How Does a Zamboni Work?


An ice resurfacing machine—or ‘zamboni’—operates by shaving the top layer of ice off of a hockey rink, washing the remaining ice, and then spreading out an even layer of water that freezes in between periods/skate times; resurfacing the ice with a zamboni helps maintain a pristine skating surface for the players. We’ve all had a day when the ice could have used some TLC; ice resurfacers help alleviate chattering, skipping, and a ‘gritty’ feeling on the ice, at least for a time.

Zamboni is not the official name for ice resurfacing machines, but the term has become ubiquitous as an homage to the man who shaped the modern standard for ice rink conditions. Frank J. Zamboni, Jr. received a patent to produce his ice resurfacers in 1953 after years working as a block ice salesman. While Frank J. Zamboni & Co. is still in operation (the sole owners of the trademarked Zamboni®) they do not hold a true monopoly over the ice resurfacing business. The Resurfice Corporation, with the OLYMPIA ice resurfacing machine, and ICETECH, with the Okay Electra, have risen to be some of the larger competitors of the founding company.

What a Zamboni Actually Does

The essential functions of a zamboni can be divided into four steps:

  1. Shaving the Ice: A zamboni cuts away the top layer of ice (often 1/16th of an inch or less) using a sharp blade, much like a shaving razor. Rotating augers carry away the shavings into the ‘snow tank,’ which lies toward the front of the machine.
  2. Washing the Ice: Underneath the snow tank lies the water tank. Water stored here is fed into a device called the ‘conditioner’ that flushes dirt and debris (and the occasional blood stain or broken tooth) from the playing surface. A vacuum hose pulls and deposits this dirty water into a separate storage tank to be filtered for future use.
  3. Layering New Water: A mop deposits clean water onto the ice. The water itself is kept hot—140° Fahrenheit (60° Celsius) is the usual mark—to slightly melt the remaining top layer of ice. This helps to even out any leftover skate grooves the shaving blade couldn’t reach.
  4. Spreading the New Water: Gaskets at the back of the machine ensure the water spreads evenly across the ice; refrigerant systems under the ice ensure it freezes and stays frozen.

How to Become a Zamboni Driver

The best way to become a zamboni driver is to get in touch with the local ice arena manager and ask if they’re looking for help. Scouring local classifieds and arena websites may also show opportunities. Most drivers are hockey enthusiasts who operate on a part-time basis at entry-level wages—the appeal of comped rinkside seats being a draw. An existing driver often trains the new driver; smart arena managers will keep at least two ice machine drivers on staff in the event that one driver becomes indisposed.

What Does It Take to Drive a Zamboni?

Drivers don’t need a special license to operate an ice resurfacing machine, but one can achieve a Certified Ice Technician (CIT) professional designation. Individuals with a CIT designation are trained in all aspects of arena ice maintenance, including ice installation, HVAC, and the maintenance and operation of ice resurfacers. Becoming a CIT is usually necessary only if someone is looking to drive or work for larger arenas and/or professional teams on a full-time basis. A CIT might transfer from arena to arena as a way of pursuing their own career or life goals. CIT certifications are offered in the United States through the United States Ice Rink Association with the applicable courses being offered at regular intervals.

Is Driving a Zamboni Difficult?

Every hockey fan would love to drive the zamboni (or at least ride on one!) Operating an ice resurfacer is not as simple as putting water down while driving in a circle. Understanding how deep the ice shaver is cutting, how much water to apply, how quickly you’re applying it, where the refrigeration unit under the ice isn’t working well, how to remove ice that has built up along the boards, and even the type of skating that goes on at the rink, are all included on the list of things a zamboni driver must consider when taking the ice. Because a zamboni driver can make a major difference in how the ice plays, all skaters should be indebted to the good ones. Drivers designated as CITs are highly sought after by top tier-organizations due to their expertise on all things pertaining to the nature of the ice.

Do I Need My Own Zamboni?

No, zambonis are often owned by the arena. The idea of an ice resurfacing contractor is excessive, as the machines themselves are large and difficult to travel with. Newer zamboni models can cost upwards of $200,000—the investment is not a small matter. Larger arenas have the luxury of being able to afford two drivers to operate two machines simultaneously to expedite the process and allow the fresh water more time to melt and freeze.

Unsure of the meaning of all those markings under the ice as you watch the zamboni go around the rink? Check out our hockey rink dimensions and markings guide to prime yourself better for the next game you attend.