Icy walks, driveways pose hazard

By Tom Seymour | Jan 05, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour Tom's icy drive is typical of long driveways in winter.

Winters, at least over the last few years, have deviated from the norm (if there is any such thing as a normal winter), in that snowstorms often end with a period of rain. This creates icy conditions, as a brief time of intense cold typically follows rain.

Unfortunately, there’s not a single thing we can do to change the weather. All we can do is to work our way around it. Sure, shoveling snow comes as a chore, but once the shoveling ends, that’s it until the next storm. But ice goes nowhere. It just sits there and makes life miserable for us who must walk on it.

People like me who live out in the country and have long, unpaved driveways, know that ice buildup makes driving a dicey proposition. It doesn’t take much to slide off the road. In fact, that happened recently when Sears delivered a new mattress to my place. The truck was hauling a trailer, loaded with items slated for delivery around the county.

Things went fine as far as unloading and carrying the mattress into the house. But some time after I thought the truck had left, I heard a whining sound. The truck had slid off the road and the front wheels were bound in snow.

Fortunately, I had a snow shovel and a bag of rock salt. We shoveled out the tires and put lots of salt behind the wheels. This enabled the driver to back out with relative ease.

But what happens when there is no shovel, no salt and no one around to help? That’s why it pays to be prepared for all contingencies. A bag of salt and a shovel represent a minimal investment, and if stuck along some icy road, these two items can make the difference between getting home on time and calling a tow truck to come to the rescue.

Icy walks

Like most walks and footpaths, my walk had acquired a heavy layer of ice after the last storm. Many solutions exist, and some are better than others. Rock salt, or sodium chloride, is commonly available at most hardware and convenience stores. Rock salt melts ice down to 20 degrees. Below that, it just sits there and is easily blown away by winds. But since it is so convenient, it is what most people use.

Rock salt, indeed any kind of salt, has its drawbacks. It kills plants. So if your walk is lined with shrubs or perennial flowers, repeated applications of rock salt can injure the plants. It is also corrosive and will eat into any metal that it comes in contact with.

I find that it takes repeated applications of rock salt to do away with ice. One coating just isn’t enough. And when it melts into the ice and then temperatures drop, the ice surface becomes just as slippery as it was before treatment.

The best way to get rid of ice is to find a day with above-freezing temperatures and then give the walk a good coating of salt. Then, as the salt eats into the ice, take an edging tool (a garden spade does almost as well) and tap the ice to break it up and remove it in pieces. It’s labor-intensive, but on the other hand, it is the ultimate ice-removing method.

Calcium chloride, another type of salt used for melting ice, remains effective to -25 degrees. It works faster than sodium chloride, but if possible, may be even more corrosive to metal and more dangerous for plants. If you live in a high-altitude location where temperatures run colder than other areas, this might be a worthwhile product.

Magnesium chloride has a similar effect, but is safer for plants and isn’t as corrosive as calcium chloride.

Most of the salt products tend to damage concrete. This is a result of freezing, thawing and re-freezing. A continual freeze-thaw-freeze cycle threatens the integrity of concrete.

Natural alternatives

Folks who prefer a less harsh ice treatment have a number of natural products to use in place of the various salts. One that would seem a no-brainer works well, but has a serious downside. It is wood ash.

Once, a friend came to visit and since I was late returning home, he thought to help me by getting a bucket of wood ashes from my stove and strewing them up and down the icy walk.

Of course the black ashes worked superbly. Being black, they draw and hold the sun’s heat and do much toward melting ice and also, making for a gritty, and therefore, safe, walking surface. But after walking the length of an ash-covered walk, soles of shoes and boots pick up a solid coating of ash. Walking inside without removing your shoes means the ruin of a perfectly good carpet. So unless you have no qualms about getting your floors covered with wood ash, beware of wood ashes as an ice-melting medium.

Another natural product, this one with no harmful side effects, kitty litter is made of clay and doesn’t hurt anything. It doesn’t melt ice, but it makes for a rough surface, and that means safe walking. However, kitty litter is light and is easily blown away by wind, and also is washed away by rain and snowmelt. And since it is slow to break down, the spring thaw will disclose lines of kitty litter that must be removed and disposed of.

Builder’s sand makes for another safe and effective method of improving traction on icebound walks and drives. In fact, rear-wheel drive vehicles such as some pickup trucks benefit by having several tubes or bags of builders sand in back. And if and when it is needed, it’s easy to slide the bag forward and scoop some sand out for placement under tires.

Icy roads

Besides bedeviling us by making our walking paths and driveways slippery, ice often remains on shady sections of rural roads long after open, sunny sections have become ice-free. This calls for special care. Unfortunately, some people don’t view icy roads as a hazard because they have four-wheel-drive vehicles. But hear the news. Four-wheel drive is useless on ice. The only safe way to drive on icy roads, no matter what kind of drivetrain the vehicle has, is to drive with caution, being constantly aware of icy patches and the danger they represent.

While we can’t do much about ice on public roads, we can certainly take measures on our own private roads and drives. Many people with long, hilly driveways place cans of sand/salt at key places. Keeping touchy areas well sanded always makes a big difference.

And while it is a big no-no on walkways, wood ashes work well on icy driveways. What difference does it make if our tires acquire a coating of wood ash? The only caveat to this is to make sure the ashes don’t contain sharp metal objects such as nails. Other than that, ashes are a great help.

Tom’s tips

Sometimes even the most diligent driver gets caught in an icy situation without any means of sanding or salting the road behind the tires in order to provide traction. But there lurks, hidden and out of sight on our vehicles, a small cache of salted sand.

The salt/sand buildup behind each tire has helped more than one resourceful driver out of a scrape. It’s cold, sometimes wet and always messy, but in order to avail ourselves of this benefit, we need to lie on our back and with a knife, screwdriver or any such item in hand, begin chipping away at the sand deposits beneath our vehicles. It works, for sure, but it is far better to come prepared in the first place. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know that hidden beneath the frame and wheel wells is a source of sand.

Rock salt is the essential ingredient in melting ice. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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