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Getting a grip: A variety of eco- and pet-friendly options can melt ice

Rachel Jacobson braves the icy sidewalk on Saint Marie Street. File / News Tribune

If you've stepped foot outside, you've noticed the ice — in thick chunks, paper-thin layers, maybe you've had a face-to-face. While there are many ways to deice your sidewalks, some are more eco-friendly than others.

Rock salt is made up of sodium chloride. In high concentrations, it can be harmful to pets and garden plants, and it can reduce water quality when drained in water systems, according to the University of Minnesota Extension.

Excessive amounts of rock salt can also corrode metals and eat away at concrete and natural stone. At Denny's Ace Hardware, rock salt is sold only in 50-pound bags. "We advise people that that's better for black top and gravel driveways," said Yvonne Pilcher.

Home Depot carries deicer designed for decks and stained woods; salting can be very corrosive to metal brackets and support beams, said Bob Krob, receiving manager at Home Depot.

Sugar beet juice is a biodegradable and less corrosive option. Some deicers have beet juice in them, Krob said. It's a bit more expensive, but it is a safe alternative.

Michael Peterson of Duluth sprinkles finely crushed rock called "chicken grit" on an icy sidewalk. File / News TribuneSand, kitty litter, bird seed, coffee grinds and alfalfa meal are all eco-friendly options that won't melt ice, but they do add traction. Cheese brine, pickle brine and corn molasses can be added to deicing mixes as an organic option.

These treatments can be better for pets, too. Salt can dry out dog paws, causing cracks or irritation between the toes, said Lisa Jeanetta of Dougherty Veterinary Clinics. Pet-friendly products include magnesium chloride or urea.

Calcium chloride can be a contact irritant, causing ulcerations and lesions in the mouth. Pet no-no's were contained sodium chloride (rock salt) or potassium chloride, she said.

Most pets aren't going to eat it, but they might lick their paws. If a dog ingests a large amount of rock salt or deicer, pet owners should call their vet or poison control to know what to look for, but, usually, it's an upset stomach, she said.

Jeanetta suggested wiping your pet's paws with a towel or baby wipes after a walk, using dog booties or a lanolin-based balm.

Customers are keeping pets in mind, Pilcher said, but they are buying bits of everything because of the weather.

"Eco-friendly, it's not as aggressive," Krob said. "You wouldn't get the productivity out of it that you would with a regular 100 percent sodium (chloride salt)."

Many customers are making their own mixes, buying sand and salt, he added.

Deicing salts won't remove the ice completely; they're meant to help loosen matter for shoveling.

Some salts work better in lower temperatures, and they should be used evenly and conservatively — about 12 ounces per 1,000 square feet.

One trick to minimizing buildup is to shovel or snowblow, the sooner, the better. And there's always work on the front end:

"If bad weather is coming, lay salt down before snow hits the ground. That'll make shoveling easier," Krob said.

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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