David Schiavoni has spent three winters trying to sell Long Island on the idea that the best way to clear icy roads is with beet juice.
This year he is finally gaining traction. Sugar beet molasses, it turns out, gives road salt a boost in extreme cold. So while plain salt quits melting ice once temperatures dip below 15 degrees, a splash of beet juice keeps it working -- even, some say, below zero.
"The first year people were laughing at us," said Schiavoni, who sells the syrupy brown liquid through his Riverhead company, East End Organics. "They're not laughing now."
Schiavoni, who said sales have already more than doubled over last winter, is part of a budding national industry marketing beet juice, potato extract and other agricultural by-products as road-salt enhancers. It's a tale of chemistry, entrepreneurship and the challenge of reshaping the business of winter road maintenance, where change is slow and salt has been king for generations.
While chemists and some highway maintenance experts say beet juice can significantly improve salts' performance and curb pollution, the industry has been slow to adopt it. None of the major U.S. salt companies -- including Cargill, Morton Salt and Compass Minerals -- incorporate it into their products. And many highway departments have been reluctant to experiment with an unconventional tool when motorists' lives are on the line.
Ultimately, Schiavoni and his fellow beet juice purveyors are grappling with the same fundamental challenge faced by any entrepreneurs trying to convince an old industry to take a risk on new technology.
"People are always reluctant to change the way they do business," said Rita Gunther McGrath, an associate professor at Columbia Business School. "There needs to be a really compelling reason."
Yet beet juice is gaining ground.
Wilfrid Nixon, a civil engineer who studies winter road management at the University of Iowa, estimated that 20 percent of state, county and local highway departments that plow snow have begun using beet juice or a similar product over the last decade.
On Long Island, Sag Harbor uses beet juice. So does National Grid. And the New York State Thruway Authority has a beet juice pilot program that has used 400,000 gallons of the stuff over the last three years.
Beet juice advocates say it allows crews to spread less salt per mile, saving taxpayer money. Plus, they say, it's less caustic than conventional road salt additives. That means less pollution for streams and less corrosion for cars, guardrails and salt-spreading equipment.
So Schiavoni and his counterparts tout their product as an effective, economical and environmentally friendly way to improve road salt. And this year, weather has been on their side.
A century of salt
Highway departments have used salt -- otherwise known as sodium chloride -- since the dawn of the automobile. New York City began as early as 1925. And use boomed nationwide after World War II.
In the beginning, workers shoveled salt from the back of trucks. During the 1950s, they incorporated spinners to spread it evenly. And by the 1990s, crews were dissolving salt in water and spraying brine on highways before storms to prevent ice from taking hold. Once the snow starts, they switch to regular rock salt.
When it gets too cold for sodium chloride to work, crews often blend it with other types of salt: typically magnesium chloride and calcium chloride, which both melt at lower temperatures than the regular stuff.
So while ice-fighting techniques have evolved, salt remains the central ingredient. That's largely because it works. And it's cheap. Rock salt is going for about $60 per ton this winter in New York, or about 3 cents a pound.
Consequently, Americans use a lot of it, spreading more than 20 million tons of salt annually, accounting for the mineral's largest single use. Food processing, incidentally, accounts for about 2 million tons.
Salt does, however, have drawbacks. The biggest problem, environmentalists say, is that it's corrosive on metal and toxic in lakes, soil and in reservoirs. A 2010 study by the University of Toronto blamed road salt for turning streams as briny as the ocean.
Cue the beet juice.
Midwest to the East End
Schiavoni's product begins in the vast fields of the upper Midwest, where most of the 25 million tons of American sugar beets are grown each year. Sugar beets -- not to be confused with their edible red cousins that stain table cloths and make children squirm -- are sucrose-packed roots, resembling bulbous white carrots. They account for 55 percent of U.S. sugar production, trumping sugar cane.
Once sugar producers extract their sugar, they are left with carbohydrate-rich syrup. It's used in livestock feed. And, increasingly, on winter roads.
It's hard to pinpoint when people realized beet juice could help lower water's freezing temperature. Jay Walerstein's Indianapolis company, Road Solutions Inc., supplies beet juice to the Thruway Authority. He tells of American troops marching through Europe during World War II and noticing sugar beet fields were muddy when others were frozen. Companies began marketing the stuff as a road-salt enhancer about 15 years ago.
To be clear, beet juice does not melt ice. Rather, it helps salt do the trick. The key is synergy between salt's chloride and beet juice's carbs.
When salt hits ice, it triggers a molecular dance. The water molecules pull away from each other and partner up with the chloride. That discourages water from clumping up to form ice. Adding beet juice brings more dancers to the party. Water now has two partners to choose from -- carbs and chloride -- making it even less eager to dance alone.
"Water molecules are party animals," said Nixon, the engineer from the University of Iowa. "They would rather be with carbohydrates than stick to each other."
An opportunity on ice
Schiavoni, whose family has been in the East End construction business for generations, builds high-end swimming pools during summer through his company East End Ready Mix, which has 12 employees. He stumbled into beet juice during a particularly cold winter. Smelling opportunity, he ordered a sample from SNI Solutions of Geneseo, Ill.
For the record, it's not just beet juice. It's a patented beet-juice-based formula called Geomelt 55. "It's a beet cocktail," Schiavoni said. "And it's so safe that you can drink it."
So he became a Geomelt 55 franchisee and has invested about $300,000 on storage bins, a bagging machine and juice. Dee Yardley, Sag Harbor's public works superintendent, was among his first customers.
"It works," Yardley said.
But does it save money?
Yardley said it's clear the juice cuts labor and supply costs. But it's hard to pinpoint how much, he said.
Road crews use beet juice two ways. They mix it with salt water, then spray it on roads before storms hit. And they pour it over rock salt, giving crystals a beet coating. Experts, however, disagree on just how much it improves salt's performance.
Beet juice companies say it enables salt to melt ice at 10 below zero. Nixon, from the University of Iowa, said that may be true in a laboratory. But his road tests have found beet juice only gives salt a modest boost, allowing it to melt ice down to about 10 degrees.
Still, Nixon said beet juice is worthwhile. Its biggest asset, he said, is helping salt stick to roads, allowing crews to use less. "I see beet juice becoming a very good standard tool that most agencies are going to want in their winter maintenance toolbox," Nixon said.
Not everyone is convinced.
Morton and Cargill have both experimented with beet juice or similar agricultural-based products and determined they weren't worthwhile. North Dakota motorists have complained the stuff makes a mess on windshields. And Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, a trade association in Alexandria, Va., said beet juice's ecological impact has never really been tested.
Yet Schiavoni is undeterred. Thanks to the polar vortex, sales are surging. He figures he needs a few more storms to break even. Meanwhile, he preaches the beet-juice gospel. And he hopes for cold.