The Economics of Anti-icers
Putting a price on productivity.
In the competitive race to keep ahead of winter snow and devious spring ice storms, many companies have considered using anti-icers to help gain an edge. But how do you know if the strategy will pay off?
As those who have worked through the pros and cons of pretreatments know, anti-icers are liquid chemicals or salt mixtures sprayed on areas of pavement that property owners need to keep open to traffic. They are applied before the snow flies or the sleet falls, in most cases. Unlike solid form deicers, which break the ice or snow’s bond after a storm, these products are meant to prevent the snow and ice from ever bonding to the pavement.
How does a company decide whether the cost of anti-icers and the manpower to apply them makes financial sense? The final equation involves several factors for most snow removal service companies; keeping the customer happy and getting the job done on time are priorities for Mike Sullivan, snow service manager with Lipinski Snow Services in Marlton, N.J.
“It lowers our overall cost by 15 or 20 percent,” Sullivan says. “It’s a win-win for everybody.” The customers benefit mainly because they have better conditions while the snow is falling since the anti-icers keep the snow and ice from bonding to the sidewalks or parking lots.
Staying ahead of the elements is the key, says Greg Bolon, assistant division engineer for Kansas City, Mo. He is in charge of snow removal efforts for the city and has his crew out applying anti-icers well ahead of a storm.
“There’s nothing that works to ‘debond’ ice,” Bolon says. Apart from applying a lot of deicer afterward, the only solution is to get an anti-icing agent applied to roadways and parking areas ahead of time. Especially in the areas of the nation where ice generally starts a storm, anti-icers are critical to keeping people safe. You don’t want to get to the point where you are trying to catch up with a storm that’s surprised you, Bolon says.
“A lot of our customers are sensitive to safety issues,” Sullivan says. Many customers tell him anti-icing reduces the threat of lawsuits from having possibly hazardous driving conditions on their property. Sullivan’s customers are mostly retail, office space, malls and warehouse companies. Having anti-icers as part of the snow-removal service also gets the business open earlier because it shortens the plowing time needed.
“It’s an easier sell than it used to be,” Sullivan says of the anti-icing treatments. Sullivan adds that he prefers using anti-icers because it helps get customer sites plowed faster, usually in one pass. Without the pretreatment, it is sometimes impossible to get compacted snow removed in a timely manner. One truck can handle more locations if they have been pretreated, Sullivan says, which lowers costs.
At Lipinski Snow Services the cost of anti-icers are figured into the contracts up front. The treatments are a separate line item on the bill, distinct from the plowing services. Sullivan says there are customers who request treatments as a precaution even though the weather doesn’t indicate snow is likely. In that case, the customers cover the cost. But on the few occasions where trucks have been deployed to apply anti-icers ahead of a snowfall that doesn’t materialize, those costs are absorbed by the company, Sullivan says.
The cost of chemistry
While the business of snow removal has been changing with the use of anti-icers, it seems the people writing the checks for snow removal have kept pace.
“It’s another center for profit,” Sullivan says of the sodium chloride his team applies before a storm hits. “As we get new customers, they seem to know about it.” While sodium chloride is a traditional anti-icer, some of the newer products are less corrosive and more environment friendly, say manufacturers.
Salt used on roads, bridges and parking garages is known to be corrosive to rebar and reinforcing beams. Many areas require the use of low-corrosion material to help combat the problem. Potassium acetate-based liquids are popular options in some cases because they are less corrosive than salt and melt ice at lower temperatures, down to –15 degrees F. Other chemicals, like anhydrous sodium acetate, work to 0 degrees F. Salt mixtures are reported to work best down to temperatures of 15 degrees. Chemicals tend to work better than salt at colder temperatures. Potassium acetate-based liquids and calcium magnesium acetate work well as anti-icers even at temperatures significantly below zero.
However, with the increased effectiveness at colder temperatures comes increased cost. Your traditional salt brine mix costs about 5 cents a gallon. With calcium chloride and magnesium chloride running 40 cents to 50 cents a gallon, there is a clear distinction in pricing. More expensive yet is potassium acetate-based products, which cost the Kansas City snow crew about $2.50 a gallon. That product is used solely on bridges to avoid the corrosiveness of salt.
Sometimes a mixture of a chemical and salt is used to find the best balance between effectiveness and affordability. You need the right anti-icer for the conditions at hand. For instance, the more expensive chemicals with lower corrosion tendencies would not be the first option for most snow removal companies, except in the case where a customer has concerns about corrosion or salt runoff.
Tony Myhra, product manager with Cryotech, a manufacturer of anti-icers and deicers based in Fort Madison, Iowa, recounts a typical situation. He explains that a mall in Delaware needed to move away from salt-based anti-icers due to an environmentally sensitive area nearby.
“Everything that ran off that parking lot ran off to a wetland area and they were using our products because they’re environmentally safe,” Myhra says. While protecting the environment is a top priority for some customers, others are focused on immediate issues.
“It appears most of our customers are more concerned with safety,” says Sullivan. Keeping areas free of ice and snow is their customers’ main goal. Still, some customers ask about environmentally sound storage practices and the possibility of post-treatment run-off into storm sewers, he adds.
Planning and prediction
Once the optimal chemical mix has been selected, the final part of the equation is all about predicting the weather and deciding when to pull the trigger on sending out the trucks. While timing the use of anti-icers is more art than hard science, many snow-removal experts try to get the materials down just before the precipitation begins falling.
“Snow and ice control is probably 75 percent art and 25 percent science on why do these (products) work,” says Myhra.
A mix of experience and information goes into when and where to apply anti-icers, according to Sullivan. His team uses The Weather Channel and two weather services as well as the occasional call to forecasters when deciding on deploying their trucks to service the 450 businesses on their roster.
Amy Munday, operations coordinator at Cryotech, says the timing often hinges on what product snow-removal companies are going to apply. In her cost analysis of bids coming in from plowing companies for anti-icers, she gets a broad view of all the possibilities. Timing is only one factor.
“If you’re getting ice or fluffy snow or sleet, it’s going to depend on which product, solid or liquid, and how much you apply.” With liquid products, any evaporation that might occur is simply going to concentrate the chemicals more, meaning that when the first snow hits, it will be greeted by a powerful layer of anti-icer. That helps some companies that handle large parking areas and garages because if the application goes down in the morning but no precipitation comes until the next day, the chemical is still there and still effective.
“If it’s going to snow tomorrow, I’m anti-icing today,” says Bolon. His crew will put down salt brine a day before a storm so they can switch equipment on their trucks before having to go back out to start plowing and applying deicers.
Turning a profit
There are a lot of different questions a service provider must answer regarding clearing snow and ice at an acceptable cost, says Sullivan. Do you want to clear the snow in the shortest time? Do you want to provide good customer service? Do you want your customers to be safe? And do you want to make a profit?
“If you always try to get the job done,” Sullivan says, “then the answer to all those things becomes ‘Yes.’”
Myhra says contractors who provide snow services are successful when they have reasonable expectations about what anti-icers can do and they educate their customers accordingly. As with any business, delivering on promises is the key. And when Mother Nature stands between you and customer satisfaction, a stream of anti-icers might be all the traction you need to reach the finish line ahead of the competition.
Michael Coleman is a graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Iowa and now resides in Olathe, Kan.
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