Greener Practices, Smarter Operations

Trends in Ice Rink Management and Maintenance

By Chris Gelbach

As the summer heat wanes, there's been no freeze in operations for most North American ice rinks. As these facilities strive to enhance their management and maintenance, they're doing so with a growing focus on green practices and technologies, year-round operations, and programming and facilities designed to attract a diverse recreational user base.

In With the New and Green

Some of these greener practices are most evident in new facilities. Mark Hentze, partner and director of recreation, culture and community for CEI Architecture, which has worked on several ice rink projects, has integrated a growing range of these practices into recent designs.

Among these efforts are choices such as the use of more recycled products, including nonporous recycled PVC products for toilets and a shift to flooring made out of recycled rubber tire. "That works fantastic for hockey skates because it has more give in it, more flexibility," Hentze said.

Newer facilities are also increasingly working to capture the heat inherently created by the refrigeration system. "We'll stick it into radiant floors to help heat the dressing rooms or spectator areas with radiant heat," Hentze said.

Designs that incorporate more natural lighting, particularly in the lobby areas, are providing both a higher-quality patron experience and reduced energy costs. Hentze's firm is also increasingly turning to the use of renewable materials like wood for roofs and other areas not prone to vandalism because they can enhance the aesthetic experience and the acoustics of the space for concerts.

Peter Martell, executive director of the Ice Skating Institute, isn't necessarily seeing a growth of new ice facilities at the municipal level that include the seating capacity for concerts and other events. But when Hentze works on larger facilities, he's seeing acoustics become an important consideration.

"The entertainment aspect is a request that ranges from a nice-to-have to a programmatic need on a lot of arenas that we're looking at now that are 400 seats up to three or four thousand," Hentze said. He's also seeing these facilities willing to incur higher heating and cooling costs to opt for a higher roof—25 feet versus 18 feet—to provide flexibility for other activities such as lacrosse and better acoustics for concerts.

Other design elements are helping facilities meet the needs of different user groups while eliminating the need to open up the entire facility at all times. One example is the increasing use of flex changing rooms, which can accommodate eight to 10 users, in addition to traditional full-size rooms that can fit 20. They can be used as a more spacious version of a referee room, or can accommodate a smaller group of female players on a coed team. "We found that it's also a great size for figure skaters," Hentze said. "It means that you could have five boy skaters and 10 girls, and now the arena doesn't have to clean a full-size dressing room."

As referee rooms give way to flex rooms, Hentze is also seeing the incorporation of mini-lockers at the timekeeper's bench to give refs a place to store wallets and other personal items more securely and help overcome traditional theft issues associated with ref rooms.

Since ice arena showers are often used mostly at limited intervals, such as after games, instantaneous heating is growing in popularity for some applications to achieve considerable energy savings. "You get that hot water when you need it, but when you're not using it, the heat exchangers that make that possible don't have to work the same way that a constant supply of hot water does," Hentze said.

Martell noted that by 2020, most facilities will be required to phase out the use of ozone-depleting Freon R-22 as their primary refrigerant, so he is seeing the majority turn to ammonia instead.

"Ammonia is not only the most economical but also the most efficient refrigerant out there," Martell said. "So we're seeing considerable return to the use of ammonia, and I know of a few facilities experimenting with CO2 as a primary refrigerant." Fortunately, Martell is seeing this be a concern in many cases for American facilities that were built in the '70s or '80s and that have the need to replace their floors and refrigeration plants anyway.

As facilities move to cut energy consumption, some leading-edge facilities have also adopted fuel-cell technology. For example, HP Pavilion, home of the San Jose Sharks, has installed fuel-cell energy servers capable of replacing roughly 90 percent of the electrical power used during non-even hours and roughly 25 percent on a Sharks game day.

Lights On for Energy Savings

An embrace of higher-efficiency lighting is contributing to significant energy savings in many ice rink facilities, as well. CEI Architecture shifted from metal halide lights to T5HO fluorescent lights in their designs several years ago because they offered the opportunity for instantaneous lighting and dimming in addition to saving significant energy. They're now seeing more applications where LED lighting is a good choice.

