Valparaiso University student Abby Accettura said she plans her winter footwear based on how much "white" she sees on the sidewalk outside her window.
The "white" she refers to isn't snow, it's salt.
"I do a lot of walking to get to my classes, so I'm glad the campus sidewalks are always properly salted," said Accettura, 18, of Gurnee, Ill.
"But what also keeps sidewalks and roads safe can destroy shoes. I ruined a pair of suede boots last year because of the salt."
Despite this winter's lack of snow, the recent single digit temperatures warrant de-icing of roads, driveways and sidewalks.
But besides shoes and clothing, including unfortunate bulky coats that happen to brush against a chalky white coated automobile, the de-icing blends used for saving others from slips and vehicles from sliding, can have other consequences.
"There are definitely a few options and improvements from what we had in the past," said David Andres, manager at Gus Bock Ace Hardware in Lansing.
"It's not just the option of salt or sand. There are also blends created to answer the needs of customers."
The varied additives in blends also assist with handling an array of temperature conditions, as well as pet, concrete corrosion and landscape damage concerns.
"The most basic of buys is to use the traditional rock salt, which is a large and coarse consistency," said Andres, who has worked at Gus Bock Hardware for 15 years.
"Traditional salt of this type is good and will work in any conditions down to about 5 degrees above zero."
A 50 pound bag at Ace Hardware stores, sells for around $7.99.
However, Andres warns the large pieces are harmful to pets, especially dogs, who can get the pieces caught near the bottom pads of their paws.
"Raw salt, which is just sodium chloride, is also very tough on concrete," Andres said.
"Because it comes in such large pieces, it takes some time to dissolve and as it sits on concrete steps, it eats away at the surface. Any remaining salt should always be swept up and removed rather than left standing on the surface once the ice is gone."
Salt is also damaging to flower beds and shrubbery.
A better alternative is a better blend sold in most stores, including a special Ace line sold at Ace Hardware stores, described as an ice melter "mix," described as "safe for pets and vegetation and doesn't burn skin." It's also formulated as effective for ice in temperatures that dip to 10-below zero.
The key added component is 20 percent magnesium, along with 5 percent potassium chloride added to the 75 percent salt base of sodium chloride.
"What makes this an even better option is the additives helping prevent against re-freezing of the ice that was melted on the surface where applied," Andres said.
A 40-pound bag of the Ace brand sells for $14.99.
For homeowners who embrace organic options, most stores, including Ace Hardwares, also sell a 100 percent organic option that contains no salt, and relies only on the potassium and magnesium components. This blend is guaranteed to work in temps that drop to as low as 15 below zero and promises to not only be safe around pets and vegetation, but also doesn't require gloves and goggles to spread and is less corrosive to metals, as well as concrete. It also doesn't leave behind the chalky white staining residue that is a result of any of the salt-based blends. An 8 pound container at Ace Hardware sells for $12.
"Added colors, such as blue, help the user to see where it is spread, as opposed to the look of clear salt," Andres said.
"And in most blends, if you look closely, you can even see the small flat pieces of the added magnesium."
As for using sand, Andres recommends it for any wood surfaces, such as decks and balconies, since these structures with wood grain are easily damaged by other de-icing products. However, sand only provides traction, but does not contain any agents to cause ice to melt.
"We also used to carry some other pricey blends, including pellets that can be spread prior to a snowfall or predicted icy weather to prevent ice and snow coating prior to it happening," he said.
"But these products are far less common than the others."
As for the liability issues associated with any slips or falls on sidewalks due to a homeowner's lack of attention to icy surfaces, it is always recommended to be proactive and use precaution, as well as consulting an insurance agent for the latest rulings as to expected care and responsibility.