PITTSFIELD - City highway officials hope the use of a road salt mixture that had its origins in beer production will help cut storm-related costs by up to 30 percent this winter.
Highway and Garage Superintendent Peter Bruneau said his road crews began experimenting with the mix of salt, sugar cane byproduct and magnesium chloride last year, and the results showed the potential to save money, provide better coverage of streets during icy conditions and better protect the environment. For this season, Bruneau said the city has purchased 300 tons of the product, and he continues to compare it with traditional rock salt and to refine techniques for spreading the material on streets and roads.
"On real cold days, rock salt stops working at around 12 degrees," Bruneau said . "This lowers the freezing point to minus 16 degrees."
He said the mixture, which other Berkshire communities are now using as well, was vetted in Europe after being discovered inadvertently by German brewers. Apparently, some of their sugar wastes flowed into a river and that section of water was the only area that did not freeze, Bruneau said.
The material has since been refined and comes in a premixed form, having a brown tint rather than an off-white rock salt coloring.
In addition to remaining wet at colder temperatures and staying in place when spread on streets, the material spreads more evenly, Bruneau said. "There's less scatter," he said. "When you drop normal rock salt, it bounces."
"This also eats through ice and hard-packed snow," said Bruce Collingwood, the city's commissioner of public utilities. In contrast, rock salt takes longer to sink into hard snow or ice.
Because of its biodegradable components, "this is a green product; it's environmentally friendly," Collingwood said.
"It is also less corrosive on vehicles and equipment - it is really an agricultural byproduct," Bruneau said.
He expects less rust damage on department vehicles - and to vehicles driven on city streets.
When it comes to cost savings, the department is simultaneously fine-tuning its road salt- spreading system, calibrating the spreader equipment and closely monitoring the amount spread and its effects for the best application and the most cost-effective approach.
Collingwood said department foremen were sent to a seminar recently on best practice methods of calibrating road- spreading equipment, which is computerized and can account for pounds spread per mile, vehicle speed and other factors.
Bruneau said that, based on testing he's done thus far, he believes a 30 percent savings in the budget for road treatment is possible this season. For instance, during a recent day with freezing road conditions, regular salt was used on one section of the city and the new mix on another section. Based on pounds of material used, for two pounds of salt, it only required 1.25 to 1.5 pounds of the mix.
"We are slowly moving toward doing it all completely with the [ new material]," Bruneau said.
Overall, his goal is to eliminate the need to purchase about 2,000 pounds of salt over the winter.
To reach Jim Therrien: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6247. On Twitter: @BE_therrien