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How to Melt Snow and Ice Safely

Recent snow removal in downtown Greenbelt.


Last year’s mild winter is but a memory, and this week’s Arctic weather has taught us to get serious about snow and ice, especially how to get rid of it.  Turns out, we’re applying a whole lot of the wrong stuff in our attempts at fast melting – particularly on sidewalks, driveways, and steps.  What’s more, we’re not even following the instructions, so even when we’re using the right product, we’re causing harm by using them the wrong way.  Humans!

So, damage is done – to our home and the environment.  Here are some examples:

  • Overuse of some products causes the sidewalks to freeze repeatedly, which damages the concrete.
  • Some de-icers corrode metal.
  • Some de-icers harm plants.
  • Many de-icers cause run-off of harmful level of salts and nutrients, which enters storm sewers and eventually the Bay, where it causes harm to aquatic life.

What to Use and How

The table from the University of Maryland lists four de-icer ingredients commonly found on the market, along with information information concerning their effectiveness and safety.  U.Md tells us these products can be safe, when applied according to directions.  They further suggest using even less of the products than is recommended by the manufacturer, making sure the surface is covered thinly and evenly.


Prevention is even better:  These products are most effective when applied thinly and evenly over the surface before ice forms.  It’s easier to melt ice than to melt a thick layer of ice.

Don’t Use

  • Plant fertilizers or products that contain urea – because the nitrogen or phosphorus in them can harm local streams and the bay.  The runoff created by melting ice and snow from one small sidewalk may not cause much harm, but the cumulative effects across a region can create harmful levels of salts and nutrients that eventually pollute the Bay.  In fact, according to Gene, the 2011 Fertilizer Use Act in Maryland prohibits the use of fertilizer as a de-icer.

More De-Icing Tips

  • To melt very thick ice in cold weather add a small amount of water to the de-icer to start the melting faster.
  • To aid melting AND make the surface less slippery, mix the de-icer with wet sand and/or ashes.
  • Store de-icer and sand separately to keep them dry.

Salt Damage to Plants 

Symptoms of salt damage include poor or stunted growth in the spring (common in the grass along driveways and streets), dieback on evergreens, or leaf browning or scorch at the margins on deciduous trees.  To treat, follow Gene’s tip above.  Or in small beds, some soil replacement may take care of the problem.

Removing Thin Layers of Ice Without De-icer

  • Mix warm water and table salt and pour it onto the ice.
  • Use sand, ashes or kitty litter to improve traction on slippery spots.
  • If an ice storm is predicted, cover small areas with heavy plastic or other water-proof material.
February 2010 wasn't that long ago, and could happen again!
Remember this, from February 2010? It could happen again!


Source: University of Maryland.  Photos and post by Susan Harris

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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