Feature Article - October 2012
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Maintenance & Operations: Synthetic Turf

Beyond the Basics
Synthetic Turf Fields Have Come a Long Way

By Tammy York

In the past seven years, university after university has adopted synthetic turf for baseball and intramural field usage applications. Synthetic turf ball fields can be opened up to other opportunities from Little League to high school.

"Synthetic turf fields reduce maintenance, let the team use the field year-round, and generate revenue that the organization might not be able to generate otherwise," Britton said.

A few of the colleges and universities that have synthetic turf fields include St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, The Ohio State University in Columbus, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., Long Island University in New York, Columbia University in New York, Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The driving factor in collegiate baseball fields switching to synthetic turf is the increased field time. The synthetic turf baseball fields have improved to play like a natural turf ballfield, including a more natural ball bounce.

"Baseball is one of the last sports that really embraced artificial fields," said Troy Squires, global VP of sales and marketing with a synthetic turf manufacturer. "Mainly because the coaches are particular about how the field areas perform, whether it needs to be fast, slow or grass-like."

The areas of the field that are traditionally dirt are referred to as skin areas. "The root zone thatch layer's texturized fibers help hold in the sand and rubber infill," Britton said. "You don't see infill flyout at the bases, plates and batter's boxes."

To get the skin areas to work like dirt and not grass, the fibers must layover quickly. These skin areas are made with a fiber designed to resist abrasion, which is important because of the amount of sand used in these areas. For comparison, a football field has a maximum of 50 percent sand in the infill, but a high-level baseball field is going to have a minimum of 70 percent sand.

Baseball fields can also be "tuned" to produce slow, medium or fast speed of play. This is done by modifying the infill materials, infill depth and underlying base material. And, high-use areas such as home plate can be removed for maintenance or replacement.

Maintenance of synthetic turf baseball and intramural fields is similar to football field maintenance. The primary areas where infill maintenance is required include the batter's boxes and sliding areas because the infill can migrate out of those areas. Batter's box maintenance should be done every couple of games, and the sliding areas once every couple of weeks. Regular scheduled and assigned maintenance to these areas will make sure that the fibers and infill last the expected life of the field.

Intramural Fields

"Much of what we see in college-level intramural sports is mega-projects—the equivalent of four to five fields together in one location," Squires said. "The fields are funded by student fees. Students are voting for this, and that was unheard of 10 years ago."

Colleges and universities are realizing the benefits of integrating students into the social fabric of the university by having various recreational sports and sport clubs for the students to join, and as such are increasing their support of intramural sports. Students are also demanding more fitness activities from colleges and universities vying for their enrollment. The synthetic turf industry has devised systems to help meet these needs.

Used as a recruiting tool, the intramural department can host tournaments where prospective students can see the university's facilities and the different club sports available to them. "Large university projects are designed to service their student clientele instead of raise money," Squires said. "Colleges are very competitive, and students are expecting health and recreation facilities for fitness."

"Intramural fields are one of the fastest growing segments in synthetic turf market. Recreation departments are increasing the demand for these multiuse fields as less space is available for fields for each individual sport," Britton said. "For example, Texas A&M University installed a 430,000-square-foot field for their intramural sports clubs to use, and the fields are used every day."