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

By Dana Carman

According to the STMA's "A Guide to Synthetic and Natural Turfgrass for Sports Fields," high field temperatures may be experienced on synthetic turf fields. The guide cites a study published in the Journal of Health, Physical Education and Recreation that showed "surface temperatures of as much as 95 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit higher on synthetic turf than natural turfgrass when exposed to sunlight."

Additionally, high humidity can cause a high heat index, which can raise the surface temperature. The high surface temperatures can create heat-related health and safety issues. Watering the field prior to using it may help lower the surface temperature, but Andresen cautions against thinking that using water is a magic bullet. The STMA recommends considering alteration of the game schedule as well as working with turf managers to implement techniques to reduce the temperature of the field.

Natural turf, on the other hand, is a temperature reducer. A study published by the United States Golf Association showed that natural grass actually keeps areas cooler on hot days, with the temperature of the grass rarely rising above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of air temperature.

For Andresen, maintenance issues are not the real deciding factor when it comes to choosing between natural turf and synthetic.

"Overuse is the number-one factor in determining field type," he said. "It is a fact that there are only a certain number of games that a grass field can take, and there are going to be more games than that scheduled. Artificial turf fields are driven by overuse. A well-maintained natural grass field is the preferred playing surface."

Maguire agrees that most studies would show that natural turf is and always will be the preferred surface, but that to truly achieve that "well-maintained" moniker is no easy task. Space is an issue. No natural grass field can withstand constant abuse, so having more than one field is a necessity.

Cost is certainly also a factor when considering natural grass versus synthetic turf. The initial costs of implementing a synthetic turf field may be higher than building a grass field, but in most cases the maintenance costs are reversed—with higher maintenance costs for natural turf fields.

The More You Know

When it comes to choosing the right turf, it's imperative to be in the know. The Sports Turf Managers Association (www.stma.org) has several handy resources available on its Web site. "A Guide to Synthetic and Natural Turfgrass for Sports Fields" is an overview of some of the differences between the types of turf and things field managers should consider. You can also find a series of advisory bulletins on the site, such as "Determining the Right Sports Field for Your Athletes" and "What works best for building your sports field?"

The current generation of synthetic turf products is relatively young, with experts in the field estimating it at about 10 years old with the first installations in 1998 or 1999 and with a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years. Using that math, it's easy to see that there aren't too many of these fields that have reached the end of their life expectancy yet. Thus, there's still one factor that's relatively unknown: What happens at the end of a field's life?

Andresen points out that the fields will eventually need to be replaced as constant use will still wear out a field, regardless of its material. Also, the rubber and sand granules used as infill are often walked off the field on the players' shoes, and the grass fibers eventually do break down.

According to Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of a synthetic turf manufacturer and installer, when a synthetic turf field reaches the end of its life, what's underneath the turf itself should last for three generations of synthetics, or 25 years, and that only the turf and up (fibers, backing and infill) would need to be replaced. However, he added that because of the youth of these fields, what most people are just now trying to figure out as their fields are aging is how to dispose of the synthetic fibers, backing and infill and what exactly that entails.

With any field surface, issues are bound to arise. The goal for any field installation should be to achieve maximum playability within the budget and space limitations.