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Building a Simple Backyard Ice Rink

by George S Rossano


(14 December 2020)  The Autumn surge in Covid cases has recently resulted in the closure or severe cutback of hours for ice arenas.  Many skaters are without access to ice completely, or can book only very limited hours in those rinks that are still operating.  These conditions are likely to be in place throughout the winter.  One solution to the problem of skaters not being able to get to arena ice, is to bring ice to the skaters, by building a backyard ice rink.

While many places in the U.S. still have skating on frozen ponds and lakes, such places are not suitable for serious figure skating.  The ice is rarely flat, and one has to contend with debris frozen into the ice surface.  When I was a graduate student in Maryland, a pond near the university froze enough during the winter that skating was possible at times.  The ice froze enough you wouldn't fall through, but the ice surface fractured in large pieces that would bob up and down slightly as you moved from one section of ice to the next.

A far more realistic source of ice is a backyard rink.  Backyard (naturally-frozen) rinks and their community equivalents can be traced back over 150 years in the north-eastern United States.  Artificial lakes in New York City's Central Park were design to be converted in the winter into ice surfaces by controlling the water level to allow quicker freezing.  1981 through 1984 U.S. Pairs Champions and 1984 Olympic silver medalists Peter and Kitty Carruthers began their skating on a backyard ice surface created by their father.

As their father described it for the Christian Science Monitor in 1981, "We lived on a hill.  We were very much afraid that they would go sliding and slide out into the street sometime. So I got the bright idea when they were roughly 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 years old of leveling off some of the backyard and making a little skating rink. That would be something they could do for winter recreation, and we could watch them."

For the northern 40% of the U.S., temperatures from late November through early March are sufficiently cold to build a practical outside ice surface. In other states farther south which have mountainous regions, many have local regions where it is also cold enough to build a rink, if sufficient flat land can be found.  Do-it-yourselfers report costs as little as a $150 dollars to a few thousand.  A common size they describe is 24 X 40 ft.  Commercially available kits are available up to $5400, or more, for surfaces as large as 40 X 80 ft.

The three basic requirements for a backyard rink are sufficient flat ground, water and cold.  The amount of space needed depends on how ambitious one is, and the level of the skater to be using the rink. Various shapes and sizes are possible.

During the days of compulsory figures, skaters did "patch" on strips of ice 18-20 feet wide and the width of the rink long.  Two skaters would usually share a strip.  A 20 X 80 ft surface is sufficient to practice compulsory figures and those Moves in the Field that are laid out the width of a standard size rink.  For a small skater (as in pre-teen) 20 ft wide is big enough for practicing spins, but not really the best choice for practicing jumps.  A better choice for jumps is a square or slightly rectangular size.  30 X 30 ft. would be suitable for a young skaters doing singles and maybe some doubles.  For doubles and some of the triples a surface 2500 to 3600 square feet would be needed, such as 50 X 50 ft or 60 X 60 ft.

The average lot size in a congested suburban development is about 9000 square feet with the house taking up a third, and in less congested suburban and rural areas even more space may be available.  Some people build temporary rinks over tennis courts (120 X 60 ft) or basketball courts (84 X 50 ft) if their property has one.

In addition to size and shape, a very important factor is how flat the ground is.  Ideally, the land should be nearly perfectly flat.  As the slope of the land becomes greater, building the boards that contain the rink and freezing the deep end becomes more difficult, and may reach a point where the slope leads to all sorts of complications better avoided.  The general consensus we find is that the elevation of the land at the deepest point should not be more than 4 in. below the highest point.  The ice surface should be no less than 4 in. deep at the shallowest place, and thus no deeper than 8 in. at the deepest place.  Some do-it-yourselfers describe building rinks with a slope of over 12 in. from end to end, though it seems they have to invest a lot of extra work to accomplish it.

Building the rink is very simple, consisting of building a wooden frame that is either staked in place, or supported by buttress-like supports every few feet.  This frame is typically 8-12 in. high.  A plastic liner is then placed within the frame to hold the water in place as it freezes.  Materials are readily available from home improvement stores and are not that expensive.  In many cases the cost of the water will exceed the cost of materials.  For example, where I live, a 60 X 60 surface 4 in. deep would result in about a $400 water bill for filling the rink.

Another method some people use, after snow has fallen, is to compact snow in the area desired and to build up a compacted snow berm around the perimeter that is about a foot high and at least a foot thick.  While it is below freezing the snow is misted using a garden hose to build up a layer of ice at the bottom of the rink surface and the sides of the berms.  Once there is a layer of about 1/2 in. of ice, this ice "bathtub" can be filled with water and left to freeze.

One way to help the freezing process is to use a long hose that is buried in the snow so the water that comes out of the hose bibb cools as it travels though the hose and will be near freezing when applied to the snow.  The snow berm method has the limitation, however, when used in places that do not stay above freezing all day, that ice-melt water can escape making maintenance more difficult.  With a liner, the melt water remains trapped to refreeze.

Other considerations on placing the rink include the amount of sunlight received during the day (you want to minimize it) and avoiding sources of debris (twigs, leaves, etc.) that might fall on the surface and freeze into the ice if it partially melts during the day, and are a pain in the butt to remove when frozen.  If daytime temperatures rise to allow some melting during the midday, it can be slowed down by covering the surface with a white tarp that will reflect sunlight and trap cold air under the tarp.  An important safety consideration is that no stakes, posts, obstructions, etc. are nearby to cause injury if someone falls at the edge of the rink.  A completely empty space a few feet wide around the rink would seem to be a prudent safety precaution.  If the rink is not used for hockey, there is no need for the side boards that hockey players so love to smash each other into.

Unlike an indoor ice arena where the ice temperature is maintained at about 24 degrees F for figure skating, a backyard rink will fluctuate in temperature with conditions, anywhere from your overnight low temperature to just above freezing.

Maintaining a smooth surface is handled as it was done before the invention of the Zamboni; holes are patched with snow, the surface layer is scraped flat with a scraper, the snow removed, and a layer of water is sprayed on the the ice surface and smoothed with a squeegee.  For the truly ambitious, one can also build a simple hot water barrel that will leave the ice surface patch perfect after the ice is patched and scraped.

Backyard rink kits are available in various sizes for a few thousand dollars, up to $5400 or more.  A popular kit size for backyard peewee hockey is 40 X 80 ft. and includes all materials required other than water.

Backyard rinks can be set up in a day and the ice surface frozen in a few days.  With ten weeks or more of use possible in many parts of the U.S. a backyard rink pays for itself compared to ice time at an ice arena, were it available.

While a backyard rink is no substitute for normal training at an indoor ice arena, for this winter at least, it is a cost effective way to complete some productive training, keep in shape, and is the only practical option for recreational skaters during a time of extended Covid lockdowns and rink closures.

A simple backyard ice rink does not require a permit in most places if it does not involve plumbing, refrigeration equipment, electrical work or lighting, fencing or side boards.  A backyard snow berm rink does not require a permit if it is nothing more than snow and water.  Even without a permit, property-line setbacks must still be met.  Check with your local planning department if a permit is required, just to be sure.  Any form of front yard rink will almost certainly require a permit.

Anyone subject to the rules of a HOA should check with them too, but as HOAs seem to always not like anything out of the ordinary (or even things in the ordinary), anyone subject to a HOA is probably SOL.  If non-household members are allowed to use a backyard rink, home owners should verify their insurance company will cover claims resulting from its use.

Detailed instruction for how to build a backyard rink are readily available on the internet and YouTube, as well as from websites for companies that sell kits.