Martell likewise projects growth in the technology's adoption. "LED lighting is gaining in popularity, and I think that is going to happen very, very quickly because it's not only extremely energy-efficient, but the things also last forever," Martell said.

Mike Lorenz, president of a leading provider of LED lighting systems to ice rinks, has seen his firm equip dozens of ice rinks in North America, including seven AHL arenas. He estimates that the capital outlay can range from $50,000 to upwards of $500,000 to install an LED system in a major arena.

"The business case that we try to help our customers through is: Let's evaluate your current scenarios, look at what your objectives are, and see how we can make that affordable and defensible from an ROI perspective," Lorenz said.

The technology may be eligible for incentives based on energy efficiency that help to lower its cost. Lorenz also urges facilities to consider financing options when evaluating different technologies and vendors. "There are ways to put in [LED] systems that can be funded from the savings from the system," Lorenz said. "So the actual cost outlay can typically be reduced to either zero or a positive cash flow in having a new system."

The potential savings can often be greatest in new construction. "There, the decision is much easier to make because you end up needing far less electrical infrastructure just because the LED system will take less power, less backup and less conduit so all of those ancillary savings play a role in the analysis," Lorenz said.

Programming for Success

One thing that hasn't changed, according to Martell, is the need for most ice facilities to attract a broad recreational user base. This includes users at the impulse level, such as birthday party attendees or recreational skaters on a Friday night; the grassroots level, or people who are signed up in learn to skate or learn to play hockey classes; and the recreational level, including house league hockey programs and recreational figure skating programs that aren't especially expensive or time-consuming.

"These have to make up three-quarters of a rink's business in order for the rink to remain healthy," Martell said. "Because if you try and focus all of your attention on the elite aspect, it's such a small minority of the population that it gets the whole rink's ice time schedule and income structure totally out of whack."

In a further extension of the importance of recreational skaters, Hentze has seen a greater emphasis in recent years on leisure ice, sometimes in more freeform designs. "We're finding that the stuff we're working on right now, there is a shift," Hentze said. "And that shift is to making that leisure ice more programmable."

One example is the Rocky Ridge recreation facility in Calgary, which will feature a leisure skating complex. "We designed the leisure ice almost by using little islands that you could attach to the ice using goalpost technology to create different environments, almost like a stage set," Hentze said.

For another project, CEI has designed an ice slab for Sylvan Lake, Alberta, that's 200 feet long, so it can be potentially used for hockey, but that allows for 40 or 50 feet of that slab to remain unfrozen when the main area is used for curling. Dasher board inserts are built into the slab to allow the sheet of ice to be quickly converted for hockey use. "That kind of flexibility is something we're seeing a real demand for," Hentze said.

Skating Under the Stars

While Hentze is seeing more call for spaces that can be converted for lacrosse and concert use in the offseason, Martell is seeing more facilities in the United States opt for year-round operations. An increasing number of municipalities are also considering seasonal ice skating structures in high-traffic areas to attract patrons for outdoor skating over the holidays and under the stars.

"More and more people are becoming aware of the fact that there's this new venue of skating, this new type of side industry to the skating industry," said Byron Sharp, president of a Miami-based company that sells, rents and manages these kinds of portable, seasonal facilities. "And because of good press, the market is picking up year after year."

Sharp recommends that municipalities considering such an option try the idea out by renting a portable rink for a season instead of purchasing it initially. Beyond the rental costs, Sharp recommends that municipalities budget for things like holiday decorations, advertising and promotion, and a minimal snack bar to help make the experiment a success. "People need to be aware and understand that the rink itself if a draw," Sharp said. "People will come if they know it's there. It'll have the best chance of success if you advertise and promote it."

Sharp's firm also offers ice slides, which can be an option for spaces that are too small for a full rink, or for spaces with room for both offerings. Given the limited number of users that can be on a slide at a given time, it can often work best when used as a draw in tandem with an outdoor rink.

In all skating environments, success also depends on finding and training staff with the expertise to maintain the ice properly and provide quality programming. For this reason, Sharp often sees his seasonal rinks do best when they're located in proximity to year-round skating facilities from which both a base of skaters and experienced rink employees can be drawn.

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