The news about road salt is worse than we thought

Nov. 3, 2005
My column in the March 3 issue this year discusses how road salt is bad for our vehicles, highways, ecology, water supplies, and concrete structures such as parking garages.
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Khol editorials

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Since that column appeared, even more damning information about salt has reached me in a newsletter from Horton Inc., a company which makes fans and fan drives for large trucks.

The Horton newsletter points out that not only is the use of road salt increasing, so are new deicing chemicals that are even more destructive and which attack paint, aluminum, especially aluminum wheels, and even glass.

The new chemicals are applied as a powder, small granules, or as a liquid spray. The liquid solutions are generally water mixed with road salt, or sodium chloride, and magnesium, calcium, or some combination. These liquids are put on the roads up to 48 hours before bad weather is expected. The intent is to stay ahead of ice and snow, but the effect is to coat your vehicle with corrosive crud even when you drive in good weather. These chemicals are a nightmare when it comes to maintaining vehicles, roads, and bridges.

These new solutions wreak havoc on the whole vehicle, according to Horton. Unlike conventional road salt that just hits the obvious exterior portions of a vehicle, the new liquid solutions wick their way into areas that granular road salt usually doesn't penetrate. There are now more corrosive failures in wiring, chromium finishes, fuel tanks, brakes, and heat exchangers.

The Horton newsletter says the deicing solutions are bringing a whole new meaning to the term rust belt. The problem started in the northeast part of the country a few years ago, but now it is reaching farther across the northern tier of states. Even reinforcing bars in concrete roads and bridges are corroding at an alarming rate because of the more aggressive salt treatments.

The new salt solutions are a cheap and effective way to keep roads clear, and no governmental agency wants to pay more than the minimum for clearing roads. On the other hand, the new road treatments are forcing automotive suppliers, especially those in the trucking industry, to go to more expensive materials and coatings to protect their products. It is my observations that companies building passenger cars, now often leased on three-year cycles and not held long by the original owners, don't seem to care much about the new threats from corrosion to the suspension, brakes, fuel system, and powertrain.

The new deicing chemicals are eating away at the types of materials and coatings that for years were once satisfactory. The new solutions will wick down a split wire casing or even one which has merely been poked with a continuity tester. The aggressive deicers are shortening the life of all components, says Horton.

The company advises fleet owners to inspect frequently for corrosion. They say truck drivers should use foot brushes and floor mats that can be cleaned easily because the chemicals will rot out floorboards. A good scrubbing is necessary because soapy water alone will not remove all of the chemicals.

Even the windows need attention. They should be washed well and have a protectorate applied. The company says to look behind panel covers. If you see pitting, rusting, or a powdery residue, keep looking because the process has started. There have been reports of fuel tanks corroded completely through underneath the mounting straps. This is serious stuff with serious consequences, says the newsletter.

The whole matter even has a bizarre twist. Biologists say salt runoff ingested by moose is a major cause for the increase in collisions between moose and cars. Moose drinking saltwater lose their fear of cars and humans.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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