How Ice Rinks Work


Indoor Ice

Years before hockey or the Winter Olympics, ice skating was a means of getting across the frozen waterways in northern Europe. It was only when ice became available year-round that sports such as hockey and figure skating took off.

The success of modern ice rinks owes a lot to Lester and Joe Patrick, two brothers who created hockey leagues in Canada in the early 1900s. On Christmas Day 1912, the brothers opened Canada's first indoor ice rink in Victoria, Canada. The arena cost $110,000 to build and seated 4,000 people. Three days later, the Patrick brothers opened another arena in Vancouver, Canada. This was a more expensive arena -- $210,000 to build -- and it could hold more than 10,000 people. Underneath the ice was the world's then-largest refrigeration and ice-making system.

Over the next few decades, the Patricks were responsible for creating arenas all across the northwest United States and throughout western Canada. Today, the United States has more than 1,700 ice rinks. New arenas today can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build.

The underlying technology behind indoor ice rinks is the same technology at work in refrigerators and air conditioners. If you've read How Refrigerators Work, than you understand the basic idea.

The main difference in an ice rink, other than sheer size, is that the refrigerant doesn't cool the ice directly. Instead, it cools brinewater, a calcium-chloride solution, which is pumped through an intricate system of pipes underneath the ice. In most rinks, the pipes are embedded in a concrete or sand base (more on this later).