How to Select a Good Refrigeration Contractor

Meet our new blogger Don Baldwin! Don works as a Regional Manager for Rink Management Services Corporation and as an ice rink manager at Lloyd Center Ice Rink.

Today, I work in a mall rink. I am one of the very lucky managers who does not have to hire a refrigeration contractor, nor do I have to make sure my staff takes regular readings. This was not always the case in my professional life.

At my first rink, before I became manager, I had a firsthand lesson in how important refrigeration contractors are to the life of an ice rink. The rink was only three years old and suffered a catastrophic failure in the compressors. I was thankful my boss had purchased business interruption insurance because that was what assured my pay check for the ensuing two months while we worked to get the rink back online. Forensic studies of the oil in the compressors revealed that someone had put a degreaser inside the compressor rather than the refrigeration oil that was mandated. As a result, the oil in the compressors turned into a black tarry mess.

We called in our refrigeration contractor who almost scrapped the compressors, but then saved them. We brought the ice back up, but the tar had spread to the ice field (the pipes below the ice surface since the system was a direct Freon system) leading to troughs in the ice. We sure learned how to paint the rink that year; we put down three sheets of ice before one was any good. As luck would have it, the Olympic hockey team was supposed to practice there and our ice had trenches. Since we were cutting our time closely, the team had to go elsewhere without notice; a development that disappointed my boss. The contractors wound up, after the two failed sheets, blowing out all the small pipes with nitrogen to remove the tar. Needless to say this was expensive.

After I became manager, I became curious. I always wondered why anyone needed to add oil. Theoretically, the oil should return from the field dissolved within the Freon from the system. I asked the contractor, who had taken such Herculean measures to save our compressors, where the oil went. They just said the system consumed the oil. After a while, the technician who also did other work in the facility, started to avoid me. I would catch him in the refrigeration room adding oil without knowing he was in the building.

I think a manager should know when the contractor is doing the work in the building. I decided this was odd behavior bordering on dishonest behavior. I interviewed several companies and asked all of them what happened to the oil in the field. Most of the companies specialized in HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) units and told me similar stories. One company, who specialized in Industrial Refrigeration, had a different take on the problem. They said the oil separator float was not set properly and we needed to add a little Freon. I hired them and they adjusted the valve and added the Freon.

Once they set the valve correctly, the oil receiver started to fill with oil every day. Every day I would remove a few quarts of oil from the system. After a few months, I had filled two 55 gallon barrels with refrigeration oil.

Here are the results of the change in contractor:

  • Our bill for contractor services went from $120,000 down to $30,000 per year
  • We had removed the reason for introducing contaminated oil, namely the need to add oil
  • Electrical Use was reduced (probably because oil is not refrigerant)
  • HVAC contractors should not be asked to maintain an Industrial Refrigeration System
  • I should always listen to my instincts (my gut feelings). If something feels wrong keep checking until the cause is determined.

Granted, this is an extreme case and one I've not heard about in the ice rink industry since. However, the tale establishes a few ideas on how to hire vendors. Here is what I use for a quick checklist:

  • Get References
  • Get a Certificate of Insurance listing your rink as the also insured
  • Make sure the vendor has similar projects elsewhere
  • If you find a really good technician, hire his or her company and if he or she gets a new employer then switch companies
  • Ask for a plan of attack or a quotation to fix your issue
  • Make sure the vendor has Industrial Refrigeration accounts like refrigerated warehouses, grocery stores, and food production facilities

The wrong vendor can make or break your ice rink. Some vendors break equipment through a lack of knowledge or carelessness and never tell you what really happened. Beware the vendors who don't have a brick and mortar office somewhere. Above all, make sure you maintain equipment to assure the long-term health of your facility.

Don Baldwin works as a Regional Manager for Rink Management Services Corporation and as an ice rink manager at Lloyd Center Ice Rink. He earned an MBA from George Fox University in Newburg Oregon. His current certifications (from STAR) include Certified Ice Rink Manager, and Certified Ice Technician. He entered ice rink management twenty years ago, since then he has owned an adult hockey league, had articles published in Rink Magazine, and managed rinks on both US coasts. Contact Don Baldwin.

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