Technical Corner

The Anatomy of Skating Ice Maintenance

October 25, 2023


Maintaining skating ice is subjective to each building. There are many critical mechanical requirements to be met and variables at play. Understanding and applying skating ice making best practices is the foundation of developing and applying an effective ice maintenance plan. Failing to adopt proven ice making applications will often result in the need for significant investment in ice maintenance. Not one ice maintenance plan will work in every operation. To be successful, the ice technician must be able to analyze the skating sheet, understand ice maintenance equipment use, limitation and adjustment, the changing indoor and outdoor environment, and the stress that users can apply to the sheet based on ability, size, weight and volume of skaters, and the activity/sport being played. Ice maintenance is a combination of scientific principles, mechanical function, and human ability. Manufacturers of ice maintenance equipment continue to invest in reducing the human portion of the process by developing advanced equipment that reduces the amount of adjustment. However, regardless of how advanced ice maintenance becomes, the need for an operator to be able to evaluate the ice sheet and oversee the operation, management and maintenance of the equipment will remain. This resource will explore a variety of ice sheet operational and management applications while raising questions designed to invite evaluation of current operational practices. The most common mistake ice technicians make is accepting the explanation of “we have always done it this way” as the guiding internal principle of operations. An operator who remains openminded, inquisitive and invested in understanding their craft is the future of the industry.

History of Ice Maintenance

Skating ice deteriorates with use. The amount of deterioration will be based on the number and type of user as well as the quality of the ice sheet. The quest by Frank J. Zamboni to create the world’s first ice resurfacer was based on the need to perform skating ice maintenance for the attraction and experience of the facility users. The history of the development of this equipment is rooted in the desire to reduce the level of required human resources to complete the task, while creating the highest quality of ice possible. This remains the objective of every ice maker today.

History of Ice Thickness

Operational ice depth was originally based on the refrigeration equipment’s capability to hold the desired thickness. In the past, a depth of 3.2 to 3.8 cm (1¼ to 1½ inches) was considered industry best practice. Engineers and architects used these best practices to design the building and related refrigeration equipment’s ability to remove and transfer heat specific to the geographical location of the operation. Today’s facility manager must evaluate the building’s ability to collect and eject heat as well as type of user, scheduled use of the ice sheet and external environmental influences to determine best ice thickness for their needs. Once the operations preferred ice thickness is determined, frontline operators are tasked in ensuring this depth is in place not only at the beginning of each operational day but, more importantly, at the end of the day. How successful this objective is will dictate the amount of additional ice maintenance required.

The Anatomy of Ice Maintenance

The Heart of Ice Maintenance – The Industrial Refrigeration Plant (R)

Ice maintenance always begins in the ice rink plant room. The efficient collection, transfer and ejection of heat from the ice surface is the primary scientific principle that drives the need and level of required ice maintenance. A well-maintained refrigeration plant will help ensure that the ice surface is capable to respond as it goes through a series of freeze-thaw cycles as part of an ice rink’s daily schedule. A poorly operated and maintained ice plant will underperform making the ice resurfacer operator’s flooding responsibility more challenging. Equipment age, refrigerant type and ongoing maintenance will dramatically influence ice quality and ice maintenance needs.

The Liver of Ice Maintenance – HVAC/D

The building’s air management systems are not always part of an ice maintenance discussion, however, the operation and maintenance of the building’s heating, ventilation, air conditioning and dehumidification (HVAC-D) equipment will dramatically impact ice quality and the required need for maintenance. The ORFA Certified Arena Refrigeration Plant Technician (CARPT) training pathway was created to assist ice technicians in understanding the cycle of refrigeration and the need to maintain the equipment responsible for this process. For example, if the equipment in the back of the house is under performing, the equipment and operators in the front of the house will be required to invest more time and energy to create and maintain a safe and serviceable ice sheet.

The Kidneys of Ice Maintenance – Ice Making and Painting

In addition to the HVAC-D/R equipment performance, the quality and application of water in the ice making phase and the resurfacing process will dictate ice density which will impact durability and result in poor ice condition (rutting and/or snow load). Ice technicians that apply proven application principles of small amounts of water that freezes quickly will find that the ice sheet remains more robust under all types of conditions. The performance of the water during this process will be influenced by its genetic make-up that is calculated by the level of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) found naturally in the supplied water. This calculation will vary based on water source and geographical location of the facility. Ice technicians that regularly test ice water to determine its quality will understand the different phases an ice sheet may experience. This water quality can also influence the ability of the ice resurfacer to properly perform. For example, water with a high mineral concentration will influence the machine’s blades sharpness and impact equipment performance by possible increased scale build-up.

Creating a good ice base is essential to reducing the need for ongoing ice maintenance. Once the base is in place, properly applying a quality ice paint will further influence ice quality and performance. An ice paint with a high reflective quality will reflect heat in the bowl area away from the surface reducing the amount of refrigeration required to maintain ice temperature. Ice paint is an ice technician’s assistant in evaluating ice depth. A skilled technician will be able to determine ice thickness by ice sheet marking and assessing logo visual quality and paint loss. Missing ice paint from crease areas or markings that are faded or difficult to view are indicators of the quality of ice and operator’s understanding of basic ice making principles. The reasons why this occurs and suggested corrective measurers are discussed later in this resource. The science of ice making, and painting is studied in-depth in the ORFA Ice Making and Painting Technologies (IMPT) course.

The Life Blood of Ice Maintenance – Ice Equipment

A poorly performing ice resurfacer or unqualified operator will result in the need for additional ice maintenance. “What goes down – must come up” is a generally accepted operational measuring stick of an ice resurfacer operator’s ability. In most flooding applications, an operator is trying to balance flood water application with shaved ice or snow load collection and disposal. Failing to collect enough or removing too much ice will trigger the need for ice maintenance. This can only be accomplished if the operator is provided with a properly performing piece of equipment and knows how to adjust the machine to meet the specific need. In addition, the use of an ice edger is one of the most important and too often under-utilized part of an ice sheets maintenance plan. The investment by manufacturers to provide advanced equipment and options beyond the traditional equipment is significant, however, these advances in technology must be matched with operator capability. The ORFA Ice Maintenance and Equipment Operations (IMEO) course explores many of the best practices discussed in this resource in more depth.

The Brain of Ice Maintenance – The Ice Resurfacer Operator (Technician)

Ice maintenance is a chess game. There are many pieces at play that can move in any direction or at times be removed, creating a totally new environment that will require an immediate response by facility staff. HVAC-D/R equipment that fails or comes out of adjustment, ice maintenance equipment that is poorly maintained or requires fine-tuning, or user patterns with outdoor environment changes are only some challenges that can occur with or without warning. Operators who are slow to respond will contribute to poor ice conditions that will need to be corrected through some form of ice maintenance. Poorly trained operators will quietly syphon operational financial resources without notice and can create increased risk of liability. Ice thickness will over-tax HVAC-D/R equipment requiring more maintenance while reducing life expectancy and consuming unnecessary energy. Inadequate ice thickness will place user safety at risk and invite litigation, should this failure result in personal injury. Maintaining exceptional ice quality is an ice technician’s north star. When successful, the benefits to users, owners and society are unmeasurable.


The ORFA’s A Guide to Artificial Ice Skating Upkeep and Maintenance resource explores in-depth information while sharing industry best practices surrounding this core ice technician responsibility. It is important that each operation evaluate their current approach to this task using industry developed best practices as they will most likely be used as guiding principles should litigation erupt.

    Comments and/or Questions may be directed to Terry Piche, CRFP, CIT and Director, Training, Research and Development, Ontario Recreation Facilities Association

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