Breaking the ice on Edmonton’s snow and ice pilot project

Over the past few days, there’s been some attention given to the City of Edmonton’s approach to snow and ice. We feel it’s important to take a moment to provide some context.

On June 26, Administration presented an update to Community and Public Services Committee on some preliminary research related to snow and ice control. This was the first of two reports to Council this summer. Yesterday’s report focused on summarizing the research and science that already exists (stuff that’s been published based on research in other cities). An August report will provide the results of field and lab testing specific to Edmonton’s conditions.

Ultimately, we acknowledge that any approach to snow and ice will involve trade-offs related to safety, the environment and infrastructure, or vehicle maintenance requirements.

Some of the bigger picture of what was presented to committee yesterday is outlined below. 

First things first. Let’s talk corrosion. It was a big theme from members of the public who took time out of their days to attend the committee meeting.

What’s anti-icer, and is it corroding my vehicle?

Anti-icer is a liquid solution that contains a corrosion inhibitor, and we us it during certain conditions before or after a snowfall to prevent snow from sticking to pavement.

We’ll have the results of our corrosion testing based on Edmonton’s conditions ready in August. But, so far, based on our review of existing scientific literature, we’ve found that corrosion can depend heavily on factors like humidity levels, the type of metal and the concentration (strength) of any product such as anti-icer. Our report in August will give us a more definitive answer as to how (or if) our snow and ice pilot is affecting vehicles in Edmonton. We know this is an important topic for Edmontonians. We’re confident the data to be presented in August will provide some concrete information on if or how our approach to snow and ice can affect corrosion on vehicles.

Do I need to wash my vehicle more often?

If you’re committed to proper maintenance of your vehicle (e.g., regular washing), anti-icer shouldn’t result in any spike in corrosion. This is for a few reasons: First, the anti-icer we’re using contains an organic corrosion inhibitor. Second, anti-icer is actually less corrosive than traditional sodium chloride road salt, which is mixed into the road sand that Edmonton has used for many years. 

But we’ll let the science speak for itself. So stay tuned for our August report, which will contain the results of a corrosion study being conducted here in Edmonton (based on our temperatures and humidity levels).

What is the snow and ice pilot project?

The focus of the snow and ice pilot project is on using a variety of different tools (depending on temperatures and road conditions)—including anti-icer brine, salt, sand, and plowing—to reach bare pavement on major roadways during the winter. It marks a change for us in that we’ve historically relied mostly on sand and plowing while not necessarily aiming for bare pavement. We started the pilot project in 2017-2018, and then expanded it for the 2018-2019 winter season.

Vision (below) Zero

The purpose of Edmonton’s snow and ice pilot project is to support Vision Zero’s goal of safe travel—whether on a road, bike lane or sidewalk. It’s about serving vehicle drivers, cyclists and pedestrians by matching the safest snow-and-ice-removal tool to condition (e.g., temperature, humidity, type and amount of precipitation) to reach bare pavement during the winter season. The facts show how much less distance it takes for an automobile driver moving at 30 km/h to stop on bare pavement.

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Building on sand? 

Historically, the City used only sand and maintained a snow pack on the majority of Edmonton’s roads. But this hasn’t been the safest option. Besides, sand isn’t necessarily all that it’s cut out to be. Sand brings with it its own trade-offs, including health risks, reduced air quality and a large environmental footprint. So relying only on sand isn’t a good option going forward, especially given our changing climate patterns and freeze thaw cycles. In some instances, though, using sand is still the right choice, especially when temperatures fall below -15°C and we need to increase traction on icy roads until the ice can be removed.

Edmonton’s weather is changing. Our reaction is, too

Edmonton is expected to have warmer, wetter winters, with periods of deep cold—like the Polar Vortex this past February. 

In fact, temperatures consistently fell below -20°C. There were more freezing rain events, meaning the pavement wasn’t always dry. Having temperatures at or warmer than -20°C, along with dry pavement conditions and no blowing snow, are necessary for being able to use anti-icing brine. As a result of not having these conditions this past winter, we used significantly less anti-icing brine, but used more salt and sand. 

Bottom line: changing weather patterns, more potential freeze thaw cycles and freezing rain add up to the need to read the conditions and react. Adapt. Don’t believe the approach we took five or 10 years ago is effective for Edmontonians today.

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Plowing ahead

There may be a perception that Edmonton’s snow and ice control pilot is about anti-icer alone. Really, the project is about combining and optimizing the use of all of our different tools—including plows—depending on the conditions. And to get back to bare. 

What other cities are up to

So, are we alone in doing a pilot like this? Not at all. 

Eight cities across Canada got back to us with information about their programs. We learned that all except two use liquid brine anti-icer in some form. All of the cities, just like Edmonton, use salt and sand in varying degrees depending on weather conditions. The majority of provinces and states across North America that have winter climates similar to Edmonton also use brine to support their winter highway maintenance programs.

Monitoring our environment

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Edmonton is the only city to have a detailed monitoring program to assess potential impacts related to safety, infrastructure and environment. We expect more detailed data in the fall, but preliminary data suggests no apparent impact of our snow and ice program on the quality of stormwater that discharges into the North Saskatchewan river.

Literature turns up safety story

We did a snow and ice removal literature review, which is looking at the findings already published in academic journals. We found that most cities aim for bare pavement conditions on high priority routes. Also, we found that road surface conditions (that is, whether the road is bare or not) has a significant correlation with frequency of collisions. 

Listening to Edmontonians

We engaged Edmontonians, stakeholders and our own internal staff. We heard feedback on public education, parking bans and snow removal quality in residential areas. All of the feedback from the different public engagements will be taken into account as we look to update our snow and ice control approach for the next season and continue adapting our strategy. 

To learn more about the feedback, check out the “What We Heard” reports online.

Where to now?

So where do we go from here? 

We’ll come back to Community and Public Services Committee on August 21 with our completed research findings from lab and field testing in Edmonton. This will include the findings from our different research projects underway—assessing the trade-offs and benefits of Edmonton’s snow and ice program, including outcomes related to safety, environment, infrastructure and vehicles—on the way to a decision on whether to proceed with the pilot.

We know that snow and ice isn’t exactly top of mind this time of year. We get what you’re thinking. We’re a proud winter city and all that, but it’s June! Thanks for reading. Have a wonderful summer. ⛱️

PS – for more information about snow and ice removal, visit our website.

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