The Science of Salt and Sand

Sodium Chloride, NACL, salt. We know it in many forms and it has many uses. On the surface it seems simple. But when it comes to keeping us safe on the streets, this tiny substance gets more complicated.

Roger Tiedeman knows more about salt than most. It's his job to be an expert, he oversees Lincoln's salt and sanding operations during winter weather.

"We usually use 4500-5000 ton of salt," says Tiedeman.

The salt is bought throughout the off season and stored at the city's maintenance yard. Fittingly, right next to Saltdog Stadium.
Here the versatile substance is turned into brine, the material city crews spray on the streets that helps keep ice from forming impromptu skating rinks.
Why brine? Why not just toss straight salt down like on a sidewalk?

"With salt traffic would knock it off road. In liquid form it adheres to pavement and water evaporates leaving salt," says Tiedeman.

For the last 4 years Tiedeman has made his own brine. The salt gets dumped in along with water. An anometer perfectly balances the solution out before it's pumped into large tanks for storage though out the city. The final product goes into the salt and sand trucks for spreading.
The brine itself is just rock salt and water. Simple but scientific. Decades of research from around the country has created the proper dilution rate for the most effective brine. Here in Lincoln 23.6 percent is the magic number.
Even a perfectly concocted batch of brine has it's limits though.

"We can only use brine down to 25 degrees. You can add more salt, but it would refreeze anyway."

The salt in frozen brine won't absorb any moisture so it won't stop the formation of ice on the streets.
Tiedeman's brine is a balance between cost and productivity. There are manufactured products that have lower freezing points but they get pricey. Lincoln does use one called Iceban primarily on new roads where salt would damage the fresh concrete.
But even the most expensive solution fails the colder it gets. That's where traction becomes the focus and that means sand.

"We like to have traction on hills and intersections to let people stop."

Depending on the storm Tiedeman and his crews decide what to use and when. On a typical storm that would be warm enough for salt crews start spreading a day or two before the weather hits. In some cases time is the enemy.

Lincoln has 19 trucks that can spread salt and sand. And they continue to put down the right material for job throughout the entire storm.

"Key now is to use the science of it and not overuse it."

Salt does have it's negatives, it's harmful to just about everything it comes in contact with. But so far research has shown it's the best product for a slick street. Tiedeman does admit that may change in the future with synthetic material, but until then he'll keep making his brine.


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