Alaskan Ice Rink Converting to R-744 (CO2)

Here in the United States most of our ice rinks rather they be hockey stadiums or a kids ice-skating park were and are mostly powered by the common HCFC R-22 refrigerant. As you all know R-22 was phased down back in 2010 and is in the process of being phased out entirely. The question on the owners minds of these complexes is with what refrigerant should they replace their older R-22 systems with? Is there a preferred one out there?

Over in the European Union they have been a big fan of R-717 (Ammonia) in their ice rinks. Ammonia has been used since the 1930s as a refrigerant. It is actually referred to as one of the most efficient refrigerants out there as it has a low boiling point and it is highly energy efficient. On top of that you have no Ozone depletion risk and zero Global Warming Potential. It all sounds too good to be true, right? Here’s the catch folks, R-717 is classified as a B2L refrigerant on toxicity and flammability. The ‘B’ means that it is toxic if inhaled and the ‘2L’ means that it is slightly flammable.

If an Ammonia leak does occur it has to be taken very seriously. There was an incident towards the end of last year up in British Columbia that resulted in three fatalities due to the toxicity of the Ammonia leaking into the building. During the leak the event center had to be evacuated along with any neighboring businesses or homes. I wrote an article about this tragic event which can be found by clicking here. This example right here is why the US has been skiddish about adopting R-717 and the end all be all replacement for R-22. Originally, R-22 was chosen for ice rinks here in the US due to it’s low toxicity. If a person breathed in R-22 there would be no ill effects. So, what other options are out there besides R-22 and R-717? There are some Ammonia advocates here in the US but since this incident occurred just north of our border the skepticism on R-717 has only increased.

CO2 to the rescue?

Most of you who have been following the industry over the past couple years know exactly where I am going. It seems that everything is either moving towards the new HFO refrigerant line from Chemours/Honeywell or they are moving to R-744 (Carbon Dioxide.) I don’t care if you look at vending machines, refrigerated units in supermarkets, or even in ice rinks. CO2/R-744 is showing up everywhere. CO2, like Ammonia, has no Ozone depletion and has a GWP of one. Here’s the best part though it’s rated as a A1 in toxicity and flammability. That means it is NOT toxic or flammable. The downside of CO2 is that it operates at a MUCH higher pressure then other refrigerants on the market. This higher pressure can cause components to fail prematurely.

When I was going through my research tonight I found an article from a local news station out of Alaska. The article took place in Wasilla, a small town north of Anchorage. The town only has a population of about eight-thousand people. (My kind of town!) Their ice rink is one of their larger attractions, but it is over thirty years old and is dealing with an antiquated R-22 system. We all know how much the price of R-22 has gone up these days. Can you imagine recharging a one-thousand pound system? The cost would be astronomical. Imagine having to try and absorb that expense into your P&L for the year.

Luckily for the town of Wasilla there was a twenty-two million bond that was passed by the voters back in October of 2016. Three million dollars of that twenty-two will be going towards removing the old R-22 system on this ice rink and replacing it with a new R-744 CO2 system. On top of that massive expense the complex will also be closed for Spring and Summer while the construction is completed. The goal of completion is set for Labor Day.

This is such a laborious and expensive process as there is just no easy way to retrofit or replace an aging R-22 ice rink system. These installations are massive and when working with a completely different refrigerant such as R-22 nearly everything will have to be replaced. Remember now that CO2 operates at a MUCH higher pressure than R-22. Most of the components will have to be reinforced in order to accommodate this increase in pressure.


Are our only choices today R-744 and R-717? Is there going to be an HFO alternative out there that we can expect? Through my research tonight I wasn’t able to find an HFO refrigerant that could be used for these ice rink applications. I may have overlooked them but I have a feeling that the ice rink market is very niche within the refrigerant industry and Honeywell and Chemours are more focused on the R-404A or R-410A replacements. If any of you know of any please let me know.

I fear that these pricey conversions and retrofits over to these new systems could put a lot of ice rinks out of business. I already know of one in my area that has closed within the past couple years. Just think about that three million dollar number we spoke of earlier. That’s just one complex. That is one hell of an expense. What can these owners do? Do they keep holding out on their dying R-22 systems hoping and praying that they don’t have a leak or a failure? Or, do they bite the bullet and hope they can afford the cost of the new system? That’s not even mentioning the downtime the business would face while the new system is installed. Every day their doors are closed is money being lost.

I’m all for switching to newer refrigerants but like with anything there are going to be winners and losers here.