Should you install de-icers at the lake?

A boathouse surrounded by open water in a frozen lake By Mary Anne Love/Shutterstock

Ah, the “off-season” at the lake. The peace. The quiet. The wildlife crossing pristine ice—ah, yes, the ice. In 2019, winter ice damage and spring floods left cottagers scrambling to protect and repair shoreline structures. Katie Peet of R & J Machine in Lakefield, Ont., says that they fielded several calls from cottagers looking to install de-icers. “If they have a couple of feet of water, they can put one in to open up ice so it can’t be pushed and piled on the shoreline,” she says. “Some people use a chainsaw to open up the ice, but you may have to do that every day because it freezes over again at night.”


Winter is coming

Ice expands as it melts, until it turns to water. Cracks will form in lake ice in response to the different expansion rates caused by warmer temperatures at the top. An ice sheet gets bigger as water flows from underneath up into the cracks and then freezes. With successive freeze-thaw cycles, that ice moves toward shore, shoving up anything in its way—docks, boathouses—in a process called ice-heave or ice-jacking. Spring flooding can also drive thick ice into shoreline structures.

Bottom line Winter ice is a natural fact of cottage life, but, unfortunately, the damage it causes is a standard exclusion to most insurance policies. “People seem not to be aware of that,” says Allison Bryce, with insurance brokerage The Magnes Group. She advises clients to install de-icing systems to protect a shoreline investment that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Keeping the ice away

A properly installed de-icer will create as small an opening as possible while still keeping structures free of ice. The systems come in two forms: impellers and bubblers. Impeller de-icers, such as the Kasco and Arbrux systems, combine a motor with a propeller enclosed in a cage that is suspended by ropes or a bracket from a dock or float. The angle of the unit can be adjusted, and which size motor you choose depends on the temperature and the depth of the water (you may need more than one device).

Bubbler de-icers, like Canadian Pond’s Thawline linear system, use a compressor on shore to feed air through submerged tubing. Brent Statten, of DeiceAir in Huntsville, Ont., which installs both Kasko and Thawline systems, is a fan of aeration. “It’s like a tailored suit,” he says, “custom fit to snake around docks and open up only the minimum amount of water necessary.” Bubbler systems use less power than impellers, with no electricity in the water or moving parts to get clogged with sticks, debris, or even ice. And bubblers can be left in place all year (as can impellers, but they’re unsightly).

Bottom line Get advice from companies that sell the systems, even if you plan a DIY installation. Often people wait until the last minute to install them, Statten says, rather than planning their site out and taking time with the installation. Do it before it gets cold, he advises, “and obviously before the ice sets in.”


This one’s on you

Though not highly regulated by municipalities, de-icers are prohibited on some waterways, such as some administered by Parks Canada. At the very least, bubblers are controversial in cottage country. Chris Collings, a bylaw enforcement officer for the Township of Lake of Bays, Ont., says that he often gets complaints about installations that create open water near snowmobile routes or about hazard lights that bother other property owners. But while your municipality may not control the use of de-icers, Section 263 (1) of Canada’s Criminal Code says,  “Every one who makes or causes to be made an opening in ice…is under a legal duty to guard it in a manner that is adequate to prevent persons from falling in by accident and is adequate to warn them that the opening exists.” If you fail to do that, and a death occurs as a result, you could be charged with manslaughter. But what’s “adequate” is not specified. The experts we consulted recommend marking any opening with signs (in all directions), reflective tape, and flashing amber lights (not red, which could be mistaken for the tail lights of a snowmobile).

Check with your local municipality before installing a system. Even if there isn’t a de-icer regulation, there may be other restrictions. Lake of Bays, for example, has a dark-skies bylaw that requires all outdoor lights to be shielded and facing downward, so flashing lights may be non-compliant. But Collings says you can install a downward-facing spotlight that illuminates a warning sign.

Bottom line As the Criminal Code makes clear, alerting lake users to the dangers of open water is serious business. So channel your inner Scout and be prepared. As Brent Statten says, “No one wants to think that winter is coming, but it does every year.”

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