Keeping Your Synthetic Turf in Shape
By Bruce Cheskin
Synthetic turf provides a great alternative to natural turf. When maintained properly, synthetic turf gives athletes, coaches and sports facility managers a long-lasting, high-performing, safe, visually appealing field to play on or to hold other recreational activities. Synthetic (artificial) turf significantly reduces the time maintenance crews spend on the field, while dramatically increasing the time players spend on it. A well-planned maintenance program, however, is essential to maximizing your synthetic turf's performance and playability.
What to Expect
Like a fine leather product or your favorite pair of shoes, synthetic turf has a normal break-in period. Rainfall amounts and field use affect the time it takes for a synthetic field and its infill to settle. Infill is the rubber or rubber-and-sand combination that provides support and shape to a synthetic field. During the first uses of your field, the infill will drop, but this is considered normal as it becomes compacted. Dust may also accumulate on the fiber due to environmental conditions, but this is washed clean during rainfall. Rain actually improves drainage capabilities of the turf system and typically clears it of small debris. You should also use approved cleaning tools more in the beginning to collect any loose fibers left over from installation. Even after the field is broken in, you will see loose fibers during field maintenance; this is a natural occurrence.
Synthetic Turf Benefits
The largest benefit of synthetic turf is by far the reduced maintenance costs as compared to natural turf. Initial installation costs are indeed higher for synthetic turf, but the payoff is the thousands of dollars a year you can save on costly maintenance programs. Unlike natural turf, artificial turf does not have to be treated with pesticides or fertilizers to maintain its green color or to keep unwanted weeds or bugs away. Also, artificial turf is more durable than grass; one game on a muddy field during rain can ruin the field for the rest of the season. Synthetic turf fields don't have to be watered either. It's estimated that an average grass playing field uses about 50,000 gallons of water per week during growing season.
How to Maintain Your Field
Reputable businesses will provide a company representative to walk you through the maintenance process once your field is installed. Anyone involved in the upkeep of your field needs to be educated on how to care for synthetic turf. Cleaning your field, like you would a new carpet in your home, takes the right tools to ensure it isn't damaged. Keeping the field fibers standing tall and looking plush is quite simple, but requires commitment to a monthly maintenance program.
Grooming: For high-quality artificial fields, you can use a nylon, soft bristle drag system approved or designed by the field manufacturer for grooming. A soft bristle drag system—also called a drag broom system—is a versatile pull-type brush system hooked to the back of a motorized cart designed especially for cleaning synthetic turf. Most artificial turf systems can accommodate small gas-powered golf carts or John Deere Gators, but you should always check with the manufacturer before driving anything on to the field. If your field was not specified with cleaning equipment or you need a replacement drag broom system, your turf manufacturer should be able to recommend one. Initially, the field should be groomed every week for the first two months. After your field is broken in, you should groom your field following approximately 60 hours of use or no less than once per month, whichever is first.
Sweeping: Cleaning your field of debris is also important in keeping your turf in tiptop shape. A simple walk-through of your field is often all it takes to clear it of debris, but sometimes it's necessary to use a sweeper. Sweepers are used when trees surround a field and leaves are blown onto it. When using a sweeper, you should adjust the broom so it makes minimal contact with the surface of the field so your infill stays protected and in place. Sweepers with a mesh bottom basket are great because they allow any disturbed infill to fall back onto the field while picking up litter. It is also normal for some infill to be moved during sweeping; it is redistributed during the regular grooming process. Again, your installer or turf manufacturer should provide you a list of approved sweepers for your particular field.
Cleaning: Rainfall will naturally clean your field of dust or pollen, but additional steps are necessary, especially when spills occur. Bodily fluids can be cleaned from the field using a non-phosphorous detergent like Tide with a 3-ounces-detergent-to-1-gallon-of-water ratio and a soft bristle broom or brush. Once cleaned, rinse with water to remove any residue. If a larger spill has penetrated the turf system or if it's potentially toxic, the infill may have to be removed. This can be done with an industrial wet-dry vacuum, but you should always contact the installer or manufacturer for further guidance on remediation efforts.
Maintenance practices will vary, but the number-one consideration is the maintenance team. A dedicated and knowledgeable field turf manager must keep a vigilant eye on a turf system just as you would with any major asset. Other factors that influence maintenance include: amount of use and level of play, multi-sport use, budget and personnel availability, field construction, security (protection against vandalism or non-regulated play), and weather conditions.