Science behind snow removal helps save on salt

February 4, 2014 (GLEN ELLYN, Ill.)

Salt is as good as gold this winter, and in many places, it is just as rare. In Glen Ellyn, the salt supply is running low. But thanks to advances in the science of snow removal over the last decade, communities can actually use less salt-- and have it be more effective.

Thirteen years ago, in a small shed in McHenry County, Mark DeVries was among the first to invent a cocktail for snow fighting.

"When we apply this liquid to roads before a storm, the sugar beet helps it stay longer. Like spilling a Coke, it's sticky, it stays longer," said DeVries.

These days communities from Chicago to Arlington Heights use the beet juice jumpstart. It's part salt water, part calcium chloride and sugary beet juice. In McHenry County, it keeps the salt on the roads and makes it more effective.

"Plows have changed completely, they're not your grandpa's plows," said DeVries.

Many now have onboard pavement sensors, computerized spreading, and fighter jet-like joysticks to control plows and salt. A high-tech truck, combined with the beet juice infused salt can cut in half the amount of salt used in a storm.

"There are real environmental concerns, of course organics help that, but the other part is the less material we use, the better it is for the environment, "said DeVries.

Still, our never-ending winter is taking its toll. Unionized mechanics are upset IDOT called in the National Guard during a storm last month to help repair equipment.

"We can't call in the military every time we have a snow storm," said Aviva Bowen, Illinois Federation of Public Employees.

Whether it's struggling with a salt shortage or coming-up with the next big breakthrough in snow removal, this winter has proven the need for many communities to get creative.

"I think we've made roads safer, but at times, Mother Nature can win!" said DeVries.

In an average winter in Glen Ellyn, road crews will respond to 20 winter weather events. This year, they've already responded to 31.

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