Supplement Feature - September 2014
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We All Fall Down

Education, Maintenance Key to Playground Surface Safety

By Deborah L. Vence

Loose Fill and Unitary Surfaces

One of the innovations in playground surfaces is leaning toward a more nature-inspired look, with surface materials looking earthier in appearance.

One of the innovations in playground surfaces is leaning toward a more nature-inspired look, with surface materials looking earthier in appearance.

"Natural-looking surfaces are something that I've seen as of late. Even poured-in-place rubber and rubber tile surfaces are using earth tones to give it a more natural look," Mrakovich said.

"I think that is why engineered wood fiber (EWF) is still such a popular surface, besides the low cost. You can't get much more natural than a wood surfacing," he said.

"And, in order to incorporate this trend into the surface," he added, "some companies are combining natural surfaces and unitary (synthetic) type surfaces, such as synthetic turf and rubber products."

In fact, newer progressive trends in playground surfacing have involved unitary surfaces vs. loose-fill product lines.

"Recent developments in ADA compliance regulations require regular grooming and backfilling of loose-fill products in order to stay compliant with these new and necessary regulations. Unitary surfacing … is considered a 'fix it and forget it' option that requires very little to no maintenance on a regular basis," said Matt Malles, Mid Atlantic regional manager for a playground safety surfacing manufacturer.

The largest benefit to loose fill is the initial installation and product costs.

The most common concern in playground safety is the Critical Fall Height (CFH) associated with structures or playground equipment.

"Typically, loose fill costs about 15 to 20 percent less initially than unitary surfacing. A true comparison should include life-cycle costs associated with both surfacing options. Unitary surfacing options have a slightly higher initial cost, but have very little to no maintenance costs associated with safety and ADA compliance," Malles explained.

And, many loose fill materials are in use today, such as wood chips, pea stone, sand, bark mulch, rubber mulch and EWF.

"Loose fill surfaces, such as EWF, are generally less expensive, do not require professional installation and give greater fall height protection than unitary surfaces. The drawback is more maintenance is needed since loose surfaces are just that, loose," Mrakovich said.

"So, they tend to scatter in high-use areas and need [to be] raked and replenished periodically in order to keep them safe and accessible, which increases maintenance costs," he added.

Meanwhile, engineered wood fiber offers a number of advantages, the primary ones being cost and impact attenuation ratings. It also offers one of the lowest initial purchase costs, and provides one of the most favorable initial impact attenuation ratings when tested in laboratory conditions.

However, there are a few disadvantages, too, that should be considered.

For instance, with all loose-fill surfacing, a regular maintenance program will need to be implemented in order to preserve and maintain compliance to both AS F1292 (impact attenuation) and AS F1951 (ADA accessibility). A typical maintenance program, for example, would involve regular raking, leveling and sifting of the loose material to counter the effects of decomposition, compaction and material displacement. In the absence of a maintenance program, consistency in fall protection and wheelchair mobility can be compromised. To boot, detailed inspections will be required to detect and remove embedded objects that can be dangerous and unhealthy.

On the other hand, "Unitary surfaces, such as PIP, tiles and turf have more upfront material costs, require professional installation and do not have the same impact resiliency as loose-fill products. However, they do not require a lot of maintenance, so they are desirable for those that have limited help to maintain their playground from a safety and accessibility point-of-view," Mrakovich said.

"If it's a loose-fill surface that they are going to install themselves, get installation instructions from the vendor and follow them. Some vendors may require certain installation techniques to give better accessibility or recommend other products like wear mats to reduce maintenance," he said.

Also, make sure to check that you use the recommended thickness of the surface for the fall height required.

"Make a mark on the equipment post so you can see when the surface needs topped off. Some synthetic manufacturers may recommend an impact test every so often to make sure the surface is still impact resilient," he added. "The surface may look good on the top, but if it has begun to decay beneath the wear layer it may not be safe, and the only way to determine that is to perform a drop test. There are many playground consulting companies that offer this."