Most deicers are terrible for concrete. With winter weather approaching here in Whatcom County, homeowners should be careful to limit, as much as possible, the use of deicing chemicals on concrete. This is especially true of new concrete, but all concrete is susceptible, no matter how old.

Most deicers work by making their way underneath the ice and dissolving into a brine that loosens the ice’s hold on the underlying surface. But certain chemical compounds in that brine can be damaging for concrete.

According to a study produced for the Utah Department of Transportation, concrete that is exposed to deicers containing calcium chloride, magnesium chloride or calcium magnesium acetate (also known as CMA) can suffer “significant deterioration, including scaling, cracking, mass loss and compressive strength loss.”

To keep your stairs walkable this winter, consider using sand, kitty litter or even vinegar as an alternative to harmful deicers.

Previous studies have found similar results, showing that magnesium and calcium chloride compounds interact with concrete on a chemical level, resulting in problems like cracking, increased permeability and significant loss in strength.

Simply put: These deicers can ruin concrete. You don’t want to spread deicer on the new, decorative concrete walkway in front of your Bellingham home only to find out later that the concrete has become pitted because of the deicer.

On the flip side, sodium chloride (also known as rock salt) has been shown to be not nearly as harmful to concrete, though it does wreak havoc on metal, thus posing a danger to reinforcing steel (not to mention to the cars that get their undersides coated with salty deicers while driving through them). Plus, that salt washes away and can build up in nearby ecosystems.

What can be used instead of deicers?

Ideally, any deicer that is used on top of concrete should be completely salt-free. Safe Paw is one example, and there are others on the market.

Another option is to use sand, kitty litter, fireplace ash or coffee grounds to provide traction. In addition to providing some grip for shoes and tires, coffee grounds and similar dark products can soak up sunlight and help melt snow and ice faster. However, don’t use these products on pervious concrete, as they can clog the pores. Because of those pores, your pervious concrete might actually help snow melt faster. Just be sure to give it a good shoveling.

Some less common but effective ice-melting products include alfalfa meal and sugar beet juice. Pickle brine and vinegar can work well, too, for clearing smaller places such as porch steps and walkways. (One county in New Jersey actually used pickle brine one year on a large scale when its shipment of rock salt didn’t arrive.)

Related: How to ensure
quality concrete in cold weather

And of course, don’t forget the power of hard work. Grabbing a trusty snow shovel will not only give you a great workout, but it’s an effective and safe way to clear large amounts of snow from concrete. A snow shovel won’t damage the environment and, if your shovel has a polycarbonate rather than metal blade, it shouldn’t scratch or chip the concrete, either.

When we get a big snow this year, think twice before using certain deicers on your concrete steps, driveway or sidewalk.