In Wisconsin, where there is snow on the roads there is often salt.
But a major concern for drivers is the potential damage salt can do to vehicles.
Vilas County resident Teresa Schmidt submitted a Curious North question voicing her concerns.
“What’s going on with the brine on the roads?” Schmidt asked. “Is it really more of a problem than the salt they used to use? Is it saving money for our counties at the expense of all of our residents having to buy new vehicles too soon? What’s going on there?”
Schmidt’s concern is one many of us face during the grueling winter season, and unfortunately, her story is one we are all too familiar with in this neck of the woods.
“I bought my minivan, who we named Libby, about 10 years ago now. I loved that minivan. She and I went everywhere together, we would go all around the Northwoods,” Schmidt said. “We took Libby in just for a checkup and some new brakes before we handed her off to our college student. Our mechanic called not long after I dropped her off and said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t put new brakes on your car, there’s almost no frame left. Your frame has completely rusted away.’”
As is the case with too many vehicles that drive on the salty Wisconsin highways, Libby met her end much too soon. But why?
“Everything was in great mechanical condition, except for the frame, which just basically rusted away,” Schmidt said. “So I asked my mechanic, ‘what happened?’ He said that since they started using brine on roads in Wisconsin, we’ve seen a lot more of this—vehicles that otherwise should have lasted a long time are just getting so much rust that they cannot be saved.”
Although salt poses potential long term problems for vehicles and the environment, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WDOT) is doing everything they can to minimize the negative effects and capitalize on the benefits of road salt application.
Oneida County Highway Commissioner Bruce Stefonik said a considerable change in recent years is the shift from rock salt to salt brine.
“The brine machine basically consists of a large tank where water and salt are mixed,” Stefonik said. “When we just disperse rock salt on the highway that already has snow and ice on it, it takes (depending on temperature) 45 minutes to an hour to create a salt brine. We speed up that process by 45 minutes to an hour because we put a brine solution on the ice and/or snow and it starts taking effect immediately.”
Salt brine applied as a liquid is much more effective than rock salt, and they’re using less salt when creating a brine, Stefonik said.
Stefonik and his crew have several routes in which they use rock salt, but now S Highway 17 is serving as the pilot program as a brine-only route. In this way, Stefonik can compare the effectiveness of the rock salt versus brine-only routes.
“We used 10.5 tons of salt per storm on all the rock salt beats. On the brine beats, we used 4.65 tons,” Stefonik said. “On the brine routes, we’re using over half as much salt.”
This is good news for the environment, but not necessarily your vehicle.
“I will admit, some of that will stick to the bottom of your vehicles,” Stefonik said. “But in the whole scheme of things, we use very, very little. We do not use any on county roads, it’s only for the state highways.”
But vehicle owners and drivers alike might be asking themselves, ‘What can I do to protect my car from all that pesky salt?’
Brian Shimkus, owner of Shimkus Auto Body in Rhinelander, said that a little maintenance can go a long way.
“You can tell a big difference between people who wash and wax their car and people who don’t do any cleaning,” Shimkus said.
He said the best thing you can do to protect your vehicle from road salt is to wash and wax it often.
“I would say it would be a good idea to do it maybe at least once a week if possible, or at least once a month for sure, and get a coat of wax on at least once a month,” Shimkus said.
Once that rust starts forming, Shimkus said, it’s quite difficult to do anything about it, other than replace the parts that are rusted, which can get pricey. The best alternative is to do your best to keep your vehicle clean from salt at all times.
“The problem is if people wait too long, it gets past the point of being able to fix it,” Shimkus said. “You’ll have to start replacing panels, and that’s when it gets very expensive.”
While salt brine applied in liquid form may be more effective in combating the miserable road conditions after a winter storm, it can corrode the underbelly of your vehicle much faster and more severely than rock salt.
“Unfortunately, it’s what we have to deal with in our area, as far as our weather conditions,” Shimkus said.
Road salt might be a problem for your vehicle, but it’s definitely problematic for the environment, especially nearby water bodies.
Hilary Dugan, assistant professor for the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin, studies the effects of excess salt on water bodies. She shares Schmidt’s concerns over the amount of salt applied to our roads.
Millions of tons of salt, nearly a thousand tons per mile, are applied to U.S. roads each winter, Dugan said. That salt can wash into nearby water bodies, with the potential to permanently disturb the biodiversity of Wisconsin lakes.
This is especially problematic for native species which are not able to adapt to the excess salinity, Dugan said. In turn, invasive species are able to prosper and out-compete native species, which has the potential to greatly alter the biodiversity of these lakes.
It takes only one teaspoon of salt to permanently pollute five gallons of water to a level that is toxic to freshwater ecosystems. When we examine the large scale of road salt application in Wisconsin alone, the problem becomes quite clear.
However, using salt brine rather than rock salt alone is a step in the right direction. Although there are inherent environmental consequences to using salt on the roads, salt brine uses less salt and it uses that salt more effectively compared to rock salt.
Schmidt, still grieving her beloved minivan, agreed, but said there is more that can be done.
“I think it’s about finding a balance, where we’re trying to keep people as safe as possible,” Schmidt said. “But also continuing to pay attention to what’s happening with new research, or as we use these products longer, can we watch over time what might be changing in our community?”
Although the WDOT is using less salt on the roads, there’s still a lot that can be done. Organizations like Be Salt WIse hope we take steps in using less salt in our residential areas, and continue encouraging private companies to stop using so much salt in private parking lots.