Over 2,000 ice rinks are in operation in the United States, each kept smooth and safe by those rinkside icons — omnipresent Zamboni machines and other types of four-wheeled ice resurfacers that make their rounds before and after hockey games, ice shows, skating competitions, or just weekend skating hours. And who keeps the giant machines in working order? Dedicated field service warriors like Paige Scott and Jay Westcott, who do maintenance year-round at two popular rinks in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here’s a look at how a couple pros tackle the coolest job on ice.

A Zamboni® ice resurfacing machine. Courtesy: The Zamboni Company

The Service Techs

As a professional skater with the Ice Capades, Scott was more familiar with tearing up the ice than smoothing it over, which explains why she was a little apprehensive the first time she found herself in the driver’s seat of a Zamboni. But a staff shortage at a San Francisco rink where she used to teach lessons left her with no choice, so she climbed up and took the wheel. “Yes, it’s as cool as everyone thinks it is,” Scott laughs.

Paige Scott, behind the wheel of an ice resurfacer she maintains in San Francisco.

Only there was one problem — Scott didn’t know the first thing about driving an ice resurfacer. But the ice needed smoothing, so Scott volunteered for the challenge with no inkling that working on the huge machines would become part of her daily life at the rink where she now works, Yerba Buena Ice Skating & Bowling Center. “I traded in my fishnets and feathers for wrenches and a grease gun,” Scott said.

In the 16 years Wescott has been at Dublin (Calif.) Iceland, he’s seen his share of issues when it comes to the rink’s three Zamboni resurfacers. But he doesn’t necessarily need a certification in Zamboni repair to know how to get the machines back on the ice in no time at all. A worn out bearing or a torn hydraulic hose might mean a little extra scrambling, but Wescott manages to take it all in stride.

Job Responsibilities

Resurfacers keep the ice smooth by first scraping away the top layer of ice with a massive blade, with two augers collecting the ice and dispensing it into a bucket. Simultaneously, cool water is blasted back over the ice to fill in the deeper cuts, forcing out dirt and debris, with excess water squeegeed off and sucked back into the machine. Finally, warm water is spread over the ice to further even out the surface. Rink managers schedule this every couple hours. For hockey, a crew of two usually runs the machines before the game, after warm-ups, between periods and after everyone leaves the ice.

Yerba Buena’s resurfacer of choice is a natural-gas powered Olympia that runs on a Chevy S10 engine. Typical maintenance includes swapping out the machine’s 60 pound blade – a task that takes two – replacing old parts like spark plugs or greasing the chain that rotates the augers. “If the machine’s going to break down, it’s going to be on Christmas Eve,” Scott said.

Luckily, the Olympia’s S10 engine allows Scott to run up to the local auto parts store for the most common repair problems. Given the sheer size of the resurfacer, all the repair work is done on site. “You have to,” Scott said. “You can’t get it out of the building. It’s like operating on an elephant.”

Each of East Bay Iceland’s Zambonis are electric, which Wescott likes because they produce no exhaust. However, because of the electrical components Wescott sometimes has to outsource issues to Zamboni or a local forklift manufacturer. Common problems include worn out bearings, axles and augers.

“When a machine goes down, you have to be able to do a lot of the repair work yourself,” Wescott said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time so we can tell the minute something goes wrong.”

Tools of the Trade

What’s in Scott’s toolbox? “Nothing fancy,” she said. “Nothing a girl wouldn’t have in her own do-it-yourself kit.” That might be true about her tools that fit into a toolbox, but it’s probably hard to find many “girls” (or boys, for that matter) who use all these items on a regular basis:

  • Screwdrivers and wrenches — basic tools that usually do the trick
  • “Captain Hook” — a set of hooks that hold the ice resurfacer’s massive blade in place while allowing Scott to work on the nuts and bolts freely
  • Fire hose — usually reserved for laying the ice
  • Ice edgers — used to smooth the edges of the ice that the resurfacer misses, similar to a weed eater

Wescott’s Zambonis don’t require many unusual tools either, just ones that might be a little more heavy duty. “A lot of muscle, a lot of grit, maybe a bigger hammer,” he said.

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ABOUT Sara Suddes

San Francisco-based contributor Sara Suddes writes frequently about small business, the economy and technology.