Tens of millions of people worldwide enjoy ice skating each year for pleasure, fun and sport!
That is a lot of skating and a lot of ice!
Most skaters enjoy this pastime on outdoor rinks or indoor rinks made of natural ice (aka frozen water).
But there is also a second option – synthetic ice.
The rise in the popularity of synthetic ice could give users the impression that it’s a new, innovative creation.
Try Our At Home Synthetic Ice And Enjoy Endless Hours Of Unlimited Ice!
Yet, you would be surprised to discover the history of synthetic ice stretches several decades.
And the concept of skating on something else besides natural ice?
Over 100 years!
Alternative forms of ice skating have a deep past.
If you’re thinking about investing in synthetic ice panels or you enjoy them daily, you can rest assured that it’s backed by years of evolution.
What is Synthetic Ice?
Before taking a walk down memory lane, what are synthetic ice panels?
Synthetic ice panels are a solid polymer sheet material made from polyethylene plastic.
These synthetic ice sheets connect using various methods (dovetail, tongue and groove, flush edge) to form an artificial ice skating surface.
With this product, skaters can use the regular metal ice skates for recreational skating, ice hockey, and other ice activities.
Since these panels connect like puzzle pieces, synthetic ice can adapt to the size and shape of almost any surface.
Ice owners can have as many or little panels as needed.
Many of our customers install large rinks in their backyards, while some use a spare room or garage for skating.
Where It All Began
Before ice skating became a sport or recreation, history suggests it was purely out of necessity.
Thousands of years ago, around 1800 BC, traversing miles and miles of ice was near impossible.
Ice skating helped Scandinavians to glide over ice for more food and shelter.
Skates were made from large pieces of animal bone with leather straps attached through holes in the bone.
Fast forward thousands of years later, and skating on metal blades grew in popularity.
Finally, around the 13th century, so did skating as a form of recreation.
The first signs of an artificial rink began to take shape in the 19th century.
In the 1840s, the first spaces were filled with water or coolants then frozen for ice skating.
These artificial rinks were popular at first but had several limitations.
They were expensive to create, maintain, and created poor skating experiences.
In the early 1900s, these ‘artificial’ rinks evolved into large indoor rinks used for ice hockey (and the subsequent invention of the sport).
However, this was still out of reach for the everyday skater.
Instead, they had to depend on frozen lakes in wintertime or travel to rinks to skate.
Around this same time, something else was happening.
In 1869, a man named John Wesley Hyatt invented synthetic polymer.
Synthetic polymer used ingredients like cellulose and camphor to create a product that imitated ivory.
Scientists and researchers improved the product, making it more durable and malleable.
In the late 1960s, we saw the creation of the first synthetic ice panels using polymer.
These were large squares installed in small spaces for small groups.
The first large-scale synthetic ice plastic rink was developed in the 1980s, which was revolutionary for its time.
Skaters no longer needed the right conditions for skating.
They no longer had to find professional rinks.
More rinks were taking shape.
As a result, ice skating was quickly growing in popularity.
Making It Better
In the early days, synthetic ice plastic for skating had it's limitations.
Polymers could not slide naturally, so rink owners needed to apply a slip surface liquid constantly.
This liquid gave users the ability to skate on it.
These polymers also had low molecular weight.
Skating over time would break down the polymer, needing constant replacement.
If you think thicker panels were the solution, think again.
Polymer surfaces that are too hard strip the skate edge blade down too quickly.
This change limited the amount of time one can skate without losing their edge, increasing the cost for skates.
There was a demand for a better product, and luckily, the innovation of polymers never stopped.
In the 1930s came the creation of polyethylene for use in World War II.
Then in 1953, scientists Karl Ziegler of the Kaiser Wilhelm and Erhard Holzkamp invented High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE).
HDPE was primarily for large pipes.
However, synthetic ice manufacturers used them for rinks as the material became cheaper and widely available over the decades.
HDPE made rinks more durable and receptive to slip conditioners.
The 1950s also saw the development of Ultra-High Molecular Weight (UHMWPE). Its odorless, colorless, and the most durable polyethylene made.
UHMWPE quickly became the industry standard among most manufacturers and distributors.
This material was ideal for large, durable panels that endure heavy traffic.
Several years later, rinks appeared in malls, hotels, carnivals, and much more. Ice skaters were surprised at how great it felt.
Synthetic ice rinks opened a new group of avid skaters and showed no signs of slowing down.
Over the last decade, these materials allowed manufacturers to create synthetic ice products for home use.
Machines cut them to precise sizes, allowing tiles or panels for backyards, decks, spare rooms, garages, and driveways.
Evolution: Slip and Slide
With the right material in place, the history of synthetic ice made a crucial shift.
The goal was to create a product as close to natural ice as possible.
However, skating still felt a bit clunky and difficult without a slip agent applied before each use.
Soon, HDPE and UHMWPE allowed manufacturers to infuse slip agents in the creative process.
This extra step reduced surface friction, or “coefficient of friction” created by ice skates.
Both infused and non-infused rinks require regular cleaning and maintenance to keep the surface from getting "gummed-up".
