Backyard Rink: Tricks, Tips and Lessons Learned
Anyone who has built a backyard rink, or has a friend or neighbor who does, knows that while building a rink is no simple feat, it provides tremendous joy and satisfaction for those who persevere and get it done! The boards and brackets are expensive, each year you need a new liner, shovel, and/or replacement boards, plus all the countless hours shoveling, resurfacing, and trying to undo weather damage delivered by Mother Nature. Last year a friend joked that he logged more hours preparing and maintaining his ice than his family actually spent skating on it! But alas, it’s a labor of love for hockey families, and in the north there is no better way to spend a crisp winter day then with your friends and family in the backyard!
I have learned from both success and failure with backyard rinks over the years, and in this article my goal is to share the issues I wish I knew before building my first rink.
How much slope in my yard is allowable?
This is arguably the most important issue to consider in your yard, and unfortunately for many homeowners a tough issue to overcome because most yards are built with a gentle slope to allow for proper water drainage. A few significant issues regarding slope to consider:
- Too much slope and your boards may not interlock together the way the manufacturer intended. You might get around that by trenching slightly underneath each board to create straight vertical alignment, but then your boards will look like “stair steps” and sharp corners could injury a skater who falls there. If your boards are plywood, you could cut or sand the surface to remove the injury hazard.
- Consider board height vs elevation change. Ice generally needs at least three inches of thickness for safe skating, and many boards are knee high at 24” tall. But if both of those factors exist, then your elevation change could not be any greater than 21” from low point to high point or the water will literally flow over the edge. Consider using taller boards in the area with lowest elevation, if that is an option.
- Keep in mind that water will naturally flow to (and thus, put the most pressure on) the lowest elevation area, so extra reinforcement is required behind those boards. I used 10-15 stakes of rebar behind my wood boards at the low elevation point, and boards still angled back slightly from the water's pressure. Without such reinforcement, the weight of the water could literally burst through or knock over your boards during filling and ruin your rink.
- Having proper board alignment is also critical to combatting this issue. If there is slope in your yard, then there’s a good chance that there will be gaps either under or between boards. Water will try pushing into those nooks and crannies, so if gaps between and under boards are not plugged, then the water will push the liner into those crevices and could create a "popping balloon" effect during your fill. If you have wood boards, the easy solution is to fasten small strips of wood to wherever there are gaps (and be sure to screw from inside to the outside, to minimize chances of puncturing the liner). If composite boards, try to get them flush vertically, and then plug gaps along the bottom with sand bags, lumber or other hard objects that can prevent water from pushing the liner outward.
How do you know how much slope you have? There’s no easy answer, unfortunately. Ask that handyman friend or neighbor if they have an altimeter, a leveler, or other tools or home remedy to solve this problem. Otherwise you can eyeball it and take your chances.
When to do initial fill?
You will need a reliable weather app and a calendar to figure this out. I’m not a scientist, but have researched this topic extensively over the years and believe the following research to be the most credible I found (http://lakeice.squarespace.com/ice-growth/). In short: ice should freeze at rate of 1 inch per day when it’s 17 degrees (i.e. 15 degrees below the freezing point), more rapidly when colder and less rapidly when warmer. Thus, as an example, if average temperature is 20 degrees (or 12 degrees less than freezing point), then 12/15 inches of additional ice is likely to be created that day. Next, a snow event prior to ice being fully frozen is catastrophic for your rink, so you'll need to ensure you get 2-3 inches of top layer frozen before the snowfall. Third, a person needs to account for how long it will take to fill their rink. If your rink will take 24 hours to fill, then you need to back-up your timetable even further.
Conventional wisdom is that three inches of ice thickness is required prior to begin skating (probably depends on your weight). Outdoor ice freezes from the surface down, so seeing water underneath the ice layer is not uncommon even if the ice is strong enough.
For many frigid northern climates like Minnesota and North Dakota, the answer of when these conditions exist is usually sometime between late November to early December, but every once in a while Mother Nature blesses us hockey fans with early cold temps, so it is wise to have your boards up and liner ready to unroll in case you are fortunate to have a Thanksgiving skate.
How long does it take to fill?
This is another math exercise. First you need to calculate how many gallons of water is required. Each gallon is 7.48 cubic feet. Cubic feet = length x width x height (or ice thickness, in our case). So take the average desired ice thickness across your entire rink (which for me was three inches of water in some areas, 18 inches thick in others due to slope, so overall roughly an average of 10 inches) x 50 feet length x 25 feet width = 1,041.67 cubic feet x 7.48 gallons/cubic feet = 7,800 gallons! That’s a lot of water.
