Stop Over-Salting Now: Why Less is More with Winter Gritting
As the weather outside clearly shows, winter has now emphatically arrived, and our winter gritting operations are back in action in full swing across the nation. While prioritising pedestrian and driver safety is crucial, we would also issue a gentle warning that businesses should be responsible about excessive salt usage in their winter gritting, as it can be both costly and environmentally harmful. Before chucking down excessive amounts of grit, consider the drawbacks of overdoing the amount of salt if you self-service your own winter gritting.
Winter Gritting Salt Causes Corrosion
Salt and grit are simply not the correct substances to use on various materials such as metal and concrete. Metal and concrete does not play well with the chlorine element in salt. In fact, the incorrect use of salt wreaks havoc on infrastructure, and structures such as railway bridges, railings and concrete pathways are highly susceptible to the corrosive power of salt. The overuse of road salt also has costly consequences, with one of the most expensive being corrosion to the vehicles exposed to that excess salt. As a result, this means increased expenditure for repairs, restoration, and replacements.
Research in the USA suggests that damage to bridges alone costs hundreds of millions to billions of dollars of damage each year. Schwartzberg estimates, “Every year, $8.3 billion is spent on corroding highway bridges,”. Corrosion not only impacts bridges, but it also affects vehicles and machinery, roadways, fire hydrants, signs, and traffic lights – all of which are paid for through taxes. The UK, of course, faces similar challenges, but as yet there is no estimated cost available. But blindly chucking down bags of salt on your metal staircases certainly isn’t going to make them last any longer.
Excess Salt and The Environment
Salt itself is both a natural and necessary component of soil and groundwater, but when salt is used excessively, it harms vegetation and disrupts ecosystems. Curiously enough, there is a dearth of proven granular data that breaks down this process in detail, but there are nevertheless some truths worth examining.
Pure salt actually works remarkably well as a weedkiller. Sprinkle some salt round your unfavourite weed and they will soon go away. Ergo, quite simply, it is perfectly obvious that grit is just not always that great for your plants. In areas of the USA, studies have shown that roads which are heavily gritted actually show a different plant biology over time with salt-tolerant species gaining dominance. The vectors of plant damage are osmotic effects caused by excessive sodium at the roots, and the leaf ‘scorching’ effects of airborne chloride. However, it is not enough to say that salt is always bad for plants. The effects of salt on plantlife is highly variable, largely dependent on species – many plants are highly salt tolerant whereas others are very sensitive. Any damage is usually restricted to plants in the immediate road verge and associated with indiscriminate salt use, and can be avoided by sensible spread control rates.
Salt, as used by local council winter gritting on the roads around the nation, runs off, and there has been a gradual elevation in the residual level of salt in groundwater and streams over the last 100 years. The salinification of groundwater and streams is a long-standing concern of biologists, and a sudden influx of salt due to winter gritting clearly raises the level of salt well above the recommended levels. High levels of salt are one of many human-made factors that accelerate eutrophication of waters whilst also appearing to decrease the biodiversity of aquatic animals. Salt also favours the growth of phytoplankton, especially cyanobacteria, indicative of stagnant waters. Salt in fact reduces water’s self-purification processes by decreasing nutrient accumulation in macrophytes, decreasing the denitrification rate and reducing organic matter decomposition.
That being said, winter gritting salt is just one of the many man-made factors that influence the immediate environment around roads and into rivers, and clearly there are other pollutants such as the constant presence of exhaust fumes and the forever chemicals used in farmland fertiliser runoffs that will have a bearing on the resulting biology of roadside verges and our rivers. Plenty of studies have also shown that the peaks of de-icing salts disappear as surface runoff and are subsequently delivered into rivers and streams, to be washed away harmlessly. Since water levels are always at their highest during the very season that salt is in use, the overall effect of the winter gritting industry on its own has as yet not been properly measured, and still remains a scientific unknown.
The Sensible Approach To Winter Gritting
So, how can you strike the right balance between safety and sustainability? Here are some tips worth considering now.
Err on the side of caution and target your gritting. Focus on high-traffic turns, water and ice pooling in tarmac, and pedestrian safety, instead of saturating entire areas. This saves resources, reduces environmental peaks but also makes sure the impact of Winter Gritting will always still be felt where it is actually needed.
Consider an alternative. We are not fans of sawdust or sand to melt ice, but alternatives such as brine solutions are a more efficient means than de-icing salts straight out of the earth. We’ve been using this in various trials across the country, and pre-wetted grit or brine solutions require less salt and are more effective at lower temperatures.
Above all though, it’s about knowing when you need to grit. By using hyper-localised weather data, you will only have to grit when it is actually necessary. This helps avoid unnecessary applications and reduces costs. We, for example, use bespoke reports with localised and Road Surface Temperature weather reports for each of those every day so we always know when each of our customer sites will be impacted by cold temperatures or snow, and what that impact for that particular surface type will actually be, hour by hour.
A Win-Win for All:
By adopting a more mindful approach to winter gritting, businesses will see a number of benefits. Saving money is the most obvious – reduced salt usage and infrastructure damage mean lower maintenance and repair costs. Maximise sustainability – a sensible approach to your gritting will mean that you are protecting the environment and showcases your commitment to responsible business practices. And last but certainly not least, you can still improve safety. Targeted and effective winter gritting ensures safe conditions for employees, customers, suppliers and the wider community, and that’s what it’s really all about. Winter gritting isn’t just about chucking it down to keep the country moving; it’s about making smart choices that benefit your business and the environment. By avoiding over-salting, we can all navigate the winter months with a lighter footprint and a sharper focus on responsible practices.
Are you struggling to apply the correct amount of salt in your own winter gritting? For over 20 years OUTCO has provided market leading Winter Gritting for business and we have more combined winter experience in our leadership team than every other winter services organisation in the UK. Our winter expertise is all ISO accredited – 9001, 14001 and 45001. Including our multiple industry awards, we have also written the UK Winter Maintenance industry guidelines and best practice in association with the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM). We fully understand the implications of getting timing or delivery wrong, which can have profound consequences for our customers, operations, and reputations.
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