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Ralph Engelstad Arena sues over 'inefficient' ice-making

GRAND FORKS - The ice in Ralph Engelstad Arena hovers just above 20 degrees -- the ideal temperature for hockey.

But inches below the hard, fast surface, there's a multimillion-dollar problem, according to the Grand Forks arena.

The Ralph says the systems that make ice in both rinks in the landmark arena weren't built to agreed-upon specifications.

"The whole system is just running inefficiently," said Pat Morley, REA's attorney. "As a result, the maintenance and energy costs are ... way, way too high."

Because of this alleged inefficiency, REA has brought a lawsuit against CIMCO, a Canadian company that installed the rinks and the ice-making equipment.

But CIMCO's attorney Mark Hanson argues that his client's work is not causing The Ralph's problem.

"We frankly don't see any issues with the equipment and how it was installed," he said. "We just believe the arena needs to make adjustments."

Some residents of Grand Forks County recently received surveys in the mail about the suit from a consultant hired by CIMCO. Hanson said the surveys -- which ask questions about REA, UND and its hockey program - were sent out to learn what type of juror could be fair and impartial.

The case is set to go trial in October.

Pinpointing the flaw

Morley said the problem is more apparent on the rink where UND's hockey team plays, and less on the arena's Olympic-size rink.

On both rinks, the ice sits on a slab of concrete. Embedded in the concrete are miles of 1-inch diameter pipes. Inside the pipes runs a coolant -- 60 percent water, 40 percent glycol. The coolant, as its name suggests, cools the ice and the slab.

The Ralph has no issue making good ice, but the arena has to take unusual steps to get that ice, Morley said.

He said the ideal temperature for hockey ice is somewhere between 20 and 22 degrees. And industry standards dictate that the coolant running beneath the ice should be chilled to 6 to 10 degrees below the ice temperature, Morley said.

Yet, to get good ice, he said, The Ralph has to overwork its machines to chill the coolant to about zero degrees, while its contract with CIMCO specified that temperature at 15 degrees.

Morley said most rinks chill their coolant in the teens and that no other rinks he knows of have to go as low as REA.

He said the rinks require such a low coolant temperature because the pipes were installed 4 inches apart, while the contract with CIMCO specified the separation at 3½ inches.

"It doesn't sound like a big deal, but when you're talking 85 feet by 200 feet, it's a couple miles of pipe that is lacking," Morley said.

He also said the pipes and the surface of the rink are not level, making it more difficult to get good ice.

Morley acknowledges that CIMCO is an industry leader in building rinks. The company has installed 80 percent of the NHL's ice surfaces, according to its Web site.

"They are the National Hockey League approved contractor, and they are very good at what they do," he said. "They just didn't do this one right."

CIMCO's stance

During games, heating the building, warm bodies and lights make the ice-making equipment work harder.

If The Ralph were to adjust its heating and cooling system, Hanson said, the coolant beneath the ice wouldn't have to be chilled to such a low temperature. Factors like humidity and air movement also have an effect on ice-making, he said.

"If they want better mileage, they've got to run the car different," he said.

Hanson, a UND law grad and a Fighting Sioux hockey fan, stressed that he's not critical of the arena.

"If they want to operate that way, for whatever purpose, that's their prerogative, but my client has seen similar situations addressed in other arenas," he said.

Both Hanson and Morley said they don't know of any other suits -- past or present -- similar to this one.

CIMCO has extended the suit to the subcontractors who worked on the rinks. Morley said the actual construction was done by subcontractors and that CIMCO had a supervisory role.

"The arena claims we're responsible for what our subcontractors did. To the extent they did anything wrong, we had to bring them in," Hanson said.

The price of good ice

Morley said the ice-making system CIMCO installed has cost The Ralph roughly $250,000 in excess electricity fees since the facility was completed in 2001. He said an engineer has estimated that during the next 21 years, if the system is not replaced, it will cost the arena $2.2 million.

To resolve the dispute, Morley said the arena is requesting the following:

- More than $2 million to remove and replace the concrete slabs and pipe systems on both rinks.

- About $250,000 for past electrical usage.

- The cost of future electrical usage until the rinks are replaced.

- Revenue lost during the three months that it would take to replace each rink.

Morley said if the rinks are replaced after the 2009-2010 hockey season, that work could affect arena events in 2010 and possibly into 2011.

But Morley said no matter what happens, The Ralph will continue to be a college hockey mecca.

"We'll always be ready for collegiate hockey regardless of what we have to do," he said.