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Melting a Slippery Subject—Linda Holmes

I went for a walk the other day and noticed little salt piles on the sidewalks. I have never used salt to assist in melting snow and ice and really don't know much about it.

I am supposed to have the answers when it comes to home stuff. If I don't have them, I am quite adept at research. The research process has become much quicker and easier in recent years, thanks to the Internet.

I had always thought salt pellets could be harmful to animals so I never really considered them an option. I also wondered how much of it was tracked into the house and what kind of damage that could do to hardwood floors and carpets.

I became curious as to whether there was an option out there that had addressed these concerns. I went to Google, my trusty Internet resource guru. I thought I would look up environmentally friendly ice-melter. Oh my! Too much information. It also appeared that much of the information was directly from the manufacturers of the products. Not always the most unbiased source.

I did find out some facts. Many of these de-icing products contain salt. Initially, rock salt was the most common and cheapest product. Unfortunately, rock salt (sodium chloride) can make pets very sick or even prove fatal if enough is consumed. Over application could result in spalling concrete and it could injure or kill surrounding vegetation.

This prompted manufacturers to look for better or safer alternatives. Many of them claim to be less harsh, however, many still contain salt. They may not call it salt. It might be listed as calcium chloride, sodium chloride, potassium chloride or magnesium chloride. In case you are wondering, you salt your eggs with sodium chloride.

In my research, it appeared that magnesium chloride was the favored product for being less likely to be irritating to the skin, tracking less, and being safer on concrete, animals, and vegetation. That all sounds fine and good, however, the generic phrase of "safer" causes concern. How much safer?

I decided to delve a little deeper. I pulled up all the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for all the chloride products. Well, that sort of steered me away from any thoughts of using salt products as ice melters around my home for the reasons I initially feared. They mention eye, skin, nose and throat irritation. They can be harmful if ingested or inhaled. Now, you may not be out there consuming the salt, but your dog may just stick his nose in it to check it out, eat snow or lick his paws.

Also, salt does harm vegetation and can damage carpets and floors when tracked indoors. Those MSDS sheets were frightening, but I assume no more so than sheets on chemical paint strippers that I have used regularly. Now, the MSDS sheets do proclaim the product is safe if used exactly as recommended. I just have to ask. Do you really read all the instructions, the safety information, and follow them to the letter?

So if I eliminate the chloride products, where does that leave me? If I am still looking at chemicals, there is calcium magnesium acetate. I did not find if was available for residential applications. It offers low corrosion, is safe for concrete, has low toxicity and is biodegradable. The MSDS was not nearly as scary as with the chloride products, but warnings for possible skin and eye irritation were noted.

If you have pet concerns, you may want to try a product called Safe Paw, which contains no salt. It was developed by a chemist engineer to eliminate the health and environmental concerns associated with other de-icing products. It is actually made of crystalline amide core infused with special glycols. This product offers no warnings about keeping it away from children, pets or wearing rubber gloves. The pellets are tinted green so they cannot be confused with other chloride containing ice melters. This sounds like the one to use if you want a chemical de-icer and have concerns about pets, wildlife, children or vegetation.

If this whole decision with chemicals is just too tedious and confusing, you can just shovel and toss down a handful of sand or clay kitty litter. While it won't melt the snow and ice, it will provide traction. You still want to make sure to clean off the bottom of your shoes as sand and clay particles can be a bit abrasive on your floors if tracked indoors.

A nifty product I discovered is ice-breaker mats. They are foam-core and you simply step on them when ice forms, the ice breaks and you sweep it away.

New technology is also entering the picture. Snow melts when it hits a warm surface. Why not just heat the walkway and steps? There are actually electric cables that can be buried to heat the surface. Hydronic systems made up of flexible pipes filled with heated fluid will do the same thing. Both options must be laid before the concrete is poured. You can also purchase infrared systems that use quartz lamps mounted on poles. These are heat lamps that can warm a desired surface. Similar to those used to keep French fries warm!

We have just come full circle. Those fries are much tastier with a liberal dose of sodium chloride (table salt). My ice-melting research is done. Now I am wondering who makes the best French Fries.

Linda Holmes is chairman of the board of directors of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry of Greater Chicagoland, and a certified remodeler with a home improvement and remodeling business based in Aurora. She may be contacted at the e-mail address