If you’re from the Midwest, then you’re probably familiar with the sand storage containers that come out every winter for those tricky parts of the sidewalk that pose a slipping hazard. If your city is encouraging its use, it must be effective, right?
Can You Really Use Sand to Melt Snow & Ice?
The most straightforward answer to the question of sand’s efficacy in melting snow and ice is no, sand does little to help in the process of melting ice or even snow. No matter the temperature or the amount of sand used, you’ll find that it simply has little direct effect on melting.
However, sand is still a great resource in the middle of winter. While sodium chloride (common rock salt) still corners the market for ice and snow melting, sand is a great way to introduce traction onto slippery roads and sidewalks. That’s precisely why your local municipality provides it for use in the winter, to introduce some traction to a particularly slippery patch of public sidewalk.
What Happens When You Apply Sand to Ice?
Let’s break down why you’d want to use sand. While it’s less effective than almost all other snow removal products at face value it still has benefits, especially in the right situation.
Sand increases friction: the fine grit of sand will embed itself into the slick surface of snow and ice, which in turn mitigates the hazard of slipping on that surface.
Sand will retain the heat from the sun: ever walk across a sandy beach on a sunny day? It goes without saying that sand absorbs and retains the heat of the sun. While it’s not a fast process, laying some sand over top snow and ice will eventually melt through once the sand is heated from the sun.
Sand is environmentally friendly: while it’s not as effective as rock salt, it’s certainly better for the environment. If sand washes off your driveway and makes its way into a waterway it will have little to no effect on that water supply.
Mixing Salt & Sand
No, mixing sand with salt or any other de-icing agent will not increase its efficacy nor will it reduce the amount of the agent you need to use. Adding sand into these products will simply dilute the results of that product. So, why would you want to mix sand into your rock salt or other products?
The answer is simple; sometimes you require instant traction and a sand salt mix will do just that. Let’s say a vehicle is stuck on an incline and you don’t have time to wait for the full effect of a de-icing treatment. Mixing some sand in with the product could give you instant traction while you’re waiting for the surface to melt completely.
The short answer? Sand doesn’t improve the response to a melting agent but it can introduce friction faster, which could be the only solution you’re looking for.
The Environmental Impact of Sand
Overuse of anything will impact the environment in some way, even sand. While sand is a natural product, it can have detrimental effects if used irresponsibly.
Sand is fine for waterways but bad for storm drains: if you use too much sand and its only outlet is a storm drain, then you may be surprised to find how quickly you can plug a drain with too much sand. Be responsible for where your sand travels once it washes away.
Sand kicks up fine particles: believe it or not, some people can be allergic to the superfine particles that are produced by sand. Overusing sand can kick those particles into the air.
Sand and asphalt don’t always mix: have you ever played shuffleboard? Then you know that an abundance of sand can actually make a surface slicker. Overusing sand on asphalt can have a similar effect; don’t lay down too much and have cars in your lot slide around like shuffleboard pucks.
Abrasive Materials You Can Use as Sand Alternatives
Sand isn’t the only product that can lend some friction to a slick parking lot or sidewalk. Pretty much any particulate or aggregate will work in a pinch. Here are a few we recommend if you’re scrambling:
Kitty litter: clay-based kitty litter is terrible for the environment but, in an emergency, will act as an alternative to sand when spread on a slippery surface.
Saw Dust: while not as abrasive, sawdust is an even more eco-friendly way to reduce the slipperiness of an icy surface. Check with a local tree service, they might even give it to you for free.
Wood Ash: wood ash is, as the name implies, the leftovers of burning wood. You’ve seen it at the bottom of a fire pit the morning after a campfire. While wood ash resembles a powder it has a significant amount of grit to it, which makes it another eco-friendly method for cutting through the slickness of ice and snow.
Sand is Better Than Nothing
Nothing beats standalone snow removal products like sodium chloride and ice melt. However, sand will still get you out of a slick situation if you have nothing else on hand. Of course, if you’re a stickler about chemicals and don’t wish to introduce any salt to your property, sand and careful walking could conceivably get you through winter. If you have a healthy supply of sawdust or wood ash on hand, then you might as well use those as well!