Salty talk on deicing Naperville roads

<p>Naperville Public Works employees move delivered shipment of road salt to the public works center off of Fort Hill Dr. in Naperville.  |  Jonathan Miano/Staff Photographer</p>

Naperville Public Works employees move delivered shipment of road salt to the public works center off of Fort Hill Dr. in Naperville.  |  Jonathan Miano/Staff Photographer

How much did you pay for salt last year? If you bought one of those 26-ounce cylindrical containers of table salt, which lasts a long time, you would probably guess you paid about $2. Well, actually, many of you, probably most of you, paid more for salt than you paid for the city portion of your property tax, which averages $925. I know I did.

I paid $600 for brake assembly brackets, $200 for other suspension parts, and $350 for a new exhaust system. The parts had reached only a third of their life expectancy, and the exhaust pipes were only two years old. The mechanics all agreed that the parts had been prematurely rotted by salt, so that’s what I paid for salt.

Naperville budgets about $730,000 per year for approximately 14,000 tons of road salt. We’ve already used about 10,000 tons, but we had some left over from last year and we have another 6,000 or so tons on order. I figure we put down about 230 pounds per year for every man, woman, and child in town.

That’s only part of what we paid. You have to add in another $200,000 for overtime, independent contractor plowing, and storage. Then you have to add in the cost of the calcium chloride we add to make the deicing effective at lower temperatures, and other chemicals that keep the salt from crystallizing into one big lump. Engineers charmingly call those chemicals “habit modifiers,” something I suggest today’s world could use a lot of.

So far, we’re pushing a cool million per year, but now we have to add the costs that are hard to estimate. Everything within 50 to 200 feet of a salted road, including trees, bushes, reinforced concrete buildings, bridges, and the road itself is damaged by salt.

Salt decreases the permeability to water of the soil it lands on. It’s taken up by tree roots, where it eventually makes them susceptible to diseases and parasites. The chloride can dehydrate the leaves, so they turn brown in the spring. When the snow melts, the salt enters streams and rivers where, for a short time, it can reach a concentration 3 or 4 times what fresh water organisms are able to survive.

Salt accumulates in the soil, where it does the same thing it does when you put it in your water softener. It displaces necessary minerals like calcium and magnesium. Along with the toxic breakdown products of the habit modifiers, it kills beneficial organisms and generally lowers the fertility of the soil. The bound sodium can take decades to wash out.

And of course salt increases the electrical conductivity of water, which means it accelerates corrosion. That means it rots bridge decking, parking lots, railroad switches, and concrete reinforcing rods in highways and buildings. It shorts out warning signals at railroad crossings, and causes current losses in electrical transmission lines. I’ve already mentioned the perhaps $50 million in corrosion damage it does to Naperville’s cars.

This is all so that we can drive in January as we do in July, with jackrabbit starts and abrupt stops. I’ve lived where they plowed but didn’t salt the roads. There were fewer accidents because people didn’t drive fast enough to get into one. They smiled, settled back, and enjoyed the wonderland that is winter. Road rage simply can’t exist on a snow covered road at 20 mph.

So how much did you actually pay for salt last year, given all you probably paid for environmental remediation, road and bridge repair, and automobile damage? I suspect that at least some of you are saying, “I have absolutely no idea, but it was probably way too much.” And you would be right. So why do we keep on doing it?