Ice rinks from community recreation facilities to the National Hockey League are moving to natural refrigerants such as ammonia and carbon dioxide as they replace aging facilities and deal with the mandatory phase out of R-22, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon that has been widely used at ice rinks across North America.

John Collins, industrial sales manager for Zero Zone, said the lifespan of refrigeration systems at hockey rinks can be between 15 years and 50 years. “As ice rinks replace equipment, they’re looking at either low-global-warming-potential HFCs, ammonia or CO2 ,” Collins said, adding that Zero Zone makes equipment using all three refrigerants.

One factor pressing change will be the dwindling supply of R-22. Beginning on Jan.1, 2020, U.S. production and import of R-22 will end, making the refrigerant more expensive and difficult to obtain.

Benoit Rodier, director of business development for Cimco Refrigeration, estimates that about 50 to 60 percent of ice rinks in Quebec and the U.S. utilize R-22. The rest of Canada is roughly 90 percent ammonia. Roughly 70 to 80 percent of those ice rinks were installed 15 to 30 years ago.

Cimco is a leading provider for the National Hockey League and has installed equipment in more than 4,500 arenas, including new NHL rinks in Miami, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, St Louis and Ottawa. The company recently installed refrigeration systems at the Boston Bruins practice facility and the joint amphitheater and practice rink for the Knights in Las Vegas. Cimco also co-authored the NHL’s minimum refrigeration specifications for new NHL arenas.

Azane, part of the Star Refrigeration group of companies, has also seen interest from ice rinks looking to replace R-22. “Most of the systems I see are old and leaking, which can be painful when you consider the increasing costs of R-22,” said Caleb Nelson, vice president of business development for Azane Inc.

Over the past 50 years, ice rinks have traditionally used ammonia or R-22. New systems using R-22 ceased several years ago but there are still a lot of R22 systems out there, Collins said. Many rinks that made the transition from R-22 moved to R-404 or R-507, he added. Now the use of these refrigerants is a concern due to their high global warming potential.

Although synthetic refrigerants may seem to cost less initially, that may change as regulations on environment change. “Rinks that may have opted for synthetic refrigerants in the past are looking towards natural refrigerants as they are ‘future proof’ and will still be viable options as our regulations on environmental change evolve,” Rodier said.

Operators with a long-term vision look at natural refrigerants because it is a better choice for the environment and energy efficiency. “Ammonia and CO2 will be better in terms of efficiency than any synthetic refrigerant,” Rodier added.

“Rinks that may have opted for synthetic refrigerants in the past are looking towards natural refrigerants as they are ‘future proof’ and will still be viable options as our regulations on environmental change evolve.”

–Benoit Rodier, director of business development for Cimco Refrigeration


Most ice rinks have a refrigeration system in the mechanical room and pump a secondary fluid, glycol or brine, into the floor, which keeps the refrigerant in the mechanical room. But, with glycol or brine, the temperature changes from one end of the ice to the other. “When you’re a skater, the ice quality is most certainly your highest concern,” Rodier said. “If you’re a five-year-old playing hockey, you don’t notice it. If you’re a highly trained athlete, ice quality is a major concern.”

Some rinks opt for a primary refrigerant, such as R-22, that is pushed through the floor. “When you’re doing this with a refrigerant you don’t have a change in temperature, you just have a change in state going from liquid to gas,” Rodier said, adding that Cimco offers a direct CO2 floor.


CO2 is gaining in popularity and more and more rinks are being built using the refrigerant. “Now we’re up to a point that a lot of people know more about it and tons have adapted equipment capable of using CO2 . Scandinavia is moving mainly to CO2 in the supermarket and ice-rink industries. It has been the same thing out east in Canada and it is moving to the west. In the U.S., it is starting in the supermarket industry,” Rodier said.

Swapping out systems may be possible, but that depends on the building and mechanical room. “If you want to switch from R22 to ammonia, you might have major constraints in the building configuration to do that,” Rodier said. “If you’re going to CO2 , you could probably keep your same room and you don’t have the same architectural constraints as going to ammonia.”

