Brine: Keeps roads clear, but corrodes your car

joneal@dailypress.com
Car detailers warn drivers to clean brine off their vehicles or risk severe damage.

As snow began to fall Tuesday afternoon, Darion Harrington and Autobell Car Wash crew were already at work.

Located at the busy Warwick Boulevard-Eastwood Road intersection in Newport News, the business opened just a week ago.

It's real test may be this weekend.

As the region's second significant winter storm rolls in, Harrington and his crew of about 40 employees are preparing for a wave of drivers — all looking to give their vehicles a quick scrub down.

"Once the weather clears up, we anticipate things to really pick up at this location," said Harrington, manager of the new Autobell Car Wash.

With winter showing no signs of loosening its grip on Hampton Roads, state and local transportation officials have been busy treating highways with salt, sand and another highly-effective tool to combat ice and snow: brine.

But the chemical make-up of brine has industry experts warning drivers to have their cars cleaned after this bout of winter weather. Failure to do so could have you shelling out big bucks for years to come.

"The solution, once it gets into crevices of a vehicle, is highly corrosive," said Bob Baboian, an auto industry consultant and fellow with the National Association of Corrosive Engineers. "Brine is highly effective, but can cause serious damage to vehicles if it's not immediately addressed."

Brine use

Brine is a chemical agent comprised of rock salt and magnesium chloride dissolved in water. It is sprayed on roads as a pre-treatment before a winter storm.

Laurie Simmons, Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said brine has been used on the Peninsula for eight years. She said transportation officials began using the chemical agent across Hampton Roads in 2013.

Once brine is applied, it own can be seen as white lines on the roadway.

"If precipitation is delayed, the dried brine mixture will remain on the roadway and will become active once precipitation begins," Simmons said. "This allows crews to treat early and helps ensure all road surfaces are treated before any precipitation."

Brine has another tremendous benefit: It's cheap.

The salt used to mix brine costs $89 per ton, Simmons said, which produces about 2,000 gallons of the liquid formula to treat area roadways.

Since the start of the winter season, Simmons said more than 23,000 gallons of brine has been spread on area interstates — representing just more than $1,000 spent.

It also saves the cost of placing crews on roadways with sand and salt trucks, since the solution is very effective once roads are treated.

"An effective anti-icing program with liquid brine reduces de-icing efforts, materials and equipment later on," Simmons said. "Anti-icing with liquid brine returns roads to passable conditions quicker, resulting in fewer delays or incidents."

Unintentional consequences

Because magnesium chloride is more corrosive than rock salt, Baboian said any brine that hits a vehicle will be corrosive and potentially cause significant damage to the undercarriage. The solution can also seep into cracks and scratches that causes cosmetic damage to a vehicle and shorten its life span.

"The costs of corrosion are pretty hidden," Baboian said. "But they are there and can be costly."

Leaving your vehicle in the garage once it has been exposed to brine could also cause problems.

Baboian said drivers should consider leaving their cars parked outdoors and away from heated garages once their vehicles have been exposed to brine. Vehicles left parked in heated garages are at risk to car rust and an accelerated corrosion process, Baboian said, which can affect everything from mufflers to wiring.

"The corrosion rate can be 100 to 1,000 times faster in the higher humidity and the higher temperature," Baboian said. "When the temperature outside is low, it's best to leave the vehicle outside."

While there haven't been any cost-effective treatments to de-icing roadways that rival brine, Baboian said automakers are becoming more receptive to the solution by designing vehicle elements that prevent brine exposure.

"The automotive industry is doing a good job," Baboian said. "They are using more galvanized steel, and aluminum and plastics that make it difficult for brine to cause corrosion."

Baboian added that researchers have also examined the use of calcium magnesium acetate, a solution used to de-ice planes and runways. Baboian admitted it is not very cost-effective and has to be applied to roadways with more fervency.

Meanwhile, the best way to combat brine is by thoroughly washing your vehicle after a winter weather event.

Harrington said Autobell offers several cleaning packages that will clean cars exposed to brine.

"You want to make sure your vehicle is thoroughly cleaned," Harrington said. "That's going to be key in not having your car affected by the brine years down the line."

Tamara Dessoffy, owner of Oyster Point Car Wash and Lube in Newport News, agreed. She plans to staff her facility with more detailers as the weekend, and warmer temperatures, approach.

"We've educated our customers and plan to be busy this weekend," Dessoffy said. "Getting the vehicle cleaned after a storm like this is very important, because the life of your car depends on it."

O'Neal can be reached by phone at 757-247-4744.

Brine by the numbers

23,000 gallons: The amount of brine used treat regional interstates since the start of winter.

About $1,000: The cost of the brine spread along roadways in Hampton Roads this winter.

8: Number of years brine has been used on the Peninsula.

50: Percentage of automobile corrosion cases attributed to brine corrosion.

Sources: Virginia Department of Transportation, National Association of Corrosive Engineers

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