Next question is how are you going to fill the rink? In the Twin Cities, there are several tanker truck companies that can deliver you water, but it’s not cheap at $400-500/truck and generally each truck can only hold 5,000 or 6,000 gallons, so that gets pricey. Or, you can use your garden hose. Many variables such as faucet PSI, hose length and thickness will determine flow rate of a garden hose…but many commentators believe it's around 12-13 gallons per minute (or 720-780 gallons/hour). So at 7,800 gallons, my rink should take ~10 hours to fill...which is about accurate.
- Water will flow to lowest elevation area first, and will slowly expand outward from there. It may take literally hours until water covers the entire base of your surface before it begins rising vertically.
- Consider whether your exterior faucets remain on during the winter, or do you have the sprinkler company turn them off? If they are off, then consider two solutions: 1) hire the water truck, or 2) consider running a hose from a laundry room or utilities room inside the house. Yes it gets messy and requires a longer hose, but it works.
- How do you know when fill is done? In the highest elevation area the water would only need to be three inches deep, so use measuring tape or homemade dip stick to dip into water at that point (assuming it's along boards, of course) to estimate the depth. Err on the side of >3 inches if you can, just in case there is a slight leak somewhere.
What is optimal rink size and board size?
This is a personal preference that depends on many factors, but bigger is not always better. Consider the following:
Rink size. The bigger the rink, the more time, expense, and logistical challenges you will face, such as finding a flat enough area of your yard (see my commentary on slope above), backyard liners are more expensive and awkward to lay out, filling takes considerably longer, shoveling and resurfacing takes longer, set-up time takes longer, and requires more space for offseason storage. That said, a rink of 1,200 SF will be great for elementary age kids playing 3-on-3, but gets rather crowded if numbers increase any more and/or bigger skaters are present. You will also want to consider distance from your house to the rink, and whether that’s an issue for the skaters in your family. If a smaller rink is footsteps away, vs a bigger rink that is 100 yards away, which one will your 8 year-old want to skate on?
Board size. There’s no doubt that taller boards are great for keeping the puck in play and allowing your kids to practice lifting the puck off the boards, but there are also issues to consider. Taller boards make it tougher for smaller kids to get onto the rink itself (unless there’s a door), requires a larger liner (assuming you want your liner to go up and over the boards), tougher to get snow up and over the sides while shoveling, and without a door will be nearly impossible to lift a snowblower onto the ice. That said, consider that knee-high boards (24” high) generally end up with even less height from ice to board top, depending on whether your yard's slope and how many inches of water was required at the point. With lower boards the puck will bounce out of play more often, and there’s greater chance that a kid will occasionally trip and fall over the boards throughout the winter.
Taken altogether, there are tradeoffs either way so make sure you have your eyes wide open about the challenges with either strategy.
What is the ideal size of liner compared to rink size?
Conventional wisdom is to use a rink liner that is at least 5 feet wider and 5 feet longer than your boards, but the real answer depends on a) height of your boards, and b) do you want the liner to go up and over the boards (which we recommend), or do you intend to trim back the liner after freezing. If your boards are two feet high, then 2.5 feet on each end (or 5 feet longer, or 5 feet wider, in total) should be fine. But if your boards are higher on one of both side, then you need to consider rink length + board height on both ends plus 12” inches of slack (6” on each side). If you have four foot boards all around, for example, then you will want a liner 9-10’ taller (and/or wider) than your rink. If you have excess liner after filling and freezing, then just trim off the excess if you wish.
You will also want to leave some slack in the liner when filling so the water can fully reach every inch of the ground within your rink without stretching the liner at the top. You’ll also want to secure the liner to top of your boards just enough so that the entire liner stays above the water line during filling, but still with slack, and then after filling is complete you can create tighter fit with your liner all along boards.
Which liners to use and where to buy?
Like you, I struggled for years to find quality rink liners at a reasonable price. First, in terms of quality, don’t take a chance on anything less than 5 mil or 6 mil. You have made substantial investment or time and money on the rest of your rink, and there’s a narrow window of time to fill and allow freezing, so you simply can’t risk water leakage during filling. Home improvement stores generally don’t have the quality 5 mil or 6 mil liners, or if they do not in large enough sizes (and take it from me, you want a single sheet because trying to tape two liners simply doesn't work). The farm stores carry 6 mil liners during the summer, but a) generally only sell in bulk sizes (which you’d have to haul to your house, unroll, measure, cut, and store), and b) most farm stores only carry these liners during the summer for agricultural customers and therefore may not still have inventory in the winter. The companies who manufacture rink boards sell liners, but you’ll want to double-check the shipping charges because these are big and bulky items, so that can sometimes run you $50-100 or more for shipping. Plus, given the surge in new families who bought and put up backyard rinks in 2020, there's going to be many more families buying replacement liners in 2021, so if you wait too long to get your liner this winter then can you still rely upon them still being available in the size you want? Lastly, in most climates there is a narrow window of time to start filling with water as soon as temperatures are consistently below freezing point, so you'll want to plan ahead and get your liner today so you’ll be ready when optimal weather arrives.
