LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. (NEWS10) – If you own lakefront property, winter is the time to get smart and safe. Untended docks can undergo significant damage from freezing water. That’s why, if you travel the length of a water body like Lake George or Brant Lake, you’ll see docks surrounded by halos of open water, no matter how cold the winter gets.

De-icers are important to caring for docks, but their improper usage creates a nest of dangers all its own. A new Warren County effort is hoping to educate lakeside property owners on how to care for their docks properly. The alternative can lead to tragedy.

“I’ve lived on Brant Lake since the 1970s, and I lost my daughter’s dog last winter,” recalled resident Cindy Mead on Thursday. “It was a yellow lab, who fell in the ice, couldn’t get out, and died. I’ve hated bubblers for years, and that was the push I needed to get off the couch and do something about it.”

De-icers come in two types. Most are familiar with the term “bubbler,” referring to a device that releases a stream of bubbles from under a dock. The consistent motion in the water breaks up ice, stopping the formation of solid sheets too close to a dock. Bubblers are only one of two types of de-icing device. The other, the “ice eater,” opens up a much wider area – and more potential for tragedy, as well as ecological damage.

Mead first reached out to Brant Lake’s own town of Horicon, as it’s up to town governments to regulate the use of de-icers. From there, her concerns quickly reached the county, which is mobilizing this winter to better educate the public on what makes a de-icer safe or not. This winter, a pamphlet will be mailed to every waterfront property in Warren County to get the word out.

“(A dock) is essentially an extension of your living room, and you should take care of it just as well as you do in the summertime,” said Frank Denardo, of Elite Dock Co., which services docks around Lake George with seasonal care equipment – including de-icers. “There are different kinds of equipment, and we’d like people to get familiar with them.”

Denardo brought an ice eater to a property on Assembly Point on Thursday morning, to demonstrate what makes it different – and potentially more hazardous – than more passive bubblers. It consists of a fan on a motor, suspended under the water by a pair of ropes and pointed upwards to send an intense jet of bubbles up toward the surface. At the dock next door, an aeration-style bubbler was at work, sending several smaller jets of bubbles up from points in a horseshoe curve around the dock’s radius. That air travels by a silent diaphragm pump through a tube running along the bottom of the dock.

LEFT: An aeration bubbler operates on a Lake George dock. RIGHT: A fan-style “ice eater” bubbler leaves its own, considerably larger footprint on the water’s surface.

The main concern with de-icing is the size of the hole in the ice being created. Open water is one half of that concern, but thin ice is just as bad. Stronger de-icers can cause ice to stay thin further out into a water body than it should. That can be an unexpected danger for ice fishers and snowmobilers – especially those who take winter rides at night. Denardo has even seen cases where emergency services personnel have attempted to arrive by water to respond to a 911 call, only for a bubbler’s impact on an area to make that journey impossible.

The ice eater Denardo brought would be submerged about 4 feet underwater, and would use its 1/2 horsepower motor to open an area of ice as wide as 50 feet in a semicircle. They only get bigger from there; a 3/4 horsepower model can open 75 feet of ice, and a 1 horsepower can reach 90 feet. For comparison, an aeration bubbler is significantly gentler, creating a consistent 3-foot horseshoe of open water around a dock.

Warren County’s flyer notes that the problem with motorized ice eaters gets worse when multiple docks in a row all use them. A photo from along a county water body shows a large pool of open water stretching across a trio of docks, due to residents running motorized de-icers at all three properties. What’s more, those de-icers should only be run for a couple of hours at a time, whereas an aerator’s lower impact allows it to be run continuously.

The danger isn’t limited just to who could fall into the water. A Lake George property owner who asked to remain anonymous spoke about the issues he’s seen improper de-icing cause neighboring docks – including his own. Once ice is broken up, the next time winds are high, that surrounding ice gets moving. One cubic foot of ice weighs about 53 pounds – so imagine what a whole lake’s worth can do.

“I bought my house about 40 years ago, and the first year I owned it, the dock got knocked out. A few years later, it saw severe damage, and just last year it got medium damage. It happened in the spring, when the ice got a running start.”

When the most recent damage took place, the owner’s two sons were able to get some repairs done, with several thousands dollars in repair costs eventually rearing their head – and the human cost remains. When the owner purchased his property 40 years ago, there wasn’t much information about de-icing – that first winter, and the complete destruction of the dock, came as a surprise.

This winter, homeowners and authorities on safe dock use alike are hopeful for the positive impact of Warren County’s efforts. The pamphlet headed to residents’ mailboxes includes information on when to turn a de-icer on and off, how systems can affect water quality and more. The county has also launched an online resource that spells it all out in full – all to keep the ice safer for those who walk on it and live by it this winter.