How Zambonis Work

Jan. 20, 2013: A Zamboni machine tends to the ice before the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY.
Jan. 20, 2013: A Zamboni machine tends to the ice before the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY.
© Alan Schwartz/Icon SMI/Corbis

Let's just assume that when Sarah Palin told People magazine in 2008 that she and her husband Todd had a long-held desire to name a child Zamboni, she was joking. Because if she was serious, the trademark issues might just be a nightmare.

So first things first: Zamboni is a brand. Generically, we are to refer to the lumbering machines as "ice resurfacers" or "ice resurfacing machines." There are several brands on the market apart from Zamboni, including Resurfice Corp.'s Olympia brands. Zamboni owns a wide swath of the market share in the U.S., but Resurfice says it manufactures generally the same amount of machines (200 or so) a year [source: Branch]. Finnish company Icecat has also gotten in the game by enlisting Michigan-based manufacturer Adaptive Manufacturing Solutions to produce and distribute its all-electric models.

The machines aren't cheap: The most inexpensive model (which is a small unit pulled by a tractor) is around $10,000, with the most expensive models in the low six figures, according to the Zamboni Web site. The cost is steep, but keep in mind each machine is custom-built and could take six months to ship out after ordering [source: Zamboni].

If you're itching to drive a Zamboni, good news: There's no special license or certification needed to rule the rink. Of course, on-the-job training is highly necessary, as the Zamboni isn't exactly made for the ultimate driving experience. In a 2009 profile, Car and Driver gave an account of the experience: "Visibility from the elevated left-rear position is poor, the abrupt throttle tip-in takes some getting used to, and the vague steering is totally '70s Cadillac."

So taking it out for a spin might not lull a crying baby. But skate away to the next page, where we'll head back to 1940s California and the birth of modern ice resurfacing.

Glossing Over History

Battle of the ice resurfacing machines at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics! The Resurfice Corp.'s brand Olympia is on the left, while the Zamboni Company's machine is on the right.
Battle of the ice resurfacing machines at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics! The Resurfice Corp.'s brand Olympia is on the left, while the Zamboni Company's machine is on the right.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The history of Zamboni -- and ice resurfacers in general -- begins in 1940. That was when Frank J. Zamboni, his brother Lawrence and a cousin built and opened an ice rink in Paramount, Calif. (The brothers ran an ice and refrigeration plant, so an ice rink was in their professional wheelhouse.) But when it came to maintenance, the 20,000-square-foot (1,858-square-meter) rink sounded like a nightmare. To resurface the ice, they used a tractor with a blade to scrape the top layer. A crew of people scrambled behind to collect ice shavings and spray the surface with hot water. After waiting for the water to refreeze, the process took a whopping hour and a half, which must've been a considerable chunk of time to usher skaters off the ice [source: Fleming].

Frank Zamboni struggled with how to keep the ice clean and kempt, and spent the next nine years building a contraption that would let skaters glide prettily. (Or fall smoothly, depending on your skill level.) He spent some serious time creating an almost frightening fusion of a machine. This thing had a Jeep engine, the chassis of an oil derrick and the hydraulic cylinder of a plane among other things. But it worked, and the Model A Zamboni Ice Resurfacer finally did the job right in 1949.

The machine was perfected along the way, but early customers included the Boston Garden, figure skating legend Sonja Henie and the Chicago Black Hawks. In 1960, the Zamboni debuted at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. (Which surely belongs on a list of Strange Places the Olympics Have Been Held). In 1967, after the hulking machines became so well-known that they were tapped to follow the Ice Capades for a Soviet Union tour, a second factory was put up in Brantford, Ontario.

While the Zamboni brand has about 80 percent of the market share in the U.S., the company does have one issue: The product is too well-made by now. Zambonis just don't need to be replaced that often, so there are only about 200 made a year -- but don't you cry for them, since in 2010 they were still pulling in $20 million in estimated annual sales [source: Fleming].

But before we glide right over it, let's get down to business. How the heck do these massive machines that look like the boxy cousins of a tractor actually do their job?

Now You're on Thin Ice: How the Zamboni Works

As we mentioned, resurfacing ice back in the day was a pretty obnoxious task. A crew was needed not only to drive a bladed tractor, but also to sweep up the shavings and spray hot water behind them.

