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Dancing on Ice - behind the scenes

Dancing on Ice - behind the scenes

Of course, that is exactly what all the competitors are doing behind the scenes – continuously dancing on ice, practice after practice after practice. The technical set up for a spectacular television show like Dancing on Ice is extremely complex too and no part is more so than the creation of the ice itself.

The skaters need a second temporary rink on which to practice, the Dancing on Ice tours need separate rinks and a training rink, and the specification of the ice has to be just perfect all the time. That’s a lot of ice. Being responsible for delivering it and indeed for delivering temporary ice rinks in general is a very specialised premises management role but many of the tasks that Alan Albretti, Ice Operations Director for Cousins Entertainment, has to undertake are similar to those performed by many mangers in other, less esoteric, surroundings. However, Alan has also been a specialist in another field as he has himself been an ice dance performer in the top flight before teaming up with Robin Cousins to spread the experience to as many of us as possible. Cousins Entertainment is one of the UK’s leading providers of seasonal temporary ice rinks as well as being a major international entertainment production company in the arena of ice dance spectacles.

Not only does Alan Albretti provide perfect ice but he finds the venues and negotiates with them, with the ice equipment suppliers and with the rink builders, with the transportation companies, the accommodation providers and sometimes the stars themselves. It’s an interesting juggling act. It may seem seasonal but the activity goes on all year. The rinks are in situ and managed for about a third of the year, the tours of productions in the UK and abroad fill another third and the rest of the time is barely enough to get it all planned again for the next year. That’s one of the reasons why it’s essential to have great relationships with your suppliers. Alan’s relationship with his ice providers is a particularly good example. Carrier Rental Systems has been supplying the rink-creating chiller equipment for almost ten years when the company was owned by Longville and called CRS. The ownership has passed to the Carrier Corporation, part of US technology giant United Technologies Corporation, along with brands like Otis, Sikorsky and Pratt and Witney. Alan says that the quality of service, of equipment and most of all the people, hasn’t changed and there is no sign that it won’t just go on improving as it always has.

Alan demands very high levels of service from his suppliers and gets it. Carrier, for example, sends out a team to survey his sites and after discussing Alan’s rink requirements they design a system that will supply his ice needs and take into account the constraints of the venues. At Elstree Studios where Dancing on Ice is filmed these are many and varied. Where do you site the large chillers you need for the rinks – three in the case of the practice rink and two even larger ones for the main rink. Fortunately, there is car park space that can be negotiated – if too much hasn’t already been taken up by the Big Brother house! Space is also needed for the generators that serve the chillers, and for the buffer tank for the refrigerant. Luckily Carrier Rental Systems provides generators and a fuel management service as well as all the other equipment that is needed to form the rinks, such as the ice mats and the manifold sets.

How is the ice created? It is frequently not understood that buildings with ice rinks in still have to be heated or they would turn into giant fridges. Heating is often by means of gas-fired hot air heaters, such is the case in the two studios used by Dancing on Ice. These have to be monitored and controlled or the heat and the cold will fight each other. The thermal blanket effect is very important to the management of the chillers as without it they would just go on chilling to cool the huge studio space but the presence of heat enables the chiller energy use to be limited.

For the practice rink Carrier Rental Systems supplied three 200 kW chillers with their own generators and a 2000 litre buffer tank for the glycol/water mix which does not freeze unless it reaches -25°C. This liquid refrigerant is circulated at between -6.5 and -7.5°C via large hoses to the manifold that feeds the ice mat where it is held at 1.9 bar. The ice mat is laid within the structure of the rink which has to be insulated from the surface it is on to avoid accidental structural freezing. The mat is made from ten kilometers of aluminium tubing held in a flexible matrix and the water is poured straight on top. It takes 24 hours to freeze. To remove the rink the process is reversed, with a boiler replacing the chillers, although sometimes they are specified as heat pumps and can be used in reverse mode. The water is then just pumped away, while the refrigerant is reclaimed.

Under cold external ambient conditions energy can be saved during operation and thanks to the glycol the chillers will be run less. There are three chillers in use to ensure complete system back up as permanent system uptime is critical in this application. One chiller is needed for the rink and one for the buffer tank. Alan explains that the design of the chillers with multiple compressors circuits provides added reliability and security. As if he temporarily lost one or two it would make little difference. The Dancing on Ice practice rink is in demand all the time – it was added last year, the second year of the show. But it isn’t just ice Alan has to provide it is quality ice and show conditions. To produce the effect of white ice that the cameras need, and the skaters expect, the ice has to be painted using aluminium oxide powder paint and a specialist spraying machine. This is the same paint as they use in the US National Hockey League (NHL). The quality of the initial ice surface – created by spraying, freezing and cutting back and spraying again – has to be good enough to paint, and then a thin layer of water is sprayed over again. The water quality affects the ice too and this has to be monitored and taken into account. It has to be the right depth to look good and be safe to skate on. This needs constant maintenance.

Alan and his team are on the ball but he needs to be able to rely on 24 hour support from Carrier Rental Systems to maintain the equipment.

In the main rink he has to cope with the added heat from the TV lights and the audience - not forgetting the 250 technicians that help to put the show on! Everything is on a larger scale in the big ‘Star Wars’ studio with 450 kW chillers being used to produce the ice. And when the show goes on tour there are different local conditions and very tight deadlines – the rink builders only have three days to achieve a paintable surface. Hot water from a small Carrier Rental boiler is used carefully to create the smoothest possible surface. Alan says equipment availability, reliability and back-up are key and if Carrier has been doing this for critical industries such as petro-chemicals and pharmaceuticals for the last ten years that’s good enough for him.

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