Wintertime can be dangerous as it is beautiful. With many miles of roadway to maintain in treacherous winter conditions , the Wyoming Department of Transportation is fighting snow and ice with combinations of salt, sand and beet juice.
Wyoming's notorious winters are marked by some of the most severe durations of snowfall, freezing rain and blowing snow. With a high rate of snowfall and some of the worst blowing snow conditions in the United States, WYDOT is reaching deep into its tool bag to maintain safer roads and prevent icy conditions.
Salt, or sodium chloride, is the most common and cheapest tool across the nation for fighting ice. However, Wyoming's brutal temperatures and whipping winds can sometimes render salt inadequate, putting Wyoming motorists at risk of hitting ice rinks without a pair of skates.
Salt does have an important place in ice removal. Using salt on roads lowers the temperature at which ice will melt, therefore preventing the formation of ice at lower temperatures. However, when temperatures drop below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, salt becomes ineffective.
During winter, pavement freezes, forming a bond with ice and snow. Eliminating that bond helps WYDOT maintenance crews plow off snow pack, clearing roads faster and providing safer conditions. However, in the past, freezing temperatures have thwarted salts ability to melt the ice off roads, causing crews to spend weeks chipping up ice with plows to clear roadways.
Nowadays, public works departments and transportation departments, as well as WYDOT, are taking a more proactive approach to address Wyoming's notorious dipping temperatures and a brutal wind chill.
WYDOT has, and continues to, utilize various deicing chemicals and the traditional sand/salt mix to maintain safe road conditions, both before and after snow storm. These elements include: salt sand, salt brine, magnesium chloride and ice slicer. WYDOT has also added GeoMelt, also known as beet juice.
When snowfall can be predicted, liquid deicing agents are applied to roads before the storm to help keep snowpack from accumulating and forming a frozen bond, as well as assisting with the removal of snow after the storm.
Recently, many motorists have seen WYDOT maintenance vehicles out on highways before storms hit, spraying a sticky, red solution on the pavement. This solution is 60 percent salt brine, and 40 percent beet juice, which gives it the red color. Crews are taking preventative action with "pre-wetting."
“This is where we use a salt sand mixture that has been pre-wet with a chemical, usually magnesium chloride. This helps the sand stick to the road more,” District Engineer John Eddins said.
How does it work? Spraying the GeoMelt mixture down prior to a storm essentially stops the ice and snow from bonding to the pavement during the storm, allowing crews to basically plow off the snow and slush easier and quicker, clearing roads faster. The "pre-wetting" assists in providing safer conditions for drivers during the storm as well. No more of the weeks of man hours, chipping and shaving ice off the interstate.
" We have seen a big difference with the GeoMelt mix. You don't have that ice pack on the roads for weeks, our guys can clear the roads much quicker after a storm event," District Maintenance Engineer Tory Thomas said.
Supplementing beet juice mixtures in the battle against icy road conditions allows ice and snow to melt at lower temperatures while providing a preventative coating that lasts longer, giving crews a better chance at clearing roadways faster.
“We try and prevent the snowpack from forming, but we can’t always do that. However, it does help with the removal of the snowpack afterward,” Eddins said.
Other combinations of salt brine and sand are used continuously, to help alleviate snowpack and icy conditions.
Many motorists are concerned with the effect these mixtures will have on their vehicles. GeoMelt (beet juice) is biodegradable and washes off vehicles without damage, however, it is very sticky. Salt mixtures can, over extended periods of time, possibly damage your car's clear coat finish and promote rust. However, regular maintenance and washing can prevent much of the corrosive effects.
"The effects of beet juice and salt mixtures are negligible if you provide regular maintenance and wash your car periodically," said Thomas.
When winter storms persist, WYDOT relies on their plan of attack. With limited resources, priorities must be made to guide maintenance crews.
A snow removal plan goes into action, creating a prioritized list of routes based on traffic counts. This plan is divided into four levels: High volume, medium volume, low volume and closed. High volume roads are plowed up to 24 hours a day and consist of interstates and principal urban routes, such as Interstate 80.
Medium volume routes are plowed to keep them passable and reasonably safe and are a secondary priority to high volume routes.
Low volume routes are only serviced after high volume and medium volume roads have been cleared, and are only plowed during daylight hours.
Closed refer to seasonally closed roads, where the cost of keeping them clear outweighs their use.
However, exceptions to the plan are made for school bus routes, which are plowed twice a day regardless of their priority.
The Department of Transportation would like to remind all drivers to obey all advisories and closures, lower your speed in adverse weather conditions and always buckle your seatbelt.