Chesco uses beet juice to improve road salt

A new weapon against snow and ice was used on selected Chester County roads and sidewalks this winter - beet juice.

It was added to the salt-based brine put on roads before storms and enabled the solution to work at lower temperatures.

But those trying to recall whether there were swaths of red-stained concrete, don't bother.

"There's no redness at all," said Jack Stewart, a project manager for the county's Facilities Department. "When you put it down, it's more brownish and looks like the road is wet."

The substance is a by-product of sugar beets, which are used to make sweetener and animal feed, officials said. The beet liquid contains no dyeing power because the vegetables' sugar, skin, and pulp are removed.

The beet juice, added so it makes up 15 percent of the brine solution, produces multiple benefits, Stewart said.

Brine with the beet additive lasts longer than regular brine. So instead of applying it a day or so before a storm, crews can pretreat surfaces two or three days out. The beet brine also helps make removing snow and ice easier.

Stewart said that brine using only salt stopped melting snow at about 20 degrees and that the beet solution kept working to 15 below zero. It also doesn't corrode equipment or cause potholes.

John Mikowychok, the county's director of parks and recreation, said water bonds to the potassium acetate in beets, slowing the freezing process. The reduction in salt is particularly welcome since the county is about to open two more trail systems near sensitive waterways, he said.

Mikowychok said he had researched possible downsides and learned about a study being done in Idaho in response to concerns that the beets' phosphorus could hurt streams. The county will monitor those results, which are not expected for a couple of years, he said.

"Something that's a by-product of animal feed has got to be better than the toxicity of salt," Mikowychok said, adding that the beet juice also creates another market for struggling farmers.

Rebecca Brain, a county spokeswoman, said the mixture the county used cost about 50 cents a gallon: 7 cents for the brine and 43 cents for the beets. However, its effectiveness often makes second applications unnecessary, offsetting the beet juice's higher cost.

The county got the idea from a local contractor who had used it.

Whether the lowly vegetable gains prominence as an statewide ice-beater remains uncertain.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Eugene Blaum said the mixture was being tested in District 10, which encompasses in five western counties.

Deborah Casadei, a spokeswoman for that district, said the response to the beet juice had been enthusiastic; however, its future use depends on a statewide task force that will meet at the end of the winter season to evaluate several ice-control products.

"Cost is always a factor," she said.


Contact staff writer Kathleen Brady Shea at 610-696-3815 or kbrady@phillynews.com.