Monday, January 11, 2016

The Backyard Ice Rink: Year 4 is Bigger & Better

While football is my favorite sport, hockey has become my second favorite. It's been a family favorite activity to watch, and evolving into something more. My wife and kids love to skate, which led me four years ago to experiment with backyard ice.  The first year was a simple trial, but year two became much more involved.  So much so that now, the rink is now four times as big as it was two years ago. A new home with a flatter backyard made a rink 40 feet long and almost 24 feet wide possible.  This is year two in this new configuration, and I think I've got some of the logistics figured out.

Two years ago, I used some foot-wide shelving to create end boards, but I realized too late that was way underestimating the depth needed at the "low end of the slope."  So last year, I decided to go big, with 4 foot by 8 foot sheets of construction plywood for the boards.  Seemed like a good idea at the time: a little more size to hold in pucks and shade a little more of the rink.  But there was another problem: the larger size boards were more unstable and had issues with the wind.  Before the ground froze, I had multiple occurances where the boards collapsed, flooding the yard and forcing me to rebuild the rink.  Several late nights were spent with my circular saw, cutting the collapsed boards in half to a 2 foot height and rebuilding those sections.

This year, I set the rink up on Thanksgiving weekend, with the expectation that an early snowstorm would flood and fill the rink.  I cut all of the remaining boards to a 2 foot height to hold off any additional problems, and put down another white tarp from Blue Lake Plastics in Minnesota.  After the debacles of the first attempt, I went ahead and used staples to ensure that the tarp stays in place in the wind prior to freezing.  I've tried alternatives, such as white duct tape, but everything else was a miserable failure.

That Thanksgiving snowstorm never really materialized, and much of December was actually pretty warm, and so the rink was pretty much just water when Christmas week approached.  Then the surprise Christmas Eve storm hit...and that did wonders to get to start freezing... except that it was a mix of snow, ice and slush.  The ice became thick enough to support the snow on top, but not thick enough to support someone walking to shovel it off.

Plus, enough water had evaporated over time that the high end was snow only.  So the solution was fairly simple:  add more water and try to melt the sitting snow and build up the ice on top.  Which is a bit of a challenge, because you once you have ice, you can't just set your hose down and let it run for a few hours.  That 45-50 degree city water starts melting the ice you already have, thus sending the water under the ice instead of on top.

No, you have to add the water on top.  Just like a firefighter trying to put out the blaze downtown, you are pouring water all over the ice to build thickness and to smooth it out.  At the high end, you can stand on the thinner sections of ice because there isn't any open water underneath, and pour the water on the other ends to build up the ice on top.

Depending on the temperature, these sessions last anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes.  When temperatures are in the mid to upper 20s, they have to be shorter because the weather won't freeze as much ice.  And when it gets colder, you can stay out longer...even though you'd rather not be out there.

I've learned some lessons the hard way: the ice shifts a bit until it completely freezes, so I've got a bit of a slope on the ice.  That's something that's difficult to fix, because if you add too much water, the water starts melting the ice, and finds a way down the edge and underneath the ice...forcing the high end up (because ice floats), and then creating shell ice on the low end.

Fortunately for skating, it's been really cold since Christmas, and over the last week, the rink appears to be completely frozen.  (At least it is on the edges, and with it below zero this past weekend, I assume it's the case throughout.)   New Years' Day, we opened the rink for some light skating and this past weekend, it was all open.  The slush that fell Thursday and Friday had to be manually shoveled off, because you can't have that unevenness left on the ice.  Last year, a rain-to-heavy snow event at the start of February took two weeks to clear because the slushy snow froze unevenly, leading to ruts and a mess.

But after an overnight flooding Friday night, the rink is pretty much in tip-top shape, and the seal of approval from the kids.  They couldn't be happier to be outside in the sub-zero wind chills.

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