Bubble bubble toil and trouble

Bubblers have become essential tools to protect docks and boathouses from ice damage. But are you using yours properly?

If it’s not set up right, it could actually wind up causing more problems than it solves – for you, your neighbours, your property, and people who use the lake in winter.

There are several different kinds of bubblers on the market, but all of them function by disturbing the water around them, making it impossible for ice to form or breaking up the ice that has already formed. They’re typically used to keep an area of open water around the dock or boathouse, so that the structure can’t be damaged by shifting ice.

It’s possible that you don’t need a bubbler at all. If you are in a sheltered bay or on a smaller lake, you likely don’t see massive movement of the ice – as long as your dock and boathouse are properly built, they should withstand typical winter ice movement.

On the open areas of big lakes, the pressure caused by the ice sheet expanding is magnified. This is where bubblers can really come in handy.

Too much open water

Just turning the bubbler on in November and running it until spring is not a great idea.

You only need to keep a couple of feet of clear water around your dock. If the bubbler runs too much – and particularly if your neighbour’s bubbler is also running on overkill – it can create hundreds of feet of open water, creating a tremendous hazard for snowmobilers and others who travel on the lake in winter. In a heavy snowfall, the snow can float on the open water for a time, making it impossible to tell open water from safe ice.

If someone goes into open water created by your bubbler, you can be charged with a criminal offence as well as face civil litigation.

As bubbler use has increased, it has created another problem by actually increasing the risk of ice damage. In winter, when the ice is thickest, the ice sheet can only move by expanding and contracting. But if there are large areas of open water along the shore, the ice that forms out in the lake is free to float around – and can be driven on to shore by wind.

These free-floating ice floes occur naturally in spring as the lake melts, but spring ice is usually quite thin and soft, so docks can withstand the damage. A free-floating sheet of hard ice that’s three feet thick is an entirely different beast, capable of crushing anything in its path.

Timing and limits

The best way to avoid bubbler problems is to limit their use. Put it on a timer so it only runs for a few hours each day and have someone check it periodically to see how much open water has been created, adjusting the timer as needed.

If that’s not feasible, install a security camera and a remote control, allowing you to monitor the bubbler yourself and turn it on or off from your winter home.

Many installers recommend only turning it on once the ice has already formed – sometime after Christmas – and turning it off in early spring.

There are baffle systems available that limit how much open water your bubbler creates, allowing you to have a ribbon of open water just a few feet wide, with thick, safe ice beyond that.

No matter how you operate your bubbler, it’s essential that you have safety markings. Signs that say Danger, Open Water must be visible from all directions. A solid amber light will serve as a warning at night. (A red light can be mistaken for a snowmobile brake light; flashing lights are intrusive and can also be misinterpreted.)

And be aware that bubblers won’t prevent the kind of damage caused by early spring flooding. Free-floating ice sheets are just a fact of life in spring, and if the water is up over the docks, nothing will prevent that ice from slamming into boathouse doors and walls.


Posted in Around Muskoka.