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Protecting Your Car from Road Salt Damage: An Ultimate Guide

Road salt, a vital tool for safe winter driving, carries a serious risk to your vehicle’s health. 

This comprehensive guide gives you crucial insights about road salt damage, preventive measures, and managing potential harm.

When Was Salt First Used On Roads?

Road salt was first used for de-icing in the US in the 1940s. Since then, it has been adopted worldwide, including in Alberta, as a cost-effective method to improve road safety during winter months.

What is Road Salt and How Does it Work?

Pavement sprinkled with road salt

Road salt, primarily sodium chloride, is used to melt ice and snow on roads by lowering the freezing point of water. This seemingly beneficial substance can, unfortunately, wreak havoc on your car’s health.

Where does road salt come from?

Road salt is usually mined from underground salt deposits that are remnants of dried-up ancient saltwater seas.

Does Alberta use salt on the roads?

The long-short of it is, yes and no. 

Some Alberta municipalities may use salt, some use salt or brine (salt & water mixture) at different times of the year depending on average temperatures and switch to more effective solutions in colder temperatures. 

More on the different compositions that your municipality may use later in the article.

Understanding Road Salt: Composition and Varieties

Piles of salt at a salt mine

Road salt primarily contains sodium chloride, but it’s not the only component used for de-icing and improving road traction. 

Different regions opt for various types of de-icing materials based on their local climate, environmental considerations, and road conditions.

For instance, in Northern Alberta, municipalities sometimes use a mixture of road salt and sand to increase traction on icy roads. 

Similarly, regions like Bonnyville, Cold Lake, and St. Paul in Alberta may opt for different types of road salt or mixtures depending on average temperature and road conditions.

Aside from sodium chloride (NaCl), other types of road salt include calcium chloride (CaCl2), magnesium chloride (MgCl2) and potassium chloride (KCl). 

Some regions even use dirt or other abrasive materials to improve traction. These different components can have varying effects on vehicles and the environment.

For example, in Northern Alberta, it’s common to see a mixture of road salt and sand/dirt mixture. The sand/dirt helps increase traction on icy roads. 

a truck sprinkling sand and salt on the road

Similarly, regions like MD of Bonnyville, have been known to use calcium chloride. 

Calcium chloride is more effective than sodium chloride at lower temperatures and is less damaging to concrete and vegetation. However, it can still cause corrosion to vehicles if not promptly cleaned off.

Other regions may use magnesium chloride, which is also more effective at lower temperatures than sodium chloride. 

Like calcium chloride, magnesium chloride is less harmful to the environment but still has corrosive properties.

  1. Sand or gravel: These materials don’t melt ice but provide traction on slippery surfaces. They are often used in conjunction with salts.
  2. Brine solutions: These are liquid mixtures of salt and water. They can be used as pre-treatments before a snowstorm to prevent snow and ice from bonding with the pavement.
  3. Beet juice or cheese brine: These unusual materials can be mixed with road salt to reduce the amount of salt needed, thus lowering the environmental impact.

The choice of de-icing material depends on a balance of factors such as effectiveness, temperature, season, cost, availability, and environmental impact. 

It’s important to note that regardless of the material used, frequent car maintenance and washing remain crucial to mitigate potential vehicle damage.

Road Salt: Temperature Efficiency and Application

pavement covered with road salt

Road salt is most effective at melting ice and improving traction when the air temperature is above -10°C (15°F). As temperatures drop, the efficiency of salt decreases. 

This is why regions with extremely cold winter temperatures often mix salt with sand or other abrasive materials to maintain road safety. 

For temperatures below -10°C, other de-icing methods or materials, such as sand, are typically used for their increased effectiveness in these conditions.

Table 1: Common Types of Road Salt and Their Impact on Your Vehicle

Type of SaltImpact on Your Vehicle
Sodium Chloride (NaCl)Most common, causes corrosion and rust
Calcium Chloride (CaCl2)More corrosive than sodium chloride, melts ice at lower temperatures
Magnesium Chloride (MgCl2)Similar to calcium chloride, but less damaging to concrete and vegetation

How Long Does Salt on Roads Last?

