Arkansas Democratic Gazette: State Tests New Ways to Best Ice

State tests new ways to best ice

Road crews use beet juice, ‘belly’ plows in bad weather


    Road departments will use beet juice and “belly” plows this winter to try to keep ice off roads in Northwest Arkansas. 
    Adding sugar beet juice to salt brine lowers the freezing temperature of the mixture and can provide a barrier between pavement and ice. 
    The “belly” plows go underneath dump trucks, using the weight of the 58,000-pound trucks to break up ice. 
    These tactics are common in states to the north, said Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. Arkansas has been slowly incorporating them. 
    “We can’t buy the type of snow equipment you see in Chicago and New York,” he said, noting Arkansas doesn’t have as much ice and snow as those cities. 
    But the state Highway Department can buy some of that type of equipment and deploy it to the parts of the state where it’s needed most. 
    Earlier this month, Arkansas got its first dump truck that can accommodate the belly plow between the front and rear axles. The trucks have to be longer than traditional dump trucks so there’s room for a plow underneath in addition to one in front. 
    The new truck arrived at the District 9 office in Harrison the first week of December, when sleet and ice coated streets in north Arkansas. 
    By the time the new truck was outfitted and the crew trained, the ice was nearly gone, so it got little use in the aftermath of that storm, Straessle said. But it provided a valuable training opportunity for the crew. 
    Since then, District 9 has received two more of the larger dump trucks, and two more are expected in January. The district includes Baxter, Benton, Boone, Carroll, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties. 
    The District 4 office in Barling also got one of the larger trucks. Similar trucks should arrive in January in Little Rock and Paragould. 
    The new trucks cost about $170,000 each when equipped with plows and spreaders, Straessle said. The smaller, traditional dump trucks cost about $120,000 each fully equipped. 
    The spreaders on the trucks can be used to drop granular salt, sand and chemical compounds to facilitate deicing. The liquid salt brine mixture — with or without beet juice — can be sprayed from tanks carried in pickups, Straessle said. 
    Over the past 10 years, the Highway Department has spent an average of $6.2 million per year to clear roads during winter weather, Straessle said. That number includes employee hours, maintenance, repair, materials and fuel. 
    The number doesn’t include new equipment such as dump trucks. Each of Arkansas’ 10 Highway Department districts are budgeted about $1 million a year for new equipment, Straessle said. 
    The Highway Department has more than 700 dump trucks across Arkansas. The average age of those trucks is 15 years. 
    This is the third year the department has used beet juice on roads in Northwest Arkansas, said Steve Lawrence, the Highway Department’s District 9 engineer. 
    “We’re using more of it this year than we have in the past,” he said. “The first year we got some and just kind of experimented with it.” 
    The mixture being used in Northwest Arkansas is 30 percent beet juice with 70 percent salt brine, he said. It seems to be working better than salt brine alone. 
    Salt brine will start to freeze on roads when the temperature drops to about 22 degrees, Straessle said. 
    Use of the 30 percent beet juice mixture lowers the freezing temperature of the brine to about minus-18 degrees, said Mike Demaray, sales manager with Smith Fertilizer & Grain of Knoxville, Iowa, which has been selling beet juice to the Highway Department. 
    Last year, District 9 spent more than $200,000 on snow and ice materials. So far this year, the amount has been about $500,000, Lawrence said. 
    “We just started winter Saturday,” he said, referring to Dec. 21. 
    The juice is a byproduct of extracting sugar from sugar beets. If it weren’t being sprayed on roads, the juice would likely be used in cattle feed, Demaray said. 
    Other carbohydrates also may work. Tennessee is experimenting with potato juice, and Wisconsin is experimenting with a cheese byproduct, Straessle said. 
    Besides the belly plow, a tow plow has been purchased for use in District 4. The district includes Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Polk, Scott, Sebastian and Washington counties. 
    The tow plow will be used primarily to clear snow from Interstate 40 near Alma and Interstate 540 from Alma north to the Bobby Hopper Tunnel. 
    The tow plow extends from the passenger side of a dump truck. 
    “Basically, what you have is one piece of equipment going down the highway clearing two lanes at the same time,” he said. 
    On Dec. 16, employees from the Highway Department met with their counterparts in Missouri to learn some of their winter storm strategy. 
    It was another in a continuing series of conversations with highway departments in other states to learn best practices, Straessle said. Similar conversations have been conducted with highway officials in Oklahoma and Iowa. 
    Arkansas was already incorporating some of Missouri’s ideas before an ice storm hit the area Dec. 5 and coated roads with ice for several days. 
    Straessle said U.S. 71 was clear from the Missouri state line north because the Missouri Department of Transportation had treated it with straight salt there instead of brine. 
    “They put down 200 pounds of salt per lane mile,” he said. “That’s a lot of salt. They really timed their applications down to the last minute.” 
    Timing is essential, Straessle said. If a road is treated too soon, rain could dilute whatever was put on the surface. 
    “We have a lot to learn from our neighbors to the north because certainly they get a lot more snow and ice than we do,” Straessle said. “We have to strike a fine balance to make all of this happen.” 
    Using agricultural byproducts will reduce the amount of salt needed for melting ice on roads in winter, Straessle said. That will be better for cars and roads. 
    “That rock salt that goes on the road is highly corrosive,” he said. “It can corrode our bridge joints or anything metal. You can imagine what it can do to the undercarriage of cars.” 
    Lawrence said there are still differences of opinion on the best mixture of beet juice. Using salt brine alone costs the Highway Department between 10 cents and 15 cents per gallon, he said. After the beet juice is added, the cost increases to about 40 cents per gallon. 
    The juice makes the pavement darker, which probably means it absorbs more heat from the sun. 
    “It lowers the freezing point of the brine, and it also gives it some color, and that’s good,” Lawrence said.