Always a barrel of energy, Dave Schiavoni was particularly hyperactive last Thursday afternoon preparing his organic ice melting business for the demand ahead of an impending blizzard.
As he walked his East End Organics property on West Main Street in Riverhead, he pointed down to the ground and warned a reporter to watch his step. Then he paused for a quick deadpan.
“Want a cup of coffee?” he joked, indicating the brown liquid puddle on the ground.
Welcome to the world of manufacturing beet juice ice melters, a relatively new trend in the business that could change the game for municipalities and homeowners looking for an alternative to traditional rock salts.
The beet juice patent was developed in 2005 by a beet farmer in Illinois after he learned beet juice doesn’t freeze when temperatures fall below freezing, even below 0 degrees. Instead of discarding his surplus brown beets, the farmer began using his leftovers to develop the juice.
Mr. Schiavoni, the exclusive retailer of beet juice ice melts in the Northeast, receives the juice by the truckload and mixes it with rock salt or brine at his Riverhead yard. This has enabled him to diversify his existing concrete business for the winter season, when work is slow, and has even helped him keep his employees working year-round.
He sells both a liquid spray-on product and a product similar to the traditional rock salt you might buy in the store. The key difference is that instead of chloride accelerants such as magnesium, calcium or potassium, Mr. Schiavoni’s product uses all-natural beet juice, which is less corrosive and thus safer for the environment.
It’s a “green product,” the Water Mill resident says.
“You also don’t have to use as much,” he added. “You put down half as much of this as you would the other stuff.”
Mr. Schiavoni has donated his product to the East End towns and encouraged them to use it in place of their usual melters. The Town of Shelter Island has gone back for more.
“Because we’re in a salt source aquifer we have to be conscious of the material we put down,” said Shelter Island highway superintendent Jay Card. “The beet juice seems to counteract the salt.”
Shelter Island has been using the liquid product, which sprays from machines Mr. Schiavoni developed. A plastic tank that rests on the bed of a truck connects to a thin plastic sprayer that hangs below the back bumper. The machine is powered through a dashboard cigarette lighter.
Mr. Card says they have also used backpack sprayers, which Mr. Schiavoni recommends along with a smaller tank that can be used on standard pickup trucks to spray driveways and commercial parking lots.
He said his crews have been spraying the beet juice product in the aftermath of this weekend’s blizzard.
“It definitely has some benefit,” he said. “Because it’s liquid, it washes right away.”
Even Shelter Island, which has used more of the beet juice melt than other towns on the East End since Mr. Schiavoni’s donations last year, is still using it only on a test basis. In order for the product to be used exclusively over traditional rock salts, Mr. Card said the town would have to commit to purchasing several expensive pieces of equipment. Because the weight of the salt-mixed product is not compatible with bulk shipment by ferry, the town would have to purchase the beet juice in bulk and mix it with salt on the island.
Riverhead highway superintendent George “Gio” Woodson said the town used a couple hundred gallons of the beet juice last year before storms approached, but since most of the predicted snowfall ended up as rain during that mild winter, he never got a great feel for the product.
“There was supposed to be snow, but we got rain and that might have washed it off, so we never got a good idea how it worked,” he said. “But a lot of states in my travels use it.
“It’s an organic juice that creates a barrier between the road and the snow so that when you plow the snow you get a nice, clean road,” Mr. Woodson said. “You get right down to asphalt.”
The New York State Thruway authority has begun to use beet juice products to pre-treat its roadways and Mr. Schiavoni said he put in a bid just last week to have the authority purchase 50,000 gallons of his product.
But it’s not just municipalities he’s trying to lure as customers.
He’s done a significant number of media interviews in the past year to encourage area residents to use his ice melt. He sells 50-pound bags of the beet juice rock salt for $10 apiece; 270 gallons of his liquid melt retails for $399 plus a $250 deposit to rent the pickup truck tank and sprayer.
Mr. Schiavoni says that because homeowners and business people would not have to apply as much of the beet juice products to their properties as they would traditional rock salt, they would see a savings.
And because it doesn’t use chloride accelerants, it is more pet-friendly.
Whether its homeowners or municipalities, he said people shouldn’t fear the brown coloring.
“Regular rock salt leaves a white stain, this is brown,” he said. “Which is worse? I don’t know.”