Fighting a Frugal Battle Against Ice and Snow

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Winter Storm-1.jpg by edseloh on Flickr!For those of you who live in the northern states, winter weather conditions are a very common obstacle. Almost every other morning, I find myself chipping away at ice on the windshield or doing something to de-ice the driveway.

Given my curious nature, I’ve investigated a lot of different methods for handling snow and ice with the end goal of reducing the cost of dealing with winter weather conditions. Here are seven of the best tactics I’ve found along the way.

1. Put a sheet over your windshield. If you’re anticipating a big, icy storm, get an old bed sheet and spread it across your windshield. Use the windshield wipers to hold it in place, then close the ends of the sheet in the doors of the vehicle. After the storm, you can simply peel the sheet off and the ice comes right off with it.

2. Use alcohol instead of de-icer. Instead of dropping money on an expensive bottle of de-icer, just fill a spray bottle with some rubbing alcohol, which you can get for far cheaper. Spraying this on icy surfaces does just as well as the expensive stuff. You can also add a bit of Windex to the mix, but I’ve not noticed much difference between the two.

3. Try mixing water, alcohol, and dishwashing soap, too. It’s also a useful tactic to fill a spray bottle with a 50-50 mix of water and alcohol with just a few drops of dishwashing soap. You can spray this on in climates where the temperature is just below freezing and it’ll work even better than the straight alcohol.

4. For icy sidewalks, mix calcium chloride and rock salt. Calcium chloride is the best material available for clearing ice off the sidewalk because it gives off heat as it melts the ice. Mixing it with much cheaper rock salt (in a 50-50 mix) allows the calcium chloride to work first, warming up the ice a bit to a temperature where the rock salt can work. Mix the two in a bucket in your garage.

5. For driveways, just use sand. Sand is far, far cheaper than salt for a large driveway and both have the same effect in the end – improving the traction of your vehicle. Before you put sand down, clear off the snow with a shovel so that you’re not just dumping sand on top of snow. You want the sand to cover the hard layer that you’ll actually be driving on.

6. Shovel snow properly. Many people dread the task of shoveling snow and have visions of painful backaches and other disastrous conclusions. This doesn’t have to be the case! Pick a shovel that fits you and doesn’t cause you to bend over unnecessarily. Do some stretching before you start, and bundle up so you don’t get cold. Don’t shovel at a rapid pace – do it slowly with small scoops. When you need to lift, lift with your knees as much as you can. Wear good shoes with good traction. Doing these things will turn shoveling from a pain-inducing activity into good, healthy exercise.

7. Keep an emergency kit at home – and another in the car. If you’re in a climate where major winter storms can occur, it’s useful to have an emergency kit at home with appropriate supplies so that everyone in the house can find it if the need occurs. The kit should contain flashlights, a battery powered (or wind-up) radio, a wind-up clock, some food that requires no cooking (and a can opener if the food is canned), plenty of blankets, and fresh batteries. Having this on hand can make it easy to ride out a storm at home instead of taking on the huge risk of having to head outside in the middle of a blizzard.

For the car kit, you should have the items listed above, plus an extra layer of winter clothes for everyone who might be traveling with you as well as some road flares (to help rescue teams find you). An old cell phone is also useful, as old cell phones that still have battery life can call 9-1-1 even if they don’t have a phone plan.

Good luck!

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56 thoughts on “Fighting a Frugal Battle Against Ice and Snow

  1. 3.5 years ago my husband and I moved from New Orleans to near Pittsburgh. Our first winter here was quite an adventure :)

    Whenever possible I try to get our rock salt – calcium chloride mixture at Sam’s Club. They sell 50lb bags of the stuff already mixed, for the same price as plain rock salt at the grocery store. I try to make sure we always have some hanging around the house. One year we got a streak of bad weather and ran out of all of our de-icing supplies. Apparently most of the stores did too, because they only thing we could find to buy was pure calcium chloride at a hardware store. That stuff’s expensive.

  2. Nearly every driveway in my neighbourhood (mine excepted!) is cleared by a professional service. I get weird looks when I say that I prefer to do it myself… yet yesterday it took me all of 15 minutes with the right type of shovel (we got a 4″ snowfall), and the total cost of shovels is less than half of what people pay for a year of snow-clearing service.

