Feature Article - February 2013
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Sports Fields in Context

Making the Right Choices in Synthetic & Natural Turf

By Joseph Bush

Let Safety Be Your Guide

Mike Tarantino has always had to let safety be his guide in making decisions between synthetic turf and natural turf. Tarantino is the director of facilities, maintenance and operations for the Poway (Calif.) Unified School District, which owns 92.5 acres of multi-use natural grass sports fields, 59 acres of high-profile natural grass sports fields and 21 acres of synthetic turf.

Overall, Tarantino said he divides his fields into high maintenance and lower maintenance. Multi-use fields may have a few weeds and less color, but are playable and safe. The higher profile areas, like high school game fields, are synthetic. Playability and safety outweighed a so-so return on investment, he said.

Clients who five years ago were so focused on adding synthetic fields to relieve pressure on their natural fields have recently been switching their attention back to the original natural turf areas.

Before synthetic fields, Tarantino and his staff had only two months in the summer to make the natural fields safe and playable after a 10-month schedule that started with football, moved to soccer and finished with lacrosse. Concerns for safety from the community pushed Tarantino to consider synthetic.

"When deciding whether or not to install the synthetic turf, I did a cost analysis based on maintenance and irrigation on a natural grass sports field versus maintenance on the synthetic, and the results were eye-opening, as I determined I could save the district $38,000 per year," he said. "My analysis didn't stop there; I needed to add in replacement cost, and this cost once added in didn't make the payback look very rosy—about 30 years. Considering that the synthetic turf's warranty was between eight and 10 years, the field would actually need to be replaced twice. We still moved forward based on the playability, safety of our student athletes and community use."

He said the main reasons for choosing synthetic over natural turf are maintenance budget, water conservation if applicable, community needs, sports types, investment payback, expectations for the fields and aesthetic and safety standards.

"Synthetic turf sports fields should not be installed based on keeping up with the Joneses," Tarantino said. "I know all sports turf managers would prefer maintaining natural turf; however, synthetics are an option when you cannot maintain natural grass based on use/abuse, playability and safety of the athletes. The gist of this is, it all comes down to dollars and sense."

Maintenance Matters

Once a synthetic field is in place, Tarantino has simple advice.

"The only trick for maintaining synthetic turf is it must be maintained," he said.

Tarantino and his crew brush the synthetic fields every other month, deep groom once or twice a year, sweep as needed, and hose them off before the start of each sport's season. For his natural turf fields, Tarantino uses soil sampling to determine fertility needs, soil salinity and pH.

"I cannot stress how important this is," Tarantino said. "The soil sample results drive everything I do to that natural grass field. The report dictates what fertilizer formula I will use and gives me some insight into soil compaction."

Tarantino uses a couple things he has picked up from the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) to maintain his natural grass fields. At the STMA national conference, he watched as Iowa State University horticulture professor David Minner presented "a field in a field."

"It was a great idea for spreading out maintenance dollars," Tarantino said. "For example, if only a portion of your natural grass sports field needs repair or maintenance, why do the entire field? Look at the worn or damaged area as a field within a larger field where the larger field may not require any maintenance or renovation work at all, then apply dollars only to the smaller field."

Tarantino also uses the Playing Conditions Index (PCI) that was developed by the STMA to assist in rating his natural grass sports field playability and safety. While the PCI doesn't tell managers what to do, he said, once filled out and totaled, it gives an understanding of where fields rate, and based on budget and standards gives a starting point to begin repairing or renovating the sports fields.