Q&A with Hanover public works director Peter Kulbacki

by Lex Kang | 11/9/17 2:05am

Town of Hanover director of public works Peter Kulbacki manages an array of public services for town residents. The public works department maintains local parks and infrastructure, treats waste, delivers safe drinking water and works with the planning and zoning departments on other projects. As winter approaches, the department must confront impending cold weather and its effects on road safety. This year, the town is planning to use liquid brine instead of salt to prevent icy road conditions.

When did the town of Hanover choose to switch from salt to liquid brine?

PK: We’ve actually been looking at making the switch for a number of years. Two years ago, we actually got around to purchasing equipment to implement the change.

What was the problem with the previous method of using salt pellets?

PK: Well, the previous method is still used in some situations. If you add salt to a road, salt will stay solid. The purpose of the salt is to try to prevent ice from bonding to roads so you can clear them. However, we’re looking to reduce the amount of salt on roads. In a typical storm, we use between 400 to 800 pounds per lane mile, but if we were to apply a brine solution we could put in 85 pounds of salt — a substantially smaller amount — for the same effect.

What are some other benefits of switching to liquid brine?

PK: You can put it wherever you want it to go. One of the problems of putting salt on roads is that when you put it on a truck to scatter it across the roadways you lose about a third of it to the snowbank, so you’re losing a third right away. And to actually have the desired effect, the salt has to pull heat out of the snow to form a liquid so it can create a brine. So you take your salt and get liquid out of it. So the advantages of brine are that it’s quicker to form, you don’t waste as much, you can put it exactly where you want it to be, and by adding less salt to the roads we can reduce our impact on the environment. A large amount of salt we put down actually ends up going back to the ocean, so it’s beneficial to use brine.

Are there any possible negative consequences you’re worried about?

PK: I think the only negative aspect might be damage to equipment — there have been some reports that brine causes corrosion of metals in cars. But brine actually causes the same sort of corrosion as salt. One of the nice things about brine is that we could apply it before a snowstorm, giving it time to dry on the road. Then, as soon as it starts snowing, the salt left behind from evaporation would form a solution with precipitation as enough snow falls on the ground. So it would stay there in solid form until there’s actually a need for it.

What stopped Hanover from making this transition sooner?

PK: There was a lot of misinformation about how brine doesn’t work based on some experiments done about 15 years ago, but the experimenters applied it incorrectly. If you don’t get the salinity right, it just forms salt. So there was a lot of experimenting that went badly because people didn’t understand the science behind it. A lot of testing has been done at this point establishing that brine is something that works. Now, the equipment is pretty well available and has become affordable. In the first year we used it, savings in our salt budget paid for our equipment.

What will the process of implementing this in the entire town look like?

PK: Well, we’re going to apply it the day before the storm. We have one truck that we drive around town. It takes around six hours to drive around all the roads in town in both directions and come back to our shop to refill.

Are there any other additional costs you anticipate will be needed to make this transition?

PK: At some point we’ll have to look at how long our equipment will last so we know when to start looking for replacements. So there’s some costs we have to consider.

Was there anyone that opposed the decision to switch from salt to brine?

PK: A lot of the people applying it were skeptical and really didn’t want to try it. Some people had been using salt for 25 years, and they thought putting more salt would be better. Making a change is always a little bit scary for people. We have heard some things from mechanics in Vermont about brine being a problem with corrosion in vehicles, but they’re missing the point. We’ve had brine all along because we’ve been using salt pellets on roads to create brine.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.