    The shovels will last me for many winters, I get a good workout from the clearing of snow and doing things myself keeps me moving and prevents me from feeling that I need to get off the couch and to the gym (which would be another cost!).

  3. these are great tips to see right now since we just experienced our first real snow and ice of the season here!

    i’m going to try to stick to riding the bus this winter though.

  4. Nice collection of tips. One of these days I’ll have to get it together to cover my windshield with a sheet and avoid all that ice chipping!

    A correction:

    salt and sand do not provide equal traction.

    If what you are looking for is immediate traction, use sand, not salt. The purpose of salt is to melt away ice, and if you use salt on an icy surface, it will melt into the ice and create wet ice, which is even slipperier than ice alone. Only once the salt melts the ice down to the pavement so that your feet or tires are touching the pavement will the salt provide appreciable traction.

    Now, if you are talking about a salt and sand mixture, that is a slightly different story. Still, sand is better even than such a mixture if you are just looking for immediate traction.

    Which is why it is better to have sand in your car, not salt. If your car is stuck due to lack of traction, sand under your tires will increase the traction much more than salt under your tires.

  5. Also, one more note on sand:

    Beyond its traction-giving properties, it is dark in color and absorbs solar radiation, which causes it to help melt the snow and ice directly under it and around it. This is a big deal on a basically white, snow-and ice-covered driveway. And once the darker pavement surface underneath is exposed (if it’s blacktop) the melting increases even faster.

    It’s kind of like how the polar ice cap is melting, or vice-versa

  6. @ Izabelle who clears her own driveway:

    Yeah, at $50 a trip for professional snow removal, it can be a good deal to do it yourself with a couple of shovels.

    It can be serious work after an 8-10″ snowfall though. You will be working for your money!!

    Then when you get it cleared, the city plow truck plows your street and leaves a snowbank blocking your driveway off and you have to go out with the shovel again!!

  7. Rather than using your windshield wipers (and risking damaging the motors)do what I did. Get an old, thin sheet and sew magnets around the paremeter(so that the magnet is inside the sheet). Throw over your car and the magnets will hold the sheet in place. Bam! No work, no worries.

  8. I don’t live in one of those climates that gets regular snow and ice, but reading about the sand makes me wonder…would cat little work the same way as sand? Since many people have cats, in a pinch, could they use litter for traction?

  9. ..you could also just move to a sunny place like Arizona… Right now, it is 66.7 degrees outside, and sunny…

    (yeah, it gets hot out here for 3 months each year, but at least you don’t have to go out and shovel the heat…)

  10. I’ve been reading this blog very consistently for a while, but haven’t commented yet. I’ll change that now though. :)

    Cat litter DOES work as well. My parents mix their salt bags with cat litter as soon as they come to the house. Provides very good traction. I don’t know if you’d get odd looks when people realized what it was, but oh well. I don’t know if this is why they choose the cat litter, but I wouldn’t know where to buy sand.

    I live in an apartment complex at the moment and don’t have to worry about landscaping and snow removal and such :)

  11. Okay, Jade here from California wants to know, what is snow? Is it that wet stuff that falls from the sky in the winter? We call that rain around here…

    I’m just kidding, I’ve been to Tahoe, I know what snow is, and I’m very glad we don’t get it around here.

    But we do occasionally get ice on the windshield, especially in this kind of weather when the snow level drops to 1500 feet or so (but I’m only at 400 feet, so no white Christmas here…). I’ll have to try that trick with the sheet, or just get a big sheet with magnets or a car cover to keep the ice off all the windshields.

    And when I forget to put a sheet over the windshield, I’ll have to try that bottle of de-icing stuff. Most mornings a squeege will handle the dew that collects on my windows, but there are a couple days of the year when I pull out the squeege and discover that it’s not dew but ice. And then California girl just stands there looking dumb holding her squeegee… I need to find out where my boyfriend got his ice scraper…

  12. Thanks for this article. I live in North East Penna (nearest city Wilkes-Barre, Scranton) and I need all the tips I can get. Please write more on winter problems.

