Skating on thin ... plastic?
At the Polar Rink at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the ice never melts. The surface never needs to be Zambonied. And when it comes time to shut down for the season, the rink can be taken apart like a giant jigsaw puzzle and stored for use next year.
That’s because skaters, like 7-year-old Shari Bergman, aren’t really skating on ice, but on plastic.
“It’s very slippery,” Shari said, smiling with rosy cheeks as she took a momentary break from tripping and spinning. “It makes you fall and it’s really fun!”
Throughout the country, synthetic-ice rinks are becoming increasingly popular. They’re cheaper and environmentally friendly, manufacturers say, and can be used year-round. But while they promise “a skating experience almost identical to real ice,” reviews from many who’ve tried them are chilly.
Synthetic ice, typically constructed of polymer slabs coated with a slippery silicone solution, has been around for decades. Until recently, however, it was used mostly for temporary installations because manufacturers had difficulty producing large surfaces and replicating the authentic sensation of skating on ice.
But those manufacturers have since ironed out many of the buckles and bumps, and thousands of rinks are now in operation in backyards and public spaces from San Jose, Calif., to Austin, Texas; Rockville, Md.; and New York City.
Brad Harris, senior director of visitor services at the American Museum of Natural History, says museum staff wanted to find a way to use an outdoor terrace during the winter. They’d considered a traditional rink, but the site sits atop a parking garage, and ice would be too heavy.
Then, Harris says, “We found this material, and we thought it would be an interesting way to highlight doing leisure in a more green way.” The rink also serves as a tie-in with a temporary exhibition on global warming, which also opened this fall.
Perry Boskus, president of Florida-based Global Synthetic Ice, developer and manufacturer of Super-Glide, one brand of synthetic ice, says business began booming about three years ago, when he started getting calls from desperate Canadians whose ponds weren’t freezing over because of unseasonably warm winters.
“Ever since global warming,” he says with a laugh, “it’s been crazy.”
Marsha Blew of Synthetic Ice USA, a distributor based in upstate New York, says that her sales doubled from 2007 to 2008 and that thanks to the rink at the museum, calls from New Jersey have quadrupled.
While Blew’s clients are mostly residential (hockey and figure-skating lovers who set up rinks in backyards and garages), Boskus says his company has installed 75 commercial rinks in places like Michigan, Kansas, Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. An 8-by-16-foot home rink from Synthetic sells for just under $1,600, or about $12.50 per square foot, with commercial-grade surfaces priced higher.
Much of the appeal is the lower maintenance cost. Synthetic rinks use no electricity because they don’t need to be cooled. While they still require attendants and marshals to police the “ice”—and sweep up plastic shavings—there’s no need for compressors, refrigeration equipment or an ice-resurfacing machine like a Zamboni.
Don Mason, president of KwikRink Synthetic Ice, a manufacturer in Maple Grove, Minn., who installs about 100 hockey rinks a year, estimates the cost difference between a synthetic and natural rink at almost 10 to 1, including the costs of building, refrigeration and equipment.
Harris says operating a traditional rink at the museum would have required an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 kilowatts of energy per month—costing well over $20,000—just to keep the ice cold. Even without high electric bills, Harris says, the 12,000-square-foot, rink, the largest such synthetic surface in the nation, is barely scraping by financially. The museum has not decided whether to reopen it next year.
But melt-free ice means that people can skate outdoors year-round. Synthetic rinks took off in Central and South America years ago, with rinks in Venezuela, Guatemala and Chile.
In New York City, kids on school break were already skating without jackets in 50-degree February sunshine.
Even so, reviews of the surface were mixed.
“It’s strange. You can’t get any momentum,” said Katie Tame, 30, an actress-waitress from New Jersey, who was taking a break from the rink with her boyfriend and his 8-year-old nephew. “You kind of run on it more than skate.”
The kids, however, were ecstatic.
“Wow! Wow! Wow!” Bennet Roberts, 6, screamed to his dad, Bruce, as he flailed like a scarecrow across the surface. “It’s easy to stop!” he yelled back over his shoulder, as he fell backward on his bottom, still sliding across the soft, dry, blue-gray surface.
“It’s a great way to teach the kids how to ice-skate without getting wet,” said the elder Roberts, 43, an actor from Harlem.
Harris says it’s key to warn visitors not to expect perfection.
“You really have to manage the expectations of the skaters,” he says. “It’s still fun, but it’s a tougher sell when people know what they want and they know what it should be.”
The big difference between real and synthetic ice is friction, explains René A. Turcotte, associate professor at McGill University in Montreal and one of the principal investigators at the school’s Ice Hockey Research Group.
That increased friction makes it more difficult to glide, he says, forcing skaters to work harder. (It also means skates have to be sharpened more frequently.) “It’s kind of like skating on sand.”
Some coaches are taking advantage of this, using synthetic ice as a training tool for hockey players and figure skaters. Olympic-gold-medal-winning figure skater Oksana Baiul, for instance, has had a synthetic rink in her home and said she recommends them, especially to hockey players.
But many in the industry say they remain skeptical.
“It’s supposed to be ice-skating,” stresses Scottie Bibb, director of media and public relations for U.S. Figure Skating. But, she concedes, “Any opportunity that people get to try the sport is a good one.”
Adding to the number of rinks already in operation, a synthetic surface even larger than the one in Manhattan is scheduled to open June 1 in Niagara Falls, N.Y. And as cities on increasingly thin budgetary ice begin searching for cheaper recreation options, the popularity of synthetic rinks is likely to grow.
So are those in the business of traditional ice worried about being frozen out of the market?
“I don’t see something that is providing an alternative to the ice that folks would have been putting in,” says Paula Coony, general manager of the Zamboni Merchandising Co., who adds that the company has experienced no decline in sales as a result of synthetic ice.
“It’s really apples and oranges,” says Eugene Patron, press director for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., which has a large traditional outdoor skating rink. “One might be cheaper, but it’s really a different experience,” he says. “Ice is just the natural thing for ice-skating.”