Feature Article - March 2004
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Grass-Roots Communication

For sports turf maintenance, there’s a lot of handy information for those in the field

By Stacy St. Clair

Caring for Artificial Turf is a Real Job

Some worry turf managers' jobs are being threatened by the increasing popularity of artificial turf.

It simply isn't so.

The managers know that synthetic grass requires real care, too. That's why national groundskeepers associations and societies have expanded their focus to include the maintenance of artificial surfaces.

Truth be told, those who deal with artificial grass may actually need more peer support than their real-turf counterparts. The industry is changing rapidly, with more and more facilities opting for the synthetic stuff.

The recreation world has become more accepting of artificial grass after the industry introduced a new type of turf with improved rubber and sand infills. This next generation, which has been installed at several NFL and college stadiums, has more give and seems more like natural grass than its predecessor.

Now a growing number of school districts and parks departments are turning toward the product, too, as a way to increase programming abilities. A natural high-school football field often can only be used a dozen times each season. An artificial turf, however, can withstand the pounding of hundreds of students, all day, everyday—with the right upkeep, of course.

And that's where the turf managers' networking comes in. More than ever, the groundskeepers are relying upon each other for advice on how to care for the fields and keep them in pristine condition.

One of the best ways to do this is by simply sharing success stories. Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, has found a winning formula for its new soccer complex, which opened in August.

The facility, home to nationally ranked men's and women's squads, was one of the first college soccer complexes in the country. While in the design stage, the athletic department made the daring decision to use artificial turf.

Though fake grass long has been considered taboo in the soccer world, it recently has become the vogue playing surface in Europe. Creighton officials took a gamble, and it seems to have paid off.

"It's very popular there, and it's becoming more accepted here," says Don Barnum, the architect on the project.

When the turf first was installed, the school's maintenance crew dragged and watered the surface everyday. The water was absorbed by a massive drainage system under the pitch, another benefit to the state-of-the-art facility.

The dragging helped smooth the surface out, eliminating some pouches and awkward spots that come with any newly laid carpet. The watering was done to settle the rubber and make it "nice and tight."

It also helped reduce the static cling created by the dragging. The third purpose of watering was to reduce the heat on the field. The black rubber infill under the surface absorbed the sun's heat, often leaving the surface 20 to 30 degrees hotter than the actual temperature.

The initial maintenance took two to two-and-a-half hours a day. It actually required more man-hours than Tranquility Park, the municipally owned field where Creighton's soccer teams used to play.

"It certainly wasn't dragged and watered everyday," says Steve Brace, an assistant athletic director at the university.

In time, care of the Creighton pitch became less intensive. Maintenance crews eventually reduced their dragging and watering to one or two times per week. When the weather became too cold, they stopped watering for the season.

"The more they play on it, the better it gets," Barnum says. "It gets more packed in. At one point, the coach asked that it not be watered because the ball was playing so well. He wanted it to play the same way for the next game."

The athletic department was happy with the surface, too.

"For a first-year facility, we were very, very pleased with the field and the quality of play," Brace says.

The field isn't the only part of the complex that needs groundskeepers' attention. A tiered seating section also has been created with the help of artificial turf.

Architects opted for the unique design, rather than the traditional grass slope, and it has paid off. The section gives fans a rare opportunity to watch a game on the same type of surface as the teams use.

"It's neat for people to realize they're sitting on the same surface that the players are playing on," Brace says.

The soccer fanatics, however, give the open seating section a harder pounding than the soccer players. They eat on the turf, often spilling drinks and leaving food crumbs. They sometimes track in dirt and leave the area messier than they found it.

After games, the maintenance crews must hose down the area because a vacuum could harm the infill. The water is absorbed through a drainage system underneath the turf.

The section is so popular, officials feel it will be worn out much more quickly than the pitch. The picnics—coupled with fans who sit in one place for an extended period of time—eventually will take their toll.

"That surface is probably going to need to be replaced sooner than the one we play on," Brace says.

The complex is slated to be fully completed by this fall. The finished product will be a soccer lover's dream, with locker rooms, offices, chairback seating, luxury suites, picnic areas and several other amenities.

"It was a great year for us," Brace says. "It's going to be even better when we finish it."