Beet juice, molasses and mag: Colorado’s search for the right highway de-icing mixture
EAGLE COUNTY — Beet juice is for drinking and for driving.
Beet juice is one of the nation’s new health discoveries, touted by health websites for its ability to improve blood flow and help lower blood pressure. Beet juice is also the base ingredient of a road de-icer touted by the State of Missouri as “making a big difference when it comes to battling winter weather.”
With his crews now responsible for snow removal on U.S. Highway 6, Gypsum Public Works Director Jeff Shreeve wants to find the right de-icer for the community and beet juice popped up in his preliminary research.
“We are just exploring the new options,” Shreeve said. “Highway 6 probably brought it more to the forefront. But we have been trying to see different products out there. Someone always has something new. We are just trying to look at it all with an open mind.”
Shreeve can expect lots of company as he launches his quest for the perfect de-icer. Municipalities, counties and the state of Colorado have been looking for the optimum roadway de-icer for decades. The problem isn’t tied to a lack of options, but rather the different drawbacks each presents.
“The bottom line is all of the products have pros and cons,” said Kyle Lester, Colorado Department of Transporation’s director of highway maintenance. “But we are still always going to try to find that one, magic bullet.”
‘Beeting’ the roads
The idea of using agricultural by-products to combat ice isn’t new. There are a number of Canadian cities — including Calgary and Toronto — that apply beet juice or molasses derivatives on their streets.
“Beet juice, when mixed with salt brine, helps the salt brine work at lower temperatures to treat ice or snow packed surfaces,” notes the Missouri Department of Transportation website.
MDOT also notes that beet juice actually lessens the corrosive properties of salt when used in a mixture that’s 80 percent salt brine and 20 percent juice. Additionally, the cost of beet juice is comparable to the cost of calcium products — roughly $1.70 to $1.85 per gallon.
An examination of various road de-icer compiled at dudesolutions.com bears out those claims.
“Some say beet juice or pickle brine is quicker and less toxic for melting ice on roads,” the website reports. “It also has less of an impact on the environment, as it’s made from natural materials. It can lower the melting point of water to as low as minus 20 degrees F.”
But there is a downside to beet juice de-icing. “If it makes its way into streams, its sugars can attract germs that feed on the oxygen in the water that many animals need to survive,” says dudesolutions.com.
That’s the biggest reason why CDOT isn’t using beet juice on its roadways.
Nation’s highest standards
“I studied this pretty hard about 10 years ago,” Lester said.
At the time he was CDOT’s highway maintenance supervision in southwest Colorado and his study included a beet juice de-icer produced in Kansas and a molasses-based product from the northwestern United States. During the test in the Durango area, Lester said both de-icers were effective and CDOT drivers liked both the products and the results.
“However, they did not pass our phosphates test,” Lester said. “Ag products have an impact on water quality.”
For more than 20 years, Colorado has been part of the Pacific Northwest Snowfighters organization. As the name suggests, the group was organized by northwestern states to pool resources and fund research of highway de-icing products. Colorado’s de-icing standards were developed as a result of the PNS research and they include regulations for phosphates, ammonia, heavy metals, corrosive agents and more.
“Over the past 10-plus years Colorado is probably the most restrictive state in the country,” Lester said.
Beet juice products can act as a fertilizer and increase algae growth and that’s why they don’t pass the state’s phosphate test. High phosphates are a problem for Colorado, which unlike Missouri, features shallow waterways. More algae in streams means fish won’t get the oxygen they need. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, magnesium chloride actually is a better environmental choice, Lester said.
Much maligned mag
In its pro/con analysis of magnesium chloride, Dude Solutions notes “MgCl is effective at minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit and is minimally damaging to the environment. It is very fast-acting and more effective at de-icing than rock salt.”
In addition to using mag chloride because it has less impact on water quality, Lester said Colorado tries to mitigate the overall environmental impact of using the de-icer with application standards. “We focus on limiting our usage and on using the right product at the right time,” Lester said. “We are trying to train our operators to use the product correctly.”
But for motorists who deal with gunk on their cars, mag chloride is decidedly unpopular.
“We don’t use any liquid de-icer and the only time we use mag chloride is in the summer on our dirt roads to keep them together,” Eagle County Road and Bridge Director John Harris said. “When people see us going through neighborhoods spraying anything on the roads, they get a little worried.”
The county uses a salt/sand mix on frozen roads and the recipe calls for 6 percent salt, Harris noted. In Gypsum, crews use a concoction that includes 20 percent salt to a cinder mix. During a discussion of road maintenance issues earlier this month, members of the Gypsum Town Council were adamant that they didn’t want to begin using mag chloride in town.
Even though members of the driving public don’t like mag chloride on their vehicles, Lester said CDOT’s use of the product means safer roads.
“If we want a certain level of service on the highways, there is an impact,” Lester said. “The best course of action is to wash your car.”
But just because the state believes that mag chloride is the best product currently available, Lester said CDOT hasn’t abandoned the search for something better. It’s a search driven by science.
In the past, Colorado State University has conducted extensive de-icer studies and currently, CDOT is researching locally sourced products. There are some intriguing possibilities. One option uses barley by-products, which aren’t as sugary (phosphate heavy) as beet juice but still stick to pavement.
The current CDOT research will also look at the state’s phosphate standards. Lester added that perhaps, after comprehensively looking at the regulations governing industry outflow, the state might consider altering its highway de-icer phosphate rules.
Lester added that previous research has already improved the state’s de-icing strategies. For instance, CDOT used to dump sand on the roads, which affected both water and air quality. “The Front Range brown cloud of the 1970s and 1980s would come back with the use of sand,” he said.
Additionally, the use of salt brine instead of grandual salt has been an improvement.
“With the liquid, you can put in a corrosion inhibitor and it doesn’t bounce off the road,” Lester said.
In the final analysis, Lester noted the state has to be budget conscious when it makes a de-icer decision.
“It’s a balance of level of service, environment and cost, quite frankly,” he concluded.
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