Columbus Blue Jackets CO2
Nationwide Arena, home of the Columbus Blue Jackets; image from the Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus (Ohio) Blue Jackets to Be First NHL Team to Use CO2-Based Ice Rink System

The desire for a future-proof system led Nationwide Arena to select an indirect CO2 system from CIMCO

The Columbus Blue Jackets, which joined the National Hockey League (NHL) in 2000, will become the first NHL team to skate on ice produced by a transcritical CO2 (R744)-based ice rink refrigeration system.

The system, to be supplied by Canadian manufacturer and contractor CIMCO Refrigeration, will be installed next year at Nationwide Arena (the purchaser of the system) in Columbus, Ohio, in time for the Blue Jacket’s 2023–2024 NHL season. The indirect system will use CO2 as the primary refrigerant and glycol as the secondary coolant under two rinks, the main NHL rink and a practice rink.

“CO2 has had a longstanding reputation in Europe for decades and we are excited to be the first NHL team to implement a CO2 plant partnering with CIMCO,” said Derek Smith, General Manager for Nationwide Arena.

The system consists of two 200TR (703kW) industrial-grade CO2 packages, each consisting of eight compressors. It also features a seven-pump package for pumping glycol under the two rinks and for heating. The system supplies 5°F (-15°C) glycol for the ice rinks per NHL requirements and “can go lower if needed,” said Brad Wilkins, U.S. Recreation Project Team Lead at CIMCO Refrigeration. It includes redundant components in the event of a failure.

Fifteen of the NHL’s 32 rinks use another natural refrigerant – ammonia/NH3 (R717) – in their ice rink systems. Among the rest, 15 (including Nationwide Arena currently) employ R22 or other traditional f-gases, while two use the HFO blend R513A.

Only one professional hockey team currently plays on ice produced by a CO2-based ice rink system – the Cleveland Monsters, the Blue Jackets’ top minor league affiliate and a member of the American Hockey League (AHL). The indirect CO2 system, provided by Zero Zone, was installed a year ago at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the Monsters’ home arena.

This fall, another minor league team, the Reading (Pennsylvania) Royals of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), will begin skating on ice made by an indirect CO2-based ice system, supplied by CIMCO, at the Santander Arena. The Royals are an affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers NHL team, which uses an R22 system.

Refrigerant considerations

Nationwide sought to replace its original, 22-year-old CIMCO-supplied system because of the R22 phaseout and the rising cost of the refrigerant, said Wilkins. “They experienced a major leak and a big repair and didn’t want to go through that again.”

The arena considered an ammonia system but decided against it because it would have required costly engine room modifications and ventilation upgrades.

Nationwide initially leaned toward purchasing an R513A system until learning more about CO2 technology from CIMCO, said Wilkins. “After extensive research, we determined the smartest choice was a CO2 solution that CIMCO proposed,” said Nationwide’s Smith.

The NHL has formed a partnership with chemical producer Chemours to promote the company’s R513A refrigerant Opteon XP10. However, individual NHL teams and their arenas are able to make independent decisions about the type of refrigerant and system they will use.

“We worked with the [Nationwide] organization for approximately six months investigating all the options from multiple perspectives,” explained Wilkins. “Purely from a business perspective, CO2 checked of all the boxes and was a proven technology that exceeded the NHL performance standards.”

The CO2 system turned out to be 25% less expensive than the R513A system, which required a special design for glycol piping and installation in the engine room, Wilkins said.

But the cost of the system was not the main factor.

R513A consists of 44% R134a, an HFC that is subject to an eventual phase down in the U.S. It also contain 56% R1234yf, an HFO that breaks down in the atmosphere into trifluoroacetic acid (TFA), which returns to Earth in rainfall and accumulates in water sources.

Following the phaseout of R22, Nationwide did not want to be in the same position again with another refrigerant.  “Having a future-proof, efficient, sustainable refrigeration installation that will last for the next 30 years is very important to us,” said Smith.  “With ever-changing regulation in the industry, we were not interested in having to trouble ourselves with having to find another solution in the coming years.”

Another important advantage of the CO2 system is energy savings. The heat reclaim made possible by the system will be used to preheat hot water and to support snowmelt and underfloor heating. An R513A system would have required an additional natural gas boiler to deliver heat for snowmelt and underfloor heating, said Wilkins.

In addition, an analysis of electricity usage found that the CO2 system “conservatively” is expected to save 20% compared to an R513A system, said Wilkins.

The CO2 system will use two Guentner adiabatic gas coolers to bolster its energy efficiency during warmer days. Overall, the water used by the gas coolers will be far less than that used by a cooling tower for an R513A system, a projected savings of $20,000 per year, he said.

Nationwide opted for an indirect CO2 system – rather than a direct CO2 system that would use CO2 under the two ice rink floors ­– to take advantage of its existing glycol piping and floors. The lifespan of an ice rink floor and piping is 45 to 50 years, meaning that the 22-year-old floors at Nationwide are only middle-aged. “So there was no reason to replace them,” said Wilkins.

CIMCO educated Nationwide on the safety advantages of CO2. In the event of a leak, CO2 has an eight-hour safety limit of 5,000ppm, while R513A’s limit is 600ppm. “So CO2 is more than eight times safer [than R513A] for human beings to be in a room for eight hours, said Wilkins.

In any event, CIMCO will be able to remotely monitor the CO2 system, and the company’s trained local technicians will be available to handle any issues, said Wilkins.

Having installed more than 80 CO2 ice rink systems since 2014, CIMCO is “very comfortable with CO2,” said Wilkins. “This is not a risk, technology-wise.”

Long lead times on equipment has resulted in the installation of the CO2 system to be scheduled for next year. The exact time will depend on whether the Blue Jackets qualify for the NHL playoffs. Even if the team wins the Stanley Cup championship in June, that will leave enough time to install and commission the system before the beginning of the next season.

Another example of a high-profile installation of a CO2-based ice rink system – a direct system – was the National Speed Skating Oval (NSSO, aka the “Ice Ribbon”) at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

“‘We are excited to be the first NHL team to implement a CO2 plant.”

Derek Smith, Nationwide Arena

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