And CO2 tends to perform better in colder climates. “The energy efficiency of CO2 is highly dependent upon the climate – CO2 excels in colder climates. For example, a CO2 ice rink is much more efficient than ammonia ice rinks in cold climates such as Canada. Conversely, ammonia ice rinks are more efficient than CO2 in warmer climates such as the southern United States, Rodier said.


Ammonia as a refrigerant has been around for a long time, but the equipment has changed. “We have a newer approach. Now we focus more on safety and reliability as well as less maintenance, less investment in repairs, reducing the ammonia charge and keeping it in the mechanical room,” Rodier said.

Increased use of new technologies in systems allows the size of the equipment to be smaller in general, Collins said. “Some of the things allowing that are the heat exchanger designs on both the chiller/evaporator and the condensing side. There are a lot more options today,” he said, adding that Zero Zone is using more water-cooled condensers and plate heat exchangers because they allow the charge to be reduced.”

Ammonia is also very efficient. “So the systems have a very long lifespan with no threat of phase-out which means the life-cycle costs savings can be huge,” Nelson said.

Ownership costs for an air-cooled package are much lower than a machinery room system piped to an evaporative condenser, Nelson said. “You only have to install one piece of equipment and you avoid water costs, sewer costs, and water treatment costs and maintenance,” he said.

With the availability of packaged air-cooled ammonia chillers that offer remote monitoring, the changeover to a new plant from an old one can be managed with minimal or even no downtime and there is no need to rip out the old plant before the new equipment goes into the same place, said Alan Walkinshaw, sales director at Star Refrigeration.


Ammonia has traditionally been a popular choice for ice rinks, but a recent release at an ice rink in Vancouver has shaken confidence in that choice – leading to questions about ammonia’s sustainability for ice rinks and commercial applications where the public is in close proximity to installations.

As ammonia and other natural refrigerants move into new environments, the industry’s strong commitment to safety will be ever more important to highlight.

To promote that goal, IIAR is working to create guidance documents to help ice-rink managers ensure that a system is operating properly and craft an appropriate plan and documentation, Collins said. And a new IIAR CO2 standard, currently under development, will help pave the way for wider adoption of CO2 , he added.

“Most ice rinks fall in the 500 to 1,500-pound charge range. They’re not technically covered by the PSM standard, but the general-duty clause requires that operators and owners of these systems provide a safe working environment for the people working at the rinks, the fans and the skaters,” Collins said.

While safety has always been a top priority, rinks can also improve safety by reducing the charge needed in equipment, which is possible with today’s technology. There has been an ongoing effort in the refrigeration industry for decades to reduce the amount of refrigeration charge required. “That is definitely something ice rinks have to do,” Collins said.

Meanwhile, because ammonia has been a common technology for ice rinks for so long, it’s also time for facility owners and managers to take a renewed interest in the technology their facilities employ. When many ammonia rinks were installed decades ago, there weren’t the same safety requirements in place, said Collins. “There are many features now that are mandated by current codes, but a lot of systems are 20 or 30 to 40 years old. If the industry is going to avoid safety questions with legacy systems, upgrading the older facilities even if they aren’t changing refrigerants, is not only necessary, but essential” he said.


At the same time, the ease of installation, lower cost, maintenance and safety measures of new technology using natural refrigerants will renew interest in ammonia and CO2 for ice rinks.

Newer equipment, such as that from Cimco, Hillphoenix, Zero Zone, and others, allows the temperature of the ice to be precisely controlled and adjusted. “That wasn’t given much attention in the past at your typical rinks,” Collins said. “We’re including more sophisticated controls now with variable pump flow and adaptable operating modes to allow rink managers to optimize for their changing schedules.

That can help attract skaters and meet the needs of different types of athletes. For example, figure skaters like ice that is slightly softer than what hockey players prefer.

Many of today’s systems can also take the heat they are removing from the surface of the ice and put it back into the building, creating a more comfortable experience for fans in the stands. “We can put tubing in the seats to have radiant indoor heating. And it’s all free, because it comes from the heat taken out of the system,” Rodier said.