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Nick Ferraro, Published April 13 2014

EPA ban creates tough call for ice rinks

The clock is ticking for Minnesota’s indoor ice rinks.

By 2020, the refrigerant chemical now used at half the state’s 240 arenas to make ice no longer will be manufactured or imported into the U.S. as part of a global effort aimed at ridding the world of greenhouse gases linked to depletion of the ozone layer.

The phaseout of the odorless gas R-22 is expected to be costly for arenas – most of which are owned by cities – because of an anticipated rise in its cost. After the deadline, arenas still will be able to use the refrigerant gas for existing cooling systems, but the supply will be limited to what is left over and reclaimed and recycled.

To what extent cities will be affected financially will depend on the R-22 market after the deadline, as well as the age of their ice-making equipment and if they plan to upgrade it, said Craig Flor, president of the Minnesota Ice Arena Manager’s Association.

“This isn’t impending doom for us,” Flor said. “But there is a lot of concern because the big unknown is cost and funding.”

Cities with decades-old cooling systems could swap them out with ones that use an environmentally friendly chemical, but at a cost that could push $2 million.

Some, such as Hastings and West St. Paul, say they plan to roll the dice and budget for the cost of leaks that could spring up from time to time until there is money to upgrade.

“It comes down to what price you want to pay?” said Burnsville recreation facilities manager Dean Mulso. “Does it make sense to convert or does it make sense to do good preventative maintenance, like changing your valves if you need to and making sure your system’s seals are in place. If there are no leaks, there are no problems.”

Last month, the arena manager’s association hosted regional workshops in Mankato, South St. Paul and Virginia to educate its members about the future of R-22 and other cooling options.

“We stressed to arena managers that we need to bring this topic out in the open and encourage them to talk with the money people – the city administrators or whoever they report to,” said Flor, who is the facilities director for the Mariucci and Ridder arenas at the University of Minnesota campus.

Like many community rinks, the university’s arenas still use R-22, as does the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

The price of R-22, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon, has steadily risen since 2003, when the Environmental Protection Agency gradually began phasing out its production.

Starting in 2010, the manufacture of ice-making systems, air conditioners and other products that use R-22 was banned.

When Mariucci Arena opened in 1993, Flor noted, the cost of R-22 was 50 cents to 75 cents a pound. It’s now available in the $10 to $12 per pound range.

Of the 120 rinks across the state that still use R-22, at least 40 have decades-old ice-making systems that have anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of the gas running through piping in the floor, Mulso said.

“With all that, it’s pretty easy to see how expensive it can get if you begin to lose lots of the stuff over time,” Mulso said. He added that a system losing 100 percent of its charge in one “catastrophic failure” is unlikely.

The cost of replacing an entire system is high because new compressors are needed and the arena’s concrete floor must be torn up to swap out steel pipes with plastic ones, he said.

That scenario was a big reason why Minnesota State Fair officials in February decided to remove the ice rink at the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum at the Fairgrounds.

Over the past three years alone, almost $90,000 was spent on repairs and replacing R-22 after slow leaks in the Coliseum’s ice-making system, which was installed in 1975, said Brienna Schuette, State Fair spokeswoman.

At an estimated $1.5 million price tag, a new system “would have been very cost-prohibitive,” she said.

Some arena owners have made the switch to environmentally friendly systems that use ammonia or other chemicals as the refrigerant. Burnsville was spending an average of $28,000 in repairs and leaks annually for a decade before spending almost $2 million for an ammonia-based system in 2010.

“We did the math, and we knew that our system was getting really old,” Mulso said. “So it made sense to convert it so we didn’t have to deal with it in 2020.”

Over the past decade, Ramsey County switched to new systems that use glycol as a refrigerant for its 10 ice sheets. The arenas still rely on about 500 pounds of R-22 in a separate vessel instead of roughly 5,000 pounds of R-22 circulating in the floors, said Greg Mack, director of parks and recreation.

“We’re fortunate that we don’t have floors full of this stuff,” he said.

The issue is attracting attention from lawmakers.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is urging the EPA to work with local ice arenas during the R-22 phaseout so there is not an inadequate supply of the chemical and artificially high prices.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, is pushing for $8 million in bonding bill money for the Amateur Sports Commission to provide “Mighty Ducks” grants to communities for arena updates.

“This is a statewide significant thing,” Metzen said. “Thousands and thousands of people go to these arenas every year, and the communities can’t handle this cost on their own.”


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