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Salt before snow: How Erie approached snowstorm in inner-city

Sat, 22 Jan 2022 19:00:00

Last Sunday, before Mother Nature dumped a foot and a half of snow in the Erie region, city of Erie trucks hit the streets.

There was no snow to plow or layers of ice to melt.

Still, those trucks spit rock salt on the roads in anticipation of what was to come.

Get the shovels out again: More lake-effect snow is in the forecast for Erie County

A City of Erie Streets Department plow truck clears more than a foot of snow, on Jan. 17, from the northbound lane of the 100 block of Myrtle Street. A lake-effect weather system dumped heavy snow across the Erie region.

"We generally don't do it prior to the precipitation, but since we knew that the snow was going to fall on a holiday we knew we were going to have difficulty getting in the inner city," Erie Public Works Director Chuck Zysk said. "We only did it in the inner city. That's typically where we get a lot of bonding of the ice to the road surface.

"What we did is we turned on our spinners almost on zero and we just laid a small path of salt right down the center of the road," he said, "so that it didn't get kicked off to the curb line. And it seems to really have helped. All the inner city roads are right down to the asphalt."

More: Pets to power, frostbite to frozen pipes: Erie winter weather survival guide

That the snow was coming Sunday night into the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday made for a unique circumstance. Typically, Zysk said, the Erie Parking Authority doesn't enforce odd/even parking ordinances on holidays. And since many people would be off work that day, there was a greater likelihood that cars would be parked on both sides of the streets, making it more challenging for plows to clear away the snow, he added.

"We're going to play it storm by storm," Zysk said about using the method, known as pre-salting, again. "This was unique. We knew it was coming — equal opportunity snow. There was no chance we were going to miss it, right? And with the holiday, we knew it was going to start late Sunday night and we weren't going to be able to get in there until Monday morning at 8 a.m. So we just thought it was in our best interest to make it a little bit easier."

Monday's snowfall: Snow stacks up across Erie region

The aftermath: Erie streets crews continue cleanup from winter storm that buried region

Snow was drier than expected

Steve Sornberger, the city's streets bureau chief, said there was an expectation, too, that it would be wet snow.

"They were calling for the snow to be a wet, heavy snow," he said. "And it actually came in as drier snow. So it really didn't work for us the way we wanted. The problem we have when it comes in as wet snow like that is that people drive on it and we get the snowpack. We were trying to eliminate having the snowpack on the streets. If there was a layer of salt below it, it would scrape off if it did do that so that it wouldn't bond to the cement. That's what we were trying to eliminate."

Sornberger said the method of putting salt down before the snow "may have worked" in some sections of the city because the snow "cleaned up really well."

"Even though we didn't get the ice build-up like we were anticipating, for the amount of snow we got we didn't have any bonding on any of the side streets," he said

Zysk noted last week that the city's salt dome on French Street was about three-quarters full, with more than 3,000 tons of salt.

Snow falls on State Street in downtown Erie, looking south from Fourth Street, on Jan. 7.

Was pre-salting the correct move?

John Allin, owner of the Erie-based Allin Rose Consulting Inc., which specializes in snow-removal planning for private contractors, municipalities and institutions, said pre-salting can be an effective method — whether it's on city streets, a driveway or sidewalk — but that it has its limitations.

"You put the salt down so that when the moisture comes to it in the form of snow you end up with a barrier between the snow and the pavement that keeps the snow or ice from bonding to the pavement," he said. "That makes it much, much easier to plow, but that's only really good when you've got 2, 3, 4, 5 inches of snow."

Salt, he said, doesn't melt anything, but rather lowers the freezing point of water. If there's heavy snowfall, like the one that blanketed the area last week, it will dilute the salt.

"And as you dilute the salt brine on the pavement, the freezing point rises again, so it can refreeze," Allin said.

Allin said he sympathized with local road crews during the storm.

"It's a never-ending battle," said Allin, whose former company, Snow Management Group, won a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City for snow removal. "It's kind of thankless. You go out and plow it at 12 inches and you get another 6 and everybody's complaining that you haven't been there yet. The same thing happens for the municipalities and the private contractors.

"Snow that comes the way this one did, where it's still snowing in the early morning hours, that's a snowplower's nightmare," he added. "It's very, very hard to stay ahead of it. And you don't wait until it's over because then there's a massive amount of snow to try to move."

Sornberger plans to try the pre-salting approach again.

"It isn't a bad idea," he said. "We're going to try it again. We're just trying all the preventative measures that we can to try to make it easier for the people of the city of Erie."

Contact Matthew Rink at Follow him on Twitter at @ETNrink.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: City of Erie salted before recent snowstorm. Did unique strategy work?

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