Snow and ice make walking on walkways, paths and steps dangerous, and when temperatures rise in the daytime and then dip again in the evening, the resulting thaw and re-freeze cycle can make surfaces extra slippery. Unless you’re interested in endless, ’round-the-clock scraping, chances are you’re going to be reaching for either sand or salt to help provide a surer footing. So now the question becomes: When it comes to snow removal and your lawn, which is better: salt or sand?
Salt works by melting snow away, lowering the freezing point of water by roughly 12 degrees to about 20ºF. That means that at temperatures above 20ºF, water – or in this case, snow – will not freeze. Lowering the freezing point melts the snow and ice and allows it to drain away. Although it seems convenient – salt doesn’t leave little piles behind like sand – overuse of salt during the years has taken its toll on groundwater supplies; some communities have reported finding salt in underground wells, and they attribute that salt content to ice melt products, including the salt used by road crews. Runoff also goes into storm drains and, eventually, streams and lakes where it can kill fish, frogs and plants. And salt can also poison your lawn’s soil, making it inhospitable for nearly all plants. That means that in the spring, any areas that received the ice melt runoff may refuse to support grass or other plants, leaving yours with brown spots and edges along your walkways and driveway. Salt can also leave a residue behind which can permanently stain some surfaces, including metal rails or posts.
Unlike salt, sand doesn’t melt snow and ice; it sits on top, providing a gritty surface to improve traction and help prevent slips and falls. The primary drawback with sand is that it must be swept up between storms to prevent little piles from building up on your walkways and steps. What’s more, since salt has traditionally been used to deal with ice and snow, sand isn’t as well known or as popular. But there are big benefits to sand: for one thing, it can also be reused; simply sweep it up and place it in a bucket for use next year, or incorporate it into clayey soil to create tiny air pockets that can improve water flow and promote healthy plant growth. It also doesn’t harm the soil if some of it washes away. And it can be used at any temperature, while salt will only be effective while temperatures are above about 20ºF.
All things considered, while sand may involve a little cleanup work once the snow is gone, it’s probably a much smarter choice for any area that might provide runoff for your lawn. Even a small amount of salt in your soil can prevent grass from growing and even damage or kill other garden plants. Plus, the long-term damage done by salt leaching into the ground can be devastating to the underground water supplies. Think carefully about the product you’ll use and both its immediate and long-term effects before making your decision.