Government agencies in the United States spend $2.3 billion every year to battle winter weather conditions, according to a study sponsored by the New York State Department of Transportation.
While effective to 16 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the traditional application of rock salt to maintain roadways has negative environmental impacts.
A study conducted by Marquette University concluded that using rock salt (sodium chloride) presents problems when the chloride is absorbed by the ground and water streams.
In response to these concerns and for their responsibility to keep roads safe for more than 135 million motor vehicles registered in the United States, transportation departments continue to investigate and implement new, sometimes unusual, strategies for winter weather.
Unconventional sources of salt brines, such as pickle juice, beet juice, potato and cheese byproducts, are decreasing costs, lowering environmental impacts and are effective at temperatures well below zero.
These agricultural-based brines were rated highly by many states surveyed, noting the high ice melting capabilities and the overall safety impacts on wintry roads.
AccuWeather.com spoke with several transportation department officials about their seemingly off-beat solutions for winter weather conditions.
In a demonstration, a bucket is filled with beet juice at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's Butler, Pa., maintenance facility, Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. Because rock salt is largely ineffective below 16 degrees, road salt is mixed with additives, such as beet juice and cheese brine, to keep it working in temperatures as low as 25 degrees below zero. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
As an agricultural byproduct created through the sugar beet process, beet juice brine is a useful tool for many highway departments.
PennDOT District 10 uses "Beet Heet," which Deborah L. Schreckengost Casadei, public information officer for PennDOT, describes as "an anti-icing and salt pre-wetting agent made from processed sugar beet molasses."
When combined with the traditional de-icing agent of salt, the thick red beet juice freezes at a lower temperature than just a pure salt brine, so it can be used in below-zero temperatures. It also provides additional adhesive powers for the brine, which allows the roadway to retain more even after rainfall.
Beet Heet has provided positive results for PennDOT, as they test the product on Route 422 in Butler County, Pa. They are currently evaluating the performance and cost effectiveness of these methods, in the hopes to enact a more widespread application.
This beet solution is also being used in Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee.
Casadei said, "PennDOT continually evaluates new materials and technology to provide cost effective tools to reach our goal of providing safe, passable roadways and bridges for the traveling public. "
In light of the brutal winter and dwindling salt supplies, New Jersey has implemented a larger-scale use of pickle brine on roadways.
When pickle brine is applied, it acts similarly to rock salt and lowers the freezing point of liquid on the road to 6 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Consumers can also experiment with the use of pickle brine by applying the pickling liquid that is included with commercial pickles. Spraying the liquid on walkways and driveways will have the same effect as municipal applications on roadways.
Brines are being created from cheese in a predictable place - Wisconsin. The state, already famous for its cheese, is implementing the use of salty cheese by-products to treat their roadways.
Although it was first used in the state of Washington, Wisconsin was a logical testing ground for this new brine.
"The brine is simply a salt bath used in the final manufacturing process. The cheese brine was a waste product that the dairy had to pay $25,000 annually to have treated off site," said Steve Warndahl, a highway commissioner in Polk County, Wis.
The cheese brine can be used in temperatures as low as minus 21 degrees, which is much lower than solid rock salt which is ineffective at minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
"This works well for us and at cost savings to our taxpayers," Warndahl said.
In Tennessee, a brine solution containing potato juice, commercially named Magic Salt, is helping to keep roadways open and clear during winter. A byproduct of the distillation of vodka, it was discovered in Hungary that the mixture did not freeze in low temperatures.
Jerry Hatcher, maintenance director for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), said "That's when someone realized it could be used as a de-icing agent."
The potato juice is mixed with a traditional salt brine at varying ratios depending on the temperatures and weather conditions. "We also use it to treat when we've already got snow or ice on the ground, to help [salt brines] work at a lower temperature," Hatcher said.
Although temperatures in Tennessee do not reach this threshold, the potato juice is also effective in temperatures well below zero.
The potato juice is more environmentally friendly than rock salt. Hatcher said, "[Agricultural brines] are friendly to the environment because they have reduced corrosive effects."
He continued, "In Tennessee, these [agricultural brines] are going to continue to be used and experimented, to see what's more effective for us at different temperatures. It's still pretty early on for us, but we know that we will continue to use these and find the solution that's most cost effective going forward."
Clearing snow and ice from roadways is of the utmost importance to provide the highest level of safety for travelers. Unconventionality aside, these innovative brines are lowering costs, lessening environmental impacts and providing safer roads.
Experimenting with solutions beyond traditional rock salt and even salt brines will prove to have a tremendous impact on road safety, environmental concerns and cost savings.
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