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Michigan has a ready supply of underground salt water, also known as brine. The Road Commission for Oakland County has begun to take advantage of this natural resource through a new anti-icing technique that combats snow and ice by spraying the solution onto roads before snow or freezing rain fall.
"This has tremendous potential, because it could allow us to proactively battle snow before it even arrives, which is something we could never before do," said Tom Meszler, highway maintenance director of the road commission.
The traditional way to fight icy roads is to spread rock salt after snow or freezing rain starts falling, but that has drawbacks.
"We can't put rock salt down ahead of time if there is no precipitation because it will just be blown off the road by traffic, which would be a waste of money," Meszler said. "In fighting road icing, it's actually more effective to work from the bottom up -- preventing the ice bond -- than it is to work from the top down, by applying salt after the fact."
So by applying brine before a storm, the road commission can be proactive instead of reactive. Moreover, since it's useless to salt before a snowstorm, road commission trucks inevitably get stuck in storm-snarled traffic as they roll after snowflakes begin to fly.
The agency is currently testing three large tanker trucks to dispense the salty solution -- the same material road crews apply to gravel roads during summer for dust control. The brine is pumped from three road commission wells.
"With the brine, we could put the material down, say, three hours before rush hour," Meszler said. "That way, when the snow falls during rush hour, the snow will not turn to ice -- or at least not as quickly."
Brine will never eliminate the need for traditional salting and plowing. In fact, it's ineffective to apply brine after several inches of snow have fallen.
"This does not radically change the way we respond after a snowstorm begins," Meszler said. "It does, though, give us an additional tool that we can use before the snow starts, that could help make our roads safer."
Because the road commission's program is still in the testing stage, the brine is currently only being applied to about 50 miles of roads.
If the program proves to be as successful as early indicators suggest, it will be expanded -- depending on how rapidly the road commission can buy additional equipment.