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  • Writer's pictureMitchell Wilkie

Dangerous Ammonia Refrigeration…Is anything going to change?

Two arena facility staff training in HAZMAT gear
City of Delta - Ammonia Leak Training Exercise

Based on the Hockey Canada/CRFC arena census done in 2005, 65% of ice arenas use ammonia as the primary refrigerant in their plants.

On October 17, 2017 an ammonia leak at Fernie Memorial Arena in B.C. killed three people and forced the evacuation of dozens of homes. The incident is believed to be the first fatal ammonia leak from a refrigeration system in Canada, where they have been used for over one hundred years. But how many incidents may have happened or were reported over that time frame?

Globally, ammonia gas leak incidents typically occur daily. Just set a Google Alert for “ammonia leaks” and see what news comes in daily to your email. An ammonia leak incident occurs about every six to eight weeks in Canada where they have caused injuries in several cases. Since 2018 to June 2019, there have been ammonia leaks at Canadian recreational facilities in Goose Bay, Windsor, Cobourg, Gatineau, Edmonton, Corner Brook, Calgary, Cranbrook, Prescott, Brampton, Vancouver and Airdrie. A Technical Safety B.C. Report shows there were 40 reported “refrigerated release incidents” involving ammonia across that province between 2007 and 2015. The report says 10 of the incidents included injuries. British Columbia is the most successful at recording and tracking all ammonia leak incidents out of any province in Canada.

Canadian Olympic silver medalist and former world champion figure skater Karen Magnussen burned her lungs and vocal cords in an ammonia leak incident at the North Shore Winter Club in North Vancouver in November 2011, leaving her permanently disabled and unable to teach the sport. "An ammonia leak happened, same as in Fernie, and I was very lucky to not be dead and end up the same as those poor souls in Fernie,'' she said.

Ammonia is inherently dangerous and should be not used in skating and curling rinks”, said Lou Roussinos, the Former Chief Safety Inspector for Boiler, Pressure Vessel and Refrigeration Safety in B.C. Lou has over 40-years of experience. “It’s an absolutely wonderful refrigerant, but it’s dangerous,” Roussinos said. “It’s highly toxic, it will kill you in less than 30 seconds in high concentrations, and we know that.”

Conducting regular inspections, having qualified, strict and well-trained staffing requirements, and completing preventative and immediate maintenance can certainly help keep these systems safer. However, its not done consistently, done well or done at all. There’s no Canadian national standard for how often ammonia refrigeration plants in ice rinks are inspected. Here’s what I know about some provinces:

  • British Columbia’s Technical Safety B.C. inspects the refrigeration equipment when it’s installed, followed by periodic assessments throughout the lifespan of the system. Inspection timing depends on risk-based criteria that considers factors like the equipment’s age and if the building is a public space. About 200 rinks across B.C. use ammonia refrigeration plants.

  • Alberta’s inspection frequency depends on the type of plant, but facilities can’t go more than five years without a checkup. Alberta has about 60 rinks using ammonia refrigeration plants.

  • Saskatchewan inspects plants annually and there are about 80 rinks using ammonia refrigeration.

  • Manitoba requires annual inspections of about 100 rinks that use ammonia.

  • Ontario requires inspections every six, 12 or 24 months, depending on the results of the previous inspection. There are about 720 rinks across Ontario using ammonia, which is the vast majority for Canada.

  • New Brunswick legislation requires systems to be inspected periodically but is done about every two years. There are about 104 rinks using ammonia refrigeration plants in the province. All rinks in the province were last inspected in March 2018.

  • Nova Scotia’s inspections for ice rinks depend on the how much power the ammonia refrigeration plant uses. Systems that use more power are inspected annually, while lower-power units are inspected every three to five years. The number of ammonia refrigeration plants isn’t tracked.

  • Prince Edward Island inspects ammonia refrigeration plants annually. The province has 21 rinks using ammonia, including 18 ice surfaces and three curling clubs.

  • Newfoundland and Labrador inspect ammonia plants every two years. There are 52 rinks using ammonia.

The Ontario Recreational Facilities Association has more than 6,000 members that operate and manage recreation facilities in municipalities. Terry Piche, the ORFA Technical Director had said, “Ultimately, whoever owns an ice rink’s refrigeration plant is responsible for its inspections, maintenance and operations. Often that person ends up being the mayor or chief administrator of a municipality, but municipal officials often have little idea how a plant works”, he added. “Sometimes the operators are qualified to run the plant, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they get enough resources, sometimes they don’t.” Complicating the issue is the fact that Canada’s recreation facilities are aging”, Piche said.

In Ontario, ice refrigeration plants are estimated to be, on average, between 50 and 60 years old. The natural life expectancy of a recreation facility is about 32 years. Municipalities are challenged with providing their tax rate payers with good infrastructure, which is most often roads and bridges as priority. Recreational facilities help with economic development in terms of attraction and retention of residents and businesses, but its often not the most important item to a municipal council. So, ice arenas are often poorly maintained and staffed, because there isn’t enough money to do it all. A new, refrigeration plant for a single-rink community arena with conventional technology using ammonia refrigerant can cost $700,000 to start and most municipalities can’t afford it. They end up doing what they can to keep things operating and it involves many virtual bandages.

For safety, industry experts across Canada agree that ammonia refrigeration should be phased out and done quickly, especially in municipal arenas. Government could and should force that to happen.

There are better alternatives than ammonia refrigeration plants, especially ones that are more energy-efficient and can reduce carbon emissions. Over 400 municipalities in Canada and our Federal government have declared climate emergencies in 2019. This gives municipalities more power to respond to reduce GHG emissions. They may be able to more easily sole source good HVAC/R solutions within the restrictions of their purchasing policies. Rather than tendering to replace refrigeration plants with old technology from the lowest bidder, they could entertain the best technology.

For example, TRAK International provides non-ammonia Smart Energy Systems that feature hydronic heat pumps with a geoexchange field and building environment controls. The heat pumps can provide heating and chilling simultaneously and only use a very small amount (11 kg) of environmentally safe R-407C refrigerant between the unit’s heat exchangers. These modular heat pumps are their own cell in holding the R-407C. If any ever leaked, the situation would never be dangerous. The Smart Energy Systems also eliminate the need for gas boilers (and GHG emissions) and they reduce energy costs 40% to 60% compared to conventional HVAC/R systems.

There are creative financing solutions available to municipalities to retrofit their ice arenas. New refrigeration systems can be financed through energy savings realized over terms of 7 to 15 years and the costs can remain off the client’s books.

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