As Albion College students trudged into class last Thursday, Jan. 23, one question was repeatedly raised – “What’s that smell?”
A strong and unidentifiable odor was suspended in the air. Its thick, mildly unpleasant scent reportedly saturated every building. The only certain escape was outdoors, where the biting wind stole the aroma away. Students and faculty wondered what could possibly create such a stench.
Amidst an overwhelming array of other concerns, the grounds team immediately set to work to explain and control the odor. That same night, Don Masternak, director of facilities, sent a school-wide email which identified the culprit as a “natural, agricultural-based beet juice deicing product.”
Mark Frever, director of grounds, was initially in denial.
“I thought the Equestrian Center was emptying their muck pit or the pig farmer out west was moving their manure,” Frever said.
It didn’t take long for him to deduce that people’s shoes were tracking the product into class.
Though it was applied early that morning, the deicer took until noon to widely dissipate and garner several inquiries, at which point its use was cut short. Masternak extended apologies to the school on behalf of the facilities deptartment, receiving good-humored messages of acceptance in reply.
It should be noted that the product in question, Ice Bite De-icing Fluid, carries a very subtle scent under normal conditions. It was simply applied in a slightly higher concentration than normal last week and its close proximity to the buildings added to the smell’s strength.
Though there are three different modes of deicer application, the winter storm frequency led facilities to a direct application atop the ice last week. The team’s more recent method, which Frever concedes is “more tolerable for everybody’s nose and palette,” is to spray the beet juice onto the cement itself. This has noticeably reduced the smell.
Ice Bite is also successfully applied at Western Michigan, Purdue, Indiana University and in many Detroit-area cities. Used on Albion’s campus since 2010, Frever is confident in its continued application for years to come.
This agriculturally derived alternative is both greener and more productive at melting ice than salt alone. Frever explained that he is “always looking to use something more effective on campus, something that’s safer.”
He has certainly found that in Ice Bite, a mixture of sugar beet juice and brine. A Michigan-made product, the solution is actually a byproduct of extracting sugar from the beets. (This produces the tongue-twister that is “de-sugared sugar beet juice.”) The brine to which it is added is also a byproduct, generated by the fracking industry.
Traditional rock salt alone is only effective in temperatures of 20ºF or higher. Most unfortunately, Albion experienced temperatures far below that the past two weeks. An addition to the salt was ultimately called for.
When treated with the sugar beet juice, rock salt takes on a consistency similar to that of brown sugar. It largely reduces the amount of salt required in the deicing process. This is especially significant considering salt’s destructive nature. In addition to its corrosion of the metal in steel bridges, vehicles and reinforced concrete, high concentrations of rock salt threaten plant and animal health.
Though the deicer’s smell has since left the buildings, its memory leaves a unique message: minor sacrifices are sometimes necessary to achieve ecological wellbeing. The department’s use of Ice Bite is a testament to Albion’s admirable environmental awareness.
Photo by Emma Planet