Ammonia In Ice Rinks Makes For Interesting Talk

February 6, 2003
Making ice would seem to be a simple procedure. Just stick a tray in the freezer and you have ice cubes. (Or if you are in the Chicago area in winter, leave bottled water in the garage at night and have bottled ice the next morning.)

But if the process involves the creation of ice for a large hockey arena, the procedure could become quite complex — from architectural specifications, to securing building permits, to engaging a general contractor, to subbing out the work, to the selection of literally thousands of components that will go into the structure.

And then there is the mechanical system. Here the decisions can include equipment from an OEM, along with the selection of various components and parts. The process also consists of the selection of refrigerants for the cooling system that creates the ice. The options here include HFCs, HCFCs, and ammonia (NH3).

Ice Rink Insurance

One other aspect of the whole creation of a refrigeration system equation involves insurance coverage. This is where a designer and manufacturer of ice rinks who is based in western Pennsylvania is stirring up a bit of a hornet’s nest.

John Burley of Johnstown, Pa., has been circulating a document that seems to question the ability of those involved in ice rinks that use ammonia to get adequate insurance coverage. And, quite simply, the major associations and contractors in the ammonia sector are denying what he is saying.

It’s a “he said/he said” situation.

In a phone interview, Burley seemed to back off from some of the more black-and-white comments made in one of his white papers. Early on in one document, Burley says, “Because of several recent landmark legal decisions, ice rinks with ammonia systems will likely be denied any liability coverage for any damage, injury, or death resulting from an ammonia leak, regardless of cause.”

Burley goes on to say in the document, “Basically, these new court rulings in favor of insurance providers mean those who own, operate, sell, or have stamped drawings as professional architects and engineers now do not have insurance coverage for claims resulting from an ammonia incident with most standard liability or errors and omissions insurance.”

But in the phone interview, he said, “Ammonia is a good refrigerant. Some insurance companies offer special policies. Minimize the risk by looking at the appropriate insurance.”

Burley’s company has been using R-22 in recent installations, though in the phone interview he advocated R-507. So basically he is advocating the use of the HCFC or HFC as a refrigerant in ice rinks. Of course, he has every right to sell systems with such refrigerants since they are established, proven products.

However, the question is: Does he have the right to promote HCFCs and HFCs versus ammonia by issuing apparently widely circulated broadsides that focus on making claims about insurance coverage that are being strongly challenged?

Clearing Up Misinformation

Art Sutherland of Accent Refrigeration in Victoria, British Columbia, an ammonia refrigeration contractor, wrote in general about the issue:

“I have been forwarded a number of newsletters which provide nothing but misinformation. The letters add no value to the industry and always victimize people who have a true interest in the industry.”

Sutherland and other contractors who work with ammonia equipment said they are able to obtain an adequate amount of insurance, as are the operators of the ice rink facilities.

The ammonia sector has, of course, strong advocates of ammonia as a better refrigerant in many applications. And that sector has issued numerous technical papers maintaining that in many applications, ammonia is a better choice than HCFCs or HFCs.

“Ammonia has effectively and efficiently been used as a primary refrigerant for over 100 years. … Ammonia has no effect on the ozone layer and does not produce any greenhouse gases.” Later on, the same report states, “Ammonia’s power to capacity ratio is far better than either (HFC-)134a or (HCFC-)22, not even taking into account the further advantages of operating at reduced discharge pressures.”

Readers of The News are, for the most part, contractors who either work with HCFCs, HFCs, or NH3. They are comfortable with one refrigerant or the other. They are also often called into a project after the decision has already been made as to which type of refrigerant will be used.

Just Make Sure

This whole brouhaha is floating around just under the radar screen within the HVACR industry, and it might best be looked at as a cautionary tale.

Turning a large, stationary, mechanical refrigeration design into a reality requires many components; insurance is required.

Smart contractors are going to make sure they understand all aspects of a job — and make sure they are comfortable with all aspects of that particular job.

Speaking of ammonia refrigeration, the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR) has scheduled its annual conference for March 16-19 in Albuquerque, N.M. It is open to IIAR members as well as nonmembers. This is a good way to get up to speed on the latest technical and legal developments. It’s also a great opportunity to chat with those who work with ammonia refrigerant on a daily basis. Information can be obtained on the organization’s Web site, www.iiar.org.

Peter Powell is refrigeration editor. He can be reached at 847-622-7260, 847-622-7266 (fax), or peterpowell@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 02/10/2003

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