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Hockey arenas are running out of time

The roof of Northwoods Arena is stunning, ice plant manager Chad Korby noted, but it makes the arena difficult to cool in the summer heat. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 3
Chad Korby, who is ice plant manager for both Northwoods Credit Union Arena and Pine Valley Arena in Cloquet, explains how the Freon R-22 coolant goes from the two giant compressors in the mechanical room at Northwoods out into pipes embedded in the arena’s concrete floor. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com2 / 3
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The news in early January that the refrigerant used to make ice in Cloquet’s Northwoods and Pine Valley hockey arenas is being phased out by 2020 came as a wake-up call to other area hockey associations.

All four hockey arenas in Carlton County — Carlton, Moose Lake and the two in Cloquet — have ice plants that use Freon R-22 refrigerant to make the arena floor cold enough to freeze water for an ice sheet. Currently, there are no replacements available that would work in exactly the same kind of refrigerating system.

Following an assessment of Cloquet’s Northwoods Credit Union Arena, consultants told the Cloquet City Council in January that replacing the ice plants and/or floor pipes in both arenas could cost anywhere from $1.2 million to more than $3 million. Maintaining the existing systems was also an option — at an estimated cost of $230,000 — with renovations targeted at keeping the ice plant running as long as possible and avoiding any coolant leaks.

The ice arenas in Carlton and Moose Lake face the same issues as Cloquet.

“If we have to change the ice plant, I think that would probably put us out of business,” Carlton’s Four Seasons Board President Eric Gibson said, noting that the Four Seasons arena basically breaks even now, and a major renovation isn’t in the budget. “It’s definitely time to start figuring out a plan.”

Moose Lake rink manager Guyal Nelson said he’s just started thinking about the deadline, celebrating the fact that the rink is now in better shape than it was before it got flooded in the summer of 2012.

“That article [in the Jan. 9 issue of the Pine Journal] got my attention,” Nelson said. “We’re pretty much in the same situation.”

Carlton County isn’t alone. A year ago, an estimated 160 ice sheets in Minnesota were using R-22 refrigerant.

New Hope hockey enthusiast and coach John Evans — who describes himself as a “55-year-old rink rat” — is worried the new regulations will diminish the number of hockey rinks in Minnesota because smaller arenas simply won’t be able to afford the cost, which could run anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to closer to a million dollars for rinks like Cloquet’s, where the pipes under the floor will also have to be replaced.

Evans is encouraging hockey enthusiasts to call their legislators to advocate for a bill introduce by State Sen. David Tomassioni (DFL District 6) and several other senators with hockey connections that — if it passes this session — could offer matching grants of up to $200,000 to local government units that have to replace ice-making systems using Freon R-22.

Like Cloquet, both Moose Lake and Carlton use a direct system to freeze ice, which means they send the actual cooling agent (R-22) from the ice plant into the pipes that criss-cross their way through the arena floor, keeping the temperature low enough to keep the surface water frozen. The Heritage Center in Duluth, on the other hand, uses an indirect system, which means the cooling agent stays in the mechanical room and a different liquid — the Heritage uses brine — is pushed through the floor pipes, cooling the ice before winding back to the cooling tower and compressors in the mechanical room.

For that reason, Heritage Arena Manager Tom Kowalik isn’t too stressed about the impending deadline to phase out R-22.

“Our system uses about 1,200 pounds of R-22,” Kowalik said, comparing the Heritage to Northwoods 6,000 pounds of R-22 charge. “We also have a state-of-the-art leak detection system, so we’re not real worried now. It’s not a mandate that you have to get rid of R-22, it’s just going to get a lot more expensive.”

Cost of R22 — which has increased in price 850 percent since 2005 — is expected to continue to rise as the chemical is phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency (as part of the Clean Air Act) over the next six years. Kowalik is right though — while R-22 will no longer be available in North America after 2020, hockey arenas could continue to use R22 to cool the system as long as they have a sufficient stockpile of R-22 and the system holds up (meaning there are no breaks resulting in a release of the ozone depleting chemical).

Amsoil Arena and the DECC ice arena don’t use R-22, rather they use anhydrous ammonia in the ice plant to cool the ethylene glycol, which travels through the pipes to cool the ice sheets, said DECC Venue Operations Director Jeff Stark, noting that the city replaced the whole floor and ice plant about nine years ago at a cost of $1 million.

“It’s one of those things that costs an arm and a leg to change,” Stark said.

He said they chose ammonia because it was the easiest chemical to work with and they knew it wasn’t likely to be phased out, adding that packing plants all over the country have used ammonia as a coolant for a long time.

Also, by using an indirect system where the ammonia stays in the mechanical room, it is safer than running the chemical into pipes under the ice.

Ammonia is an option in Cloquet, so are blended synthetic refrigerants. Carbon dioxide is another cooling agent that some hockey arenas are now using.

Mick Maslowski, Cloquet Area Hockey Association President, said he couldn’t repeat verbatim the board’s reaction to the study.

“It was certainly an eye-opener,” Maslowski said. “It puts us in a pretty challenging position as a non-profit youth organization.”

Maslowski noted that Cloquet is one of maybe a few youth associations in the state that still operate and maintain an ice facility. While the city of Cloquet owns Northwoods and Pine Valley arenas, CAHA basically takes care of the day-to-day operations and pays the bills, including sending money to the city to help pay down city-issued bonds for the arenas.

“Obviously, our goal is to keep costs down as much as we can for users,” he said. “Moving forward, I think we have to be creative with the city, our tenants and users. At some point, we either need to replace or convert the ice plant so it meets EPA standards.”

The CAHA Board of directors hasn’t made any decision yet, he stressed.

“Right now there are eight or nine options on the table and we’re considering all of them,” Maslowski said.

At the Heritage, where the consequences of a leak would be less expensive and/or disastrous, Kowalik plans to watch and learn from others.

“We’re waiting to see what works,” he said, adding that other arenas can test the new systems and coolants.