Adhering to the Rules of Traction

Anti-icers and deicers are undeniably good tools for snow and ice removal, but are they right for you?

Snow and ice control is becoming more important to more people and agencies with each passing season. As local government agencies work to supply timely snow clearing, they are discovering that local contractors can assist them. Also, private businesses are realizing the economic benefits of having a timely snow and ice control plan. It is you, the local contractor, who is being hired to assist with and provide snow and ice control. And although much of the equipment owned by local contractors can be retrofitted for winter maintenance, many of you are finding yourselves void of the technical expertise needed to properly “equip” you for such work. And if you do decide to expand your business to include snow and ice control, you may find yourself in need of answers to these questions: What chemical is best? What is de-icing? What is anti-icing? What are the proper application rates? How much training do I need to invest in my drivers? Who does the training?

There is not room enough in this article to answer all these questions in detail, but in the next few paragraphs, this article will provide you with some general guidelines to use in snow and ice removal as well as point you to additional resources.

To anti-ice, or not

Your first step is to determine your customer’s expectations. Some customers want anti-icing, some want de-icing, some want both and some may not be sure of the services that are available. Part of your job is to help educate your customer by describing the different options. Before you do that, you may want to decide for yourself and your company what services you want to offer.

Anti-icing and deicing techniques help make snow plowing more effective. By applying these products before you plow, you are removing more snow and ice from the driving area than you would be if you did not use anti-icers and deicers. It’s up to you if you want to implement such a program. Consider your ability to monitor weather and evaluate your response time. It may be better for you to wait for an accumulation of snow before taking action. Many contractors have a 2-inch accumulation contract, which stipulates that they will not begin plowing until there are 2 inches of snow on the ground. If this is the case, you should expect to face some contractual disputes if you do decide to anti-ice. For example, you may decide you would like to anti-ice because meteorologists are predicting a heavy snowstorm. If you anti-ice and there is no snow accumulation, you and the owner may disagree as to how, if at all, you are to be compensated for such work—especially if it’s not outlined in the contract.

Depending on your work crews and their ability to respond in a timely fashion, a de-icing program may give you time to get a game plan together and organize while the accumulation is taking place. However, the other point is that anti-icing, if effectively done, can save you time (i.e. money) by enabling you to cover more ground in a shorter time period.

More than you can shake a stick at

You have a plethora of products from which to choose if you decide to implement anti-icing and deicing into your snow-and-ice removal program. However, those most commonly used in the snow-and-ice control industry (and, in general, the lowest temperature at which the chemical is most effective) are:

  • Sodium chloride (rock salt) (+15°F to +20°F)
  • Calcium chloride (-25°F)
  • Magnesium chloride (+5°F)
  • Calcium magnesium acetate (+20°F)
  • Urea (+25°F)
  • Potassium chloride (+25°F)
  • Agriculture products (varies)

Remember that all of these chemicals have pros and cons that you need to evaluate before deciding which one is best for your snow-removal applications. You can find information on the Internet at the following web sites:

  • The National Research Council of Canada,;
  • Federal Highway Administration (reports online),;
  • Turner Fairbanks Highway Research Center (July/Aug. 2000 issue of FOCUS),; and
  • National Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP),

There are 56 LTAP centers throughout the United States. If their region is involved with snow and ice issues, then they will have the latest information on snow and ice chemicals (for example, the Hawaii LTAP Center does not have an extensive collection of snow-and-ice control videos). For a complete listing of LTAP centers, visit and lookup the LTAP center that serves your state. If you are involved with helping a local community with snow and ice control, then your LTAP center can assist you.

In terms of other resources, your state’s Department of Transportation has, more than likely, researched various anti-icing and deicing chemicals and could share with you which ones (and combinations) work best in your area. If you have access to e-mail, you can join a list-serve that is hosted by the University of Iowa. When you join (for free), you will have access to more than 400 people who are involved with snow and ice control in North America, Japan and Sweden. You can e-mail a question to the list-serve address and watch the answers come in. To join the list serve, send an e-mail to and request them to sign you up.

Consider this

Remember, not all snow-and-ice control jobs require chemicals. Whether you use them or not is up to you and should be considered on a case-by-case basis. You must consider that an anti-icing or deicing program will require storage of materials and additional equipment. Think about whether your winter work will pay for this additional investment in materials and equipment. It truly depends on your particular situation.

John A. Habermann, P.E. is a research engineer for the Indiana LTAP Center at Purdue University (Lafayette, Ind.). You can send him an e-mail message at


Here are a few common terms you will come across as you pursue winter maintenance work:

  • Snow & ice control. The key word in this phrase is “control.” Control is defined as “to exercise restraining or directing influence over, to reduce the incidence or severity of, especially to harmless levels.” In other words, elimination of snow and ice during a snow fight is not the ultimate goal. Your goal is to get the priority routes or delivery routes opened up as soon as possible.
  • Anti-icing. “Anti” means before. Therefore, anti-icing literally means before icing. This is the action you should take before severe winter weather hits your area. Anti-icing is work that you do to prevent snow and ice from sticking to the pavement surface.
  • Pre-wetting. A type of anti-icing technique, pre-wetting is a liquid application of an anti-icing chemical. (There also are flake or pellet applications of anti-icer.)
  • Deicing. This describes the action you take after a severe winter storm has hit your area and traffic has packed the snow down. Deicing loosens the bond between the pavement and the ice. This makes your snow plowing efforts more effective.
  • Abrasives. The material you use to improve traction on roadways. Abrasives do not melt snow or ice; they simply help the driver by adding friction to the road surface. Examples of abrasives are cinders (wood chips) and sand.
  • Melting point. The temperature at which snow and ice become water is its melting point. Certain chemicals, when applied to the roadway, lower the melting point of snow and ice, therefore making them water even when it is below 32°F, which is the normal freezing temperature of water.


The hardest part about choosing a chemical is the research, reading and asking around to determine which one is best for your application. But there are a few questions you should be asking once you start speaking to suppliers:

  • What are the appropriate application rates of this chemical?
  • Is this material best used in a solid state (flakes or pellets) or in a liquid state (brine)?
  • If the best application is liquid form, what are the optimum mix percentages?
  • Can I get a test kit to make sure the material you ship is what I receive?(Sometimes material is contaminated during shipping.)
  • What kind of training will my drivers or I need to effectively apply this chemical?
  • What is the shelf life of this product?
  • How should this product be stored?
  • What type of application equipment is needed for this product?

The last question is one that needs to be expanded upon. Many contractors have pickups, dump trucks, graders, etc., that all can be equipped in some manner to deal with snow and ice. Some of that equipment includes, but is not limited to, snow blades and material spreaders. Choosing the right equipment to apply anti-icing and deicing chemicals requires careful research. After deciding on the chemical you plan to use, ask your chemical supplier to recommend application equipment that is best suited for that particular chemical. Then ask your supplier who manufacturers the equipment you need. Chemical suppliers want to make sure you have a positive experience with their product, so they are going to recommend appropriate equipment to get the job done. If you choose a chemical that is going to be applied in a liquid state, find out if it has other uses, like spreading fertilizers or water. This will allow you to use the new equipment once you go back to work in the springtime.

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