Government

Cedar Rapids' secret recipe for fighting winter weather: Beet juice and new tech

Salt is piled in a storage dome at the City Services Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. The city recently invested in technology that allows them to apply beet juice as salt or sand is dispensed, which helps the minerals stick to road surfaces. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Salt is piled in a storage dome at the City Services Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. The city recently invested in technology that allows them to apply beet juice as salt or sand is dispensed, which helps the minerals stick to road surfaces. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Beet juice and new technology should help Cedar Rapids crews to more efficiently handle winter weather this year, officials said.

Yes, you read that right: Beet juice.

Nine swap loader trucks have been outfitted with saddle tanks, which allow snowplow operators to flip a switch and apply a layer of brine or beet juice to salt as it is spread onto the road.

“It’s more effective,” said Mike Duffy, the city’s streets operations superintendent. “When the salt hits the pavement, it does not spray off the road.”

The process not only keeps the salt where it’s needed, enhancing the snow-clearing effort, it also saves money. The new process is estimated to reduce the “scattering” effect by 30 percent and could save the city $25,000 a year in material.

The new trucks will primarily be used on main thoroughfares, including First Avenue, Blairs Ferry Road NE and roads in the downtown area, Duffy said. They’ll allow the crews to spend less time going back and cleaning up, he said.

Eight more of the 90-truck fleet are scheduled to be equipped with the saddle tanks next year, Duffy said.

New trucks outfitted with the saddle tanks cost $189,000, while modifying existing trucks to include the saddle tanks costs $7,500.

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Each truck has a storage bin able to hold 6 tons of salt or sand, and a plastic storage unit that can hold 250 gallons of brine or a beet juice blend. The salt drops through a chute, then hoses spray in the liquid. The salt-and-liquid mix drops through a spinner that pours it onto the ground. The added liquid helps the salt stick to the ground.

Cedar Rapids has been pre-treating salt with brine for 20 years. The brine helps the salt stay effective at lower temperatures.

This new system more evenly applies liquid to the salt at the spot where the material hits the road and it begins to work immediately, said Brian McLeod, lead street supervisor.

“We are jump-starting the activation (of the brine or beet juice),” McLeod said. “You make a run down the road, and when you come back you can see it is already activated.”

Brine still is the primary additive, but a new tool this year is beet juice, Duffy said. Beet juice can be incorporated during extremely cold temperatures, when it gets to be 11 degrees or below, he said.

People may notice a little bit of a reddish or brownish color, but the more noticeable feature is a stickiness, he said.

Ron Abernathy, a heavy equipment operator, said the purpose of salt is not to melt the snow or ice, but to break it up and prevent the ice from adhering to the road. A plow then can come and clear it away.

“If you can prevent the bond from happening, it makes it easier to plow,” he said.

Duffy said the city has 9,000 tons of salt on hand from last year and has ordered an additional 9,000 tons with the option to increase the amount to 12,000 tons.

“That should get us through the winter,” Duffy said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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