Pity the street sweeper. As if warm weather, cigarette butts, grit and road oils are not challenging enough, winter brings new trials and tribulations with its mixtures of detritus to complicate cleanup.
As anyone who has ever navigated along a slick roadway knows, the sight of a salt truck or brine sprayer is a welcome one. When the temperature is above fifteen degrees, salt does a terrific job of melting ice. In cold weather climates, municipal sweepers schedule intensive cleanings in the springtime to deal with the onslaught of ice and sand that gets dumped on roadways in a winter-long attempt to deal with tricky ice and snow cover. However, in recent years, new players have emerged in the battle against ice covered roadways and their introduction means a longer sweeping season for municipalities and protection against corrosion for mechanical works and brushes.

One of the new players is a product called Geomelt, which is more familiarly known as de-sugared beet juice. The product is manufactured by SNI Solutions of Geneseo, Illinois. Company president Mike Bellovics said, “Geomelt is a carbohydrate extract from beets that is filtered and processed so it can be used as an additive with conventional road salt and salt brine.”
The good news for street sweeper owners is that when Geomelt is combined with salt or brine it dramatically reduces corrosion on the equipment. Some municipalities, in fact, are using Geomelt with water in their sweepers to extend their street sweeping season or to take advantage of nice mid-winter days. The product does not freeze and allows municipal workers to use the equipment in very cold temperatures. And because the product is non-corrosive, it saves wear and tear on brooms.

Bellovics’ company is finding that timing is everything for Geomelt. Cities and states are trying to keep expenses in check due to lower tax revenues. A product that can be mixed with salt or water saves money, along with equipment replacement costs, rebar and bridge deck corrosion.

Salt has few friends among environmentalists. One of the leaders in exploring alternatives to it is the state of Maryland, which has put into place extensive regulations to protect the delicate waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Reducing salt use is one of those. The state’s Department of the Environment has noted that excessive salt can damage or kill vegetation, which, according to a department fact sheet, serves as a “vital buffer between land and water, reducing nutrient exports to the Bay.”

Akron, Ohio has one of the most extensive street sweeping programs in the nation. It has used beet juice and other organic materials—animal urine, anyone?—to keep its various road and runway surfaces clean and free of snow and ice. 

Paul Barnett is head of the city’s Public Works Department. The city maintains 2,400 lane miles of roads. Elgin Penguin Sweepers are the model of choice for Akron, which sweeps every city street at least ten times a year.

Barnett said Akron has used Geomelt for the past four winter seasons. Four tanker brine trucks mix a solution of eighty percent salt brine, fifteen percent Geomelt and five percent calcium chloride when the temperature dips below twenty degrees. Half of the city’s fleet drops rock salt that is mixed with a spray of Geomelt and water. He estimates that his department has shaved about fifteen percent from its salt budget by using Geomelt.

As for the sweeping, Barnett was not familiar with extending the sweeping season by adding beet juice to the sweepers, but it sounds like an intriguing idea to him. Winter is brutal in northeastern Ohio; if there is a way to extend the sweeping season into the winter months, Barnett is interested. Right now, the city is using its sweepers to push leaves to the curb, where they will be collected by clamshell style front end loaders.

Another way that cities and airport operators keep their road surfaces clear is by using urea, a product of urine. At Akron’s Fulton International Airport, a derivative of animal urine and water is sprayed on the runways to keep them clear. Salt in any form is not used at airports because it is extremely corrosive, especially to aluminum aircraft parts, Barnett said.
Beet juice and animal urine are two increasingly common, environmentally friendly ways to melt ice and snow. But other interesting methods are on the horizon. Researchers at the University of Rhode Island have been studying ways to harness solar energy and re-direct it to nearby road surfaces. Solar cells on barriers on divided highways are one way that the energy can be collected and turned into electricity that can melt snow and ice.

The Rhode Island researchers also are looking into ways to redirect solar energy from asphalt pavement and to use the sun-heated water to help melt bridge surfaces.
What does all of this mean for street sweeper manufacturers and the people who use them? In cold weather regions, ice free surfaces can allow for an extended sweeping season. The city of Akron may be able to use its sweepers during low, wintertime temperatures if the non-corrosive beet juice-based product is mixed with water.

Less salt on the roadways in wintertime means that there will be less of the corrosive chemical coming into the machines when regular warm-weather sweeping programs begin. Plus, the reduction of salt on the roads means that there is a reduced chance of high concentrations ending up in groundwater, soil and vegetation. Salt can destroy the natural structure of soil. The dirt is more likely to drift down into streams and bays, damaging the ecosystems within those waterways, according to environmentalists.

It may be hard for those in Southern climes to appreciate the toll that road salts take on equipment, bridges and the environment. But every winter, generally starting in October and ending in April, ice and snow are part of daily life for those who struggle to keep roads and runways safe and clear of ice. Street sweeping has long played a vital role in protecting the environment by removing fine particulates, oils and other pollutants from the road.

If sweeping seasons can be extended, or if the corrosive chemicals can be reduced before the sweepers hit the road, then everyone wins—manufacturers, operators, drivers and the environment.