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Winter blast sends salt prices soaring

By David Morillo, senior vice president, Executive Commercial Maintenance

Due to severe cold weather conditions, elected officials across the nation, including Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, have been holding press conferences and commenting to the media about the status of rock salt supplies.

Rock salt is a vital material needed to keep public roadways and highways safe.

Rock salt prices are spiraling as supplies dwindle.

Leaders are assuring the public that despite the fact that this has been an extremely cold winter across the United States, with multiple snow and ice events, that rock salt supplies remain adequate.

A different story has unfolded for the private sector. The cold winter of 2013-2014 and its many subzero days have seen supplies of rock salt dwindle as demand rises to record levels.

For facilities managers and those who provide snow removal and maintenance of properties, rising prices and scarcity of rock salt has caused challenges.

Owners and facilities managers recognize that they have the responsibility to both provide access to buildings in all-weather conditions and ensure safety precautions are in place.

Snow removal, along with the spreading of rock salt and sand, are essential for preventing vehicle accidents and injuries in parking lots as well as on walkways.

Slip and fall and vehicle accidents lead to law suits and other unwanted problems and expenses.

How bad is the rock salt shortage problem as we enter the end of February 2014? The shortage is unprecedented and costs have risen to record highs.

Normally severe weather impacts regions, some harder than others. However, this year, extreme cold in the mid-west and central part of the United States, frigid weather in the south as well as cold and snow events in the Northeast have caused an unprecedented rise in rock salt demand.

Prices that typically run from $65 to $95 a ton for rock salt have skyrocketed to $200 and even at times above $250.

To put this into perspective, a single pickup truck can carry approximately one ton of rock salt. A parking lot with 100 spaces would require two applications using between four to six tons of rock salt.

The amount needed varies depending on the temperature and quantity of snow and ice. In some instances in low temperature conditions, three or more applications could be required.

Thousands of dollars in salt could be necessary to address the needs of a modest size parking lot for a single event.

It is evident that rising costs will have a much larger impact on operating budgets and maintenance spending this year across the nation. Contractors and facilities managers looking for rock salt are having a difficult if not impossible time finding sources, unlike in typical years, where a single source and perhaps a backup would be adequate.

Now sources are hard to find and alternatives such as importing from Canada are being used. For many, the stock piles of salt purchased during last year’s milder winter have rapidly run out.

Alternatives are being used and others are being explored. For example, rock salt mixed with sand can safely stretch supplies. A growing trend taking place is the sand mixing and manufacturing of salt spread by contractors.

Heavy equipment can also be used to plow and remove large quantities of snow and thick ice buildup. However, purchase or rental of equipment is expensive and the cost of fuel must be factored in.

There are also chemicals and some promising natural products, including one which uses beet juice, which may also become more popular and could help mitigate demand for rock salt in the future.

What has been learned and what should facilities managers and contractors take from this season?

If they have not done so yet, it is time to take a complete look at planning and communications. Property owners are contractually bound to provide access for tenants to buildings and facilities. If tenants cannot operate or gain access, penalties and other issues arise.

While it is difficult if not impossible to predict how severe a winter will be, this is no excuse for failing to plan for expected severe weather events and long stretches of subzero temperatures.

With proper planning and communications, issues can be mitigated or eliminated completely. Snow and severe weather planning and procedures should be in place and well understood.

Those who provide snow removal and sanding services must in advance communicate seasonal storm response plans to landlords and be in contact with them before severe weather approaches.

This communication is vital and will allow the landlord or property owner to be informed and able to communicate with tenants or employees.

Understanding what actions will be taken to address weather events give all parties the information they need to plan and communicate to all concerned parties. Communication removes uncertainty and potential problems. From a tenant/customer relations perspective, this is an important added value.

Recent severe cold has had a national impact making it evident that planning and strategies for many in the facilities management sector must be reexamined.

Back-up sources of supplies, greater stock piles of salt and sand, better equipment preparation and enhanced communications all need to be reviewed and reassessed.

Having comprehensive plans will help to prevent emergency responses and the need to call in additional resources at high costs for managing issues. Contractors and facilities managers need to have a process for communicating and identifying potential problems well in advance.

From crisis come lessons learned. Take this year’s rock salt shortage as an opportunity to enhance communications and operational efficiencies.

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