  13. @Meri:

    yes, cat litter works great, just about as well as sand to give traction, if you’re talking about the grey stuff made of clay.

    @troy:

    The tip about sewing magnets on a sheet is great! I never thought of that! I am going to make one of hose sheet covers with magnets for my car too.

  14. @jade:

    since you live someplace where ice is rare, you can probably get by using the side of a credit card to scrape the ice off on the rare occasions you get ice on your windshield. I wouldn’t bother buying an ice scraper for that scenario.

    BTW,It helps if you start the car and run the window defrost vents first before you start scraping.

  15. Oh, you jokers in the warm climates. Another approach works too. Move north. Snow you can brush off with your arm or a broom. I moved from Kansas City to Buffalo, NY and now I rarely have to scrape windows.

  16. Great tips. I will try the front windshield tip.
    It can get real icy mixed with rain and hard to
    scrape in the mountains. are you sure about the magnets. It can get real windy. Thanks for the person who said where to buy mix at Sams Club.
    I have never tried any deicer. Its that time again.
    I love snow. It is beautiful……

  17. Nice tips, but won’t the alcohol ruin your car paint?
    Also keep a bag of kitty litter in the car.
    Sand and loose fine gravel is free if you sweep it off the street in the spring. I do that each year along with my driveway. I just dump the wheel barrow into a large Rubbermaid tub for next winter. I’ve been using the same stuff for the past 5years.
    As for shovelling the driveway, I don’t. I worked out how much each time the contractor came divided by the seasonal fee and it came to $5 each time. That’s worth it to me.

  18. The best shovel is a piece of particle board, as wide a piece as you can comfortably hold. Just push the snow down to the end of your driveway and shovel the remainder off to the side.

  19. Trent
    Basements, attics, and sheds are for storage. Garages are for cars! Forget the exercise equipment. Clean out your garage and put the car in there.

    I understand not everyone has a garage (we didn’t for six long years) and your tips would be useful for them. For those who have a garage and can’t get a car into, I recommend flylady.net

  20. Here where water is scarce and expensive, I look at it not as shoveling snow, but harvesting water. So I carefully shovel to move snow to where the lawn and garden areas are.

    If you expect a heavy snowfall, go out and shovel every time there are a few more inches. It takes about 15 minutes to just scoop out a little at a time and beats trying to shovel a couple of feet.

    Also, invest in slip-on snow/ice cleats. Little patches of ice can lead to serious and even fatal falls. If you have osteoporosis, I strongly urge you to hire someone to shovel. That will be money well spent, instead of spending it at the ER and in the hospital. Not everyone should do it themselves!

  21. I really don’t think clipping the sheet with the windshield wipers is a good idea at all … sounds like it would just scheve them up.

    Good call on shoveling snow for exercise + frugality. Any advice on snow shovels?

  22. Clipping a sheet onto the windshield with your wipers will *not* mess them up, except maybe if you get a hurricane.

    It will also not affect the wiper motors.

    The trick here is to run the wipers until they are at vertical, then turn the key off. The wipers will stay vertical.

    Now lift them up with your hands (they are designed to pivot near their base) and put the sheet on the windshield. Lower the blades onto the sheet.

    There. You’re done!
    The only problem I see is if some wiseacre gets the idea to pull your wipers off because they are sticking up vertically and prominently. Otherwise, it’s totally safe.

    The reason I like the magnet idea is that the magnets can hold down the perimeter of the sheet better, not because I’m concerned about effects on the wiper blades.

  23. @ “won’t alcohol harm your car’s paint?”

    Alcohol is not a strong enough solvent to harm your car’s finish.

    Brake fluid is, though. Don’t pour any of that stuff on your paint.

    I like the particle board idea as a plow to push poweder snow off the driveway. I’m going to do that this winter with a piece of plywood! You do need a shovel, though, for the heavy stuff and to lift it and throw it.

    I have a heavy iron one (for tough, hard snow and ice) and an aluminum one (for lighter snow) and a plastic one that’s curved like a plow blade.

