Try 3 months for $3

An idea that began with a sketch on a bar napkin has turned into an innovative invention for the Juneau County Highway Department.

On Friday, the highway department, along with the Juneau County Economic Development Corporation, unveiled a pre-wet salt system that has already saved the county thousands of dollars on salt and sand. The auger system is believed to be the first of its kind anywhere and the county is hoping the innovation will lead to an economic boost for the area.

The county highway department is currently working on a patent for the machine, which could take a year to be authorized. At Friday’s meeting, Highway Commissioner Dennis Weiss and Juneau County Economic Development Corporation Director Terry Whipple were excited to finally unveil their new invention to several county board members and the local media.

“This is a piece of equipment that is not only unique in what it does in blending where we went ahead and got a patent on some of those features, but we were also able to save the county quite a few dollars, too,” Whipple said. “I think this is very indicative of Juneau County. We have plenty of people who can produce, and that’s exactly what we want to see.”

Weiss said the idea for the pre-wet salt system was concocted on a bar napkin during a chat with a friend. The system uses a mix of salt and beet juice, which sticks to slippery roadways much better than traditional road salt or sand.

“What we also want to do is challenge other municipalities in Juneau County that if they have other ideas or innovations to move forward on them,” Whipple said.

According to Weiss, the county has seen a minimum of 20 percent reduction in salt usage since they began using the system this winter, resulting in $128,000 of savings. Other benefits of the system include a reduction in time spent salting, along with wear and tear on department trucks. With the new system, trucks don’t have to carry as much salt and sand as they previously did, preserving springs and rims. Weiss said the system works on all department trucks.

During the presentation, the department aired a 10-minute video, produced by Mauston High School students, featuring interviews with county highway employees. In the video, Weiss and several others explained how the system works, turning beet juice and salt into a savings boon for the county.

“One of the most important things about this is that we had employees buy in,” Weiss said. “We had the attitude that we can make this work and it all came together in a team environment.”

With the old salting system, salt would bounce off icy roads and wasn’t very effective. Using beet juice isn’t a new concept, as several municipalities in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois use a similar beet juice/salt mix. Beet juice also doesn’t cause rust to trucks like calcium chloride, which used to be applied to roadways with salt.

The invention cost $81,000, but the county has already seen a return on that amount in salt and sand savings this winter. With county board approval, the highway department is hoping to go forward with marketing the machine and could eventually sell licensing to a manufacturer to develop more pre-wet mixing machines. County board and highway commission member Dave Arnold said the invention could lead to many possibilities for the county’s economy.

“We saw this as an opportunity to create additional jobs and create some profit for the county,” said Arnold. “We also wanted to help offset taxpayer expense.

“Of course, we saw the benefit of this in northern states, but we also know southern states have problems with ice in the winter and there could be a huge market for this down there.”

After a patent is approved, it could take a couple years for the machine to be reproduced and sold to other municipalities. However, county attorney David Lasko said if a patent is approved, it’s beneficial for the county to move forward with the invention.