One of the joys of having a pond on your property is being able to create a winter-sports wonderland. Whether you're an ice skater or a hockey player, curling competitor or broomball aficionado, it's sure nice to simply walk out to your ice rink, slip on your skates and play.
But before you groom your pond for ice sports, it's important to understand how to safely create a sturdy ice sheet and what red flags to look for while the ice is forming. We begin with the basics.
Understanding How Ice Forms
Ever wonder exactly how ice forms? Here's a quick lesson for you.
When the air temperature cools in the late fall and early winter, the water on the surface of your lake or pond loses its heat and becomes heavier. This cold, heavy water sinks to the bottom while the warmer water from the bottom rises to the top and cools. The cycling process continues until the overall water temperature reaches 39º Fahrenheit (or about 4º Celsius).
Before long, the water on top cools enough to freeze. As it does so, the liquid molecules transform into solid ice crystals--and those expand and space themselves out as they form, which is why ice floats and why it takes up more room than liquid. When given enough time to form, the ice layer created by this crystallized frozen water thickens to the point where it is strong enough to support animals, humans and even vehicles.
So What Does Safe Ice Look Like?
Use these clues below to help determine if the ice is safe enough to hold an ice skater or hockey team.
- No Open Water. Look for areas with running or pooling water. These could be signs telling you to abandon your ice rink plans.
- No Inlets or Outlets. Is it located away from inlets and outlets? Moving water affects the integrity of the ice, so avoid areas near inlets/outlets and springs.
- Solid, blue to clear. This is high density, very strong and safe ice when thick enough. Areas that appear light gray to black, white to opaque, mottled or slushy or have flowing water are unsafe and should be avoided. Also stay away from areas with cracks or breaks, ice that appears to have thawed and refrozen, and abnormal surfaces you haven't seen before, like ridges caused by currents or winds.
- Thick and strong. Use an ice chisel, an ice auger or a cordless drill. Choose one of these tools to use - along with a tape measure, of course - to carve a hole in the ice and check to see how thick the ice is. By "thick," we mean in inches of solid ice - up to 12 to 15 inches, depending on your plans for the rink.
- 3 inches or less: Not safe, so stay off the ice.
- 4 inches: Suitable for ice fishing, cross-country skiing and walking (about 200 pounds).
- 5 inches: Safe for a snowmobile or ATV (about 800 pounds).
- 8 to 12 inches: OK for a car or group of people (about 1,500 to 2,000 pounds).
- 12 to 15 inches: Suitable for a light pickup truck or a van.
Despite all your careful and diligent rink-building efforts, it's important to remember that there's no absolute guarantee that the ice is safe. Accidents can happen. Be proactive by installing a life ring kit nearby, and providing a first aid kit, blanket and other emergency essentials. Tell someone where you're going, dress accordingly, wear a flotation device, carry a change of clothing and an emergency kit in a waterproof bag. When inspecting the ice, remember this rhyme: "Thick and blue, tried and true; thin and crispy, way too risky."
Creating the Perfect Ice
Now it's time to prep the surface. First, check the weather to make sure below-freezing temperatures are forecasted for the next five nights. Then, gather some gear, including a flat-head shovel, a pickaxe or hatchet, and a bucket or garden hose, head out to the rink site and get to work:
- Step 1: Stake out your skating area A 50-foot by 100-foot rink is plenty of space to start with, particularly on a smaller pond. The area can be expanded as needed.
- Step 2: Remove debris Use a weed cutter and rake to remove dead or floating debris, such as cattails and phragmites. If those are on the water's surface or along the lake's edges as the ice forms, you could wind up with bumpy or weak ice.
- Step 3: Shovel the entire surface Next, using your flat nose shovel, push any snow from side to side in the middle of the ice, and then from the middle out to the ends.
- Step 4: Strategically pile up the snow Create seating areas, hockey goals and some backstops at either end of the rink.
- Step 5: Access some water You'll need water to pour onto the surface of your rink, so break through the ice with your hatchet or pickaxe to create an opening large enough for a bucket or garden hose. Build a ring of snow around the hole for future reference.
- Step 6: Ice the surface Fill your bucket with pond water and pour it onto the exposed ice sheet. If you're using a hose, siphon the water and distribute it evenly on the surface. Repeat until you've evenly covered the area with water.
- Step 7: Freeze and repeat Let the pond ice freeze overnight. Return to the pond the next day and repeat the process if needed.
Maintaining Your Ice Rink
How do you keep your rink glassy smooth? You don't need a Zamboni, but you do need to do some regular scraping, sweeping and flooding to resurface and prime the ice. Here's our three-step solution for maintaining a perfect surface on your rink.
- Step 1: Clear the Surface First, clear the entire surface of the ice with a broom, a flat head metal shovel and ice scraper. Sweep and shovel off the snow and scrape down and remove all bits of ice and snow as they will freeze during the flooding process and create imperfections on the surface. Dips and holes are OK because they'll fill with water, but lumps and bumps are not.
- Step 2: Flood the Rink Next, flood the rink with water. Rather than use a sprayer nozzle, which can cause a pitted and rough ice from all the water droplets hitting the surface, let the water flow directly from the hose and allow it to evenly cover the entire rink. If possible, use warm water to flood the area. Just like in a Zamboni, the warm water melts the surface of ice, correcting imperfections and allowing it to freeze smoothly. You can either fill buckets with warm water from your bathtub and slowly pour the water over the ice, or you can use an outdoor faucet with a thermostatically controlled hose to keep water flowing out to the pond.
- Step 3: Use When Cold With your rink resurfaced and smoother than a pane of glass, you want to keep it that way, right? Before you cut into the ice with your blades, consider the temperatures outside. Avoid using the rink during mild weather when your skates do significant damage to the ice. Instead, use the rink when it's cold enough outside to keep that slick surface intact.
Now that you've learned how to grow good ice rink ice, how to set up and create a winter wonderland, and how to maintain the rink all season long, it's time to get busy making a rink of your own. Be safe and enjoy your very own icy paradise!