Keeping the ice nice

How Parks employees create and maintain tricky outdoor rinks

In the winter, coordinating and managing ice rink maintenance for the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board takes up most of Bill Olson’s time.

Ice rink maintenance is a complex job, highly dependent on Mother Nature. "This year, the weather made it hard to build," said Olson, because this winter had been warmer than average.

Rink maintenance personnel can often be found out watering rinks as early as 5 a.m., taking advantage of the day’s coldest temperatures.

Olson said that despite straddling budget cuts last year and battling less-than-cooperative weather, park maintenance personnel have worked hard to meet their goal of creating and maintaining the ultimate in skating conditions for as long as possible.

Like many people in Southwest, Whittier resident Johann Hodne uses the ice every week. He likes to play pick-up hockey at Lake of the Isles, 2500 Lake Isles Pkwy., and appreciates the nice ice. "I think it’s really nice they clear off the ice," he said as he bounded to the middle of the rink with another skater.

Speed skater Becky Weinberg lives in Longfellow, but comes to Lake of the Isles skating rink three to four times a week — if it’s not too cold — to race around the rink’s periphery. "I think they do a really nice job keeping the ice nice," she said.

Building a rink

Olson said creating a rink for skating depends on the topography (turf versus lakes). Preparation can start as early as November.

On lakes, maintenance personnel wait until lake ice forms. Then they drill a hole and pump the water out of the lake over the top of the ice.

A turf rink is much more of a science.

Olson said they start sometime after Halloween, readying boards to build hockey rinks as they begin watering the soil, trying to build frost into the ground.

He said watering the soil creates a smoother rink for a longer period of time, delaying the inevitable slushy brown spots that develop with the approaching of spring.

"If you don’t build frost into the ground and try to just water and create a rink, gases will come out of the ground, causing brown soft lumps (in the ice) in February," Olson said. "Frost makes a noticeable difference in prolonging the quality ice."

Park maintenance create ground frost by saturating the rink area with a 1-inch hose, hooked up to a park fire hydrant (they’re yellow), a park building spigot or a manhole built into the ground.

Olson said that once frost/ice appears, it’s important to spread water evenly, paying attention to the air and water temperature, as well as the hose’s water temperature.

Olson said if it’s too warm out, the water won’t freeze correctly; if the water is too warm or gets too concentrated in one area, it could melt through the ice, creating a drain. The same result is possible if the water comes out too fast.

Olson said when a 1-inch hose freezes, he would quickly drag it inside the park building, lifting it to the ceiling where hopefully the building’s heat would thaw the ice, draining the water outside.

This 1-inch hose, similar to a garden hose, is used to build frost before the rink is created and to resurface the ice. A 4-inch fire hose is used to flood the rink. These hoses are the heaviest, made of canvas with clunky bronze fixtures.

Despite the job’s early hours and sometimes frustrating aspects, Olson tries to stir up fun with the staff. He gives out annual awards to park employees for the earliest rink opening and highest ice quality. He said it’s becoming competitive; and to evaluate, he does surprise checks.

This year’s winner is District 1, including rinks in North Minneapolis and the rink in Bryn Mawr.

Maintaining an ice rink

Once a rink is created, the work is not over; maintaining it is key for optimum skating.

The average annual price for creating and maintaining a rink is $36,000, although some rinks can cost as much as $40,000 to $50,000, depending on their size and amenities.

First, only indoor rinks use Zambonis, so there is no Lake Harriet Zamboni to ride. Olson said Zambonis are expensive and impossible to get from rink to rink.

Maintaining the ice after creating it is different for turf and lake rinks.

Olson said shoveling the snow is critical on lake rinks because the snow can weigh down the ice, causing water to leak through. He said it’s a common problem around lake hockey rinks, causing them to form a slight dome.

Park staff sweep rinks every night and all are resurfaced daily.

How much resurfacing is needed depends on the weather. Olson said ice must be revived if there have been a few warm days with active skaters.