Fields of Dreams
Trends & Best Practices in Sports Turf
By Rick Dandes
Choosing the right outdoor sports surface for a playing field or track can be challenging for facility managers and owners. Whether installing a brand-new synthetic or natural turf field or upgrading what you already have, stakeholders must always first consider the safety of users, while balancing other factors such as initial funding, and future maintenance costs, experts say.
As with any major asset, synthetic turf and natural turfgrass sports fields need well-planned and funded management programs to protect the owner's investment, said Thomas Serensits, manager of the Center for Sports Surface Research at Penn State. This includes hiring a dedicated and knowledgeable sports turf manager to develop and implement the program. Management of sports fields also requires a budget that reflects the amount and types of activities that take place on the fields. The budget must have the flexibility to expand as the demand for field time increases.
Meanwhile, as far as trends go, Serensits explained, "We are seeing an increased focus on field safety on both natural and synthetic turf. With the NFL instituting its field testing program several years ago, we are seeing the concept of routine field monitoring filter down to the college, high school and recreational levels. For example, more and more field managers are monitoring field hardness (G-max). Also, more field managers are conducting field inspections on a regular basis—things like looking for failing seams and monitoring infill depth levels on synthetic turf and high-wear areas on natural turf. The idea is to catch small problems before they become major problems."
The Choice: Synthetic vs. Natural
When a facility owner is faced with a deteriorating sports field, selecting a new surface is not always an easy decision. Both natural turf and synthetic have their benefits and drawbacks.
Natural turfgrass playing surfaces have been used successfully for many years, and there is a wealth of scientific data documenting their safety. Moreover, given proper management and balanced use, natural grass fields can withstand and accommodate multiple sports team usage.
Cool-season grasses adapt to favorable growth during cool portions of the growing season. Optimum growing temperatures range from 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. These grasses are generally found in temperate and subarctic climates and may become dormant or stressed during periods of high temperatures.
Examples of some common cool-season grasses, Serensits noted, are Kentucky bluegrass, rough bluegrass, annual bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, annual ryegrass, tall fescue, fine fescues and creeping bentgrass. The most popular cool-season turfgrass used on athletic fields include Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and tall fescue.
Warm-season grasses adapt to favorable growth during warmer periods of the growing season. Optimum temperatures for growth are between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. These grasses are generally found in tropical and subtropical climates, and some examples are bermudagrass, buffalo grass, zoysia grass, bahia grass, seashore paspalum, kikuyu grass, St. Augustine grass and centipede grass. The most common warm-season grass used on athletic fields is bermudagrass.
While natural grass surfaces may become worn from excessive use, those portions of the fields can be easily, economically and quickly replaced. With proper management, a natural turf field can be maintained year-after-year for a fraction of the cost of an artificial turf surface over its projected life expectancy.
Meanwhile, synthetic turf has become increasingly popular as a surface for playing fields, as it offers a number of advantages over natural turf, the most important of which in most instances is playability. These fields have an 8- to 10-year lifespan and can be used almost every day, whereas natural turf fields need time to recover after play or after a weather event. So-called second- or third-generation synthetic surfaces even look much more like natural turf and use various infill materials on top of the base to mimic the feel of natural turf, reducing injuries and making the field more acceptable to athletes. Additional advantages of synthetic surfaces are zero fertilizer use, greatly reduced pesticide use, greatly reduced water use and no need for mowing.
"'In terms of cost," Serensits said, "artificial turf is more cost-effective over time," although the initial installation of a synthetic turf field can be twice that of a natural grass field.
Weather is another factor to consider when deciding whether to install synthetic or natural turf, but is it a major factor in selecting a particular surface system? "It really is not," suggested Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of a Cheektowaga, N.Y.-based synthetic turf manufacturing company.
"If you are from Arizona, where there is a lot of sunshine, you have to deal with heat and direct sunlight. If your facility is in northern Minnesota there is snow and cold weather," Dobmeier said. "Our suggestion to buyers is simply this: Invest in quality, invest in a plush system. Go out and buy the best, and that best will suffice, whether it is in Arizona or Minnesota. Now unfortunately in this business, there are many field builders that are also marketers that don't market for the benefit of clients."