Refrigerant Facts for the Ice Skating Rink Industry

We've all seen our weather get warmer and storms get stronger. There is no doubt that the climate is changing. The causes of climate change are way beyond this blog, but here are two reputable sources that discuss potential changes: NASA and EPA. With the sure knowledge that the climate is changing, the ice rink industry, with its dependence on refrigerants, needs to make sure all of us are operating our facilities as cleanly as possible.

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol set limits and timelines to retire HCFC and HFC refrigerants with the intention of slowing or stopping the destruction of the ozone layer. To those of us in the ice rink industry, this means no more R-22 after 2020. Most rinks today run on R-22, so this could be a future stumbling block. R-22 is a great refrigerant because of the low toxicity. People breathing R-22 by accident have no ill effects, unless the concentration of R-22 eliminates the oxygen in the air. For right now, though, even though R-22 for use in new machinery went out of production in 2010, R-22 is still on the market. The curtain falls in 2020 when any importation or production of R-22 for any purpose will be eliminated. Hopefully inventories of R-22 will still exist for years after 2020.

Rinks that currently have R-22 equipment should fare well as this phase out accelerates. Responsible rink owners should make sure refrigeration contractors reclaim refrigerant. Repairs should be a priority and fixed as quickly as possible to minimize the expense of refilling the refrigerant. As R-22 becomes scarcer, the price per pound will go up, similar to the way that R-134a prices quintupled in 2005 due to increased demand (Maynard, 2005).

Unfortunately, there is no known method to convert your R-22 ice rink into one of the new refrigerants used in industrial systems, like R-134a or R-407C. If you mix refrigerants, you get an azeotrope, which is a liquid characterized by a different boiling point than either of the component compounds. A different boiling point in your refrigeration system means nothing will work correctly leading to potential destruction of life or property. According to experts, even if the facility pumped out all the R-22 refrigerant, there still would be enough R-22 present in the oil left in the system to create an azeotrope.

A bright spot on the horizon is the usage of ammonia (R-717), which is far less expensive than R-22, as a refrigerant. According to a pro-ammonia website, ammonia has no global warming potential. Ammonia has an efficiency rating of 52 and R-22, by comparison, has a rating of 23 meaning that ammonia is more efficient than R-22. (The scale is not linear, which means that ammonia isn't almost twice as efficient as R-22.) The worst problem with ammonia is the toxicity and pungent odor of the released gas. Workers need to don personal protective gear when working on ammonia equipment. If an ice rink were to release ammonia by accident then they would need to inform local emergency authorities. Ice Rinks being built in densely populated urban centers might not want to use ammonia. Berkeley Iceland tragically closed due to an ammonia leak. Generally speaking ammonia has been used for the last 100 years and has an exemplary safety record.

As rink managers and owners, what steps should we take to prepare for the end of R-22?

  • R-22 phase-out is not an immediate threat to the industry
  • Only purchase new systems that use new refrigerants. (No R-12 or R-22)
  • Use ammonia if possible in new systems, keeping in mind the toxicity effects.
  • Avoid wasteful rink designs like direct systems which use a charge of 3,000 to 6,000 lbs of R-22. (Liquid overfeed is another name for this type of system)
  • If you have a system with more than 1,000 lbs of R-22 make sure you have operating Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, controls mounted outside the refrigeration room, and a working R-22 alarm inside the refrigeration room.
  • If you see oil on the floor of the refrigeration room, call your contractor. A leak or other mechanical problem is likely
  • Leak test your R-22 system periodically using a halide leak detector. (ultrasonic leak detectors are usually too sensitive to use in ice rinks)
  • Watch your refrigeration contractor to make sure he or she reclaims refrigerant.

Refrigeration makes ice rinks possible. Using refrigerants in the past led to potential ozone depletion or global warming. Ammonia, once rarely used in ice rinks, is the refrigerant of the future. As an industry, let's do all we can to prevent any further ecological damage.

Maynard, M. (2005). Price of vehicle refrigerant is overheated. United States, Washington: McClatchy - Tribune Information Services.

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