rush to our local hardware store to buy ice melt (and usually a new snow shovel ).This year was no exception. As the first raindrops were falling and temperatures were plummeting, we headed over to the neighborhood hardware store only to find that the pallet of our usual ice melt that had been full just days before was TOTALLY EMPTY. With the storm rapidly approaching, we knew that we had to head home with something. We had three options  — sand, kitty litter or a very expensive bag of premium ice melt. Not quite knowing what we needed, we decided to play it safe and brought home all three!



Sand as an ice treatment has its benefits. It provides grit which improves traction, making walking on icy surfaces a bit safer. It contains no sodium chloride (salt), so it less harmful for nearby plants and hard surfaces such as concrete or asphalt. However, It doesn’t, on its own, melt ice and it loses its effectiveness if it becomes covered by additional ice or snow. Surprisingly, sand can also become a pollutant. As the ice and snow melt,  the remaining sand is eventually washed into storm drains. When it finds its way into the watershed, it creates a sludge that contaminates the water. Once the ice and snow are gone, an excess of remaining sand can become slick, making sloping surfaces hazardous. If you do choose to use sand on driveways or walkways, make sure that you purchase the larger grained play sand, not the finer grained construction sand. 



Kitty litter is often recommended as a tool to give a stuck car needed traction on snowy or icy roadways. Applying that logic to your driveways and walkways is definitely NOT a good idea. Kitty litter can become quite slick when wet, making a bad situation even worse. Kitty litter is essentially clay, so once the ice and snow melts, you are left with sticky lumps of earth that become ice covered in the next round of bad weather.


Ice melt products are not “one size fits all.” The choice of ice melt makes a difference. Since several easy to apply, non-commercial products are available to the homeowner, it can be difficult to know which type is best for your situation. We’ve included an overview of some of the most common types on the market today.





Sodium chloride (rock salt) is probably the most commonly known product for pretreating and for ice melting. Rock salt is inexpensive, commonly available and easy to apply. It works quickly, but it is also damaging to grass, plants, pets, concrete, asphalt, brick, stone and wood decks. Effective to 15 degrees F.

Calcium Chloride is another salt product. It works more quickly at lower temperatures than rock salt. It usually causes only minimal damage to concrete and asphalt, but still can damage grass, plants and pets, especially if it is over applied. Effective to  25 degrees F below zero.

A third salt product is Potassium Chloride. It works more slowly than the previous salts, but is kinder to grass, plants, pets and concrete. It is also typically much more expensive. Effective to 25 degrees F.

Magnesium Chloride is another fast acting, effective ice melt when used according to directions. It tends to be a more environmentally sound choice and is kinder to plants. It can however, do significant damage to concrete. If over applied, it can damage plants and be lethal to pets. Effective to 13 degrees below zero.



All of these ice melt products are best applied with a spreader, but can, if necessary. be applied by hand. Be sure and wear gloves! With any ice melt, It is important to follow directions as applying more than the recommended amounts can lead to problems later. Never use ice melt products on  concrete that has been laid for less than one year (some say two years) as the ice melt will weaken or pit the concrete. Many experts suggest sprinkling ice melt before a storm hits to increase its effectiveness. 



No matter how carefully snow removal is done, it is inevitable that some of the ice melt product will cover grass, beds and plants. For areas that become highly contaminated, consider replacing the top layer of soil in the early spring, before plants begin their new flush of growth. (Remember, salt kills plants.) Alternately, thoroughly soak the area with an inch of water three or four times in the early spring. Proactively, plant shrubs behind a “push zone” to allow for snow removal.




Ice melt products can certainly be a help during winter weather, but if you have children or pets there are some safety concerns to consider. Kids love playing in the snow! For most children, there is nothing better than building snowmen, having snowball fights and sledding down huge hills. Snow that has been contaminated with ice melt however, has some risks, especially for young children. Most of the time, if there are momentary physical contacts with contaminated snow, the reactions are no more serious than a slight rash. If a child ingests ice melt, there can be serious consequences. Most importantly, DO NOT HAVE THEM VOMIT.  Instead, wipe out the child’s mouth and immediately call a poison control center for instructions. Knowing what type of ice melt was used will help determine treatment. 



Winter can be a challenge for pets. It’s important to wipe animals’ paws after they spend time outdoors to remove traces of ice melt that remain. Some owners have snow booties for their animals or even have the fur between a dog’s toes trimmed to lesson the chance that minerals remain there. Don’t allow animals to drink from puddles or lick the ice melt. Ice melt can be lethal to animals when ingested.




If the idea of shoveling snow and spreading ice melt at all hours of the day and night this winter becomes overwhelming, there is another alternative. To lessen your load, consider hiring a professional snow removal company. Here are eight questions to ask before you sign a contract:

  1. What services do you provide?
  2. What materials do you use?
  3. What equipment do you use?
  4.  What type of safety training do you provide?
  5. How experienced is your crew?
  6. What insurance do you have?
  7. What is your turn-around time?
  8. How much does your service cost? How is the cost determined?


No doubt about it. Snow season is upon us! Whether you are hiring an expert company or being a “Do- It Yourself-er,” take time to rest, relax and enjoy the season safely.