De-icers are convenient; be sure to use them safely, correctly

By Bonnie Orr
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

Cleared sidewalk following a snowstorm.
Keeping sidewalks walkable during winter can be challenging. Shoveling is inevitable, and some homeowners also use de-icers. WSU Master Gardener Bonnie Orr writes this week that the major problem with de-icers is that they are often used incorrectly. – Provided photo/Marco Martinez
Bonnie Orr
Bonnie Orr – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – photo by Don Seabrook, Wenatchee World

De-icers are essential products for airplanes, bridges and highways. They provide a level of safety during the winter. De-icers used by homeowners should be selected carefully.

There are several types to choose from: sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride and calcium chloride acetate. They are all salts. Sodium chloride’s anti-clumping agent is cyanide.

Each product works to different low temperatures. Mostly, our winter temperatures do not fall below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Salts are corrosive, can damage landscape plants and hurt pet’s feet. When applied, the ice is melted, and the deicers travel with melt water to surface and groundwater. This movement is what can damage soil and plants. Also, pets can drink the water that deicers create.

Polluted water can travel to rivers and streams and is toxic to aquatic species. The polluted water kills plants through burning and dehydration. Conifers are especially sensitive to salts. Salt causes marginal leaf scorch on needles and leaves of evergreen plants. Stunted growth can be the sign of winter salt damage.

Because the de-icers can stick to the soles of shoes or boots, removing them when you enter the house can prevent products from spreading on the floors and carpets. If you keep a damp rag ready to wash off cat and dog’s feet, they will be less likely to ingest the de-icers.

The best approach after a snowfall is to sweep or shovel snow from the sidewalk, the path to the mailbox and the path to the car before the snow gets walked on and compacted. Later you can remove the rest of the snow from the driveway.

The major problem with de-icers is that they are used incorrectly.

De-icers do not work effectively through the snow. Too much salt will just sit in a clump. Clumps of de-icer are more likely to damage concrete sidewalks and driveways.

For 1,000 square feet — a very long sidewalk — you need to use only about a coffee mug of product. The pieces of the product should be about 3 inches apart. More is not better. Excess product used to melt ice causes the damage mentioned above.

Other products are used to create traction on sidewalk ice. Wood chips, bird seed, kitty litter (non-clumping) and sand will provide traction, but they all get walked into the house with shoes or pets. Do not use fertilizer. This product adds excess nitrogen and phosphorus to the ground water and will burn lawn grasses.

Enjoy the winter. Keep safe.

A WSU Chelan and Douglas County Master Gardener column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. To learn more, visit or call (509) 667-6540.