Should You Use Direct or Indirect Ice Rink Refrigeration?

ice rink refrigeration

Ice rinks are a major business now. Once a niche industry confined largely to northern areas, ice sports in all their forms have now gone global and you’ll find hockey teams, professional ice skaters, and casual skating enthusiasts everywhere from Hawaii to Miami to Saudi Arabia. That means more businesses are considering opening an ice rink as either part of an existing property or as a business unto itself. But that means getting the right ice rink chillers and choosing the best setup for your property: a direct refrigeration or indirect refrigeration ice rink. Here is our guide to the difference between these two types of systems, the advantages of each, and our recommendation on which way to go.

What they Have in Common

Both types of rinks use similar ice rink chillers. These chillers use a refrigerant, most commonly a form of ammonia or else Freon gas. The refrigerant is what actually does the chilling in either type of system. That is where the similarities end, however: direct versus indirect refrigeration uses the ice rink chiller very differently, and requires different amounts of refrigerant.

Direct Refrigeration

Direct refrigeration means that the refrigerant itself is pumped out underneath the rink floor in a series of tubes. This makes the rink floor cold and causes the water layer to become ice. This is the most efficient way of chilling an ice rink.

There are drawbacks, however. Direct refrigeration systems typically cost more to install, because they use more refrigerant. At the same time, because the refrigerant is being circulated through miles of pipes, there’s more risk of a leak. This can be problematic both because refrigerant is expensive to replace, and because Freon, which is odorless, is a toxic guess.

The main reason businesses choose direct systems is to reduce operating costs and improve energy efficiency.

Indirect Refrigeration

With indirect refrigeration, the refrigerant never leaves the chiller machines themselves. Instead, it us used to chill brine—a simple mixture of water and salt—that passes through tubes in the chiller. This brine is then what’s pumped out underneath the rink floor, causing it to freeze over.

Indirect systems are less efficient than direct systems, because heat has to be transferred between the brine and refrigerant to keep the brine cool. It will always take more energy to run an indirect system than an equivalent direct one. However, the substance going out under the rink is harmless and cheap to replace, so leaks are less of an issue.

Which is Right?

Which type of ice rink chiller system is right for your business depends a lot on your setup. In general, we would err toward an indirect system. There is less risk of losing refrigerant and having to pay to replace it later. The added energy cost may not be significant, especially compared to the price of a Freon charge.

If you have a small, modern, well maintained facility, however, or if energy costs are extremely high in your area, then direct may be the way to go. If this is the case, simply make sure the system is checked regularly for leaks to minimize losses.

What kind of ice rink system are you considering?