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St. Croix County's highway Dept. beats ice with 'beet juice'

"Beet juice" (GEOMELT 55 road salt additive) is brown in appearance when poured from the hose. When it is mixed with road salt, the road salt turns a lighter brown color.

As it starts to get colder, the St. Croix County Highway Department is getting ready to keep the roads safe to travel. And that means using more of what crew members like to call "beet juice."

"Beet juice" is really an organic road salt additive called "GEOMELT 55." The additive is made primarily from beets, so the St. Croix County Highway Department workers have nicknamed it "beet juice," said highway department Patrol Superintendent Randy Gunderson.

"Beet juice" is non-corrosive, Gunderson said, saving the highway department trucks from wear, and it works on icy roads in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We're so happy with it, we're going to get more of it," Gunderson said.

The highway department began using "beet juice" last year, on a smaller scale. Gunderson said it worked so well, the department plans to use even more of it this winter season. Gunderson said the highway department uses "beet juice" in the road salt they use on all state and U.S. road in St. Croix County, Interstate 94, U.S. 12 and Wisconsin 65, for example. Gunderson said the department also uses the additive in road salt on county roads when it gets really cold.

"We're not switched over completely yet, but I'm thinking in the future we probably will be," Gunderson said.

Last year, roughly 30 percent of the road salt additive the highway department used was "beet juice." The rest was chloride, the other road salt de-icing additive the department uses, and had been using for years.

This year, Gunderson said the highway department plans to use "beet juice" for 50 to 60 percent of its road salt additives. But he said it isn't possible to tell how much "beet juice" that will actually mean. It will depend on the weather, which is generally unpredictable, Gunderson said.

So far, Gunderson said, the highway department has held off on actually using "beet juice" because the product is more expensive than chloride. Still, Gunderson said the benefits of using "beet juice" are numerous.

He said using the product makes distribution of road salt easier.

To use "beet juice," Gunderson said the salt to be put on the roads is first spread out on the ground in front of the sheds where the salt is stored.

Then, the "beet juice" is sprayed onto the salt with a large hose, resembling a fire hose. The hose has a gauge on it, to tell the person spraying the salt how much to put on. Once the proper amount of beet juice is added, Gunderson said the salt is loaded into one of the distribution trucks, where it is mixed up, and ready to go.

This method of mixing is an advantage for a couple of reasons, Gunderson said, especially when compared to the other road salt additive--chloride.

"This works so well, we don't need the chloride additive," Gunderson said, "which helps dealing with corrosion on vehicles and our vehicles."

The additive's non-corrosive nature makes road salt safer on cars travelling roads salted with salt that has "beet juice" added to it. Road salt can cause rust to the undersides of cars, and chloride additives can make that corrosion worse, "beet juice," does not, he said.

Gunderson said the additive can also be used to pre-treat roads in preparation for storms.

"If we're getting ice or snow, the snow won't adhere to the concrete or blacktop as easily," Gunderson said, "So it's easier to plow off or maintain."

The additive also decreases operational costs for the highway department, Gunderson said. Chloride is spread with a tank that sprays the chemical as the salt is scattered over the road, and trucks have to stop treating roads to re-fill their chloride tanks. With "beet juice," the additive is already mixed in with the salt, so stopping to fill them is unnecessary. The additive also makes salt stickier and heavier, so it scatters less when it's dropped onto the road from the truck.

Unfortunately, the additive is stored outside of Hammond, at the edge of St. Croix County. The highway department currently has to transport the "beet juice" from its storage tank back to their Hammond location, where the salt is located.

Gunderson said he hopes to bring a new storage tank for the "beet juice" to the Highway Department building in Hammond, so mixing the "beet juice" can be more efficient.

"Beet juice" isn't the only road salt additive the highway department has in its arsenal of ice-melting materials. Gunderson said the trucks that de-ice the state roads contain a special computer that gives the drivers guidelines for how much salt or sand to put down on the roads, and how much of certain additives to use.

"It's a nice feature for a base, so we can get an idea what the road temperature is," Gunderson said.

Gunderson said the highway department is very happy with GEOMELT 55 ("beet juice") but there may be other additional products to try later.

"This is the first one we've experimented with," Gunderson said, "and we've been real happy with it."