Feature Article - February 2007
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Turf Wars

How to win the battle against overuse and other enemies

By Kyle Ryan

Synthetic turf

With limited funds, facility managers face a turf quandary: Pay a lot up front but less down the road for synthetic, or pay less up front but more for maintenance with natural grass.

Outside of high-end facilities like Arlington Park and professional and collegiate stadiums, synthetic turf is often used on high-traffic multiuse fields—or, as Chalmers calls them, "multi-abuse fields." Those fields are commonly found in schools and recreational parks, which not coincidentally are the biggest growth areas for synthetic turf. These are places where the activity schedule doesn't afford grass enough recovery time to stay healthy.

"If you've got excess activities or play on fields, I say go to artificial," McAfee said. "If you've got a site where you're just playing all the time, grass is not going to hold up."

High-end professional fields use synthetics for a number of reasons, but the primary motive is performance. Synthetic turf offers a uniformity that natural grass can only match with the utmost diligence, and even then it's not guaranteed. Performance is also a concern at lower levels like high schools, but it's usually trumped by another problem: money. Synthetic fields cost a lot of it.

At Central Winds Park in Winter Springs, Fla., cost figured prominently in the decision to use natural turf on some new fields acquired by the park.

"The cost has been really prohibitive," said Chuck Pula, director of parks and recreation for the city. "We're talking half a million dollars to do one football field, and we haven't seen any prices below that."

Central Winds Park seems like a prime candidate for synthetic turf. The 103-acre complex features four baseball fields, four softball fields, two football/lacrosse fields and six soccer fields. All of them are heavily used by Winter Springs' 30,000 residents. Pula said his park has an adequate budget, but not adequate enough to drop a few million on new fields everywhere. Heat also factored into the equation.

"It is so hot here in Florida, between the sun and the humidity, that I'm hearing temperatures on the art turf are getting up to 170, 180 degrees," he said. "People are getting burned."

Synthetic manufacturers suggest watering the turf to cool it down, but that's little help, according to McAfee, who once measured a 173-degree temperature on a synthetic field. (A natural-grass field measured 101 degrees at the same time.)

"You can water it to cool it down, but it heats back up real quick," he explained. "It's very temporary."

The problem actually stems from radiation, not the temperature itself. "In other words, the brighter the sun, the hotter it gets," McAfee said. "Once it gets nighttime, or if you've got a cloudy day, it's not near as hot. Everybody thinks it's the temperature that heats it up, but it's the radiation that causes the heat to go up so much."

Synthetic turf makes up for the heat and cost concerns in other ways, like with drainage. A synthetic football field has a top layer of grass-like fibers resting above an infill layer of sand and rubber pellets. Water moves through it quickly and drains efficiently, which is always a problem on poorly designed low-level recreational fields (which often lack the necessary grading to move water to the edges of the field). The type of soil beneath a field greatly affects its drainage capabilities. Down where McAfee is in Texas, there's a "sorry clay gumbo" that's so tight it can only absorb an inch of water per hour.

All fields, synthetic or natural, have to face two issues at the end of the day: safety and performance. Really, everything else comes from those two, even drainage—a wet field doesn't perform well.

"We all are concerned about player safety—we don't want gravelly areas, we don't want slippery surfaces. We want a good turf in place," Chalmers said. "These fields are going to be maintained in a way that is going to maximize athletic performance… You want those athletes in their mind to know that their footing will hold when they do make a cut in soccer, when they do go around the end in football, when they do try to enhance their performance and skill."

Both well-maintained natural-turf fields and synthetics can offer good performance and reliable safety. Maintaining natural fields just requires more effort.

"I think most players would prefer to have turfgrass," McAfee said, "but they would also prefer to play on a good field than a tore-up, muddy field."