For the love of the ice

Lauren Ingram
February 11, 2014

With the Winter Olympics in full swing, some of the best ice in the world has frozen over in Sochi, Russia. More than an ocean away from Happy Valley, the golden, silver and bronze dreams of hundreds of world-class athletes rest on the frosty surfaces of the Sochi Games’ ice rinks and tracks.

But thanks to the Pegula Ice Arena’s high-tech ice making tools, Penn State athletes and local community members have two top-notch ice rinks in their own backyards.

Some fans are even calling it the best, hardest and fastest college ice in America.

For Chris Whittemore, facilities coordinator at the Pegula Ice Arena and Penn State’s longtime ice expert, making top-quality ice is a daily endeavor. He and his team are almost always preparing for the next hockey match and spend their up to 12-hour days doing it all: maintaining the ice, fixing equipment and driving the Zamboni. Though Whittemore drinks a lot of coffee, the smile on a child’s face as he or she glides across the ice for the first time makes the long hours worth it.

“My goal is to create the best ice possible for our Penn State athletes and the community,” Whittemore said, as he arranges pairs of red and blue-lined ice skates in cubbies behind the rental counter. “The technology available to us in this brand new facility is no less than state-of-the-art.”

A hub for fans, athletes and the public, the Pegula Ice Arena is home to Penn State’s two Division I hockey teams and is open for community figure skating lessons, open skate, broomball and youth hockey practice.

The arena also has amenities many collegiate arenas can only dream of.

There is a set of interactive touchscreens fans can use to “meet” hockey players, a hi-tech synthetic ice training room for athletes, an LED ribbon surrounding the varsity rink, video replay technology for coaches and players, free Wi-Fi, a press room with a direct camera feed to the Big Ten channel and more. 

“The Pegula family wanted to create a great environment for our hockey players, but were also insistent that we be a part of the local community,” Al Karosas, general manager at Pegula Ice Arena and the Bryce Jordan Center, said. “This imperative is why we’re open 360 days a year for up to 18 hours — we have a lot of ice time to fill, and we use it to give back with events like THON Skate.”

But all these activities depend on one key element — the ice. And making it involves more than pouring water onto a surface to freeze — it’s a science and an art with a bit of IT, chemistry, and intuition mixed in.

To keep the two National Hockey League (NHL) sized rinks frozen year-round, the facility was outfitted with a sophisticated ice system and 26-miles of piping long enough to wrap around the University Park campus 12 times.

Maintaining the 1.5-inch-thick ice sheets relies on an operating system to control an automated refrigerated “ice plant” comprised of pipes, compressors, evaporation condenser towers and pumps.

For Whittemore, this is where the magic happens.

His trick for preserving the ice is not about keeping the floor cold, but taking the heat out of slabs on the ground using two refrigerants, glycol and ammonia, and simultaneously monitoring the ice’s water purity and the arena’s humidity level.

Gone are the days of manually turning cranks and dials at Greenberg Ice Pavilion, Penn State’s former hockey facility. At Pegula, with a click of a computer mouse, Whittemore can use a computer interface to automatically set the amount of water, glycol and ammonia moving through the pipes and control the temperature of the ice, which is measured by infrared sensors in ceiling beams above the rink.

IT also plays a vital role in the arena’s water purification and climate control systems.

Filters use reverse osmosis to remove impurities from the water, and three dehumidification units the size of small houses condition oxygen before it enters the building, helping to sustain the arena’s internal humidity and air temperature.

“I grew up playing hockey, and I’ve worked in rinks for most of life, and I think what makes ice rink facilities so unique compared to other sport venues is that we’re trying to take a piece of winter and control it,” Whittemore explained.

It sounds like an almost impossible task, but the success of the arena depends on it. Keeping people safe and comfortable as they skate, play hockey and sit in the stands is important for athletic performance and fan attendance.

The IT can help monitor quantities, observe trends and discern problems with the ice — like why puddles or snow are forming, a temperature is running high, a pump isn’t working or there’s not enough glycol in the system.

“Nothing can replace a person looking at a pump or compressor to see if there’s an issue, but the IT infrastructure has already helped us isolate problems better and faster than we could at Greenberg. That was 1970s technology and this is the latest, greatest equipment.”

-- Chris Whittemore, facilities coordinator at the Pegula Ice Arena

And so far it’s making some amazing ice — regardless of whom you ask.

Hockey players typically like harder ice frozen between 18 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit, while figure skaters prefer it to be softer at 22 to 24 degrees for landing jumps. 

Anne Kerber, a former competitive figure skater, is getting back into the sport by practicing at Pegula three times a week.

“I skated at Greenberg for about seven years and loved it, but I like that Pegula has two sheets of ice so there are more opportunities for figure skaters to have ice time. The quality of the ice is better — it’s harder, and I always get a deep edge with my skates,” she said.

According to the rinks’ schedules, Whittemore can digitally program the ice plant to automatically raise and lower the community and varsity rinks’ ice and air temperatures depending on whether figure skaters or hockey players are practicing. In the future, he’ll even be able to adjust the settings from his office and wirelessly with his phone and iPad.

“We have the tools that a top-class NHL facility has in order to train future professional hockey players on NHL ice,” Whittemore said. “Nothing beats the excitement in this place on game day when Penn State’s hockey teams face off against historic college teams — the emotion is palpable.”

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Last Updated February 19, 2014