January 2024 – Last year, the winter-weary Twin Cities logged the third snowiest season on record. Cumulative snowfall in the west metro topped out at just under 90 inches. Edina retiree Mike Jens says that residents at York Condo West, a 138-unit complex in the Promenade Neighborhood, were less than enthused with the months-long onslaught.
In addition to too-frequent blizzards, “our worker and resident volunteers had to tend the condo lots constantly to prevent ice … and shovel nuisance snows drifting down from the roof.” Due to their 20-degree angle of decline, York Condo West’s two ramps down to underground parking proved particularly treacherous and required regular salting to prevent accident or injury.
Jens, a retired mechanical engineer, decided to run the numbers. “It turns out we put down about 35 bags, each 50 pounds – so about 1,700 pounds of salt on these ramps. I was amazed. That is a lot of salt.”
He cross-checked their product of choice against a chemical safety report and discovered something surprising. “It said not to release this [blend] into the environment.” It was an obvious red flag. “There’s a drain at the base of the ramps, and rain, snow and salt is clearly going somewhere.”
Jens secured a drainage map from the City of Edina Engineering Department and discovered that the neighborhood’s deicer residue washes into Adams Hill Pond, located about half a mile east of York Condo West.
Adams Hill Pond is part of the Nine Mile Creek Watershed, which encompasses 50 square miles stretching from Bloomington to Minnetonka – including about two thirds of Edina. Its health is monitored and protected by a public entity called the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District (NMCWD).
Jens learned that, according to recent NMCWD reports, our shared watershed is impaired with high chloride levels. Chloride concentrations are low in the natural environment, and excess from manmade runoff is harmful to plants, wildlife and humans in a multitude of ways. For equilibrium to be restored, cities and property owners within the watershed will need to reduce collective usage of chloride-laden road salts by more than half.
Shortly after moving to York Condo West in 2022, Jens joined the complex’s five-member building maintenance committee. He brought his preliminary findings about the salting issue to this group, confident he would find a receptive audience.
Over the past two years, this committee of likeminded residents has improved their property in several environmentally conscious ways. Highlights include the transition from fluorescent to LED lighting in all public spaces, installation of a rain garden and the replacement of 138 aging sliding glass doors with a more energy-efficient design.
After consulting with City staff and knowledgeable contractors, the committee felt they had a golden opportunity to become early adopters of a promising salt reduction technology: an underground snowmelt system for the property’s twin ramps.
While still fairly novel in residential settings, low-maintenance snowmelt infrastructure is a common feature at hospitals and ADA-compliant public facilities. Many such systems rely on electricity for their heat. However, Jens knew that the condominiums could not economically invest in the electrical upgrades required to move forward in that direction.
Inspiration for a workaround came from close to home. “One of our board members has a cabin where they ran piping through their hot water to heat their garage at no extra cost,” Jens shared. As it happens, York Condo West has an abundance of circulating hot water – a sustainable, no-cost energy source for the snowmelt system.
In contrast, installation came with a hefty price tag. Jens turned to the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District for financing assistance. NMCWD provides grant support toward projects that improve surface water quality and restore native habitat within the district’s boundaries.
Chloride minimization addresses the goal of improving water quality, since one teaspoon of salt is enough to pollute five gallons of water. Even so, Jens' application brought no assurance of success.
"While this grant is pretty easy to apply for, our board really put this particular project through the ringer,” shared Lizzy Boor, Watershed Specialist for NMCWD. “It was unprecedented for us to fund, and we viewed their [snowmelt system] as a kind of pilot project.”
However, Jens and his colleagues had clearly done their research around options and benefits. Ultimately, the Board of Managers allocated $20,000 to York Condo West – the maximum amount allowable to a condo association.
As a trained engineer, Jens was delighted to help oversee the installation. “We’re talking about four 250-foot circuits, or 1,000 total feet, of 3/4-inch tubing per ramp. That’s topped with foam, which acts as a vapor barrier, and then about 5 inches of concrete.” The snowmelt system turns on automatically when triggered by moisture and temperature sensors.
Jens knows that not all his neighbors are interested in the exact specs, but feels certain that no one is missing the ice- and salt-caked asphalt mess which the condo’s new ramps replace.
Both the NMCWD and City of Edina are active partners in the new Low Salt No Salt Minnesota campaign. Goals include community education and personalized consultation with homeowner and condo associations around how best to curb the use of detrimental chloride products. Jens strongly recommends contacting City of Edina Water Resources Manager Jessica Wilson, [email protected], to learn more about actionable strategies for your property.