Supplement Feature - September 2013
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Grounds for Innovation

Turf Trends for Today & Tomorrow

By Chris Gelbach

Across the nation, sports fields are seeing increasingly concentrated use as an increase in participants and the growing popularity of sports like soccer and lacrosse have created more demand for field time. Luckily, a wide array of new innovations and technologies are giving turf managers more ways to meet this demand without compromising playing conditions or player safety. And these advancements hold even more promise for the future.

The Rise of Synthetic

One way facilities are accommodating their increased use is through synthetic turf. "We are certainly seeing more and more synthetic systems going in throughout the Mid-Atlantic," said Mike Goatley Jr., professor and extension turfgrass specialist at Virginia Tech and president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). "They're popping up like dandelions."

The trend's momentum concerns Goatley and some other experts who see people who balk at paying $5,000 a year to maintain their natural grass investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on an artificial field. "We start to worry when people use synthetic turf as a keeping up with the Joneses because the high school next to me has one," said Mike Tarantino, director of facilities, maintenance and operations for the Poway School Unified School District in the San Diego area, who is also active in STMA as a board director.

That said, even natural-grass advocates such as Tarantino strategically use synthetic turf. "I'm in a K-12 district, and there's no way I could manage a [natural grass] stadium field with the conditions that were placed upon me with high school athletic sports, community use and a 360-piece marching band at each high school."

In his case, those conditions include a football season followed immediately by soccer, lacrosse and field hockey seasons all on the same field, plus graduation ceremonies, leaving no time to repair natural grass—and no feasible option for the stadium fields other than synthetic turf.

"Since day one, our main market has been the high school and the park and rec market," said Darren Gill, vice president of global marketing for a synthetic turf manufacturer based in Calhoun, Ga. "And really the reason is not because synthetic turf is a luxury—it's because it's a necessity for those clients who can't grow grass and have extreme use demands on the fields."

Artificial turf can be used safely in inclement weather conditions, and allow for almost nonstop use if lights are installed. But while synthetic turf requires less maintenance than natural grass, it isn't maintenance-free. In fact, the creation of more equipment and procedures to support the maintenance of synthetic fields is another growing trend. As Gill noted, his company has created a system that includes regular brushing, aerating, raking and sweeping. "It really helps the clients understand when the field should be maintained and how it should be maintained," he said.

Many synthetic turf products have 8-year warranties, making the planning for the turf's replacement essential. "Somewhere in 8 to 15 years, you'll need to come up with another $500,000 or $600,000 to put back into this field when it needs to be replaced," Tarantino said.

The architectural, engineering and design consulting firm Stantec doesn't believe it makes sense to cut corners in this investment. "We never really recommend to go with a lesser product for synthetic turf just because they don't have a budget because it's just going to fall apart—your return on investment is not going to be good over the lifetime," said Meg Buczynski, senior associate in the Stantec sport group. "In that case, we look at how we can get them what they need in a natural grass setting or try to work with them on how to generate that revenue or get that funding up front."

And while the producers of synthetic turf have made advancements in heat management, it remains an issue. Gill's company recently addressed it by introducing a cooler infill that adds a cork layer that absorbs less heat than traditional black crumb rubber. "We've been able to reduce the surface temperature by about 35 degrees in laboratory testing," he said. "Both the fiber and the infill are a heat source. So we've been working on it on a parallel path to try to find cool fiber and a cool infill. When it comes to cool fiber, we're probably a few years away."

In the meantime, facility managers like Tarantino still rely on water to temporarily cool down their synthetic fields. "When the temperatures on the playing field get too warm, we can turn water on that field and drop that temperature by 10 or 15 degrees," he said. Tarantino finds this to mostly be an issue for practices, since games typically take place in the evening.

These water requirements somewhat mitigate synthetic turf's benefits for some warm-weather facilities. "The ironic thing is that they do need irrigation to cool them down, too," said Jeff Langner, brand manager for a maker of turf establishment products and accessories in Buffalo Grove, Ill. "So if you're in a place with water restrictions, you're going to have trouble with synthetic fields if you can't get out and put water on the field."