By Amber Eisenschenk
While we are finally preparing for summer in Minnesota, cities with ice arenas need to be thinking about colder activities. That’s because ice arenas across the country have big—and expensive—changes to consider soon when the popular refrigerant Freon is banned.
Federal regulations in Title VI of the Clean Air Act call for phasing out hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). There is worldwide agreement that HCFCs are damaging the ozone layer and should be discontinued.
How Freon is used
Many ice arenas use HCFC-22—also known as R-22 or, more commonly, Freon—as a refrigerant for the ice. Arenas either have a direct or indirect system for making ice with this chemical.
With a direct system, the chemical is mixed with others and runs through the piping system underneath the sheet of ice. The pipes are usually embedded in the concrete or sand foundation below the ice. Direct systems use considerably more R-22.
More common today are indirect systems, where a smaller amount of R-22 is added in the chiller room and does not travel under the ice. Chemical producers will no longer be allowed to manufacture R-22 after Jan. 1, 2020.
Cities have two options for keeping that ice frozen. The first is to upgrade their system to a refrigerant that is not banned. The second is to stockpile R-22. Both options have benefits and risks. Cities should carefully weigh the options to find the solution, or perhaps a combination of the two, that suits their needs.
Upgrading the refrigerant system
Upgrading the ice’s refrigerant system is expensive. Estimates are anywhere from several thousand dollars up to $2 million per sheet of ice. There is no industry-approved chemical that can be simply swapped for R-22. Even if ice arenas empty their cooling systems of R-22, there is enough of the gas remaining in the pipes that when adding another chemical, the arena may not be able to control the temperature and could cause damage to the infrastructure.
There are several suggestions for replacement chemicals on the market. Newer refrigerant chemicals that are not HCFCs are criticized because they lack long-term testing in ice arenas. R-22 has been the most commonly used for ice arenas.
Ammonia-based systems have proven they can do the job, but have several safety concerns for operators and arena patrons. Leaks of R-22 were not considered harmful to people in an arena. However, it is not safe for people to be in direct contact with ammonia.
Operators must wear personal protective equipment and if a leak occurs, the arena must be evacuated and local emergency responders would need to be notified. Despite safety concerns, an ammonia system seems to be the technology that is most recommended and readily accessible at this time.
Because manufacturers can produce R-22 until 2020, some ice arenas will choose to stockpile it to serve their existing systems. This is the most cost-effective option in the short term, especially for cities with numerous sheets of ice.
Assuming a city’s system is in good working order, this solution will likely last years. But if the system experiences a leak or other malfunction, finding additional R-22 will become more difficult and expensive after it is no longer in production. The cost of R-22 has dramatically increased since the phaseout was announced.
It is estimated that 140 arenas in Minnesota, many owned by local governments, are currently using R-22. If your city is using R-22, start planning to transition away from it. This may include budgeting for a system upgrade and reviewing the fees cities are charging for ice time.
Through the Mighty Ducks Ice Arena Grant Program, the state of Minnesota provided grant funding of $1.3 million in 2014 and $2.2 million in 2015 to local governments for improvements to ice arenas. A priority of the funding is to assist local governments with the elimination of R-22 in refrigeration systems. The Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission oversees the grant award process, which requires a minimum dollar-for-dollar match from the local government.
Whether there will be funding for 2016 grants will be decided in the 2016 legislative session. If there is funding available, the grant application deadline will likely be Oct. 1, 2016. Learn more about the Mighty Ducks Ice Arena Grant Program at mnsports.org/mighty_ducks.stm.
Amber Eisenschenk is a research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 281-1227.
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