Boat docked at Lake of the Ozarks with ice floating around motor.

How to Use De-icers to Protect Boat Lifts and Docks

One of the common worries of lake house owners, as well as those on rivers or with large ponds, is protecting their boat lifts, docks, and even some cabin structures from ice damage. It’s no different here at Lake of the Ozarks. In fact, just last winter we had a severe freeze that damaged lots of boat lifts and docks.

While it may seem complicated to the uninitiated, and to an extent it is, there are many potential de-icer systems that can comprehensively safeguard from ice damage to docks and boat lifts. 

The dock de-icer systems are primarily meant to ensure that ice build-up doesn’t pile up. This helps safeguard against tremendous crushing pressure on boathouse structures, boat lifts, and dock pilings. With no system to prevent this, the heaving ice floes can keep moving and piling towards the boat lifts and docks, resulting in damage that may need some extensive and expensive repairs. 

Can this be prevented? Yes. And does it have to cost a fortune? No.

The answer is installing an effective dock de-icer system that can help safeguard boat lifts and docks against incurring major ice damage. 

Why Use De-Icers to Protect Boat Lifts & Docks?

In water bodies prone to ice formation, it’s essential to prevent ice build-up around the dock pilings, boathouse, boat lifts, and docks. If a dock area is not clear of ice, things can escalate pretty quickly. Enormous damage can be caused to anything that comes in the way of massive ice floes as they continue to move in their natural course. 

When left unchecked, the crushing pressure of ice floes may completely force pilings from their footings, which not only means expensive repairs to docks but is also a potential hazard. 

In most cases, the ice damage suffered to boat lifts and docks is because of owners’ negligence. This is precisely why it is crucial to buy or build a dock de-icer or an efficient dock bubbler system and install it before the winter season. Gather the supplies and essential components beforehand and set up the dock de-icer system around October-November to ensure you are not caught off-guard should a severe cold snap fall earlier than expected. 

Ice formation is common in shallow lakes and ponds that don’t experience circulation. However, ice formation may occur in some larger water bodies as early as November. It’s essential to get prepared rather than be surprised later. 

Typically, serious ice thickness won’t be consistently spread across larger lakes and ponds until December or later in the Midwest and the northern latitudes. However, rivers’ and ponds’ ice formations are unpredictable at times and may happen much earlier.

The right thing to do to protect your boat lift and dock is to build dock de-icers or an effective dock bubbler system before January when the ice formation is not only imminent, but its thickness may already be well beyond your liking.

A docked boat with its propellor frozen and completely covered in ice.

Types of Ice Eaters, Dock Bubblers, and De-Icers

There are primarily two types of automatic systems to protect boat lifts and docks, or marina slips from ice damage –

  • The Dock Bubbler
  • The Submerged Thruster/Agitator

Water Agitators (Ice-Eaters)

Agitators work on the principle of drawing warm water from the water bodies’ depth to the surface through a submerged motor attached with a robust propeller working continuously. 

The warm waters at the lake or pond’s bottom maintain an ideal temperature of 4 degrees Celsius or around 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Bringing warmer water to the surface in a continuous stream through a rugged propeller keeps the formation of ice at bay, even during the peak winter temperatures. 

Agitators can break up large areas of solidly frozen lakes/ponds in a matter of hours and are highly efficient. 

However, there’s a drawback. Such de-icers usually work most efficiently in deeper waters. So, if the areas around the dock aren’t deep enough, the results may not be as expected. 

Keep in mind that these de-icers placed near shallow shorelines having a depth of around 12 feet can still potentially create a significant opening in the ice around the dock structure.

How big the opening in the ice reaches would depend primarily on the ambient air temperature. Typically, an agitator device of 1/2 HP or 3/4 HP can easily create a hole in the ice 50 to 60 feet in diameter. 

To prevent ice damage during winters in large marinas or yacht clubs, several agitator devices are sometimes placed together.  And the resulting combined force can open surprisingly vast areas of water. Mostly, these de-icers are placed below boat lifts and docks’ pilings mounted on either a dock mount system or suspended on nylon mooring ropes. 

These types of de-icers may not work as well in shallow waters where the depth is about 6 feet or less. In these cases, there isn’t much difference in the water temperatures at the bottom and the surface, causing the principle on which the agitators work to be useless or not as effective. In essence, the areas of water it opens aren’t as wide as when the depth is more in such shallow waters. And sometimes the agitator can’t operate at all in these conditions.

Dock Bubbler Systems

Another way to prevent ice formation near boat lifts and docks is using a “dock bubbler,” often simply called, a bubbler. A bubbler is usually the de-icer of choice in shallow waters. As the name suggests, a Dock Bubbler uses an air compressor to create a stream of bubbles along the diffuser line or de-icing hose. These tiny bubbles released along the length of the weighted diffuser line prevent ice formation by agitating water constantly, mitigating the risk of ice damage.

In comparison, using a dock bubbler is more economical than using an ice-eater/agitator in terms of its use of electricity. However, installing a dock bubbler is more elaborate, time-consuming, and labor-intensive than installing dock de-icers. In the long-term, though, the dock bubbler system offers many advantages that offset the more intensive installation process. 

The installation procedures used to safeguard your dock from ice damage using diffuser lines are fairly common. It requires placing an air compressor in a well-ventilated shed or cabinet. Many high-end de-icers come with a lockable cabinet to store the air compressor, protecting it from water exposure and rust. However, this is not usually the case with less expensive de-icers on the market. 

It’s important to note that in regions that can experience sub-zero temperatures for weeks at a time, it’s essential to take measures to protect the air compressor.

Tight budget? Here’s a Video of a DIY Dock De-Icer!

Next Steps

These are some steps you can take to protect your boats, boat lifts and docks during the winter. Both the Bubbler and the Agitator de-icers are effective in their own way. And it primarily depends on the type of water body you want to use it for, the climate, the depth of the water, and your budget. Consider these factors carefully to find a solution that works for you.

And make sure to implement these measures well ahead of the season to protect your boat lift and docks. It’s smart to invest a little to avoid some expensive repairs!

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