Problem Solver - August 2007
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Upgrading Playgrounds with Safer Surfaces

We're upgrading our playgrounds and are looking to ensure children's safety. What's a good choice for surfacing that's safe, long-lasting and attractive?

You're smart to think about the playground surface. Every year, more than 200,000 kids are injured on America's playgrounds, with falls to the surface representing the top factor contributing to those injuries. Despite this fact, many park and school playgrounds still rely on inadequate surfacing.

Your options for playground surfacing include two broad categories: loose fill and unitary materials. The primary loose-fill materials used today include wood chips, pea gravel, sand, bark mulch, rubber mulch and engineered wood fiber. Loose-fill materials offer a lower initial cost than unitary surfaces, but regular maintenance programs are required to maintain cleanliness and compliance with applicable standards, contributing to generally high life-cycle costs that negate much of the initial savings. One other important consideration when looking at loose fill is its ability to meet ADA standards. Although some loose-fill materials meet the requirement, others do not. By default, all unitary surfaces meet ADA standards.

There are a couple of different kinds of unitary surfaces, including poured-in-place surfacing and a prefabricated surface typically supplied in a mat or tile form. Poured-in-place surfaces offer advantages such as low maintenance and low costs over their life cycle, but can see deterioration over time in high-traffic areas. Pre-manufactured unitary surfaces offer similar advantages to the poured-in-place surfaces, including low maintenance, leading to a low life-cycle cost.

In addition, patrons will like the unitary surfaces because they can be kept cleaner, offer aesthetically pleasing combinations of colors and are truly accessible.

When looking for a playground safety surface, obviously safety should be the first and foremost requirement. Assurances regarding compliance with safety standards should be provided by the manufacturer in the form of laboratory test reports showing compliance to the ASTM F1292-04 Standard. Ideally, your manufacturer's surface should exceed the requirements set by this standard. One manufacturer, for example, has gone an extra step, relying on a hollow core with mechanical buckling action to achieve fall protection. This manufacturer also goes the extra mile to offer a 10-year guarantee that the surface will comply with the ASTM standard.

You also should consider your manufacturer's experience. Ideally, you want to go with a supplier who has plenty of experience installing this type of safety surfacing for playgrounds. Manufacturer knowledge is also key, and looking for a manufacturer who can supply you with all the pertinent product information, such as product testing certifications, installation instructions and maintenance guidelines is essential. The following questions are critical as you investigate various surface manufacturers: Does the surface comply with ADA standards? Does the surface meet the latest standard for impact attenuation? What test results did the surface achieve at the specified fall requirement? How long is the surface guaranteed to meet the F1292-04 standard? How long is the surface guaranteed against defects in material and workmanship?

Finally, while safety—not cost—should be the most important factor driving your decision, you should consider what surface will provide the greatest long-term value. More often than not, surfaces with a lower upfront cost end up costing the most in the long term due to maintenance and replenishment costs.

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