What do snow, ice and omelets have in common?

A lot, according to winter road crews, more of whom treat roads and bridges before storms, just as cooks treat pans before meals – making for much easier cleanup, and, on the roads, much safer driving.

State and city or town crews around New England are attacking ice and snow with high-tech engineering and a low-salt diet – changing during the last decade or so from plowing, salting and sanding to spraying liquids that prevent snow and ice from bonding with the road.

“In the old days, it was called de-icing,” said Brian Burne, highway maintenance engineer for Maine’s Transportation Department. “You’d let the storm start out and let the snow build up ’til it was worth plowing.”

When the storm ended, crews salted, plowed and scraped up compacted snow and sand stuck to the road.

Enter the omelet, especially one made with no butter in the pan.

“You are letting everything kind of stick to the surface and now it’s gonna take you a long time to clean that pan up,” Burne said.

The liquids, used in Maine for a decade, act the same as shortening in Burne’s omelet.

“You put a little bit of butter in the bottom of the pan, then make your omelet and your cleanup is a whole lot cleaner, isn’t it?”

New England road crews spray various anti-icing liquids, depending on factors including temperature, the type and timing of storms and traffic conditions. Some use a salt brine mixture in warmer storms and calcium chloride or magnesium chloride in colder temperatures.

They treat roads and bridges before storms, wet regular road salt as it’s being spread or spray the road while dropping salt, allowing it to plop like oatmeal, rather than bounce like pebbles, or be scattered off the road by traffic.

“Unless there is a good, wet surface … you lose 30, 40, 50, 60 percent of your material immediately to the shoulder or median,” said Connecticut Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick.

Connecticut state crews switched two years ago from sand and salt to chemicals, including calcium chloride.

“It helps get down to the asphalt quicker than sand and salt,” said Nursick. State crews no longer use sand, which provides only temporary traction, fouls waterways and the air, clogs drains and costs millions to clean up.

The main benefit is safety, but some states say they also are saving money. Maine uses fewer trucks because those with liquid spreaders cover longer routes.

In addition to using both chemical mixes, Rhode Island also gets help from a dozen road sensors that transmit air and road surface temperatures, so highway crews know when ice is about to form.

Massachusetts state crews have been using calcium chloride for a decade, with salt and sand. They experimented last year with magnesium chloride and expanded its use this winter, researching safety and environmental impact.

“We are trying other products to make sure we are up to date in doing the best we can to minimize impacts to the environment,” said Frank Tramontozzi, the Massachusetts Highway Department’s chief engineer.

States and the federal government still are studying how the chemicals affect trees, plants and water supplies.

Brine is more environmentally friendly than road salt alone, because less salt is used. New Hampshire, for instance, uses about 30 percent less salt in the brine use areas.

A study for the Transportation Research Board found that calcium chloride and magnesium chloride generally have about the same potential impact as salt on water quality and vegetation, with less potential to harm soil.

The study says many variables prevent a simple product-by-product comparison, noting that each has advantages and disadvantages, depending on how, where and when they are used.

New Hampshire has used a salt brine mix on Interstate 93 in the southern part of the state for several years, with dramatic results.

“The secondary roads in that corridor can be at just about at a standstill, but 93, where we treat it from Manchester to the Massachusetts line is still good going,” said Pam Mitchell, a Transportation Department engineer.

New England’s battle with winter includes testing an anti-icing system on the I-89 bridge over the Connecticut River between New Hampshire and Vermont. The system detects when ice is about to form, then automatically sprays a chemical that keeps it away.

It is particularly helpful on bridges far from road crew stations and where ice forms even when nearby roads are dry, said Denis Boisvert of New Hampshire’s Transportation Department.

Boschung America of Newcastle, Pa., has 48 systems in or coming to 15 states and one Canadian province, said Director of Business Development Bill Gorse. Its parent company has installed more than 200 systems in Europe.

Vermont is in the second winter of testing several stretches of a pavement surface that stores its own anti-icing solution.

With Cargill Inc.’s SafeLane Surface Overlay, moisture in snow and ice activate the solution and prevent icing. Salting the road during a storm recharges the solution.

Results of the first year were encouraging, with no crashes on a steep section of Route 9 in Searsburg, Transportation Department spokesman John Zicconi said. The state may expand the surface to other short stretches of dangerous road.

“It is very expensive,” he said. “We will not lay it over miles of roadway.”

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