Winter, sidewalks, snow and ice … Oh my!

Photo showing the same street with half the photo showing it after a snowfall and half prior to a snowfall.
Image courtesy of Jim Adams, a member of the Burlington Sustainable Development Committee.

“Slip slidin’ away” goes the old Paul Simon song. Every winter, slipping and sliding along sidewalks and driveways is a problem that most residents face multiple times throughout the season. As a home or business owner, what are your responsibilities and options to reduce the hazards caused by our Canadian weather?

Be Nice, Clear Your Ice

Fortunately, in the City of Burlington, the City is responsible for clearing 850 kilometers of sidewalks along with 1,900 km of roadways. Sidewalks on primary and secondary streets are cleared first, followed by residential streets after 5 cm of snow has fallen. The City’s service level is to plow all sidewalks within 48 hours after the end of a snowfall. For large snowfalls or extended storms, this may take up to 72 hours or longer.

Although the City provides sidewalk clearing, is there a duty for the home or business owner to clear the snow and ice from the sidewalks adjacent to their property? The answer depends on the location of the sidewalk. Homeowners do not have to, however business owners must if the sidewalk is being used to access their business. While the City does not require you to clear your sidewalk, if you’re able, please help kids get to school, parents push strollers and people move with mobility devices by clearing your sidewalk as soon as you can. Did you know that homeowners may be liable to clear snow and ice on their property according to Ontario’s Occupiers’ Liability Act?

What Options Exist to Melt Ice or Prevent It from Accumulating?

Materials include sand, rock salt, specially formulated chemical melting agents, and even unused kitty litter. With so many choices, it seems that cost, efficacy and effects on lawns and pets help drive the decision to purchase a particular product. 

Rock Salt

Rock salt, the most familiar method of melting ice, works by lowering the melting temperature of ice.  Rock salt is also known by its chemical name of sodium chloride and is merely an unrefined version of common table salt. While commonplace, it can impact vegetation, water quality and aquatic life. It can also cause irritation to pets and people.

Alternatives to Rock Salt

Alternative products available at the hardware store often contain chlorine in the form of potassium chloride, calcium chloride or magnesium chloride. As with rock salt, they can all have a negative effect on plants and animals but can be effective to temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius and are relatively inexpensive. Your choice is based on budget, pets, concern for the environment and the relative temperature in the area.


Urea, used in fertilizer, is another chemical used to melt ice. It is not as effective as rock salt but causes less damage to vegetation.

Sand and Kitty Litter

Sand and kitty litter do not help melt the ice, but they will help to provide some traction on a slippery surface. Ash or coffee grounds can be used as the darker materials help to absorb sunlight and heat the ice causing it to melt. These materials can be considered when temperatures are near freezing, or as an additive to other agents to help improve traction.

Sugar Beet Juice Additive

Brine with a sugar beet juice additive is being used by some jurisdictions on roads and highways as a preventative measure before storms. This treatment is not widely available for the average homeowner and one of the primary compounds is still sodium chloride (rock salt).

Homemade Mixtures

A search of the internet provides many homemade recipes for melting ice that a homeowner can try. These include mixtures comprised of hot water and dish soap mixed with rubbing alcohol or vinegar. As with anything on the internet, the user is reminded to take such advice with, pardon the pun, a grain of salt, and to carefully follow any instructions provided by the site.

Pet Safe

Some manufacturers are providing products listed as “pet safe.” However, read the label as some pet safe products were found to contain common rock salt mixed with beet sugar. This may cause pets to lick their paws more due to the sweet and savory taste. While not poisonous, it can lead to further irritation of the paws.

It’s All in the Application

If you choose to apply rock salt or other chloride-based salts, keep these tips in mind:

  • Spread the material immediately after the snow falls and before the temperature begins to drop
  • Use as little as possible, distributing it as evenly as possible (perhaps with a handheld fertilizer spreader) – sidenote: don’t use your hands!
  • Shovel the melted snow/ice/salt mixture once it has melted to prevent it from refreezing

Fortunately living here in Burlington, we often avoid some of the nastier weather that other Canadians face. Being near to Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment helps to lessen the effects of Canadian winters. But we can’t avoid winter entirely and will always be faced with an icy driveway or sidewalk. Hopefully this post will help make things a little easier and safer for you, your neighbours, pets and gardens this year. 

Take Action Burlington! Let’s work together to keep our sidewalks clear of snow and ice and our active commuters safe. Collectively we can make a difference.

This post was provided by Jim Adams, a member of the Burlington Sustainable Development Committee.

One thought on “Winter, sidewalks, snow and ice … Oh my!

  1. Another option is urea available at most farm supply stores. It’s cheap, not harmful to the environment and being circular “pellets”, doesn’t affect pets. The down side is tracks easily into the house


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