Melting Winter Ice & Clearing Winter Snow in an Eco Friendly Way

Despite (or because of) global warming, record snowfall and ice storms have blanketed much of the U.S. Even the typically  sultry state of Georgia has nearly run out of emergency funds in their effort to keep the roads clear of snow.  When facing the problem of keeping a driveway and sidewalk clear to appease city ordinances, what methods are the most environmentally friendly? Let’s deal with snow first.

When Enviro-Girl lived in town, she marveled at the gigantic snow blowers her neighbors employed to clear 20-40 feet of sidewalk and a short driveway to the street. Enviro Girl’s  garage was set back from the road and she shoveled three times the area her neighbors blew out with snow blowers.  Shoveling is a heck of a work out, inducing sweat and heavy breathing  within minutes –- but it’s the friendliest way to clear the snow. The trick to making shoveling a reasonable task is using the correct tool –- a shovel appropriate for your build and height – and attacking the snow in manageable bits. If 6-8 inches are expected to fall, shovel two to three times during the snowstorm so you’re only clearing a few inches at a time. If you can’t do this, only clear what’s necessary in the first round and clear the rest later.  A 2-foot wide path is adequate for mail carriers and pedestrians, and you might consider only clearing a path to one entrance of your house and leave the other access points alone.

If you’re inclined to remove snow using industrial-strength machinery like Enviro-Girl’s husband, remember that bigger isn’t always better. A plow attached to an ATV uses less fuel and makes less noise than his 6.5 hp snow blowing machine.   (Enviro-Girl thinks her hubby is overcompensating every time he buys equipment with engines…you should see his chainsaw.)  An electric snowblower (Toro makes one that runs about $299) uses less energy, makes less noise, and gives off no emissions in stark contrast to its gas-powered counterparts – so if you must blow snow, electric is definitely the way to go.

But snow’s only part of the problem in the winter. Ice simply must be dealt with and there are various methods to employ.  You can chip it away, potentially damaging your concrete/asphalt beneath.  You can scatter other substances on top of the ice to gain traction on the ice until it melts naturally – sand, cat litter, bird seed, and fertilizer are good choices. These things won’t melt your ice, but they’ll help you travel over it safely until sunshine and warmer temperatures do make the ice disappear. (Enviro-Girl is going to try used coffee grounds next time her driveway freezes over.  It’s important to note that she has a strict rule about no shoes or boots in the house!)

If you can’t wait for Mother Nature to take care of things, you can melt the ice. Some places install heated walkways and driveways – radiant heat systems that run hot water pipes below the brick or concrete. These use a lot of energy. Rock salt melts ice and is fairly inexpensive, but it’s really tough on plant life and when it drains away through storm sewers it can mess up ecosystems in lakes and rivers.  Too much chloride is toxic to freshwater plants and animals.  It runs off into water supplies, it kills roadside plants, it builds up in streams and lakes, it can degrade the soil.  It’s also rough on cars, skin, and road surfaces. Rock salt doesn’t work at temperatures below 20  degrees Fahrenheit, either.  In response to the rising costs of road maintenance and environmental concerns, many municipalities have switched to applying brine–rock salt and water combined–before ice can form.  Brine saves money and leaves behind less salt residue.  Sugar beet juice mixed with brine is being studied in several communities because it works well at temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit and reduces the amount salt required to melt ice.  Many people use Calcium Chloride for melting ice .  It’s three times as costly as rock salt and can still cause skin irritation, but very little Calcium Chloride goes a long way in melting ice.  Calcium Chloride poses the same environmental risks as rock salt.

At the end of all her research, Enviro-Girl plans to use traction on the ice in her driveway.  She’ll chip away at it with her handy chipping tool (a great work out!) and pray for warmer temps soon. She’s also writing to her county representatives to encourage the use of sand mixed with brine to manage roadways. One other thing Enviro-Girl has learned this winter: if you let an ice storm fall on a cleared driveway, you have a skating rink that is impossible to clear. If you let an ice storm fall on a snowy driveway, you can shovel it off pretty easily. In this case, a little laziness paid off on half of her driveway – unfortunately it isn’t the half she needs to drive on!

Disclosure:  Enviro Girl and her family didn’t clear their rural 1/4 mile driveway with a snow shovel — they depend upon a neighbor with a tractor.


4 thoughts on “Melting Winter Ice & Clearing Winter Snow in an Eco Friendly Way

  1. We use sand on our driveway for ice. At the end of the winter, I intentionally sweep the remnants into our yard, as I want the sand to mix in with our heavy red clay soil.

  2. I really have nothing useful to add here. We are the lazy sort who clear nothing unless it’s a foot deep and even then we’re slow on the move. (My Prius has never gotten stuck…knock on wood.) What can I say? We have an attached garage and few visitors. Plus I learned to winter drive in college where we had 300 inches of snow a year – the few winter storms we seem to have are nothing in comparison.

    BUT – it is fun to watch the mountain goats and big horn sheep block traffic as they lick the salt off the road. There have even been a few times I’ve had trouble getting into my car at work because they were giving it a bath. Ah, winter fun.

  3. I absolutely agree that you have to stay ahead of it. I shoveled three times last Monday when we got about 9″. There’s only so much snow you can get in one pass of the shovel, so you’re not reducing your total shovelsful by waiting.

    Two years ago, my husband and I were out at midnight the night before Christmas Eve so we could get the easy, fluffy snow cleared before the wet, heavy snow fell the next day. Not how I like to spend my night.

  4. We inherited a snowblower – well, bought it dirt cheap – when our parents moved from their homes to apartments. I still shovel the sidewalks; Hubs can snowblow the driveway. Ironic: I don’t use the snowblower in part because I injured my wrist on the pull-start a few years ago, but I have no trouble handling a shovel.
    Technology. Huh.

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