    They all are good for different things. If I had to pick just one, I’d get an aluminum-bladed snow shovel though.

  24. The magnet idea wouldn’t work here in Pueblo, CO. We get really high winds a lot, but if you couple them with shutting the sheet in the door, that would work.

  25. if you are concerned about the wind blowing away your sheet, I would skip the magnets and install the sheet with both doors open.. Drape the sheet inside the passenger and driver side door opening. Then close the doors. The doors will clamp the sheet in place. Any wind strong enough to pull the sheet off after that point and you have other things to be worrying about that your car’s windshield icing up.,

  26. Shoveling? Are we Chicagoans the only ones who use snow blowers to clear the driveway and sidewalks? Shovels are okay if it’s a light, fluffy snowfall. But Once you get past two inches or its the heavy, wet stuff, fire up that snowblower baby!

    My mom uses kitty litter on the walkway to the house. She doesn’t want salt washing off into the landscaping and killing her plants. Whether you use salt or sand or kitty litter, it’s always a pain to vacuum that crap up from the foyer!

  27. 2 things:

    If you use a snow blower be warned, if it gets stuck, DO NOT put your hand into it to clean it out. Use a stick or something else. There is “torque” on the blades and as soon as the blockage comes undone the blades will start turning again and take off your fingers. I’ve seen it too many times in the ER so please play it safe!

    If you don’t have alcohol to pour on iced windows you can use cold water and it will also work. Just make sure the water is cold, if it’s warm it can crack the windshield. I used to do this until I got my very own garage!

  28. Living in Maine gives us plenty of experience with deep snow. Your tips were all good, and I might add one.

    I recommend a snow scoop (commonly used around here) – you never lift the snow but simply slide underneath it and then slide it along to the bank. After a bit of practice, I can clear a driveway faster than a snowblower.

  29. I haven’t tried using the windshield wipers; the front sheet stays on nicely with the doors closed, but the back one blows up on the bottom. My husband suggested that we try opening the trunk and shutting it on the bottom. We’ll give it a shot!

  30. When I lived and worked year round in Jefferson City, MO, I tried buying a pience of plastice with magnets that was supposed to keep my windhsield ice free. Yeh!! The first time it iced up, I tried to pull it off my glass and it split all to pieces. So I invented my plastic garage.

    I went to Walmarts and bought a box of extra heavy duty plastice (10×20 feet) and cut it into 4 large pieces. I would use 2 pieces for 2-3 years and then use the other 2 after that. I would cover my windshield, tuck it into the front part of the front doors, and bring around to the back of the front doors and slam it shut. Kept my windhsield, rear view mirrors, and locks all ice free. I would do the same thing for the back half of the car, but would have the trunk open while I wrapped, and then slam it shut. My car was completely wrapped and took only seconds to unwrap. The first time I did this wrapping each winter, it might take me 4-5 minutes to get it all set up. But it was well worth the effort.

    The heavy duty plastic is made with an oil base so it never stuck to my windows. I lived there for 18 years and it worked fine. Also did it agains last winter while I worked through the winter again.

    I now have my own carport with a plastic shielding down the side to withn 2 feet of the concrete. Keeps me covered.

    Trent, would the diswashing liquid and alcohol & water be okay to sparay around my car doors to keep the rubber from freezing? Even in the carport 3 of my doors will freeze shut.

  31. Grew up in NW Jersey, which has the same climate as southern NH. I used to put a tarp over my car which helped out tremendously. A plastic dropcloth found in the painting section would also work really well. In the summer my tarp went under my tent when I went camping. I used bungee cords to keep the tarp on the car.

    Most cat litter nowadays has clay in it which doesn’t help much with traction. Sand is better and cheaper.

  32. Again @Steve, I like the credit card tip! Here’s what NOT to do: when I was in high school, living in Chicago, there was ice on my windshield and I was in a hurry, but didn’t have an ice scraper. I looked in my car, and found an empty (glass) Snapple bottle. I used that, and it got the ice off great… and scratched my windows! Maybe I’m the only one with that bright idea… But just in case, don’t let it happen to you!