Is the liner reusable?
Theoretically you can re-use your liner the next year, but I have never heard of anyone who was able to. First, often times the liners get punctured by skates, ice chunks, errant screws sticking out of the boards, or when disassembling the rinks. Second, even if they remain puncture-free, the liners are nearly impossible to roll back up, get really heavy from being covered with wet leaves and moisture so are tough to transport, and take up too much room to store. Third, if you can solve the roll-up and storage issue, sometimes you don’t realize your liner is punctured until you roll it out and start to fill the next winter. What a terrifying experience that would be! You might only have a narrow window for that initial fill, as previously mentioned, and it’s difficult to find affordable last-minute liners in December. Can you try to mend the puncture? Perhaps, but not guaranteed. Duct tape is not strong enough to hold back water during initial water filling...there is always seepage underneath, however gradual, that will impact your freezing. The FlexSeal tape option seems appealing, and if you just have 1-2 small patches to fix then maybe that’s worth a shot. But the tape is difficult to apply on uneven ground and in cold weather, and if you have a significant tear you are gambling that the water will freeze at a faster rate than the water will leak under the tape.
In this writer’s opinion, don’t horse around…just bite the bullet, order your new liner right away and have it ready to go.
Lastly, nearly everyone I know that built a rink last year wants to build an even bigger rink this year. Don’t you? Obviously as your rink dimensions change you now need a new liner.
When and how to lay down liner?
Immediately prior to filling! That way you reduce the chance of leaves and branches falling on top, having the wind blow the liner away or out of position, or a snowstorm arrives and now you have to shovel what lands on the liner (which inevitably leads to puncture). For the installation process, we recommend that you recruit a friend to help you roll out the liner across your rink, straighten out the wrinkles, and then tuck in the corners. In our experience, it’s best to wear socks while walking on the liner to reduce risk to reduce “pulling” of the liners that can happen with grippy boots (or risk something sharp on bottom of boot). Also be prepared to go on hands and knees to straighten out wrinkles and tuck in corners.
As mentioned above, I recommend that you leave some slack in the rink liner when filling so the water can fully reach every inch of the ground within your rink without stretch the liner at the top. You’ll also want to secure the end along each side of liner to top of your boards so that the entire liner stays above the water line during filling.
It’s a challenge for everyone. The Nice Rink resurfacers are the best I’ve seen, but they require a hose connection, which means you have to bring hoses out each day and put them away after use or risk them freezing and breaking, you have to consider where will you connect the hose (are you going to keep an exterior faucet on during winter and risk pipes bursting, or pay a plumber to swap out for frost-free faucet), or run a hose to your basement utilities room? Plus the resurfacers are $250 to $300 with shipping, so not cheap for an imperfect solution. They leave a smooth surface, however. Most backyard rink enthusiasts have some other homemade option such as a cooler with water spigots or garbage cans (but where do you fill them up…and do you have to lift over boards with water in?). A hose could also work, but is better for initial filling and smoothing out ice mountains because it doesn’t create a smooth finish. I tried them all…and honestly my best results for my 1,250 SF rink was to use a handheld flower watering can and take 8-10 trips back into the house to fill up with hot water from bathroom sink.
Taken altogether, building the backyard rink is an arduous journey that require many factors to come together, but for those who love outdoor hockey and family time it is truly rewarding to create a successful rink. Having had both successful rinks and failed rinks, I hope my lessons learned can help inspire you to make the right decisions with your rink this winter so that you and family can spend more time skating on the rink than working on the rink.
David Shuler is CEO of Sniper’s Edge Hockey, Inc. He lives in the greater Minneapolis area, where he grew up playing pond hockey, and today coaches mite hockey and plays some beer league. His backyard rink also includes a wood-burning fire pit, music (Kidz Bop, mainly), spotlights, cocoa and plenty of on-ice silliness. He welcomes your comments on this article, plus any of your outdoor rink tips and lessons learned, at firstname.lastname@example.org.