Winter weather preparations got underway in cities and towns across our state early Monday. Public works crews started pretreating the roads in the morning.
“Always a challenge when there is a question of snow, sleet, and rain,” said Rick Fontana, New Haven’s Emergency Operations Director.
Fontana said besides the bad weather, the uncertainty that this storm is bringing has created an all-hands-on-deck situation for the Department of Public Works.
“Out of an abundance of caution you bring everybody in and then we’ll scale back as we need,” he said Monday afternoon, adding that crews will work at least 12 hour shifts but are prepared to work doubles.
Like many hilly towns, New Haven has areas that freeze up faster. East Rock is one of those microclimates.
“A lot of hilly surface there presents a challenge to get those hills taken care of,” Fontana said.
Waterbury has similar issues. Public Works Director David Simpson said that you could throw a dart at a map of the city and would likely hit a hill.
The Brass City had no plans to pretreat its roads Monday. Instead, Simpson said crews would leave a bit of snow pack on the roads to keep them from getting slippery if the snow changed over to freezing rain. The city was also planning to call its crews back in between 11pm and one am to spread sand and salt on city streets.
Like the City of New Haven, the state started pretreating 300 of its 10,800 lane miles, Monday. Both use a special brine of salt and water.
“When you pretreat as a liquid the water evaporates and it leaves the salt in the nooks and crannies of the asphalt,” said DOT spokesperson Kevin Nursick.
He said that salt residue, which looks like white lines on the road when it’s first applied continues to be effective for up to a week.
“You get the benefit of that salt residue reactivating and starting to melt frozen material before you’re even out there plowing,” he explained.
However, sometimes even salt is no match for Mother Nature.
“If you were to look at a graph you would see the effectiveness of salt drop as the temperatures drop,” Nursick said.
At 25 degrees, other ingredients are mixed in with salt to keep it working effectively. The Connecticut DOT uses liquid magnesium, but these chlorides (salt and magnesium) have their critics.
“Salt is not a silver bullet. It is not without consequences,” Nursick said, explaining that it is hard to remove salt from inland bodies of water and shallow wells.
Communities looking to be environmentally friendly are mixing up their own recipes with ingredients you might find in your kitchen cupboard to keep your commute clear.
“That salt mixture does a lot to the roadway surfaces, the undercarriages of vehicles,” said Fontana.
New Haven Public Works crews will sometimes spray beet juice or spread salt treated with molasses if it gets too cold for the salt to treat the roads effectively.
“It is more friendly to the environment so it’s not going to kill trees,” Fontana pointed out. “It actually can melt ice and you can actually pretreat with it as well.”
It can also be spread by smaller trucks down some of the city’s narrow snow routes, where more traditional salt trucks can’t fit.
“We have a lot of narrow streets. We have literally over 100 dead end streets. Those are challenges for us,” Fontana said.
The state is also watching its environmental footprint. In 2007, the DOT stopped spreading sand with the salt.
“It carries chemicals from the roads and motor vehicles into waterways,” said Nursick.
Nursick said sand also proved to be ineffective.
“Maybe a dozen cars get the benefit the rest of them get nothing because it’s all blown off the road,” he explained. “When we were using sand we were spending seven eight million dollars a pop to go out and sweep up road sand.”
The state also tried using molasses but found it was deoxygenating waterways. Nursick said there are more exotic ingredients out there, primarily alcohol-based, but they are extremely expensive and haven’t been proven more effective or better for the environment. Even Fontana said New Haven uses the beet juice sparingly, and didn’t wind up needed to use it at all last winter.
“Brine is much cheaper than beet juice,” he stated.
Salt, on the other hand, has done a better job of keeping the 10-thousand plus miles of state roadways clear, according to Nursick, but it’s also created a new problem.
“The expectation now on the part of the motoring public is that the roads are going to be in very good condition every single time that they go out in a winter weather storm. That expectation is very hard to live up to at all times,” he said.
He pointed out that no matter which ingredient used, Mother Nature always has the upper hand, reminding motorists to do their part by driving at a reduced speed, building in more travel time, and putting snow tires on their cars.