The Best of Both Worlds
Know When to Rely on Synthetic or Natural Turf
By Joe Bush
In the Field
As manager of athletic turf and grounds for Iowa State University, Tim VanLoo oversees both kinds of fields in a four-season climate. VanLoo, president of the Sport Turf Managers Association, is in charge of 55 acres of grass fields and two synthetic fields.
VanLoo said in addition to climate and usage and material, fields must be differentiated by sport. In his experience—three years as associate director of facilities at Northwestern University and almost seven years at Iowa State—the two types of field have benefits and blemishes according to activity.
"Football's all about traction," he said. "If the footing's good then it's going to play safe, typically. I can't have the field ripping up; it's got to be able to have a 200- to 300-pound person make a cut, and push on another individual that's of equal weight and not tear up, so the focus there is all about stability.
"On a softball field though, the athletes aren't very heavy, they don't make real big cuts and they kind of stand in one spot. The grass appears untouched, so there it's all about consistency and ball roll is more the issue than footing and stability. The management ends up being very similar because of watering and mowing, but the way it's used is very different, and the way I watch the game is very different just because I don't need the same footing in football as I do in softball.
"Soccer's kind of a similar thing. It's about footing and stability, but you also have the ball roll that has to be consistent and true."
VanLoo said there's no doubt that natural grass fields require more attention than synthetic, even with the increased and more varied use on synthetic fields. For synthetic fields—one indoor and one outdoor at Iowa State—VanLoo and his staff groom the indoor field two or three times a month during football season and less in the winter when multiple sports use it to prepare for spring campaigns. He said the indoor field isn't used much in the summer. The outdoor synthetic field was new in 2012, while the indoor facility was built in 2004, and resurfaced three years ago.
"You're almost playing more janitor than turf manager," he said. "You pick up garbage. The reality is they're less maintenance for sure. Not maintenance-free but less maintenance."
"I always tell people I'm a city farmer," VanLoo said. "Growing up on a farm I had a very similar schedule: We're really busy in the spring, then my really busy time, the harvest, is the football season. Winter is for getting equipment ready. Oil changes, getting books ready. Clean the shop, reorganize, get more efficient for the next year, tree trimming on a golf course. A slower pace."
Other than the multiple seasons, the windiness of Ames, Iowa, is a daily concern for VanLoo, more so than it was on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
"A lot of it has to do with moisture management," he said. "In the summertime when you get low humidity and really windy, it's a bad combination. A plant's going to transpire at a rapid pace. Before working here I never really looked at wind on a day-to-day basis, but now I do. You just factor that in and try to make sure you irrigate in the early morning when the wind's not blowing. It affects more what we can do that day, how we paint the fields."
The winter-to-spring transition is different every year, said VanLoo, adding that he doesn't work outside until the temperature reaches 40 degrees. The first softball game is in March, and most early games are on road. The Iowa State softball stadium was built in 2011, with the climate in mind; it is sand-based and does not have a freeze-thaw cycle, so as soon as the ground is not frozen, the field is ready. The dirt part is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn't let moisture in, and thus, it doesn't freeze either.
"Getting the facility ready, I've had to remove snow," said VanLoo. "I've dealt with areas of frozen warning track. You throw salt on it. We try to forecast the weather and react to it because I just don't know. What I tell the coaches is, 'Unfortunately the field doesn't look great until the season's done. Grass doesn't come out of dormancy, growing and recovering, until the last weekend'."