Ice Melt 101 or “Take what you’ve heard with a grain of salt.”

Snow Dog
Snow Dog

How’s it all work?

How does ice melt work? Is it magic? I suspect so. But according to Jerry Poe, the technical director for North American Salt Co.

“All ice melters work in basically the same way, by using something known as freezing point depression, basically meaning that the point at which water freezes has been lowered,”.

If the water has to be colder to freeze, then it won’t freeze until hitting the adjusted freezing point. And there’s a little science for ya.

What are my options?

First let me start by saying that neither I, nor my compatriots here at have a degree in chemistry. Please be very careful when considering using materials other than those designed and intended for melting ice and make sure to use any de-icing products in strict compliance with the manufacturers reccomendations. Having said that, here’s a quick look at some of the more common ice melt options on the market today…

Rock Salt is probably the most commonly used material for melting ice. You can pick it up almost any where, normally for a decent price. You put the salty stuff on the cold stuff and let er rip! Most standard rock salt is effective in temperatures as low as 5 degrees, its affordable and easy to use. So what are the downsides? Well according to Julie Boehlke of Stihl, excessive use of salt can

significantly damage plants, grass and trees if it saturates into the surrounding soil. If you notice that your plants, grass or bushes have a delayed bud break, reduced growth, browning along edges or twig dieback, they likely have been affected by salt contamination. Sodium chloride can cause corrosive damage to motor vehicles, recreational vehicles and concrete surfaces. Excess salt can damage wildlife, leading to food and shelter loss. It can also lead to poor water quality because it can leech into nearby ponds and rivers, affecting fish and other aquatic inhabitants. If contamination occurs in well water, it can lead to hypertension in humans as well as an increased risk of cancer.”

Calcium chloride is a combination of salt and chlorine and is used for (among other things) melting ice. CC is effective in temperatures as low as -52 degrees celcius and works by depressing the freezing point of water, thus preventing the formation of ice crystals at normal freezing temperature. While CC is relatively harmless to plants and soil, it has been known to have a particularly harsh effect on evergreen trees. C.C is corrosive to bare skin, so put on your gloves before slinging this across the driveway. You should also be aware that C.C can be harmful to animals, so make sure to wipe your feet, lest you track it across the carpet and Rover licks it up.

Magnesium chloride is another option, one considered by many to be the “best” option available. Most commonly known as the stuff the city snow plows spray on the road, M.C. is a derivative of sea water, is highly soluble in water and is effective in temperatures as low as -15 degrees. M.C. It is corrosive, to a degree. But in a study conducted by Purdue University, it was determined that-

calcium chloride damages concrete twice as fast as magnesium chloride does.”

Some claim that M.C. is gentle to the skin, vegetation and concrete. Maybe… Gentleness aside, it is still a corrosive and can have a cumulative effect over time. Remember that M.C. is soluble in water. A good rinse when possible is a good bet. The good news is that M.C. produces minimal residue, so it is less likely to be tracked indoors. Now, if I can just get that dog to stop licking the carpet!

Home Remedies

I know what you’re thinking! Everyone knows that the Government just wants me to buy all that salt and stuff so they can up the price and keep me in the poor house! Surely there must be some kind of “homemade remedy”! Some kind of inexpensive, do-it-yourself alternatives? Of course there are…and don’t call me Shirley.

Rubbing Alcohol– Some folks swear that rubbing alcohol works. Well, it can if it’s used right. You may find it effective to combine normal isopropyl alcohol and warm water and apply it directly to the ice. The warm water will melt the existing ice, while the alcohol (which has a melting point of -89 Celsius) prohibits the water from re-freezing. However, the sheer volume of alcohol needed for clearing large areas makes this less than cost effective. This may be more cost effective for smaller applications such as deicing keyholes or automotive windows.

Drinking alcohol- Really? You’re gonna dump it on the driveway? I’m sure your local liquor store would love to help you out, but if you find yourself outside in the snow, pouring vodka on your driveway; I would suspect you may have tested your ice melt a little too much already. Now go back inside before you freeze to death.

Soy Sauce? Yummy but pointless. Yes it’s salty, but the sauce itself will freeze at the same temperature as water.

Vinegar and Water? Great for making funny smelling ice, useless for melting it. Have you considered putting it on a frozen salad?

Baking soda? Nope.

Bleach? You’ll have the whitest ice in town. Ignore the dead squirrels.

Standing and screaming at the ice? Good news…anger management classes are normally held indoors so at least it will be warm.

Kitty litter? Good for traction, but absolutely no melting property. Plus, it can make a lovely mess when you walk back in the house not to mention the confusion it will cause if you have any stray cats running the neighborhood!

So, there you have it. A little bit on ice melt. Now you can chill out and relax.


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Bill Brown

Bill is the head of content creation for the LawnMowerPros Blog and DIY section. He’s been in the Outdoor Power Equipment Industry for years and he’s still learning new things everyday. You can often find him creating featured articles, DIY guides, videos, graphics and much more.