Salt on roads can adhere to your vehicle and the road for weeks or even months if not washed away. This is why regular car washing during winter is critical to mitigate its corrosive effects.

Understanding Road Salt Damage: An Essential First Step

road salt damage on a car

Can Road Salt Damage Your Car?

Yes, when road salt mixes with melting snow, it adheres to your vehicle’s underbody. 

This mixture, once dried, leaves corrosive calcium or sodium chloride behind, actively causing metal degradation leading to rust, affecting the structural integrity, safety, and value of your vehicle.

Can Road Salt Damage Car Paint? Can Road Salt Chip Paint?

Absolutely. Road salt is not just harmful to the metal parts of your vehicle. 

It can also damage car paint, leading to chipping and even scratching, particularly when it combines with grit from the roads.

Regular Maintenance: Your Best Line of Defence

A man washing his car

Regular Car Washes in Winter

To prevent road salt damage, establishing and maintaining a regular car wash schedule can help remove road salt, keeping rust at bay. 

Experts recommend washing your car every 10 days or immediately following a heavy snowfall or a drive on a salted road.

Regular Maintenance Checks

Having regular maintenance checks is another preventive measure against rust. 

Mechanic inspections can detect early signs of corrosion, allowing you to treat the problem before it becomes severe.

Under the Hood: Protecting Your Engine

While much focus goes to the underbody, the engine compartment also needs attention. It’s often overlooked during cleaning, but road salt can accumulate here too. 

A gentle yet thorough pressure wash can help rinse away any road salt that’s found its way in.

Most Vulnerable Parts of Your Car & the Cost of Salt Damage:

road salt damage on car doors

Certain areas of your vehicle are more susceptible to rusting due to their proximity to the ground and constant exposure to road salt. 

The financial impact of salt damage is significant. It can vary based on the severity and location of the corrosion. 

Small rust spots might only require a few hundred dollars for cosmetic fixes, but if rust reaches crucial components like brake lines or the exhaust system, repair costs can climb into the thousands.

These include:

  • Exhaust system: $600-$1,500+
  • Fenders and quarter panels: $1,000-$6,000+
  • Hood and door edges: $500-$3,500+
  • Frame: $2,000-$5,000

Rust-Proofing Services and Undercoating: Extra Layer of Protection

Investing in rust-proofing services or undercoating can provide additional protection against road salt. 

These treatments create a barrier between your vehicle’s metal components and the elements, often requiring reapplications every few years depending on your local climate and the amount of salt exposure.

Other salty questions about combatting icy roads:

road salt on asphalt

Is road salt bad for the environment? 

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. 

Road salt can find its way into rivers, lakes, and groundwater, where it disrupts the balance of minerals in the water. 

This can harm aquatic ecosystems, affect drinking water quality, and lead to soil erosion.

Can road salt hurt dogs?

It definitely can. Road salt can irritate a dog’s paws or be harmful if ingested. 

Therefore, it’s advisable to wash your dog’s paws after a walk in the winter and to monitor them closely during walks to prevent them from ingesting road salt.

Can road salt burn your skin?

Pure road salt is unlikely to burn your skin under normal circumstances. 

However, combined with water and in contact with your skin for an extended period, it can cause mild irritation

In rare cases, it can lead to a condition called ‘salt burns’, particularly in pets with sensitive skin.

Wrap Up

A walkway covered with road salt

Winter in Alberta brings challenges for drivers and their vehicles. 

The salt (and its other chloride related cousins) used to melt ice on roads is necessary for safe driving, but it can also accelerate corrosion and rust on your car. 

Regular washing, especially after exposure to salted roads, can help minimize this risk. 

However, professional help like CSN JD Collision is often necessary to keep your vehicle looking and performing its best, despite the harsh winter conditions.

If you’ve forgotten to wash your car and are seeing rust spots or can poke your finger through the rust on the body of your car, give us a call and we’ll fix your ride.