Feature Article - February 2006
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Tough Turf

Getting athletic fields in good shape is both complicated and not-so-complicated

By Kyle Ryan

The synthetic stuff

A lot of synthetic-turf systems use sand bases, which can be one of their primary assets. Field managers don't need to worry about root systems losing nutrients through leaching or weak root systems—the primary drawbacks of sand-based natural turf—because synthetic systems don't need nutrients.

Technology has advanced significantly with synthetic turf over the past decade or so. Long gone are the days of fake-looking green carpet; high-tech synthetics that recreate natural root systems have replaced that. The older stuff still gets used for some sports and practice fields, but generally not in competition fields for football or baseball.

The University of Missouri's Faurot Field, where its football team plays, has gone through them all over the past 12 years. In the early '90s, Faurot Field used an early generation synthetic. It switched over to Kentucky bluegrass around 1995, then back to a newly popular synthetic turn in 2002. The switch to the latest system came after a new head coach, Gary Pinkel, joined the staff.

"Coach Pinkel is the type of coach that likes to utilize the game field quite a bit, even for practices and such," Fresenberg says. "His use of that field in August, when the field was still natural grass, was just too much and too damaging prior to going into the season."

The cool-season bluegrass couldn't recover quickly enough from the summer activity, so the school made the pricey decision to switch back to synthetic.

"Now [Coach Pinkel] can go down there as often as he wants whenever he wants and practice on the game field," Fresenberg says.

Synthetic-turf use is popping up at less prominent levels, too. At Star of the Sea School in Honolulu, school administrators replaced what began as a natural-grass play area with synthetic turf.

"We had a grass lawn that failed to survive the wear and tear of little feet, coupled with drainage problems with our new construction," Principal Lisa Foster says. "Within a year, the once grassy playground turned into a hard, dusty dirt surface that created safety and health issues."

The school board investigated its options for the 6,400-square-foot area. They considered grass plugs, but those would take too long to grow, and the school would have to cordon off its playground as it grew. They also considered planting sod, but that was expensive and not guaranteed to work. No grass seemed capable of sustaining high traffic in a shady area. Other synthetic options also were discussed, such as a poured-in-place rubberized surface, but the board wanted the area to have a grassy appearance.

"Others suggested sand, chips, etc.," Foster says. "We wanted a 'grass' look without the recurring problems of growing grass."

The school eventually settled on a grass-like synthetic system that replicates the look and feel of natural grass. So far, Foster says, it's been a hit and "well worth the investment."

"I noticed that children's play is facilitated more with the new, soft surface," she says. "They utilize the area more—running, kicking balls, etc. If they fall, they do not sustain scraped knees, cuts or other injuries."

The new system is virtually maintenance-free; Foster is considering having it "brushed" monthly to keep it in good shape. But a general play area like what the Star of the Sea School has shouldn't require much maintenance compared to natural grass. That's not the case with big-time synthetic playing fields, though.

"They'll probably require less maintenance," Fresenberg says, "but the thing is a lot of the facilities that are buying these synthetic fields right now are actually being told it's minimal maintenance or, in some cases, no maintenance. That's really not the case."

One maintenance issue goes against one of the main benefits of having a synthetic field: watering. According to Brian Vinchesi, principal for Irrigation Consulting, synthetics still need to be watered—just not to help them grow.

"A lot of synthetics want to be watered for cooling," he says. "People don't think you have to water synthetics, and the manufacturer will probably tell you it doesn't need to be watered, but the sports-field guys will tell you they want them watered…I'm doing three of them right now, and I've probably done four in the last year. But again they're all higher end college fields that I'm doing at the moment."

Synthetics obviously don't need the same amount of water as natural-grass fields, though. Nor do they have the same pest-control issues as their natural counterparts.