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The future of sustainability for our ice rinks - Tim McRae & Ian Storey

What is the best approach to achieving sustainability in our community ice rinks? Chemours’ Tim McRae of Chemours and engineering consultant Ian Storey have the answer! From best practices for owners and operators to cutting edge natural solutions – Chemours looks ahead to the future to keep our ice rinks alive and environmentally friendly. Tune in!

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Show Notes for this Episode 

MW Presents: Thanks for joining us for this special episode of MW Presents, sponsored by Chemours Canada. Our guests today are Tim McRae, the technical support and development leader for Chemours Canada, working in their thermal and specialized solutions business area. And Ian Storey, president of IB Storey Incorporated, the official rink engineering consultant of the NHL, which has more than 20 years of experience in refrigeration systems for the recreational, industrial, and commercial sectors.

Today, we are discussing best practices for rink owners, operators, and municipalities on what to consider when attempting to achieve a sustainable rink system. Welcome, Tim. Welcome, Ian.
Glad to have you guys here. Can you tell us a bit more about what’s happening in the ice rink industry when it comes to sustainability?

Tim McRae: The ice rink industry is certainly increasing its focus on sustainability. An example of this is the NHL has initiated a program called the Green Rinks Initiative, which is really designed to help provide information on industry best practices, which are both financially and environmentally sustainable. There is a trend in the industry really to look at ice rinks sustainability in a more holistic way. And by this, I mean looking at the whole thing, at safety, cost, and the environment. And as there’s been many instances over the recent history, over the last few years with ammonia ice rinks, there is an increased focus on safety part of sustainability. And then an example of this is the announcement with new requirements by Safety BC. So the focus on sustainability is causing a shift away from ammonia.

MW Presents: That’s very interesting. How would you describe what is a sustainable rink solution?

Ian Storey: A sustainable rink solution is one that balances both environmental and financial factors. That’s not to say one should be prioritized over the other, more than that the greatest benefits and the greatest positive impact will be realized when considering both. While intuitively obvious, there is a safety element which governs any activity, especially in places of public assembly embedded in the midst of our communities, i.e. our rinks. Though these three pillars need to be evaluated in unison as the outcome will form the best option for the facility going forward.

MW Presents: In regard to refrigerate options, and there must be so many considerations around those, what’s going on in the refrigerant industry today?

Tim McRae: I think I can take that one. So as we know, many of the rinks in North America are at or near end of life. But what we’re seeing is, is Opteon family of refrigerants becoming a leader in solutions for these rinks. Many rink owners, including private ones, municipally owned rinks, and some NHL facilities, are choosing to replace their ice plants with ones using Opteon refrigerants. In fact, all of the recent NHL upgrades have been to ice plants using Opteon refrigerants, and that would include the Colorado Avalanche and the San Jose Sharks. And there’s more on the way. Ice plants with Opteon, these new ice facilities, are being used to replace not only old end of life Freon plants, but also ammonia ice plants. So these new owners are looking at the whole picture, considering safety, financial impact, and regulations.

These Opteon refrigerants have a great balance of properties that are meeting owner’s needs today and into the future. The Opteon refrigerants being used in ice rinks have low toxicity, non-flammable, operate at low pressures, and have low environmental impact. Energy efficiency is also excellent and their properties are enabling some new energy efficiency technologies that cannot even be applied to ammonia or CO2. Maintenance costs are low, as systems are simple and familiar to service technicians. This means that many service companies can service systems and in many cases, the equipment does not require costly maintenance procedures like compressor overhauls. So part of this is there’s more choices with service guys, so more choices means lower cost. From a cost perspective, these Opteon ice plants are the lowest capital and overall operating costs. These Opteon refrigerants are the best options for new facilities or when replacing an existing ice plant.

MW Presents: There’s been a lot of talk about natural refrigerants, such as CO2, ammonia. What are the disadvantages to natural refrigerants? Intuitively, you have to think that something natural is better, but that isn’t necessarily the case, is it?

Tim McRae: I think I can take that one again, Ian. These natural refrigerants, they’re so-called naturals, they’re really industrial chemicals. That’s how when they’re used back in the early days in refrigerants; they are industrial chemicals and they’re produced in chemical plants. An example is production of ammonia. How do they make ammonia? So production of ammonia starts with fracking for natural gas or mining of coal, the process too consumes large amounts of energy and generates high greenhouse gas emissions. So I would not fall into the trap that because something is coined natural, it is automatically the best.

MW Presents: Right. Bit of a misnomer.

Tim McRae: Yeah. A bit of a misnomer. Now, you also had mentioned what are some of the disadvantages and there certainly are some disadvantages with ammonia and CO2. So the first thing of course is safety.

And we all look at safety first. So there is much greater safety risk. Ammonia, as we know, is toxic and, and leaks from even these low charge ammonia systems can be very dangerous, especially for the technician in the mechanical room. CO2 on the other hand, operates at very high pressures, over 1,000 PSI. What happens if there’s a failure of something over 1,000 PSI? Another disadvantage of costs and we all look at that as is capital costs. Installing a CO2 systems, these CO2 systems are very expensive to install. Then we jump to maintenance, another disadvantage with CO2 and ammonia, these supposed naturals, is maintenance. This equipment is very specialized. There’s a very limited number of engineering or technicians that can service this equipment.

We also find that with ammonia CO2 systems, quite often, the design requires costly compressor rebuilds at some frequency. And with the safety issue with ammonia too, is that many municipalities are starting to require on-staff engineering folks to be there while the system is running. So that certainly is a disadvantage from a cost perspective and ammonia with the safety requirements, there are additional efforts, additional time required to invest in managing that safety. So, there’s some of the disadvantages, but just because something is marked as being natural, it may not be the best choice. And when looked at holistically, these ice plants with Opteon and many of these rink owners are determining this, that it’s a good choice when you look at things holistically using Opteon, versus some of the supposed naturals.

MW Presents: You brought up a lot of points for people to think about, and there’s certainly a lot of products out there as well. So is there a recommended way to evaluate refrigerant options when people are looking into these things?

Ian Storey: I spend most of my time client facing, and this question comes up often. So as with any evaluation, making informed decisions is the difference between satisfaction and regret. Ultimately, there’s a lot of confusion being generated in the industry by the overuse of buzzwords, like net zero, out of any relevant context. That means the application of due diligence, not soundbite decision-making, is needed now. And so the process is, as Tim mentioned, a holistic impact review, prioritizing safety and balancing fiscal responsibility with environmental stewardship. Ultimately what’s important is reducing the impact of each specific rink, well, the inside and outside of the meter, not simply the belief of that achievement.

MW Presents: That makes sense. You guys both know a lot of people in this field, looking at these systems on a constant basis. One of the owners found to be the best starting approach when you’re looking at that sustainable rink refrigeration system? Where do people need to begin?

Ian Storey: Owners that have started their evaluation by identifying priorities and current gaps, which they used to form the basis of their plan and found this to be the most effective and informed starting point. The emerging trend is towards leveraging Opteon refrigerants with the latest technologies, which enables unlocking of a rinks reduction credential. As the industry moves towards zero energy rinks, commonly referred to as net zero rinks, using a holistic and balanced approach is the consistent choice of ownership and stakeholder groups. That is as it has the greatest positive impact per unit of available capital.

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