Future of area ice arenas in question

Back in the days when most everyone who skated or played hockey, it was on an outdoor pond or lake. Getting ice depended on “Mother Nature” to supply cold enough weather to freeze water.

Then came the flooding of outdoor rinks. Suddenly ice sheets popped up on every local playground as well as in many back yards.

Now one would find it difficult to find a figure skater or high school hockey player who has had the experience of outdoor skating. With the advent of modern technology, sheets of ice are found inside.

And they are everywhere! Throughout the State of Minnesota — the State of Hockey — some 268 indoor ice sheets exist.

Also back in the Good Old Days” almost no one had heard of the sun causing skin cancer or of the thinning ozone layer either, some 20 to 40 miles up in the atmosphere.

However, thinning ozone is a global, shared concern today and is being connected to ice arenas throughout the world. Just as air conditoners and refrigerators have been converted to less-damaging coolants, ice arenas are now on the list.

Do you know about R-22?

You may not have heard about R-22, but it's in the neighborhood if you're near an ice arena.

R-22 is a refrigerant used to cool most the ice arenas throughout the state. As of 2020 it can no longer be imported into North America.

This 21st-century ice crunch dates back to 1987, when global leaders drafted the Montreal Protocol, an international environmental agreement. The treaty laid out a worldwide phaseout of ozone-depleting CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons.

In 1992 the Montreal Protocol was amended to establish a schedule for the phaseout of HCFCs or hydochlorofluorocarbons, and one of these is R-22.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of the implementation. 

Why should we care?

Releases of R-22, through leaks in cooling systems, contribute to ozone depletion.

Information sent to ice arenas throughout Minnesota by arena builders Stevens Engineers of Hudson, Wisconsin, offers the estimate that, combined, the cooling systems in the ice arenas just in Minnesota contain more than 450,000 pounds of R-22.

Using EPA calculations, this would be equivalent to:

• the annual gas emissions of more than 63,700 passenger vehicles

• the CO2 emissions from over 34 million gallons of gasoline consumed

• the CO2 emissions from 700,000 barrels of oil consumed • the electrical use of over 15,000 homes per year.

The information from Stevens Engineering goes on to say it would require over 250,000 acres of forest land to counter the effects of this amount of refrigerant if it were released into the atmosphere. 

Thus the regulations to ban the manufacture and importation of R-22 into the U. S.

Where do we go from here?

There are refrigerants available to replace R-22, but who is going to pay for the replacement — especially in older arenas whose systems were built for R-22 and can't be adapted?

Money may well determine who is able or not able to afford a change, and for many cities, school districts and boosters, the cost of $1 million to $2 million for a whole-system replacement is prohibitive.

They're hoping for a coolant bailout from the state.

Already the Minnesota Legislature has increased the monies in the “Mighty Duck” fund, which could help to alleviate the burden.

“I was in on the bill,” said State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary' Point and wife of hockey legend Phil. “The amount allocated wasn’t nearly enough. What ice arenas are facing won’t begin to meet their needs. The amount in the fund is ridiculous.”

Obviously Housley is in favor of revisiting the bill in the upcoming legislative session.

State Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-North St. Paul, agreed he's "well aware" of the impending ban on the R-22 refrigerants. “We have been talking about that and I’m hopeful we will be able to find a solution. I’ve had conversations with Senator (Jim) Metzen (DFL-South St. Paul) and it is definitely on our radar ... It is definitely on my agenda to get something done.”

One factor that may well spur further action on the part of the legislature is the fact that both Mariucci and Ridder Arenas on the campus of the University of Minnesota utilize R-22 refrigerants.

The million — or more — dollar question

There are two types of systems in arenas. Depending on when they were installed, an older “direct system” was installed in arenas such as Polar Arena in North St. Paul.

At Tartan, a newer arena, an “indirect system” was installed.

There is significant difference. A direct system uses approximately 6,000 pounds of R-22 to cool the ice surfaces.

A newer indirect system uses approximately 600-800 pounds of R-22.

I talked to Scott Ward, president of Stevens Engineering, about the options.

Ward said, “Ammonia  is the most feasible to use in replacement of ice systems right now. It will require more safety devices, but most systems now in use will accommodate ammonia.”

Ward was referring to ice arenas with indirect systems. But those ice arenas — there are some 44 such arenas in Minnesota — which operate direct systems will not accommodate ammonia refrigerants without having to replace the entire cooling floor.

