Cottage Q&A: The perils of plastic barrels

By Manolito Tiuseco/Shutterstock

I have an 8-by-8-foot raft floated with plastic barrels. I usually remove it for winter, but this year I plan to leave it anchored in the lake. Will the ice destroy it? I read that ice can’t grip plastic. —Andrew Clark, Sherbrooke, Quebec

There is some truth to this, says Stephen Morris, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto. “Anything that’s waterproof is going to be more ice proof,” he says. “But it’s not the gripping action so much as the lateral motion of the ice and its squeezing effect that might damage anchored things.”

The problem with using plastic barrels is that they were made to store liquids, not to float rafts. “They’re not designed to sit in ice all winter,” says Ryan Sandrik, the assistant sales manager at The Cary Company, a container and packaging supply company in Addison, Ill. “It’s most likely that a drum would crack or be damaged.”

Even if the sides of a barrel hold up, the barrel’s cap could be compromised and let water inside when the ice melts, says Jack Richardson, the owner of Richardson Docks, a floating dock maker in Algoma Mills, Ont. Not only could this sink your raft, it could allow whatever’s still inside the barrel to get out. “My first concern with barrels is ‘What was in them?’ If you don’t know what’s been in there, you don’t want them breaking open in the lake,” says Richardson.

Lakes with fluctuating water in the winter and lots of ice movement are more destructive to floating docks and rafts. “The forces of water and ice are relentless,” says Richardson. He’s seen floating docks survive winter—but he’s also seen plenty of them smashed and sunken. “If it’s been working for you to take it out, I’d just stick to doing what’s worked.”

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