Why aren't YOU anti-icing yet? Five common excuses debunked

Wilfrid A. Nixon, Ph.D., P.E.
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Iowa
Founding Partner, Asset Insight Technologies, LLC
Member, APWA Winter Maintenance Subcommittee

Let's start with an old saying: "If you keep on doing the things you've always done, you'll get the results you've always got." We all know this saying and are familiar with it. But what about its implication: "If you don't like the results you are getting, then you must change the way you do things."

That starts to make us a little uncomfortable, because change is not easy. And that discomfort means a lot of folks who could, and frankly should, be anti-icing aren't doing so yet. This article will look at five key reasons why folks haven't yet switched to anti-icing and show why these five reasons (or let's be honest—excuses) don't hold water.

So what is anti-icing anyway?
Just so we're on the same page, let's start by defining anti-icing, or rather by quoting the FHWA definition of anti-icing which says:

"Anti-Icing is the snow and ice-control practice of preventing the formation or development of bonded snow and ice by timely applications of a chemical freezing-point depressant."

So, what exactly does this mean? Well, it means anti-icing is proactive—you "do to the snow" before it does it to you! You get out there before the snow has started to fall, and create a barrier layer of chemical on the road surface to stop the snow bonding. And, you have to continue doing that through the storm. To do that, typically liquid chemicals are needed and that means a bunch of new equipment and approaches are needed as well. Doesn't sound like it should be too hard, right?

Well, maybe it does sound hard. In spite of the fact that anti-icing has been shown to be extremely effective, most agencies around the U.S. and Canada are still not using it. In this article, we'll look at the five most common excuses (see Figure 1) and de-bunk them.

  Figure 1

Excuse 1: It costs too much!
Yes, there are some costs associated with implementing anti-icing. You'll need equipment to store and handle the liquid chemicals you'll be using. You may need an upgraded forecast (see below for more on this). You'll need to implement new management practices and that means training costs. But there are real and documented savings too.

If you implement anti-icing, you will see reductions in accidents, reductions in materials used, and reductions in labor hours. Two studies have documented this extremely well. The first is a study of U.S. 12 in Idaho (see http://www.sicop.net/US-12%20Anti%20Icing%20Success.pdf) in which 83 percent reductions in accidents and quantity of materials used were combined with a 62 percent reduction in labor costs. Would you like those sorts of savings? I thought so! The second study is a detailed cost benefit study done under the NCHRP program (report 20-7/117) and available at: http://www.sicop.net/NCHRP20-7(117).pdf.

There are a couple of issues related to those savings. First, sometimes the savings come from a different pot than the one that provides the funds for new equipment and training. Thus your operations budget sees a benefit, but the equipment budget takes a hit. Different agencies handle these things in different ways, and with some this may not be an issue at all, but thankfully in recent years there has been a trend toward considering total costs, not just the little pieces of the pie. You may have to do some selling on the fiscal side of things, but the overall picture is clear—anti-icing saves you money and improves level of service too.

Another issue related to funding concerns employee morale and overtime. Some folks have been reluctant to implement anti-icing because it may reduce overtime and thus create some employee issues. That may happen, but we have to decide whether we are in the job of providing the best winter maintenance we can at a given funding level, or of providing worker overtime.

An additional funding concern is the cost of the new equipment. While you can certainly spend top dollar and get top-of-the-line equipment, you can also "grow your own" and there is plenty of help available if you wish to follow this route. The Iowa DOT has put together a great guide to their equipment which is available at: http://www.dot.state.ia.us/maintenance/manuals/equip/index.htm. And additional equipment specifications can also be found at: http://www.sicop.net/documents.htm. With these two resources to help, you should be able to get the equipment you need without breaking your budget.

Excuse 2: The weather forecast isn't good enough!
There is no doubt that anti-icing needs a good weather forecast, precisely because it is a proactive method. That means you need to be doing stuff before the storm begins and that means you can get hurt in two ways by a bad forecast. If you treat your road system because a storm was forecast, and then that storm did not appear, you've wasted some resources and may also feel a little foolish. However, if you get hit by a storm that wasn't forecast, or that arrived sooner than expected, then your anti-icing strategy is in serious jeopardy for that storm.

