Rock Salt Vs Ice Melt

When winter weather is approaching, it’s important to choose the right product when it comes to snow and ice removal, especially if you’re a business with commercial clients that depend on your services. However, our industry is full of labels that can be confusing.

One of the biggest sources of confusion for those just getting started in the snow removal industry is the difference between rock salt and ice melt. After all, don’t both products do the same thing? What’s the difference? When do you use one and when do you use the other? These are the questions we’ll be answering.

What is Ice Melt?

Ice melt is a blanket term generally set aside for any snow and ice melting product that is a combination of conventional rock salt (sodium chloride) and one or more additives, which are usually either calcium chloride or magnesium chloride.

Introducing calcium or magnesium chloride to a conventional snow salt mixture will boost its inherent properties, giving you better results across the board. There are clear pros and cons to ice melt, which are important to understand.

Iron fence with tiny ice crystals forming on the railing during a winter storm.

Ice Melt Pros

  • Can be used proactively; works best when applied to clean surfaces before a storm, creating a barrier for snow and ice to easily pull away from
  • Both calcium and sodium chloride are less corrosive than rock salt and are somewhat healthier to vegetation, create less pollution (in the form of hazardous runoff), and will do less damage to vehicles and pavement
  • Ice melt with a higher proportion of sodium or calcium chloride is easier on your pets’ paws
  • More effective at lower temperatures

Ice Melt Cons

  • While safer for paws, ice melt has less rock salt and thus fewer particles, which is what adds traction to otherwise slick surfaces in the first place
  • Best when used beforehand; has a slower melting speed compared to conventional rock salt for snow
  • Costs more than rock salt

What is Rock Salt?

Rock salt, halite, or sodium chloride is the same salt you find in the shaker at your dinner table. The major difference is it’s made of larger pieces (for traction), and still in its raw form. Snow melt, like ice melt, has its pros and cons.

Table salt on a bar counter in a restaurant.

Snow Melt Pros

  • Straightforward application; spread over snow and ice and watch it melt right through thanks to salt’s natural ability to change the freezing point of water
  • Rock salt is constantly in demand and a steady supply means it’s the most cost-effective product for your commercial snow removal business
  • Can be pre-wetted or mixed into a brine to boost its properties without introducing any new chemicals

Snow Melt Cons

  • Rock salt is naturally corrosive, so it’s hard on concrete, vehicles, and vegetation
  • Only effective at temperatures above 5F
  • While somewhat effective, snow melt is generally best used after snow and ice have already formed
  • Salt crystals are sharp and thus hard on your pet’s paws
  • Rock salt stains and damages pretty much every material it comes into prolonged contact with

Factors to Consider Before You Choose Between Snow Melt or Ice Melt

Neither snow melt nor ice melt will effectively carry your commercial snow removal business through an entire winter. While temperatures change and circumstances evolve, it’s best if you have both on hand to be strategic with your snow removal. However, knowing what factors go into considering which product to use will make you better prepared.

A plant beginning to sprout after winter.

Surface Material

Rock salt has less of a corrosive effect on pavement compared to concrete. Moreover, if your client has a ton of grass and/or vegetation you may want to rely more on ice melt, which is easier on the environment.

Cost Efficiency

Rock salt is a workhorse and is by far the cheapest of the two. However, you don’t want to rely on rock salt when the temperature is too low or as a pre-treatment strategy. A large part of cost-efficiency is knowing when to use one versus the other.

Speed

In general, snow melt is faster than ice melt, but ice melt is best used before a storm. In the end, when used correctly, both products will give you a leg up. We recommend you use rock salt when you need fast-melting (at temps above 5F), and ice melt when your goal is to minimize ice formation before a storm. In a pinch, both can work in the moment but rock salt is faster in that situation.

Potential Damage

Rock salt is damaging to surfaces as well as vegetation. Sodium and calcium chloride aren’t as bad and can actually help your vegetation. However, damage control is all about controlling how much of your product is used; less is always more.

Environmental Hazards Including Pets and Plants

As a rule of thumb, conventional rock salt is worse for the environment and harder on your pets and plants. Ice melt can still do some damage if overused, but it’s generally safer. As we said earlier, moderation is key in both cases.

Snow Melt and Ice Melt: Two Sides of the Same Coin

If you want our honest opinion, both products are useful. In the case of commercial snow and ice removal, we’d even say that both products are essential. Knowing when to use these products, how much to use, and why they work the way they do is far more important than picking one or the other. They both have the advantage of being wholly unique from the other, giving you a broader arsenal when it comes to helping your clients get through the winter.

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Al Gossen
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AG Excavating, Inc
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