Shopping for the most responsible tools for our chores can be challenging unless a knowledgeable merchant is already ahead of the game.
At McGuckin Hardware in Boulder, for instance, customers will notice that the varieties of snow shovel greatly outnumber the kinds of deicer, or ice-melting products.
That’s because there are many products that say “safe for lawns and pets,” but it’s not much of a choice if they’re all offering the same thing.
“‘Environmentally friendly’ is just a marketing label for some manufacturers,” says Steven Wilke, representative for the McGuckin garden department. “People here value their pets; they want something that won’t harm animals.”
Or their lawns, gardens and the environment, in general.
So Wilke will show you the one ice-melting product McGuckin carries that will chemically bust up ice in a powerful hurry if you’re not fussy. But he says a high enough residue of that stuff left on the ground will actually sterilize your soil, so he’ll be happier to explain why there are better choices.
For many kinds of deicer, the melting magic comes from some combination of a salt — chloride — with calcium, magnesium, potassium or sodium.
Sodium chloride — rock salt — promotes rust, which eats away the steel in vehicles and the rebar in concrete walks and structures. It also kills plants, and it poisons pets and wildlife attracted to the taste.
Potassium chloride is a common fertilizer, which leads to some manufacturers’ claims that it feeds plants while melting ice. But since it has to be applied heavier as a deicer, it can actually burn vegetation. As with rock salt, it doesn’t work below 20 degrees or so, leading to frequent freeze/thaw cycles that are hard on surfaces, including cement.
Calcium chloride and magnesium chloride are often presented as “greener” alternatives to the previous options, because they don’t require as much to do the job and freeze at far lower temperatures. But when mixed with water, they produce a high level of heat that can harm plants and irritate skin.
Chlorides don’t evaporate or disintegrate. Their corrosiveness builds up and is washed into our vegetation and groundwater, picked up by animals and tracked into our homes. At best, they should be used minimally.
McGuckin carries Safe Step, a deicer without corrosive salts, which Wilke says is a step up in environmental safety. An even better option is the Safe Step animal-safe version, Sure Paws.
Deicers are meant to break ice up enough to make scraping it off easier, not make it disappear.
For a chronic traction problem with a stair step or spot on a walkway, try an ice-breaker mat, which can be glued to most surfaces. A good stomp on it will break up ice.
And, says Gene Smith, a McGuckin manager who lives in the mountains, there’s a simple green solution to bigger traction problems.
“Scattered sand often works, but today I made it all the way down a long, steep, slick driveway on pea gravel,” he says.