It's Dec. 1. Can snow be far away?
The Village of Niles is planning to combat it with a powerful arsenal of salt brine, calcium chloride and...beet juice.
Niles will use an organic product made from beet juice to pre-treat roadways with an anti-icing agent before a storm hits, said Bob Pilat, a manager in the Public Services department.
His boss, Scott Jochim, touted Pilat's forward-thinking research into the beet product when he spoke at the Niles Chamber of Commerce and Industry's last month.
"I'm proud of him," said Jochim, director of the , adding Pilat worked with the McHenry County Division of Transportation, which Jochim called "the guru of anti-icing," to develop a flow chart to determine the weather conditions under which the beet product would be effective against snow and ice.
Public works departments used to love spreading road salt on thick, but as the price of salt shot from $30 to more than $125 a ton, beet juice became a viable alternative, Jochim said.
"There's also concern about the environment," he added, noting beet juice is more environmentally friendly than road salt.
How beet juice fights ice
When weather conditions call for beet juice to be applied, two specialized trucks pre-treat the roads with the agent that contains an organic product that “helps give the salt brine some tackiness,” Pilat said.The beet product helps give the melting product a longer residual time on the roadways.
“When snow falls and it hits the product, the snow starts to melt,” Pilat said. “It won’t melt all the snow that falls, but it stops the snow from bonding to the pavement, so when we hit it with the snowplow, the snow is loose and flies off the road.”
The organic product does not have to come from the purple produce—some municipalities use a corn product— but using it saves the village money and makes the salt less corrosive, which is helpful to the environment, he said.
While public officials have no way of preventing Mother Nature from doling out blizzards at whim, they can take steps to be as prepared as possible when she does. Pilat said the Niles Public Services department works year-round repairing plows and servicing parts to prepare for the volatile weather conditions during the winter months.
Flow chart determines when to use beet juice
But the most important time to prepare the roadways, he said, is in the days right before it snows. Mark DeVries, maintenance superintendent for the McHenry County Division of Transportation, and Pilat worked to create an anti-icing flow chart to simplify the decision-making process in the days leading up to a snowstorm, according to the October edition of the American Public Works Association Reporter.
The chart, which is laid out like a “choose your own adventure” story book, helps officials brace for bad weather by checking multiple weather forecasts and determining what kind of snow event most likely will happen: a frost, light snow, moderate snowfall, heavy snowfall and icy conditions or a blizzard.
For example, beet juice is not effective in a snowfall that starts as rain, Jochim said.
Preventing snow from compacting
Knowing what kind of weather they are up against is an advantage in a fight against the forces of nature. And this year, forecasters are predicting a severe winter that could drop 52 inches of snow on Chicago. Last winter's Groundhog Day blizzard dumped over 20 inches of snow and ice on the city, with the total snowfall for the season peaking at 57 inches. The average snowfall over a 30-year period is 39 inches.
In severe weather with heavy snowfall, pre-planning is essential: Without good pre-planning, “it would be chaos,” DeVries wrote in the APWA Reporter.
During a blizzard or heavy snowfall, DeVries said snow crews work 14 to 16-hour shifts. When roadways are not pre-treated, snow becomes “totally compacted,” and it takes a lot more salt — and more plow-time — to loosen the snow.
Niles has 5,000 tons of road salt on hand. In recent years, though, Pilat said, the higher salt prices have left local villages and towns scrambling to find funding in the budget to make sure streets are safe and drivable. Pre-treating a road with a liquid product in advance of a storm is an alternative to only using a salt product once the storm hits, he explained.
“It takes less time to return the road to a wet condition to make it safe for motorists to drive,” Pilat said.
The beet juice runs at a price of $1.15 per gallon, and Pilot said the village has 10,000 gallons of the product right now. Crews went through twice that amount last winter, pre-treating the major thoroughfares when forecasters predicted heavy snowfall.
“We have all our product in stock already because you never know when a storm is going to hit,” Pilot said.
Pam DeFiglio contributed to this article.