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Eco-friendly in Alaska

This week on Car Talk, Tom and Ray heard from the wacko fringe in the great, white north. Specifically, Scott from Juneau, Alaska. (You can hear Scott's call with Tom and Ray, right here.)

Scott's question? What's the most eco-friendly fluid that he can spray to clean his car's windshield, so he can do his part to keep those Alaskan salmon swimming in clean rivers.

Tom and Ray proposed plain old dish soap, with a not-so-plain solution, involving a quick decoupling system, and nightly trips into the house with the washer container, so it doesn't freeze into a solid brick until, say, next July. They also toyed with a nuclear option, but, finally confessed they were in over their heads.

But, they confessed, there must be a simpler way. And, so, they're turning once again to our trusty Car Talk Community.

What do you propose? Is there an environmentally friendly solution that's a tad bit easier that Tom and Ray's solution?

Let us know what you think!

Vodka doesn’t freeze but I don’t know what kind the salmon would prefer.

Ethyl alcohol (aka ethanol) is not toxic. This is the alcohol that is in booze that we drink. Unfortunately, in the consumable form, it is highly taxed, so using everclear would work, but is expensive.

An alternative is denatured ethanol. This has stuff added that will make you sick if you drink it, but I don’t think (I am MIT course 2, not course 10) it is ‘toxic’ per se.


I don’t have a solution, but wouldn’t there be a possible problem with this solution until the interior of the car (i.e. the windshield) gets warm enough? Until that point, given a temperature of, say, -25 F, won’t the soap-water solution immediately freeze when it hits the windshield? Or maybe before it hits the windshield?

It reminds me of weathermen in North Dakota or somewhere up there, who in demonstration of how cold 30 below was, threw a cup of hot water in the air, which crystallized before it hit the ground. Just a thought…

Cheap vodka with a little bit of soap in it might also work nicely.

Alcohol is more environmentally friendly than soap and water. Soap and water put phosphates into the environment, alcohol does not. Alcohol evaporates and also is so small a molecule, compared to fatty acids in the soap, that it is broken down faster. Neither would be good in high concentrations but on a relative scale I would use alcohol before soap…

Instead of synthetic alcohol, what if you put in some grain alcohol to keep the windshield wash from freezing? You could experiment with how many parts alcohol to water before doing it, to get the cheapest ratio. Wait, does grain alcohol freeze? Seems like it wouldn’t – and the salmon might like the occasional martini when someone drives by… Actually you could probably have a still and make your own. Is that legal? Sounds like a nice little local enterprise.

Good luck!

Why not some cheap Vodka or Gin?! Hey, that’s “natural,” right? And add a little water and a few drops of eco-friendly hand soap… It shouldn’t freeze… and should do the job!

Paul from Columbia, MD

Guys, you missed the most obvious solution. The only reason they use methanol is so you can’t drink it. Just use real alcohol. How much does a gallon of Everclear cost (you know they sell it by the gallon)? You can dilute it a bit and use it and it won’t freeze and the salmon will be drunk so they will be easier to catch.

I live in Canada so our weather is similar. My thinking is that first of all the Methanol/Alcohol evaporates quickly once it is used. So the environmental impact is minimal-none.

The problem is with the Washer Pump, Hose Freezing. Once the car is parked they will freeze. Also, once the “hot” liquid is sprayed on the windshield, the liquid will freeze immediately on contact.

That’s my opinion, enjoy your show.

Richard, Montreal, Canada

A friend of mine lives in Michigan and she uses Clear Power by Melaleuca. Just puts a whole bottle in and fills the rest up with water. Has been there 2 yrs and it hasnt frozen yet. She does keep her car in her garage…not sure if that makes a difference.

Gentlemen, you seem to have overlooked that most useful of alcohols: ethanol. The freezing point of this alcohol is almost minus one hundred fifty degrees farenheit, and is far less toxic than isopropyl or methyl alcohol (Martini, anyone?). Mixing a strong alcoholic spirit like Everclear with a mild soap would produce a cleaner that wouldn’t freeze, even in Alaskan winters…it may, however, foam up or, more imporantly, leave streaks on the windshield (due to soap residue). At any rate, whatever soap you use, you can be sure that mixing in ethyl alcohol will keep it from freezing. Cheers.

The removable washer container is great but what about the hoses from the container to the nozzles that direct the fluid to the windshield. They would have to be removed as well to prevent them from freezing overnight, never mind that the water would freeze at the nozzles during 10 minutes you spent in the coffee shop in the morning. If Scott has a sunroof he could just open it and pour the washer fluid over the windshield as he drives down the road. A less messy and more elegant solution would be to use vodka to lower the freeze point of summer washer fluid. He can probably get it cheap since he’s so close to Russia, he can see it from his garage door.

Here’s a much easier solution and it is RELATIVELY echo friendly. Instead of methanol or isopropol alcohol, simple out ethanol! I used to do this when I was a chemistry major in Indiana. It worked like a champ, too. Back then, I had done the actual calculation based on the freezing points from the CRC handbook. But I do remember it took a little bit more ethanol than methanol for the same freezing point…maybe 5% more or so. So find out what the percentage of methanol is in your local washer fluid add 5% and then buy some cheap booze (like vodka) and just use the fact that the proof is twice the percentage concentration. (Something that is 80 Proof is 40% alcohol.) Maybe not the cheapest solution, but it won’t be that bad for the environment or fish and the fishermen may get a nice bonus if everyone switches over!

The alcohol in the washer fluid will evaporate before it can reach the waterways. Unless you are pouring washer fluid into the waterway right out of the bottle.
Dish soap is a bad idea, the phosphates in the dish soap are a real detriment to organisms in and around the water.

what about using food grade propylene glycol? it is used in geothermal systems to keep them from freezing, and is completly harmless to humans and the environment. you may want to find out what it will do to the windshield first though.

Without some “anti-freeze”, spraying a water solution on a very cold windshield will produce instant ice. He needs to have teh deffroster on.

When it’s really cold in Alaska, why does he need it anyway?

But he can try salt water. Good down to about to Fahrenheit.

I don’t see why vodka wouldn’t work. Never tried it myself, but in a related note, the Top Gear crew created a tire cooling system for driving up to a volcano using water spiked with vodka so that the water wouldn’t freeze and so there would be no ecological damage to the area.

So everyone here is proposing the same thing I was going to suggest: Grain alcohol. I hadn’t thought about phosphates in soap as being the bigger problem. Therefore, I propose the most environmentally-friendly, and ultimately the most tasty and refreshing solution: Use the grain alcohol to prevent freezing, and use lemon juice as the cleaning agent. Cheers!

Get a plastic bladder that you can wrap around your torso under your jacket (think modified Platypus or Camelbak) which will use body heat to keep from freezing. With a hand-pump squirter attached to a hose, you can hand spray the windshield without the fuss of disconnecting anything. OK, you have to either reach out the window or get out of the car, but if you use a solution of water and ethanol, you can also use the solution to defrost yourself.