  33. Credit Cards work great but be carefull. Just make sure not to use any card of great importantance. I had a previous job where our picture IDs also doubled as our time clock card. It was just convenient to use this card to clean the windows when you walk out to your car b/c you had the card in your hand after punching out at the end of your shift. Well, the next thing I know, the card snapped in half and I’m regretting being too lazy. I’ve learned my lesson. I keep a small scraper (about 8″ in length) and a pair of gloves under the drivers side of my truck all year round.

  34. Sandy – the shower curtain might be okay, but it’s often like that magnetized plastic I bought. Too thin to be of much use. If you get lots of ice on it, it will tear. If it is really heavy duty, go for it. That’s why I liked the heavy duty I bought at Walmart. I used it for 4-6 years and it cost me less than $10 at the time.

  35. Time for a chemistry lesson Trent:

    Calicum cloride is just another salt (CaCl2), it does not create heat when it melts ice. Melting point depression (causing a solid, like ice, to revert to its liquid state at lower temperatures) is based on the number of ions that the salt dissociates into when dissolved. CaCl2 dissocates into 3 ions (Ca2+, Cl-, & Cl-), whereas rock salt is NaCl and only dissocates into 2 ions (Na+ and Cl-). Each ion allows the melting point to depress approx. 2 degrees Centigrade. This is why up here in Fairbanks, AK we don’t use salt on the roads, driveways, etc. It doesn’t work at all below about -10 degrees Centigrade.

    Melting point depression has nothing to do with creating heat. Mixtures will have lower melting points and higher boiling points than pure substances. This is also how anti-freeze works and why you add salt to pasta water.

    What is actually kind of cool, when it gets cold enough (below -20 F) the ice will sublimate, go from ice to water vapor without passing through the liquid water phase.

  36. I’ve found a great “frugal” tip is to actually buy the “Winter” wipers where the frame is covered over so it won’t ice up. Being able to see where you are going icy weather is key, and not having to get out of your car to pound the ice out of the wiper blades is considerably safer than having to do it on the side of a busy highway. And, at $6 each, it’s considerably cheaper than any insurance deductible!

  37. I’ll also add another “frugal” tip — actually DO the maintenance on your furnace, snow blower, chimney, etc. Having to deal with a broken furnace (or even worse — a fire), or a clogged up chimney (and subsequent death from CO poisoning), or a snowblower that dies (well, there’s always shoveling — but the repair bill can be high) is going to be far more expensive.

    Don’t let frugality trump safety.

  38. I’m also a big fan of “Yaktrax” for snow shoveling. They fit over your boots and provide great traction on icy surfaces, which allows for more effective shoveling.

  39. Trent-
    You’re making me miss Iowa!!
    We got 2 inches of snow the other day and even on flat city streets they required chains!!

    They don’t use CaCl and use sand sparingly in Oregon.
    My biggest hill is the half block from where I park to the road.. and I couldn’t get up it with my car. Luckily I need to use up my leave time and took a day off to get tire chains and catch up on sleep.

  40. @ Jade: You crack me up! I’m in CA too.

    @ Trent: No snow where I am (10 ft. above sea level). It’s also not usual to have to worry about ice every day in the winter. I’m not one for having leisurely mornings, so finding ice on the car is not pleasant. Thanks for the tips!

  41. While rubbing alcohol will remove ice, it will also destroy or severely weaken any rubber components it comes in contact with. This includes windshield wiper blades. Is there something about keeping a $5 snow brush/ice scraper in your trunk that is too difficult?

  42. IIRC, “emergency calls without a cell plan” quit working early this year, when the last of the analog cell networks were taken down. That legal provision only applied to analog phones, and was never in the law regulating digital cellphones.

    Maybe there are a few isolated pockets where analog repeaters are still in operation, but please for the sake of your own safety, don’t rely on an unsubscribed cell phone to save you in an emergency WITHOUT CHECKING THE LAW FOR YOURSELF. The consequences could be tragic.

  43. Another hott tip:

    WD40 or Pam – Put that on your shovel to keep the snow from sticking and make throwing it easier. This comes from a veteran winter person from Michigan and Wyoming.

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