Ward explained there are two main reasons for this. One is the pipes, or tubing utilized in the cooling systems of the direct systems are one-half inch in diameter.

The other reason is that with a direct system there is oil mixed with the coolant and it would be impossible to purge the lines of the oil, which is not compatible with ammonia. 

Cost of replacing a direct system — Polar Arena — will come to something close to $1.1 million.

An indirect system where the tubing installed in the floor is one inch — Tartan Arena — can be switched to ammonia for something near $700,000.

To the southwest

In West St. Paul, Hoene Arena has been the place to go since it was built in 1971.

However, its cooling sytem has also been a longstanding tradition and planners anticipate they'll not only have to replace the refrigerant used but the entire system.

"It's simply becoming an old building," West St. Paul City Manager Matt Fulton says of the city-run arena.

West St. Paul's problem isn't cheap; costs are estimated at just under $2 million.

The city is currently approaching neighboring Mendota Heights and School District 197, which also use Hoene, to kick in a third of the costs.

All three entities are hoping for "help from the state."

Wakota Arena manager Jayson Dwelle, who manages the two rinks in South St. Paul, stated, “As we speak, we are in the process of changing out the R-22 to an ammonia system.”

Dwelle said the $1.4 million cost was included in a citywide Parks and Recreation referendum that was approved by the voters last fall.

Ramsey County: eventual closures?

Ramsey County operates nine ice arenas — 13 rinks in all — including Aldrich, Vadnais Sports Center, White Bear, Gustafson-Phalen (behind Johnson) and Harding.

The prospect of upgrading countywide has planners taking the time to study the use and future prospects of each facility.

Parks and Recreation Director Joe Oyanagi said, “Most all of our rinks are indirect systems. At this time we are taking a comprehensive look at them. We are in the process of determining whether all of them will be utilized down the road."

That said, the county doesn't have cost estimates yet, and is also looking to the state, Oyanagi said.

"When the time comes we will make a cost assessment. Certainly the State Legislature may be an option.”

At the White Bear Lake Sports Center, which has a direct system, rink manager Bruce Bates said, “We have made extensive tests and our floor is not leaking. There is not an imminent danger of any leakage. We don’t think a (complete) changeover is necessary at this time.”

However, Bates said arena personnel are certainly aware of the situation and are reviewing their options.

Sigh of relief in Roseville

At the Roseville complex, Superintendent of Ice Operations, Brad Tullberg explained, “We kind of knew this was coming. When we installed the John Rose Oval in 1993 we utilized an ammonia system. On our indoor rink we anticipated a change. We have an unique system known as a geothermal system. Essentially it is an indirect system. We are ahead of most other rinks in the area in that we don’t have to make any changes at this time.”

Tullberg explained that the geothermal system — installed by Harty Mechanical of Austin, Minnesota — takes care of a lot of the workload borne by traditional cooling systems systems.

When refrigeration units operate they give off heat. The heat from the units is piped to storage tanks located under the Oval's parking lot. This heat is then recycled to heat the locker rooms, preheats the water used in the building and other uses.

“It is a relatively new system but is widely used in Canada to heat homes and other buildings,” Tullberg explained.

The cost back in 2008 for the conversions was $2 million.

The problem is here and change is imminent   

The people I talked to and the area ice managers are all well aware that changes will have to be made — and soon.

One ice arena manager I spoke with stated, “We are kind of in a ‘wait and see’ mode at this time. We will wait to see what the State Legislature may do. We are fortunate in that we still have six years before any plans to change have to be implemented. Remember also, that when arenas make changes and phase out the R-22 refrigerants, more of it will become available (via capture and recycling) to those who opt not to change at that time.”

However, as it's phased out, the cost of R-22 refrigerant has already taken giant leaps. In February of 2012 it nearly doubled from $7 to $13 per pound. Then, during the first week of February 2013 it rose to $18 per pound.

So, even over the short term, arena owners may find themselves paying more.

That efforts to reduce R-22 make a difference was cited in a recent study released by the United Nations and the World Meterological Organization. The assessment, conducted by 282 scientists from 36 countries, predicts ozone can recover to 1980 levels over the next several decades.

The decline in ozone, watched with alarm in the 1980s and '90s, reached a static point in the 2000s and appears to be recovering. By 2030, the study' authors predicted, we'll start to see the results in fewer cases of skin cancer and eye damage.

Wally Wakefield can be reached at wwakefield@lillienews.com


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