It is fall and the last week of September 2017 as I write this. Temperatures in many parts of the US snow belt this week have been in the 80s and 90s. How is that possible? An active hurricane season has caught the attention of many in the snow forecasting business. After 40 plus years in the snow business, I’ve come to the opinion that the long-range weather prognosticators are about as accurate as a blindfolded monkey with a dartboard.

With that said, I’ll get to the business at hand which the state of the salt or moreover the state of the deicing chemical business and what to expect as you enter the pre-season and fall. We’ve had two soft winters back to back and that can tend to lead to complacency in the end user market and severely high inventories on the supplier side. On the buyer, the “We can get what we need when it snows” mentality will prevail and while that is true for the start of the winter, it’s not necessarily a healthy and sustainable approach if we get into a protracted run of weather as we saw in the Northeast in the late winter of 2014-15 or what the Sierras saw last winter where we received an entire winter’s worth of snow in 42 days of non-stop weather events and the market ran dry on everything in those regions. Events like that will drain pipelines quickly and can trigger panic buying. At this point, the supply side is swimming in inventory on virtually everything, so it continues to be a buyer’s market.

Expect the unexpected

Panic buying is exactly what happened as the following fall’s pre-season saw record demand which drove many to think the demand of the market was exponentially bigger than it really was. What followed that heavy inventory grab was two winters of warm pavement and little snow with lots of new suppliers from every reach of the planet. What little snow we did get, melted as soon as it was cleared so the need for deicers was anything but panic.

Late last season, the northeast got a little snow, but again, with no frost in the ground to speak of the need was minimal. So now you’re reading this article as you blindfold the monkey to let him then throw darts at the board of weather to determine what you might expect for snow this winter. My friend Malcolm Poole, who spent a lifetime in the salt business and is now retired, said of the salt business; “It’s two years of mediocrity, two years of sheer misery, and one year of incredible bliss and you only need to figure out what order those come in and where you are in that order”. I think Malcolm was dead right. Are we due for mediocrity, bliss, or misery? Give the blindfolded monkey the dart and find out.

Regarding “the state of the salt”, abundant inventories would be an understatement. Right now, you can pretty much get anything you want without delay. The supplier stockpile side of the business is about as full as it gets. While that may sound good, there could be some potential issues with that from the effects of long-term storage. Tarps get holes, water gets in the pile, and over time all deicing products are hygroscopic (absorb water) to some degree so understand that these products don’t necessarily store well long term. We’ve had to dispose of inventory that didn’t keep by making brines from it before it turned into bricks. Sometimes the options are less and disposal is the only option. In all cases, inventories of salt, calcium chloride, and magnesium chloride are at record levels but caveat emptor for quality for the reasons stated.

Be mindful of clearly understanding the quality of that inventory from a shelf life viewpoint. Moisture content is critical in deicing materials. The holes in the three-year-old tarp on the salt pile that let a little bit of rain and moisture wick into the pile may require a jackhammer to loosen up when temperatures are sustained at sub-freezing. If you are buying, know the quality of the product you’re getting. If you are looking at the salt and bagged products in your own inventory that you’ve been sitting on for two years, make sure that inventory is still usable because that’s not something you want to find out is lumped and hard when you are hit with an event and need product on the ground now.

Normally, I break out salt and premium deicers separately in this report but this time, they are all in the same boat; high inventory and buyer’s market…at least for now. Be careful where you commit your business for supply. Many of the companies that rushed the market a few years ago thinking it was always robust are now looking to get out and may have a great deal now, but they may not be there if old man winter comes back.

Dry versus liquid?

Lots of interest, misinformation, and buzz about going liquid. Liquids are not new. We sold our first liquid system in 1979 to the City of Haverhill MA; a community with lots of north facing sloped streets. They were challenged with cars that became toboggans in snow events and felt they could enhance their salt’s performance with liquid based off the Marquette Study which was released just a few years prior. Understanding how to use liquids, and when to use them is important.

Let’s talk about the three basic liquid products in the US:

Salt Brine 23% NaCl – using a brine making machine or salt saturator, and a source of sodium chloride, on-site production of 23% NaCl is the target solution and common;

Liquid Calcium Chloride 32% CaCl2 - Most common commercial concentration and it is available in tank trucks and in small packages such as drums and totes in most regions. It is possible to manufacture calcium brines from dry product, but it’s difficult and requires a little know-how to make the 32% target solution;

Liquid Magnesium Chloride 30% MgCl2 - Most common commercial concentration and it is available in tank trucks and in small packages such as drums and totes in most regions. It is fairly easy to manufacture magnesium chloride brines from dry product, and that is done frequently where commercial bulk liquid is not readily available such as in remote regions.

There are too many “boutique” products on the market to begin to detail and discuss, but in nearly all of them, one of the liquids above is the base material.

De-icing

We do not advocate applications of liquids alone for snow removal and deicing. In some instances, there are new technologies that apply an “oatmeal” type mix of high levels of salt brine and fine road salt for certain conditions. This methodology was developed in Europe and is now finding its way into some US states with specially built application trucks. In those instances, salt brine tends to lend an extra buffer of safety in the use of salt brine versus calcium chloride or magnesium chloride which can quickly make a surface very slick when over-applied or applied incorrectly. If you are interested in learning more on this, you might read the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s report on their work from 2008/2009. Understand also that the road salt used in this process is much smaller granulation and a specialty product – but the “oatmeal” application system performed very well once balanced. (For more, enter http://bit.ly/2ybVM1h into your browser)

Liquids are now over 40 years in the snow and ice market and they are here to stay. However, liquids alone will never replace dry product in the snow belt. Salt, and packaged deicers are at their highest pre-season inventory levels in years, however be wise about not expecting that inventory to be quickly replenished if weather causes a “run-on-the-bank” of those inventories. Suppliers are still stinging from a lack of snow and once that product is sold, they will be cautious to reload inventory the later into the winter it gets. This could lead to late winter shortages if that happens. In one case, a salt importer is suing 48 communities in one East Coast state for not taking their winter estimate of salt because it didn’t snow. Be mindful of the condition of products offered due to the long-term storage ramifications.

Robert S. English is president of Chemical Solutions Inc. in Franklin, Mass. You can reach him at rob@meltsnow.com