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Water heaters fail at Riverfront Park ice ribbon, but do not halt third season of skating

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 13, 2020

Hard water damage caused two water heaters at the Numerica Skate Ribbon in Riverfront Park to fail earlier this winter, a little more than two years after the signature attraction opened in the downtown park.

The water heaters already have been replaced with two stainless steel units with longer warranties, said Parks and Recreation Director Garrett Jones, and the failure did not affect skating operations this season.

Jones said, at the Spokane ribbon, an entire tank of hot water is typically drained to allow the Olympia snow leveler machine to scrape the surface of the 650-foot-long pathway at least five times each afternoon.

Still, park officials will ask the Spokane Park Board on Thursday to approve $36,000 in emergency funding to cover the costs of the new heaters, which were installed using municipal labor in late January.

“I think, at the time, we just didn’t realize, whether it was on the consultant or on the city side … the hard water and the effects that it would have on the coils,” Jones said.

Hard water is high in dissolved minerals, which can be found in the water drawn from the Spokane aquifer. Those minerals can build up at the bottom of any hot water tank, including those in homes, causing damage and lower water temperatures at the tap.

Jones said the tanks, which were installed before the ribbon’s opening in December 2017, received routine maintenance and an automated message alerted staff to troubles with one of the tanks on Jan. 5.

That boiler’s workload was reduced for a couple of weeks while crews were determining what repairs could be made. Both heaters failed on Jan. 24, and city staff worked quickly to replace them in time for skating to resume the next day.

“The bright side of the story is there was no impact to skating,” said Fianna Dickson, a parks department spokeswoman.

The warranties on both heaters had expired. An ammonia leak detected at the ribbon in February 2018 involved machinery that was still under warranty, the city said at the time. That leak eventually led to a premature end to the skating season. This year’s season will continue as scheduled through March 1.

It’s the latest in a series of technical and planning issues that initially plagued the first attraction to reopen as part of the park’s 2014 redevelopment plan approved by voters. In addition to the ammonia leak, fire marshals called for the extinguishing of fire pits near the ice due to safety concerns shortly after it opened. And, in the very beginning, some complicated design decisions delayed the opening of the ice in the first place.

Other ice ribbons across the country have not reported any similar problems with their water heaters, including an attraction installed eight years ago at Canal Park in Washington, D.C., which uses filtered rainwater from areas surrounding the park for operations, according to a 2012 article from the Washington Post. Nor has the ice ribbon at Maggie Daley Park in Chicago, first opened in 2014, experienced any water heater issues, wrote Ross Bruni, assistant general manager of the park, in an email this week.

“We do have a closed loop system that both acts as a water heater (to melt the snow after our Zamboni resurfaces the ice) as well as provides chilled water to keep our ice frozen by running chilled water through PVC piping under the ribbon surface,” Bruni wrote.

In the initial plans for the ribbon, approved in September 2016, the park board elected to remove some of the planned features of the attraction in an effort to stick to the budget established for the project. According to records from the city, that included the elimination of “a redundant system to the hot water that is available for snow melt,” saving the city about $20,000.

But Jones said Wednesday the hot water problem was caused by “nothing structurally.”

Though the heaters already have been replaced, city policy requires any expenditure of reserve funds for equipment replacement to be approved by the park board. That policy was approved in 2018 to set up an account, which Jones said amounted to about $300,000, that would provide money in the case major equipment needs to be repaired or replaced. That money is separate from the $64 million in bonds approved by taxpayers to fund the redevelopment of Riverfront Park.

The board is scheduled to consider approval of the funds during its monthly meeting at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. No public testimony is scheduled to be taken before the vote.

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