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Canada is considered the birthplace of ice hockey, so it comes as no surprise that it’s also the national winter sport. Communities large and small rally around their local hockey teams, rinks and arenas.
Back in October of 2001, Bridgetown, Nova Scotia’s Bridgetown Arena was closed after an assessment confirmed fears – the arena roof was deemed structurally unsound.
The arena needed repairs amounting to $400,000. By the following year, a $110,000 provincial Recreation Facility Development grant was issued; the community raised the remaining funds. The work was completed and the facility was reopened in March of 2003, allowing a number of hockey teams and other skaters to return to their home ice.
Locals and guests skated through many years with few changes at the arena. Then, in an effort to reduce the facility’s energy consumption, the community sought an alternative to the electric resistance fan coils that had always been used to heat various portions of the facility.
“I skate at the arena, and we have an ad on the rink boards,” says Dale Comeau, founder of Comeau Refrigeration also in Bridgetown. “The facility is near and dear to a lot of people in this area, and it serves a variety of athletic programs.”
Heat pump pioneers
Comeau Refrigeration was founded in 2008. The Master Group, the local Fujitsu distributor and largest independent HVAC distributor in Canada, felt confident in Comeau’s ability as a seasoned refrigeration professional and offered him a Fujitsu dealership. Comeau quickly realized the potential of the relationship and completed as much Fujitsu training as possible, while simultaneously marketing the product heavily.
“We developed a reputation for installing mini-splits that don’t require manual defrosting,” Comeau adds. “A large part of that solution was, and still is, installing systems specifically designed for their resistance to ice accumulation on coils. This became a number one selling feature, along with efficiency and comfort. Our name came up in early conversations about improving the heating systems at Bridgetown Arena.”
According to Comeau, there were a number of issues that the Bridgetown Community Recreation Association wanted to address at the arena, most of which Comeau was already familiar with.
“Energy efficiency is now our priority,” explains Steve Clayton, who’s been a BRCA board member since the 1970s, and chairman for the past 20 years. “After that, comfort, reliability and control. The original electric resistance units are expensive to run, loud, inconsistent, and each one needs to be turned on and off manually, which was a chore for those of us who take care of the arena.”
Before submitting a bid, Comeau compared the use of Fujitsu Halcyon mini-splits with light commercial Airstage J-II VRF systems. Both would have accomplished the desired result, but using VRF systems dramatically reduced the number of outdoor units and offered very simple, centralized control. One other bid was collected, but Comeau Refrigeration won the contract.
The 200-by-350-foot arena features a single NHL regulation rink, kitchen, canteen, numerous changing rooms, restrooms, meeting rooms, a Zamboni room and several common areas. BRCA wanted to retrofit all of the spaces that were originally heated, meaning everything but the ice rink itself.
“We used a minus-10 degree C design temp at the arena,” Comeau says. “Environment Canada and the Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada suggest minus-18 degree C, but the existing resistance heat remains in place. I don’t think the resistance heat will ever be used, but it’s there. Natural Resources Canada now gets involved with the engineering of systems like this and they help to procure grants, etc. They recommend system design to about 80 percent of the load, with electric resistance backup, allowing us to maximize heat pump efficiency.”
Comeau installed two, five-ton Fujitsu J-II VRF units on the ground level, each fenced in to prevent damage. Inside, 14 zones are conditioned with wall-mount units ranging from 7,000 to 9,000 BTUh, and a single low-static ducted unit in the Zamboni room providing up to 14,000 BTUh.
“Even though it’s usually unoccupied, the Zamboni room must be kept warm,” Comeau explains. “Zambonis can cost six figures, and they contain water, so keeping it well above freezing isn’t an option. That room also houses a lot of mechanical equipment for the rink, so there wasn’t much room on the walls for an indoor head. That’s why we used the ducted air handler.”
Installation of the heat pumps took several months as Comeau Refrigeration worked around the arena’s athletic schedule.
“The job was straightforward, though VRF systems can require more time to install than mini-splits, at least in a building like this,” Comeau says. “The facility is steel-framed and most of the partitions are cinderblock. To run line sets and wiring, we had to drill some walls and work around the steel structure. Obviously, the refrigerant headers are inside the building as well.”
Many of the indoor units are protected by custom-fabricated cages to protect from hockey sticks, airborne helmets, etc. Where line sets are exposed, Comeau installed wooden trim for protection.
Control for all of the units is centralized in an upstairs office, via the use of Fujitsu’s Central Remote Controller. Most of the spaces are kept at 20 degrees C. Because the original electric heaters were controlled manually, arena guests could turn up the heat to whatever pleased them. That’s no longer a concern.
“Everything about the new system is a major improvement,” Clayton says. “Temperatures are much more consistent, and not having to walk around the building twice a day to turn the heaters on and off is a big plus. And the best – our energy bills are much lower.”
Because the electric bill reflects total facility consumption, Clayton can’t pinpoint exactly how much the heating costs have fallen. The rink’s mechanical equipment was upgraded at roughly the same time as the heat pumps, and LED lighting was installed as well.
“The retrofit was a huge part of the energy improvements here,” Clayton adds. “The savings are much needed, too. After all, the facility was built in 1976, so there’s plenty of upkeep. The retrofit avails funds for other projects. It was a fantastic change, and the systems work just as Comeau said they would.”
Clayton is hoping that some of the energy savings can be used to fund a large photovoltaic array on the arena roof.
“This was our first VRF project,” Comeau says. “It didn’t present any major challenges, and if it had, we knew that we could rely on The Master Group for tech support. So we went into this project with a lot of confidence.”
Since completing the arena project, Comeau refrigeration has found the flexibility of VRF to be a great advantage on other projects.
“We’re getting some VRF traction in the residential market,” Comeau adds. “The housing market in Nova Scotia is extremely hot. People are buying properties way over asking price and making big investments and improvements. Some of these have been good fits for Airstage systems.”
According to Comeau, the biggest determining factor for use of VRF technology in residential applications is room count. With VRF, large houses with many zones can be served by a single outdoor unit. It still makes sense to retrofit smaller homes with mini-split systems.
“Canada is taking a bold steps toward decarbonizing the country,” said Comeau. “Heat pumps are a great tool to achieve that goal, and VRF systems open up a lot of opportunities that weren’t available for heat pumps just a decade ago.”
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