Ice skating is a hobby that most tend to think is only for the Olympics or the NHL, but this icy pastime can possibly be right outside your customer’s door if they so choose.
One of the ways landscaping companies can help set themselves apart from the competition is by serving niche markets, and backyard ice rink installations is a niche market indeed. Yet, according to Jim Berns, president of Berns Landscaping Services, Inc. based in Warren, Michigan, it is profitable for his company.
Berns stumbled upon the service when he started researching putting a rink in his own backyard for his son who plays hockey.
“I researched it and I saw this could be a good thing to do between seasons,” he says. “We’re a full-service company and it’s something we can do before snow removal season starts.”
For Berns, the ice rink installation service isn’t a huge portion of his business because it generally only attracts those who love to skate, but he has had some municipalities that will request one.
Generally, customers who are interested in this service want it for their kids and appreciate the backyard aspect of it. Berns’ company will even set up lights so his clients can skate well into to the evening.
When it comes to choosing rink options, homeowners have three options: natural, refrigerated and synthetic.
“Natural is letting Mother Nature handle things,” Berns says. “We have to wait for temperatures to get below freezing. For our rinks, it takes four consecutive days for skateable ice. The longer it stays cold the thicker the ice gets.”
Refrigerated rinks are the most expensive option as they call for pipes under the ice to refrigerate it and require a lot of electricity, but can be used in 50-degree Fahrenheit weather.
Oskar Valdman, owner of Lady Bug Creative Landscape & Design based in Alberta, Canada, outlines what all goes into one of these installations: “For refrigerated ice rink: surface preparation, refrigerator(s) installation, installation liner then special mats from plastic pipes, filling these mats with glycerin, then water filling with cooling at the same time by refrigerator.”
Because this is such a large investment, there are few homeowners interested in this rink option.
Synthetic rinks are the middle ground as they are not as cheap as a natural rink, but they aren’t as expensive as the refrigerated ones.
“Synthetic ice rinks have a little cheaper installation (with materials) and you can use it year-round. It is less slippery than a natural or refrigerated ice rink,” Valdman says.
Rink sizes can vary greatly based on the customer’s backyard. Berns says 30’ by 30’ is average and the largest rink he has installed was 70’ by 120’.
“It depends on the size of a backyard and size of client’s purse (wallet),” Valdman says.
When it comes to installing a natural rink, Berns’ crew will watch the forecast for colder weather, usually waiting until late November or early December in their area, before the snow comes but after a majority of the leaves have fallen.
“Leaves attract heat from the sun and warm the ice,” Berns says. “In a perfect world, we’d be able to do it all in one day, but usually we’ll see what the weather is going to do and we’ll jump on it and set up the perimeter boards and then put the liner in and water at the last second.”
Both Berns and Valdman agree that site preparation is the most important aspect for proper ice rink installation.
“One of the things that we do when we look at a new prospect is look at what the grade is like, how big rink is going to be,” Berns says. “We advise going as big as possible. You don’t want to drop more than 8 inches. If it does, we’ll extend the boards for a temporary level or do some land balancing where we regrade the area so it’s close to being level. In a perfect world, it would be 1 to 2 inches of grade.”
Berns advises doing the grading in the spring or summer so turf can be reinstalled, otherwise the client has dirt exposed all through the winter, which can become pretty messy.
When it comes to maintenance of the rink, Berns provides his customers with a list of the tasks required to keep the ice in good shape, but also offers to handle the upkeep as a service.
If the client prefers to handle things themselves, they can use a special hand ice resurfacer that serves the purpose of being a mini Zamboni.
These rinks are designed so they can be broken down and stored during the off season and Berns says a liner typically lasts 3 years but some of his clients have had theirs for five to six years.
Homeowners have the option of storing these structures on their own property, or if the landscaping company has the space, they can store them offsite.
As for the turf underneath, Valdman says that as long as the liner doesn’t have any holes and is taken off at the right time, the grass should be okay.
“In all the years we’ve been doing it there is minimal damage to the turf. As soon as it melts, boom, take it up,” Berns says. “The only time that it is damaged is if we leave the rink out too long.”
Berns’ advice for other landscapers who are considering adding on this service is to have a passion for it.
“I get so excited creating rinks,” he says. “My son and I, we still play on ours. Sometimes we’ll skate in the rink before school. It’s such a great experience for the customers to have one of these.”