When winter storms hit, it's important to be prepared with the correct ice melting chemicals to make sure that the pavement, sidewalks and roadways can be cleared and made safe for vehicles and people.

Safety is the primary reason to use ice melt products, but it also helps control damage from heavy ice buildup and is just plain convenient to keep traffic areas clean. So how does one choose what's best for them?

First and foremost, a product must work. Even though price matters, too, end users want effective products because if ice and snow isn't removed, someone could slip and fall and janitors could be held liable.

The Chlorides

With his customers facing some brutal Minnesota winters, Steve Schoonmaker, president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Northern Sanitary Supply, says calcium chloride is the most popular product, since it works at a lower temperature than many of the others.

"It melts more per volume, so it melts more for less," he says. "The chloride may be more damaging, but since you are using less than you would with other types, it results in less damage."

That theory is up for debate. Although calcium chloride has the lowest melting temperature of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it is also the most corrosive and can damage lawns, trees and shrubs since the runoff solution created when using the product seeps into the ground.

Paul Melzer, project manager for New Berlin, Wis.-based NASSCO Inc. has seen more people switch from calcium chloride in recent years, and feels it's the job of companies like his to educate the consumers about the pros and cons of these products.

"Calcium chloride is very corrosive, and you can make the switch and move over to the magnesium chloride, and you are getting something that also goes down to about minus 15 degrees, but does not harm the environment," Melzer says. "It is a little more expensive, and I have heard it doesn't melt as fast, but I would think that with more people becoming environmentally friendly, I would think waiting a few extra minutes for the ice to melt would be better than throwing a harmful chemical down on the pavement."

According to a recent report commissioned by Federal U.S. Highways, magnesium chloride offers the lowest environmental detriment.

Effectiveness is why magnesium chloride and calcium chloride remain as the major product movers for distributors.

"The biggest deciding factor in choosing an ice melt is working with one that has worked for you before," says Schoonmaker. "People look at price but they will almost always go back to something that they know has worked for them before. Melting power is the most important thing."

Potassium chloride is a good choice for warmer areas as plants can handle a lot of potassium since it's one of the three main plant nutrients. But since it only works down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it's not a big seller, says Chris Nolan, president of H.T. Berry in Canton, Mass.

Sodium chloride, commonly known as rock salt, remains the cheapest ice melter, but its popularity among end users has been fading.

"People used this for years and then because of the way it affected their cars on the roadways, and the negativity for the deterioration of plant life, they started to move away from it," says Nolan. "Plus, its lack of effectiveness at low temperatures."

Sodium chloride can only melt down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and it too can be damaging to the environment.

"You're not really doing yourself any favors if you are using rock salt," says Melzer. "It's just as bad as calcium chloride for the environment."

Chris Pratt, sales manager for E.A. Morse & Co. Inc., in Hudson. N.Y. says end users are a bit more educated about ice melt products these days, where it wasn't that long ago when most customers were only asking for rock salt.

"People are a little more knowledgeable about what everything is, as opposed to just wanting rock salt," he says. "They have an understanding of what is needed. A lot of our customers ask for both. Rock salt, they know they can use out on parking lots and ice melt for sidewalks and other areas."

Alternative Products

More end users are switching to blends, which consist of a mixture of chemicals (such as magnesium with sodium) to create a different ice melting product. By adding and mixing additional chemicals, manufactures can vary melting temperatures somewhat for their patented blends.

"The blends are more popular because they are cheaper. The low-end blends, especially, are half the price of magnesium chloride," Melzer says. "Blends with less chloride are better for the environment but will be more expensive, especially if you want them to work at the subzero temperatures."

The problem with blends is that since there are so many different chemicals involved, companies can make claims about the melting power that may not be accurate.

"If you mix a low-end salt with magnesium, they can make claims that it melts down to lower than it really does, since one part may melt to 10, and another to minus 10," Melzer says. "Only part of it may melt down that low, but they can say it does."

Acetates are used less frequency, but are still effective. Calcium magnesium acetate, which is liquefied prior to use, melts at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and is considered one of the safest for protecting concrete and vegetation. However, it is best applied to prevent re-icing, rather than as an ice remover, because of its high melting number.

The best place to use calcium magnesium acetate is in parking garages, where damage to the concrete slabs would be very expensive and owners are more concerned about corrosion than those looking to melt roads and walkways.

Potassium acetate is less popular. The product is biodegradable and melts down to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but it can be corrosive.

On the other hand, liquid ice melters are gaining in popularity and more distributors are exploring this option for the upcoming winter.

"These are really preventative. You can spray the concrete before the storm and it works tremendously," says Pratt.

Liquid ice melters don't contain salt and work down to about minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. They are environmentally friendly and safer to use around cars and on concrete and asphalt.

As the weather turns colder, end users will start asking questions about which ice melters to buy when the snow actually starts falling. Distributors will need to be on hand with answers about the best product and tips for applying it correctly. After all, using more ice melt than needed is what causes the most damage, says Nolan.

"It's important to spread adequately," he adds. "If you don't have a lot of ice and you just dump half a bag in an area, over time, it's going to hurt brick, hurt cement, etc. Less is more, we always say."

Keith Loria is a freelance writer based in Larchmont, N.Y.