The high-end solution to this problem is twofold. Create an extensive RWIS (Road Weather Information Systems) system and use that to get a value-added meteorological service to provide you with a tailored forecast for your area of responsibility. If such a package is beyond the current budget constraints you face, consider asking your state agency if you can access their RWIS system—they can only say no! Tailored forecasts don't need to be prohibitively expensive, and if you tie them in with some good local contacts, can provide you with a pretty good storm warning system. What do I mean by local contacts? Stay in touch with the agency that is "upstorm" from you—and pass on the favor by contacting agencies "downstream" from you—to get real-time information on what a storm is doing. This approach is simple, cheap, and extraordinarily effective. If you aren't doing it already, start putting it in place today.

Excuse 3: Don't the liquids make the road slippery?
There have been a number of instances where applying liquid chemicals to the road may appear to have created a slippery road condition. Clearly, this isn't desirable, but nor is it a common occurrence and it is also avoidable.

The instances in which chemical slipperiness have been reported are rare, and many of those reports turn out, on further study, to be instances of dilution and refreeze, or even situations where the road wasn't slippery at all (skids marks tend to indicate this pretty well!). However, it does seem that two situations may give rise to slipperiness. If liquids are applied to the road after a long dry spell, they may "bring up" the oils and greases in the road and cause a slippery mixture on the surface. Also, you can get a situation where the solid chemical precipitates out of solution and creates a slurry which can also be quite slick.

That these are problems is clear, but they aren't show-stoppers by any means. Agencies that use anti-icing chemicals have learned to be careful early in the winter season, especially if they are applying chemicals under relatively warm conditions. In such cases, they reduce their application rates significantly. It's also worth noting that there are very few reported cases of slipperiness with salt brine.

Excuse 4: We've no experience using liquids!
Of course, every time you try something new, you will face the "no experience" barrier. I don't mean to trivialize it, but it can be overcome. First of all, there are lots of folk who do have experience in using liquids. How do you tap into that experience? Well, in addition to traditional methods (picking up the phone, for example) you can subscribe to the snow and ice mailing list (with about 700 snow and ice control professionals, folks just like you, already subscribed) and ask the folks on the list about their experience. To subscribe to the list, go to: http://www.sicop.net/snow_and_ice_list-serve.htm. There is a web form there you can complete and get subscribed directly. (And don't forget APWA's InfoNOW Communities: Sign up for the Transportation InfoNOW Community to network with other members regarding winter maintenance problems—Ed.)

You and your workforce will need training because this is a new approach and that means there is a knowledge base you need to acquire. Lots of training solutions exist, not least of which is the annual APWA North American Snow Conference. The FHWA Manual on Effective Anti-Icing also includes a number of ideas on effective training, and methods, which can serve as a great starting point.

But the big challenge here rests on your shouldersare you willing to change and take the lead implementing this new method in your agency? If you are, it will happen. If you aren't, well...

Excuse 5: Don't those chemicals cause environmental and other problems?
It's wise to worry about potential harmful effects of what we put into the environment. But any chemical or substance, placed in great enough quantities, will have a negative effect on the environment. In addition, many de-icing (and anti-icing) chemicals are corrosive. The issue is not the chemicals that we use in themselves, but whether we use them in the right amount, at the right place and the right time to have the maximum possible benefit.

If you implement anti-icing properly you will use fewer chemicals than with a de-icing approach and you'll certainly use fewer abrasives. Abrasives can cause significant air quality problems and can also have negative impacts on stormwater quality. They are also of limited use on roads with high-speed traffic. Finally, their real costs greatly exceed their supply costs, and given their low effectiveness, they don't make a good winter maintenance solution (even though they are used extensively).

Of course, as noted above, everything that goes on the road is in the environment, so we have to monitor what we do very closely. But anti-icing is much more efficient than de-icing as far as quantity of chemical used, and is thus environmentally beneficial.

So, in conclusion, there are three things you need to know. First, anti-icing works, very well indeed. Second, there are people who are in situations essentially just like yours, who have already made the switch to anti-icing. And third, there are resources available (some given in this article, others available elsewhere) that can help you implement anti-icing right now, for the 2003-04 winter season. So, if you aren't going to implement it then, what's YOUR excuse?

Wilfrid A. Nixon can be reached at (319) 335-5166 or at wanixon@engineering.uiowa.edu.