In this climate-changed world, there are reasons to get sentimental about ice. It is old, for one. Our local sheet — the Harding Icefield — was formed more than 23,000 years ago. And it is disappearing.
But it’s not ice George Tyrer feels nostalgic about. It is the 32-year-old ice-making machines Tyrer has been running in the City of Homer’s Ice Plant on the Fish Dock at the end of the Spit for the last decade.
The compressors are newly painted, and the entire plant is spotless. Tyrer has found that the nicer the machines look, the better they get treated. “It’s old stuff,” he said. “We want to take care of it.”
George Tyrer lives and breathes the mantra: “They don’t make it like they used to.” The 1965 Ford Mustang sitting in his driveway is proof of that. So is the fact that the only part of the ice-making operation that is computerized is the billing system.
“This is all old school, which is why it works so well,” he says.
The Ice Plant, which is operated by Tyrer and his three person staff, supplies commercial fishing boats and processors with high quality, sub-zero flake ice. It can produce four tons of ice per hour and store enough ice to fill about 460 of those ubiquitous insulated plastic fish totes.
Refrigeration and ice-making are all about moving heat from one place to another. The process involves taking heat out of a gas — the refrigerant, in this case ammonia — to turn it into a liquid. This is followed by adding heat back into it. This heat is found in the ice machines. When the heat is removed from the ice machines, to transfer it to the refrigerant, the machines get cold, chilling down to a frigid 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
Then water, fed by a hose into a perforated gutter at the top of the ice machine, streams down the inside of the machine and freezes. A rotating blade, similar to that in a hand-crank ice cream maker, slowly revolves, carving flakes of ice off the inside of the machine. The flakes fall through the hole in the bottom of the machine, landing in a large room below called the ice bin. A metal rake the width of the room constantly moves through the ice to keep it flakey.
When ice is needed, an auger, buried in the ice, turns, bringing the flakes up to the surface. Conduits carry the ice to tubes at the Fish Dock — a short tube for filling totes on the dock and a longer one that hangs over the side of the dock for delivery to boats.
A little bit of salt added to the water makes the ice break off a bit more cleanly inside the machine, resulting in nice flakes. Tyrer has learned by trial and error over the years how much salt to add, and he adjusts the level by taste.
The Ice Plant shuts down for maintenance at the end of each year, opening up in mid-March for the start of the commercial halibut season. During that time, the staff thaws out and performs upkeep on the entire system.
The Ice Plant is part of the city of Homer’s Port and Harbor “enterprise” fund. This means that the plant, fish dock and other harbor facilities (such as rental slips and Deep Water Dock) operate like a business, earning enough revenue to cover the cost of running and maintaining them.
Why should the city own and run these facilities rather than a private business? The cost of constructing and maintaining them are so large and the profit margin so small that few businesses would be interested in making the investment.
What the port and harbor facilities amount to is critical support infrastructure, not unlike roads and law enforcement, that supports a vital local economy. Some might call these resources subsidies, while others think of them as the right role of government. In either view, they support year-round employment for more than a dozen people and are a fundamental building block of Homer’s economy.
The city’s is not the only ice-manufacturing plant on the Spit. Auction Block operates a coal-powered ice plant in a repurposed Alaska Railroad car, and Icicle runs its own plant 24-hours a day.
But — as Tyrer will quickly tell you, and others, even those outside the plant, will agree — the city’s is the best ice. What makes this ice so good? It’s much colder than freezing point, so it cools fish quickly. And it doesn’t easily compress. You can stick a shovel into the ice long after it’s been dumped into a tote.
“We’re kind of proud of it,” Tyrer smiles. “This ice goes as far away as Anchorage and Seward,” and it brings business to Homer, he adds.
Tyrer came to Homer from Colorado when he was 15, after his mother remarried. He is a graduate of Homer High School where he took shop class and showed an early aptitude for mechanical things.
Tyrer’s career in the refrigeration industry spans four decades. He got a taste of the work when he was in the Navy, where he was stationed on an aircraft carrier off Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. He went to community college in Denver on the GI bill, during which time he took a class in refrigeration. After that, he started work in air conditioning and soon after returned to Alaska.
Tyrer worked at the Icicle Seafoods plant on the Homer Spit for 25 years and might be the person in Homer with the keenest understanding of exactly what happened July 1, 1998, the day the facility exploded and burned. But he’s loath to talk about it.
Instead, he laments the lack of young people going into the refrigeration industry.
“In all the trades we’re hurting. They’re taking shop class away,” he says.
Tyrer is eager to get young people excited about the work and about understanding the science behind it.
“I learned about specific gravity in high school,” he says. “Here it is,” he adds, throwing his arms open in a loud room filled with compressors.
Now, 11 years after getting recruited by the city to apply for an opening at the plant, Tyrer is happy where he is.
“I’m sold on refrigeration. This has been a good life for me,” he says.
When asked to reflect on a career spent making ice while ice — in the form of glaciers and ice fields — across the globe is melting, Tyrer muses, “It’s about what we’re doing to the planet. It’s something to address.”
With the future in mind, Tyrer is currently building a house for his son and his son’s young family next to his own.
“Everything about my life has been blessed,” he says.
Miranda Weiss is a Homer writer.
For more information on the
Ice Plant, refrigeration industry:
Contact George Tyrer, Fish Dock Supervisor, for tours of the Ice Plant for your class or other group: 235-3162
AVTEC – Alaska’s Institute of Technology
Keep an eye out for opportunities at Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer