Fighting climate change on ice: Fake rinks take off

It used to be that sometime in November Canadians could flatten out the snow behind the house, let the water hose run for a few hours, and get a nice flat sheet of ice.

But warm weather is ruining that Canadian tradition: the backyard skating rink. It is also helping a company that sells artificial rinks that cost about the same as a swimming pool.

The outdoor rinks – which can be either portable or permanent – use plastic pipes and a refrigeration unit to make an ice rink, even when temperatures are well above freezing.

The smallest rink, which measures 20 feet by 40 feet, starts at US $17,000, while a full-blown standard NHL rink would cost just under $1 million. Custom Ice, which designs and builds the rinks for private clients, has seen its sales rise 25 percent this year.

"This year we started skating on Oct. 23 and we'll go to Easter," says Marko Burkovec, who lives in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga.

"I lay out the tubes in the fall and roll them up in the spring. My neighbors laughed when I put in it, but they don't laugh anymore."

60 percent of sales to America

Sixty percent of the company's sales are made in the US, but the largest concentration of rinks – including two of the $1 million variety, built this year – is in suburban Toronto, where temperatures this year have been well above average.

"From October to mid-January, the average temperature in Toronto is usually 0.7 degrees Celsius [33.3 degrees F.]. So far this winter the average is 4.7 C [40.5 F.]," says Claire Martin, a meteorologist who works with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto and also lectures to United Nations forums on weather. She says it's been the same story across central Canada.

"In Ottawa, the Rideau Canal which is the world's longest skating rink, has yet to freeze over," says Ms. Martin. Indeed, the canal isn't expected to open until the end of this week.

Shooting pucks from October until Easter

That means people in eastern Canada relying on the cold to freeze the rink have been out of luck. In Uxbridge, Ontario, about an hour's drive north of Toronto, Brent Barton only started skating on his backyard rink after mid-January.

On the other side of Toronto in the suburb of Mississauga, where the temperature is always a couple of degrees warmer than it is in Uxbridge, the Burkovec family has been skating almost three months longer than the Bartons.

"We get more use out of it than the pool," says Mr. Burkovec. "The rink is used in shifts. My 10-year-old son plays hockey with his friends, then I flood the rink and my 8-year-old daughter figure skates."

A refrigerator you can skate on

Burkovec paid around $40,000 to buy the pipes and compressor that make up the artificial rink kit. The piping, which is connected to a compressor, works like the coils on a refrigerator. Slightly larger in diameter than an index finger and laid flat next to each other, the pipes become cold so water poured over the top freezes, forming a smooth sheet of ice.

Because of the warm weather, Burkovec estimates it will cost $1,700 to run it this winter compared to $1,300 last year – about the same as what it costs him to keep up his swimming pool, he says.

Now in the third winter of using his 36-by-50-foot foot rink, Burkovec says he can make ice when the temperature is 40 degrees. If it gets warmer the ice stays solid, though it's tough to make new ice.

Glenn Winder, part owner of Custom Ice, corroborates that assessment. On a night in mid-January, he watches his son and three other boys play hockey on his farm north of Toronto. Though the temperature is headed for 40 degrees F. the next day, he says you can skate until the mercury hits 50 degrees F.

The rain, though, can be a problem. So he added a $15,000-building that looks like a giant plastic Quonset hut to shelter his 32-by-76-foot rink, which alone carries a price tag of $55,000, including installation.

"You can have the rink without it, but so far this year you need the cover for the rain," says Mr. Winder whose four children – ages 3 to 10 – all skate here.

"With the old backyard rink we were lucky to get a couple of months of skating in a year. With the artificial rink it could be four or five months."

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