Infused surfaces have much less surface friction and can last longer without additives to provide a smoother skating experience.
Skaters can expect 10-15% added friction while skating on synthetic ice, meaning the best rinks feel up to 90% close to natural ice.
This extra friction has benefits, making it a popular training tool for hockey players and competitive figure skaters alike.
All synthetic ice surfaces must be kept clean to provide optimal glide and performance.
The metal blades create micro-cuts into the polyethylene.
These cuts sound like a bad thing, but they can create a natural skating experience.
However, if you leave the shavings on the rink, the opposite happens.
A certain amount of maintenance is required for both infused and non-infused surfaces for optimal use.
A simple soft brush or soapy water and clean mop do the trick.
The Benefits of Synthetic Ice
So why choose synthetic ice rinks?
Moving from natural to synthetic has some fantastic benefits:
Skate All Year
What is the biggest drawback of skating?
It’s only accessible through the winter months.
When it’s not, you must find a refrigerated ice rink.
However, even refrigerated rinks struggle with humidity and heat at certain times of the year.
With synthetic panels, you can skate at any time.
Commercial synthetic ice rinks are open all year. You can also use your at-home rink at any time.
This makes it an excellent training tool in the off-season for hockey players.
Customize Your Rink
Polyethylene tiles and panels interlock like puzzle pieces.
That makes them highly flexible in their application.
Regardless of the size and shape of your space, you can acquire the tiles you need to create a rink.
Over the years, rink manufacturers have designed products that target specific training needs.
With synthetic products, you can get what you need and nothing more.
You can also choose between tiles and panels based on factors like location and how much you would use your rink.
Easy To Set-Up
The feeling of skating on natural ice is indescribable.
However, when someone decides to set up an outdoor rink, they will encounter several obstacles.
Outdoor rinks depend on water, engineering, and good weather for the best result.
Refrigerated rinks, on the other hand, require expertise, lots of equipment, and time.
With synthetic ice, you could be set up in an hour.
On a flat surface, lay down and connect the panels with a soft mallet.
You can read more about ice rink setups from our DIY backyard rink blog.
A Durable Product
Years of product development have led to Ultra-High Molecular Weight (UHMWPE) rinks, the strongest available.
On average, UHMWPE rinks can last ten years or more.
All you need to do is some basic cleaning and maintenance.
When you’re done, cover your indoor rink (or your outdoor rink) to protect it from dirt and damage.
A Cost-Effective Option
Refrigerated ice rinks are long-lasting, but the parts and maintenance can run into thousands per year.
Creating a natural ice rink is cheaper, but there are water and electric costs.
There’s also the possibility of flooding your yard, which can take more time and money to address.
Synthetic ice rinks require an upfront cost.
However, the rink lasts for several years, needs no special setup, and saves money on utilities.
Use those savings to invest in skates and equipment!
A Great Business Decision
Businesses like malls, museums, and hotels can also set up seasonal rinks for hockey and recreational use at a fraction of the cost.
Refrigerated ice rinks have advantages, but they can run into the millions based on size and needs.
Instead, businesses can form long-term relationships with manufacturers to create rinks that everyone will enjoy.
The Future of Synthetic Ice
So what’s next for synthetic ice?
Without a doubt, the product is here to stay.
Several permanent synthetic ice rinks are set up around the country.
Hundreds more pop up during the winter holidays.
And thanks to customizable ice panels, thousands of people have synthetic ice in their homes.
Here are some things to look forward to:
Technology and skating
Synthetic ice is not going to be left behind.
The pandemic saw a boom in online coaching and training, using apps like Zoom.
Synthetic ice allows both coach and student to skate in their homes, uninterrupted.
We will see more online ice skating and hockey training, which was unheard of a decade ago.
Getting closer to zero
Technology has also helped the product make leaps in performance, durability, and customization.
Yet, we feel that technology can still impact synthetic ice.
One of the biggest complaints is its coefficient of friction, which is only as low as 10%.
Can advancements in polyethylene cut this figure in half?
Synthetic ice panels have already made a positive impact on the environment.
Opting for panels reduces your carbon footprint.
You also receive a long-lasting, recyclable product.
Yet, there is still a growing demand by society for businesses to create sustainable products.
We may see synthetic panels 100%, created with recyclable materials, or even biodegradable!
Professional games on synthetic ice
If synthetic ice closes the friction divide, would we see it in the NHL soon?
With the right research and development, this may be possible.
At the end of the day, nothing beats actual ice for athletes.
The added friction of synthetic ice may lower speed or impact quick changes in direction.
However, it is still an exceptional skating tool for all levels.
When you choose synthetic ice, you get a product that has been around for decades.
It’s been redesigned over the years to provide a skate near the real thing.
When you choose synthetic ice over refrigerated ice, you get a cost-effective, durable product that lasts for years.
And since tiles and panels come in standard sizes, you are no longer limited by your space.
You can go as large or as small as you need.
Families or athletes can use it at any time in the year for fun or training.
If you need help deciding on your synthetic ice, reach out to our team.
We have years of experience with synthetic ice, and our products are designed to provide the best skate that is not on natural ice.
Keep on Skating!
Jim Loughran, PolyGlide Ice