Feature Article - March 2010
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All Together Now

Making Play Safe & Accessible

By Matthew M.F. Miller

Look Out Below

When choosing a surface material, playground owners first need to know what their budgets allow for construction versus maintenance. If you have a lot of capital up front but not a lot of financing for maintenance, choose a surface that has easier upkeep. No matter what you choose, it is of utmost importance to make sure you're getting what you pay for, which requires testing the surface following installation.

"A lot of new playground owners are getting savvy because they've been burned in previous purchase experiences," Skulski said. "Many people have begun to write the cost of testing into the purchasing license to be included in the cost of installation."

According to Skulski, surfaces that meet the basic accessibility and safety standards should have less than a 2 percent cross-slope in all directions. There should be no changes in level greater than a half-inch or any openings in the surface greater than a half-inch.

"If you have loose-fill surface, look across horizon and see the undulation, that is changes in level throughout the entire access route," Skulski said. "You would not see that undulation if it met ASTM F 1951 requirements."

For those considering self-installation, make sure to choose a surface that does not require an IPEMA-certified installer. Skulski also said to be realistic about the downsides of self-installation. While it opens up opportunities for those with tight budgets to invest in more play equipment, the manufacturer's warranty is subject to proper installation, and if issues—or injuries—arise, your work will be under intense scrutiny. If your installation is found to not meet the manufacturer's requirements, you could be left to pay for repairs.

"You have to know what you're doing," she said. "It's a lot more than just shoveling loose-fill materials onto the playground surface. Whether shredded rubber or wood fiber, it won't be accessible if you just lay it down."

And by law, your surface is required to be accessible from the day it opens to the public. Knowing your surface will save you money and potential legal trouble down the road. Some surfaces take six weeks to totally settle. If you just rake it out and let it settle, you are installing it to have an undulation.

"You've already created worse access by just shoveling it in," Skulski said.

Other surfaces, such as engineered wood fiber, require compaction, which some manufacturers require be done mechanically rather than manually. As a general rule, always ask before you buy.

Hendy said that to determine what surfacing to use, consideration must be given to the height of the equipment, the frequency of use, the owner's ability to maintain the playground and vandalism rates, as well as the impact of climate. Then talk to your supplier to discuss your best option for those needs.

"I typically recommend a combination of engineered wood fiber and unitary materials," she said. "I use the wood fiber where I have higher fall heights or under upper body equipment and climbers where there is an increased frequency of falling. I personally believe that there is a greater level of protection from long bone fractures with a loose material such as engineered wood fiber."

The downside, however, is that it must be maintained with frequency to remain safe. Hendy likes to provide a unitary material wherever she wants the maximum navigation ability for a child using a mobility device. Especially in areas where you are asking a child to leave a mobility device behind and crawl or scoot.

"You must keep in mind that there is no perfect surfacing and all surfacing selections should be based on the fall height of the equipment and the ability of the agency to maintain the surfacing," Hendy said. "Surfacing costs vary around the country, but generally a good budget figure is $5 a square foot for engineered wood fiber installed with a drainage means, and $15 to $20 a square foot for unitary materials such as poured-in-place rubber or rubber tiles."

All experts agree—be realistic about what maintaining a surface entails. Also, when you inspect equipment, be sure to inspect the surface, too, and address concerns immediately before they require a full replacement.

Regular playground inspections should be conducted by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) at least once a month to ensure there are no safety hazards that have occurred during use of the playground.

For playgrounds using loose-fill materials, keep in mind that it's not just about the depth of your new surface. The under-layer, whether concrete, stone or dirt, can affect whether or not your new surface will meet the ASTM F 1292 standard specification for impact attenuation, informally known as the "head-drop test" (how safe your surface will be when a child falls from the height of installed equipment).

For poured-in-place surfaces, after construction is complete, make sure to have it tested by an impartial testing agency to ensure it meets the requirements of the ASTM F 1292 standard.