Feature Article - July 2007
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Special Supplement: Complete Guide to Sports & Recreation Surfaces

By Dana Carman


Remember the muddy grass fields of our youth? Communities generally have more teams and players than fields, creating a field deficit that can turn natural grass fields into natural dirt fields. The situation has many facilities turning toward synthetic turf as a way to get that natural grass feel with year-round playability and less maintenance.

Synthetic turf has come a long way since the first turf carpets of days gone by. Synthetic fiber grass blades and rubber and sand granule infill combinations are now used to closely mimic the look and feel of natural grass.

While it may start to sound like a broken record, defining your field needs is the first step to deciding what works best for your facility. Field managers and those charged with replacing fields can begin by answering some key questions. According to landscape architect and president of Geller Sport, Patrick Maguire, some of those questions are: "What sports will be played? How intensely will the field be used? What is the threshold for the condition of the field? Should it be in tip-top condition, or are less-than-ideal conditions acceptable? How much money is there for the initial expense (capital construction)? How much money and manpower will be dedicated to long-term maintenance?"

The Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia understood its needs as well as its maintenance capacity when it recently undertook a large synthetic field development program. Starting back in November 2006, the Fairfax County Park Authority began converting up to 12 existing natural turf fields into synthetic turf fields.

All Fibers Are Not Created Equal

On the market today, there are two basic types of synthetic turf fibers: monofilament and slit-film. Monofilament fibers are single strands bunched together while slit-film is slit in a honeycomb type of pattern. According to Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of a synthetic turf company, the monofilament fibers don't break down the same way the slit-film fibers do but the slit-film has more stability for infield movement as the way it is patterned helps it interlock with the infill better.

After conducting an assessment study based on the teams and amount of play the county offered, it was discovered that the county had a shortage of 90 rectangular fields. According to Public Information Officer Judy Pedersen, that number created a very daunting prospect from a financial perspective. As part of a larger park bond that also addresses land acquisition and trail development, $10 million was earmarked for the field conversion, which is well under way. Four fields were fully completed and in play at press time, while four more fields are slated to be ready to use in mid-July.

Deb Garris, manager for artificial turf fields in the planning division of the Fairfax County Park Authority, is very happy with the decision to convert the fields from natural grass to synthetic turf.

"We get 62 percent more play with these fields," she said. "We have virtually an all-weather playing field and very few cancellations. And these fields are lit from morning until 10 or 11 p.m. at night."

Garris is also pleased with the maintenance of the synthetic turf versus grass fields. "With natural turf, early spring comes and we're out on the fields trying to grow grass, fill in divots, fill in worn areas and irrigate fields while teams want to get on them," she explained. "What the synthetic has afforded us is a much lower maintenance program. There's no irrigation system needed and no requirement for pesticides or fertilizers, which is great for the mission of the Park Authority. We go in every few weeks and groom the infield mix, and that's it."

Like many other communities and schools that are implementing synthetic turf fields, Fairfax County Park Authority has lined the fields for multi-sport play. In Fairfax County, there are roughly 120,000 to 200,000 players registered for sports that play on those fields each year, so the Park Authority had to find the right balance of which lines are tufted into the infield mix and which are marked for secondary play, where the lines can be added on as needed.

The success of the field conversion thus far has created buzz in the community, and the Fairfax County Park Authority is working with the school system to implement synthetic fields at the high schools as well. Garris estimates that another bond program in 2008 will allow expansion of the program within the parks.

"Sixty-two percent increased capacity is too good a figure to ignore," Garris explained.

While lower maintenance has been touted as one of the big reasons some are converting to synthetic turf, it's important to note that synthetic turf is not maintenance-free, and depending on the level of play, the maintenance may require more effort than you expect.

Mike Andresen, president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) and athletic grounds manager for Iowa State University, said he was surprised by how much maintenance his synthetic turf football field requires. The grass blades tend to lie over after a game so they require grooming to bring them back up. Additionally the infill requires fluffing. If trash from the stands lands on the fields, picking it up isn't as easy as on other fields, because using a mechanical sweep will also sweep up the infill. If the fields aren't marked using the turf itself, then lines need to be repainted on a regular basis.

"Those are items you generally don't plan on doing, but you should plan on them," Andresen said. He also noted another issue that grounds managers and other facility directors do not always plan for—heat.