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Feature Article - February 2014

Field Perspectives

The Right Sports Turf in the Right Place

By Dawn Klingensmith


Many comparisons of natural and synthetic turf sports fields look at cost, safety and environmental impact to see if there's a superior choice. While these are critical issues, each project presents a unique set of additional concerns that factor into the decision. For example, on college campuses where fields are lit and used virtually around the clock, synthetic turf can better withstand the constant wear and tear. And where there's ample space to accommodate separate practice and playing fields, natural turf fields or a combination of natural and synthetic fields may be deemed superior.

In the showdown between natural and synthetic turf, there's no clear winner overall; however, the unique circumstances of any one particular project may point to an undisputed victor. The following are some specific situations and winning solutions.

High Traffic

"I'm certainly a natural grass guy, but I'm not against synthetic turf. I do recommend it in certain situations," said Michael Goatley, president of the Sports Turf Managers Association.

Those situations include areas where demand for field use is high, with lighting allowing for extended hours, or where a number of different sports practice and play on the same field. Synthetic is also a good solution for multipurpose fields required to accommodate activities besides sports, such as a marching band, commencement ceremonies or summer camps.

In the showdown between natural and synthetic turf, there's no clear winner overall; however, the unique circumstances of any one particular project may point to an undisputed victor.

"There's no way a biological, living system can put up with nonstop traffic," Goatley said. "Add rain into the mix, and there's no doubt there's a lot of benefit to artificial turf. You can take the best field there ever was and destroy it in one rainfall event," simply by playing when it's wet.

Where traffic is especially high and fields used "from sunup to midnight," synthetic is the best choice, but even it may fall short of hopes and expectations, delivering a shorter lifespan in these extreme circumstances than the warranty specifies, said David Nardone, Sport Group leader at Stantec, an engineering and design firm.

Organizations that are "landlocked," with no place to expand or acquire additional property for fields, may be unable to schedule rest and recovery periods for natural turf and might therefore consider synthetic, Goatley said.

Opting for natural turf, ideally "there should be a separate practice area and a game field you preserve just for games," he added.

Organizations "looking to play everything under the sun on one field" typically are good candidates for synthetic turf fields, Nardone added.

These include schools and park districts. "They have limited land and experience so much demand that natural grass simply cannot stand up to the intensity of use," said Jim Dobmeier, founder and president of a New York-based synthetic turf manufacturer.

For both natural and synthetic fields, proper drainage is important, especially where heavy volume is expected. Beneath natural grass, "the soil needs to be right for the turf to drain," Goatley said, adding that heavy clay and silt may impede drainage.

Synthetic turf systems also must drain properly, as heavy objects or foot traffic combined with soggy conditions can worsen compaction.

Where overuse is not a threat, "Natural grass can withstand traffic, but not if it's poorly maintained," Goatley said. "Generally, you need someone with a background and training in turf management to get them to the level where they can withstand heavier traffic."