Glen Farrow is the guy in charge of battling snow and ice in Kamloops, B.C. He is one member of an army spanning the northern hemisphere, always tinkering with ways to keep highways, streets and sidewalks safe in the winter. His business is rich with expectations and short on gratitude.
"I've been taking just a beating on Facebook," Mr. Farrow, Kamloops's streets and environmental services manager, said in an interview. "'Fire Farrow!' With that, some people have joked: 'What is the city doing? Just waiting for it to melt?'"
Melting is, indeed, the goal. Waiting is not the preferred method, whether in Kamloops or Kenora.
Combatting snow and ice on roads and sidewalks in Canada requires more than just salt and sand. Beet juice, cheese brine, distillery byproducts, molasses mixes, fine-crushed blast rock and other remedies, are either staple ice-fighting recipes or part of pilot projects around the globe. There are awards, conferences, experiments failed, successes declared. It is a constant battle to balance cost, effectiveness, and environmental concerns. Uncharacteristic weather snaps, proximity to supply and man-made features such as cul-de-sacs or nature's untouched topography all mess with maintenance crews.
Mr. Farrow's town, in British Columbia's Interior, can confound city planners. It is better known for sagebrush than snow. It sits in the Thompson Valley, with development climbing the surrounding hills. And so when its winters turn harsh, by Kamloops's standards, residents stand in solidarity with their Canadian counterparts: mad at the city's snow and ice team that their streets and sidewalks aren't cleared as well – or as fast – as they expect.
The battle against winter precipitation, regardless of geography, is two-pronged: lower water's freezing point and provide traction. Salts – sodium chloride, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride and others – are key to reducing the freezing point of water; abrasives such as sand serve as grip. Because temperature messes with the effectiveness of different products, recipes have to be flexible. Calgary, for example, stops using straight sodium chloride around minus 10 degrees and moves to an abrasive, but can use liquid calcium chloride down to minus 18 degrees to prepare for storms.
Calgary, like other jurisdictions, experiments with additives and alternatives, such as beet juice. (No, it won't turn your Corolla purple). Beet juice is too expensive to use widely in Calgary, but others make it work when conditions are right.
VSA Highway Maintenance Ltd. is among the companies B.C. contracts to take care of highways. VSA, which is based in Merritt, handles an area that includes the Coquihalla Highway. The firm won B.C.'s Deputy Minister's Contractor of the Year Award for highway maintenance in 2015, in part thanks to vegetables.
"VSA's innovation in their beet juice production plant and liquid application program is leading the way for road maintenance in British Columbia," the provincial government said in a 2015 news release.
Some of Ontario's Ministry of Transportation's contractors also use beet juice in their blends. "Some of the liquid salt solutions available for winter maintenance operations do contain a small percentage of beet juice," spokesman Bob Nichols said in a statement.
But while the carbohydrate byproduct sounds more eco-friendly and is, indeed, kinder to vehicles, sidewalks, and the environment, chloride is still the key ingredient in the de-icer known as Beet 55, says Bill Biensch, Calgary's roads maintenance manager. "Everybody thinks that: 'Oh, they are using Beet 55. That means no more salt,'" Mr. Biensch said. "No, not at all. It is a salt product. All people are doing is talking about the additive."
Beet juice accounts for "way, way, way, way" less than one per cent of the city's snow and ice program, this year, he said.
"While we're trying these products, we could never afford – on our present snow and ice control budget – to make wide use of these products," he said. The city has also considered using distillery byproducts, but so far, that is off the table. Carbohydrate products tend to be sticky, he said.
It is more affordable for Calgary to import salt from Saskatchewan, where it is waste product of the potash industry. The city also has easy access to calcium chloride pumped out of the ground.
Regina's new de-icing technique lacks beet juice's marketing pizzazz, but makes up for it in effectiveness and cost savings. Conventional sand-and-salt mixes cities spread using trucks can be troublesome. "It bounces and it scatters and vehicles drive over it and a half hour later all the sand – the ridges are on the side of the road," Norman Kyle, the director of roadways and transportation in Saskatchewan's capital, said.
The city has spent the last three years testing "prewetting solutions" in labs and on roads to combat this problem. The trucks now spray liquid magnesium chloride on the sand before it hits the road. That helps the sand stick to the road and melts ice more quickly. It works well between minus 5 and minus 12 degrees. After that, bust out the traditional dry-sand-salt blend.
Mr. Kyle has already proposed a reduction in the city's sanding budget because of the system's effectiveness. He expects it to span the city next year. Further, Regina has determined magnesium chloride is less corrosive than traditional dry salt.
Experts do not work in isolation. A global network of snow and ice specialists will gather in Poland next month for the 2018 International Road Congress. The week is filled with technical sessions, although there is a snowplow competition prior to the gala dinner. Canada is a player in this business. "During the International Winter Road Congress in Gdansk, Calgary will be officially presented as the next city in charge of the congress," the governing body's website says. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in October tweeted he was "thrilled to hear" his city was awarded the event in 2019, beating out Chambery, France.
These researchers can only do so much. Kamloops, for example, uses a number of methods to fight snow and ice, although one of its most trusted tools failed last month. It snowed a total of 32.2 centimetres at one of Kamloops's weather stations in December, according to Environment Canada. By way of comparison, the average for that station between 1981 and 2010 is a cumulative 21.9 cm. But the amount of snow was not the only problem. Kamloops's winter strategy is reliant on spurts of warm weather to limit accumulation of snow and ice. However, the temperature at the weather station dropped below freezing on December 19 and stayed there until January 5. Nineteen cm of snow remained at the weather station on New Year's Eve, compared to the average of eight cm.
And so when Mr. Farrow's Facebook critics accused him of just waiting for the snow and ice to melt, they were not wrong.
"We kind of are, in all honestly," Mr. Farrow said.