It’s still optimal golf weather — 70 degrees with a light breeze — but at the Farragut Salt Dome in Northeast Washington, preparations are well underway for winter. Trucks have been inspected and cleaned, reserve tanks are filled, and a liquid concoction is churning through a network of tubes.
Inside a shed at the 18,000-ton-capacity dome, Cornelious E. Phillips touches a small button, triggering a flow of silty liquid through the tubes. A machine siphons water and salt from a metal hopper — from above it looks like a one-ton bowl of cereal.
The recipe: 23 percent salt, 62 percent water and 15 percent of a once-unlikely agent that has become something of an industry standard for winter road use: beet juice.
Beet juice, gallons of beet juice, begin racing through the pipes, darkening the mixture as the liquids interact. The resulting brine, 500 gallons of it, collects in a nearby storage tank.
No, it’s not red — more tea-colored. It’s sticky, oil-like.
Come winter, the beet-brine solution, made in part from sugar beet molasses, will be sprayed on area roadways — helping trap the salt that will be spread so it can more effectively melt the snow and ice. A truck driving through an alley can cut through a half-inch of ice with a single coating of the brine, says Phillips, a bridge repair and emergency liaison officer with the District.
Both the District and Maryland have employed beet brine on treacherous roads, thinking it is more effective than traditional salt brine. Distributors say it’s more environmentally friendly than road salt, which can corrode cars and deposit harmful toxins into lakes and streams.
“We can utilize straight salt brine and it’ll dry,” said Robert Marsili, snow operations manager with the District Department of Transportation. “After it dries, the salt starts rising off the roadway and into the atmosphere. Beet juice lowers the melting temperature . . . it sticks to the roadway.”
Marsili said trucks prowling the city during snowstorms can drop 40 gallons of the brine mixture per lane-mile of roadway. And the solution sticks around — with a life span sometimes of more than four days, making pre-treatment of roads more effective. The only catch: If a storm starts as rain, the solution will wash away.
“If we have an event coming tomorrow, it’ll be there,” Marsili says.
And there were 24 such events last year, he says — snow, frost and ice — requiring about $40,000 worth of beet juice — or 25,000 gallons in all at $1.60 per gallon.
The product, called GEOMELT 55, is purchased from Illinois-based SNI Solutions. Daniel Freeman, the company’s vice president of operations, says the sugar beets are sourced out of Michigan and Ontario. The extracted solution is 55 percent solid — sucrose sugar — and 45 percent liquid. Mixed with the salt brine it produces an agent similar in color to “a light summer tea,” Freeman said.
“One of the gifts that Mother Nature gave us and scientists just recently figured it out,” he said, is “that if you put certain carbohydrates or sugars on salt, it enhances that performance of the salt so it works at lower temperatures more effectively.”
Regular salt, Freeman says, loses its effectiveness on the highway when the surface temperature hits 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Adding the beet brine to the salt makes it effective at up to minus-20 or minus-30 degrees, he said.
The solution was only recently discovered, Freeman said.
The story goes like this: In the 1990s, a Hungarian scientist who worked in a sugar beet processing plant noticed something peculiar about nearby ponds. Those closest to the factory wouldn’t freeze over, but the ones farther away would — even in the same temperatures. The scientist, Freeman said, realized that runoff from the beet factory was the cause. The lakes that stayed unfrozen contained a higher concentration of sugar.
“In Hungary they don’t have the environmental regulations that we do,” Freeman said, laughing.
At any given time, the Farragut facility has 30,000 gallons of the enhanced brine solution ready to help keep city roads free of ice. Overall, the District has 39,000 tons of salt for the season, according to Terry Owens, a DDOT spokesman.
In the expansive parking lot of the salt dome, there is a debate this recent afternoon about the odor wafting from the pavement. Comparisons have been drawn to spoiled food, sewage — even ground cigarettes butts and old coffee. Phillips is confident in his guess: soy sauce.
He knows the mixture well. When a storm is forecast, Phillips surveys the stockpile and equipment days in advance, so, he says, “when it’s crunch time, I’m already in place.”
The District has about a dozen trucks capable of spraying the brine, and a fleet of about 250 salt and snow-removal trucks. Most of the sprayer trucks contain smaller, 1,300-gallon tanks, but a 4,000-gallon truck can roam city streets for four to five hours, covering main thoroughfares such as Canal Road NW, Chain Bridge and Interstate 295 in the process.
At the salt dome, a machine pumps the beet-brine solution into the trucks at 150 gallons per minute, the mixture bubbling in a translucent tank.
“This is the tricky part,” Phillips says, carefully unhooking a hose from the truck and leaving a small puddle behind. “This is one of the cleanest areas up here when it snows. Trust me, there will be no snow up here.”
Then he climbs into the truck and hits the gas, leaving a fan-shaped maze of beet guts in his wake.