Department of Public Works employee Kevin Pietschman stands next to the tanker truck the DPW has modified to spray a brine solution on city streets. Officials hope the less-expensive brine will replace rock salt in keeping the city streets from icing this winter. (Photo by Jennifer Eisenbart)

DPW tests brine as alternative rock salt on roads

By Jennifer Eisenbart

Staff writer

If you’ve been around the City of Burlington any time in the last month, you’ve probably been wondering why a tanker truck has been spraying what appears to be water on the streets when it’s likely to freeze.

That’s the thing, though – it’s not water, it’s brine, and if the trial process undertaken the Department of Public Works proves its worth, expect to see the cheaper brine replace rock salt as the preferred method of de-icing streets.

According to DPW Supervisor Dan Jensen, the brine – a mixture of water and rock salt – has been in use in places like McHenry County, Ill., Racine County, Janesville, Beloit and Stoughton for years.

Rather than dumping rock salt on the road and waiting for it to join with snow, water or ice to melt any slippery surface, the brine is put down as a preventative measure.

“It’s more environmentally safe and financially sound,” Jensen explained. “It doesn’t bounce off the road and leaves a residue that’s ready to work as soon as the snow falls.”

With the brine already on the road – Jensen said the department tries to work about four days in advance of cold weather between 20-32 degrees – the goal is to keep ice, slush and snow from compacting on roads.

“The brine acts like Pam on a frying pan,” Jensen said. “We’re applying the salt directly to the road.”

The city is hoping to save a significant amount of money in switching from rock salt to the brine. According to reports from cities using the solution – mixed at a batch plant in Beloit – there is generally a 4-to-1 cost savings.

“But we haven’t been able to prove that yet because this is the first year,” Jensen cautioned.

The city will continue to purchase rock salt as an option while the experiment plays out this winter. Also, when temperatures drop below 20 degrees, the city will be forced to use brine with other additives to achieve the same effect.

So far, Jensen believes the solution is working well. The city is applying the mixture to all bridges, hills, marked highways, collector roads and school zones, and it looks like the brine is keeping roads safe.

However, Jensen did point out the city has yet to have a major snowfall to test the theory. For the moment, Jensen is enjoying the break.

“I enjoy it, and our budget enjoys it,” Jensen said of the lack of snow. “And I’m glad there’s safer driving conditions because of it.”

The city will continue to analyze the data it collects this winter and then decide whether to continue with the brine. Jensen stressed that the city had converted existing equipment in order to save costs during the trial phase.