Yard-Friendly Ways to Melt Ice Without Salt

Rock salt, or sodium chloride, is a common deicing ingredient used to melt ice and snow on driveways, sidewalks, and paths during the winter months. While it may seem like a quick and easy solution to slippery surfaces, using salt to melt ice can actually be harmful to your landscaping, pets, and the environment. Here, we’ll take a look at the ways salt can be harmful and offer alternative methods you can use to melt ice in your yard or on your driveway without salt—and with minimal damage to landscaping.

A snow-covered yard designed by Yardzen for @tarynwhiteaker_designs

What’s Wrong with Using Salt in Your Yard?

First, let’s address why salt is harmful to your landscaping. Like most other chemical deicers, when salt is applied to ice and snow, it melts the ice by lowering the water’s freezing point. This means that the salt causes the ice to turn into water, which can then flow off of the surface it was applied to. While this may seem like a great solution for melting ice, the downside is that the salt can also have a negative impact on plants, soil, and other surfaces in your landscaping.

Left: Soil with good structure
Right: Soil with poor structure due to high salt
Image courtesy of UGA Extension

When the water that has been melted by the salt flows into the soil, it can leave behind high levels of salt. As far as plant health goes, a high concentration of inorganic salt buildup within the soil can cause burning of some plants, as well as “nutrient lockout” and degraded soil structure. Put simply, it can lead to soil that is too salty for plants to thrive in.

There are soil amendments on the market that can buffer the effects of salt on plants, but this is an added step that is easily overlooked by homeowners and can counteract the ease of using rock salt as a deicer in the first place.

Salt can also damage other surfaces in your landscaping, such as concrete, brick, and stone. When salt is applied to these surfaces, it can cause them to become pitted and eroded. This can lead to a rough and unsightly appearance, and can also make the surfaces more prone to cracking and breaking.

Concrete damaged by rock salt. Image courtesy of G&B Construction

In addition to the harm it can cause to plants and surfaces, salt can also be harmful to animals. Many pets, such as dogs and cats, are attracted to the salty taste of melted ice and snow. If they ingest large amounts of salt, it can lead to dehydration and other health issues.

And if rock salt is harmful to the plants and living creatures in your yard—it goes without saying that it can also harm plants and wildlife in the natural environment when the melted water and salt run off and reach local waterways.

Yard-Safe Ways to Address Ice

Now that we’ve discussed the drawbacks of using salt to melt ice, let’s take a look at some alternatives you can use to make your driveways, sidewalks, and paths more safe in freezing temperatures—without causing harm to your landscaping.

The best option for managing ice in your yard is to use very coursely-graded sand, since it is 100% organic, and will have no negative impact to the health of the adjacent soil or plants. Coffee grounds or kitty litter (as long as the litter is clean and clay or sand-based) can be used in lieu of sand if more readily-available. These materials provide traction on icy surfaces, helping to prevent slips and falls. While they don’t actually melt the ice, they can help to make the surface safer to walk on. You can also easily sweep up any excess material after the ice has melted to keep your yard tidy and remove some material before it reaches your soil, if that’s a concern.

A second option is to install a snow-melting systems beneath hardscaping or use heated snow melting mats. Heated snow-melting systems must be installed beneath the driveway, walkway, or patio—so they are only suitable for new or replacement hardscapes. These snow-melting systems work similarly to radiant floor heating—a sensor triggers the heating element to turn on when temps drop below freezing and the heat is then transferred to the surface material. This helps to melt the ice and snow, making it easier to clear with no hassle. While these systems can be expensive to install, they can be a long-term solution for keeping your surfaces ice-free without causing any harm to your landscaping or your local watershed. Heated snow melting mats are much more affordable and can be used to keep smaller, high-traffic outdoor areas like walkways, steps, and entryways ice-free.

A home with a snow-melting system installed underneath the driveway and front walkway. Image courtesy of Houzz

Hot water could be usedif the weather is above freezing temperatures and isn’t expected to dip back down. A half-gallon of hot water on your front steps after snow removal may do the trick, and is a perfectly safe option for nearby soil and plants.

Lastly, old-fashioned “mechanical” ice and snow removal is always a safe solution to de-icing your yard. This means using tools to plow, break up, or scrape the offending ice from high-use areas. A good sidewalk ice scraper, snow shovel, and broom can remove a lot of ice—and count as your workout for the day.

Other Deicing Methods to Avoid

Other “chlorides” are commonly used as a deicing alternative to rock salt including calcium chloride, potassium chloride, or magnesium chloride. These deicers, like rock salt, work by releasing heat as they dissolve, which helps to melt the ice. While they are generally considered less harmful than rock salt, they can still be somewhat harsh on plants. Most chlorides should also be avoided on concrete hardscaping, since they are slightly acidic and can corrode the material over time—chlorides can also be corrosive to steel, precious metals, and plastics.

Urea is another deicing agent often touted as safer than rock salt for soil and plants. However, urea runoff is a huge concern. This chemical has very high nitrogen content, and can contaminate local waterways when it is over-applied. High nitrogen levels from fertilizer runoff like urea are known to cause algal blooms in waterways which can negatively impact wildlife and ecosystems.

Ammonium sulfate is another fertilizer that is sometimes used to melt ice, but it is very corrosive to concrete and should also be avoided to reduce pollution via runoff—studies have shown the chemical can have lethal effects on wildlife.

There are many household chemical options for melting ice, and while they may be effective at deicing, they can do damage to your landscaping in large enough quantities. For example, dish soap can be used to deice paths and walkways but—dish soap is actually formulated to remove oils and dry out cell membranes—including the cells of your plants and lawn, risking plant dehydration and death. Rubbing alcohol and isopropyl alcohol can have the same effect on plants if enough leaches into the soil. While guidance around using either as a DIY ice melt typically recommends only a few drops of dish soap or a cup of rubbing alcohol, there’s no reason to risk harming plants when other options are available.

In conclusion, while salt and other chemical-based methods may seem like easy solutions for melting ice and snow, they can cause a lot of harm to your landscaping—and the environment, when chemical deicers in your yard contaminate surface water and stormwater that eventually flows into municipal and urban waterways. 

To keep your yard safe and looking great (and to avoid polluting local waterways) consider using salt and chemical alternatives such as sand, heated mats and snow-melting systems, and mechanical ice removal. This will keep your driveways, sidewalks, and paths usable all winter, while avoiding unhappy plants and damaged hardscaping come spring.

Modern two-story home with glass-paned garage door and paver driveway
A front yard designed by Yardzen for a client in San Francisco

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