After several iterations -- and improvements over the last 50 years -- the ice resurfacing machine process is fairly basic. (This goes, by the way, for non-Zamboni brands of ice resurfacers, too.) First, a blade ranging from 77-96 inches (196-244 centimeters) cuts the ice [sources: Fleming,Zamboni]. And by cut, we mean a very close shave -- NHL teams like a 1/32 inch trim [source: Fleming]. That can get about 60 cubic feet (1.7 cubic meters) of ice from a rink over the course of just one resurfacing [source: Zamboni]. Moving about 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) per hour, the machine has a horizontal auger (basically a large screw-like bit) that collects the shavings generated by the blade and feeds them to a vertical auger, which sends the shavings into the machine's snow tank.

A wash tank directs water to a conditioner, which rinses the dirty ice. A front squeegee collects that dirty water. The machine dispenses warm water (140 to 145 degrees F or 60 to 63 degrees C) through holes at the back, where a towel smoothes it as it freezes along the surface [sources: Exploratorium, Zamboni].

When loaded with water, the machine weighs an almost unbelievable 7,000 to 11,000 pounds (3,175 to 4,990 kilograms). (Depending on the model, the machine can hold about 211 to 264 gallons (800 to 1,000 liters) of water [source: Zamboni]. All-electric resurfacers -- as well as those that use alternative fuels -- are now just as standard as gas or propane-propelled machines. Interestingly, an electric Zamboni was being used as far back as the 1960 Olympic Games.

And it's not just to please a passing fad that electric brands are gaining ground. Pollution from fossil-fuel powered machines can be a serious health issue in a closed rink that's being resurfaced every hour. As nitrogen oxide increases, operators, skaters and spectators alike can suffer health effects, according to a 1998 Harvard study [source: Schmid].

King of the Rink – and Pop Culture

Want to try sitting behind the wheel of an ice resurfacing machine, too? Click on the text at the top to play.
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There's no getting around it: The Zamboni brand is the King of the Rink. Much like Kleenex, Xerox, Frisbee and Photoshop, Zamboni is now the ubiquitous (if incorrect) term that most of us shout in a gleeful passion when the ice-resurfacing machine lumbers onto the rink mid-game. While newer brands like Icecat try to claw their way into some market share, the Zamboni name seems to be stuck in the collective psyche.

Although that may seem like a slam-dunk promotional tool for the Zamboni Company, you might be surprised to learn the notoriety is a two-way street.

When the Resurfice Corp. landed the contract to bring its electric resurfacers to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Zamboni couldn't have been too pleased to be shunned for the Canadian Resurfice's Olympia brand. But when the Olympia machines malfunctioned (the company cited maintenance issues, not manufacturing flaws), all everyone could talk about was the failure of the ... Zambonis. Oops. (They later trucked in Zamboni-brand machines from Calgary to get the job done.)

The Zamboni Company was quick to send out a release that made sure to note that these were not Zamboni brand machines, but it's easy to see why the company would have a love/hate relationship with being the common term for the product.

But you can't deny that there are some pretty cool references to the Zamboni brand in pop culture. "Peanuts" artist Charles Schulz was a hockey enthusiast and owned his own rink in Santa Rosa, Calif. He often name-checked Zambonis (or showed ice resurfacers in general) in the beloved strip featuring Charlie Brown and friends.

A crowning achievement for Frank Zamboni no doubt came in 2013, when Google paid tribute to the man and his invention in a Google Doodle. (The Google Doodles are artistic interpretations of Google's logo seen on its Web pages.) This doodle was a playable game, where hockey players come out of the graphic to scratch the ice with frantic skating. Using the keyboard to direct the machine, you become the Zamboni driver who must resurface all the ice to a clean polish. The doodle came in honor of what would've been Zamboni's 112th birthday, on Jan. 16, 2013.

Author's Note: How Zambonis Work

Although vaguely aware that Zamboni was a person, I found myself charmed with the can-do legend of Frank Zamboni. It's rare to find an inventor, manufacturer and businessman who is successful in all ventures, and you can't help appreciating his determination to create the right machine for his own rink. A man who is well-deserving of his doodle.

Related Articles


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