Feature Article - November 2014
Find a printable version here

Take the Field

Managing & Maintaining High-Performing Sports Fields

By Chris Gelbach


Maintaining Synthetic Fields

When it comes to synthetic fields, some recreation departments are surprised to learn that the fields require maintenance at all. But Pearson estimates that maintaining the synthetic fields at the University of Washington takes maybe 25 percent of the time of the natural turf fields.

One of the most important things that synthetic field owners can do is to keep infill levels at the proper level. This keeps the fibers standing straight up, which is a big contributor to performance and durability.

"For a synthetic turf field to last and to perform as it is intended to perform, you need to maintain it," said Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council. According to Doyle, one of the most important things that synthetic field owners can do is to keep infill levels at the proper level. This keeps the fibers standing straight up, which is a big contributor to performance and durability.

McNitt noted that topdressing on additional crumb rubber is a practice that's really just taken off in the past few years. "Field managers previously would let the field get to a critical state, and then they'd hire a professional to do a number of things, including replenishing the crumb rubber that walks away."

The infill typically gets displaced most from high-use areas of the field, such as in front of a soccer goal or between the hash marks on a football field. "It helps prevent infill migration if you're locating your practice drills in different parts of the field. So that's very key," Doyle said.

When you do replenish the crumb rubber, it should be purchased from your manufacturer to match the crumb rubber that's already in there, and McNitt recommends putting on light amounts and dragging it in.

McNitt believes that there's a misconception that synthetic fields get harder over time because the infill gets compacted. "But the real reason that the field gets harder over time is that the crumb rubber slowly leaves the field in kids' shoes, on their clothes, on maintenance equipment," McNitt said.

To prevent this, he recommends monitoring the depth of the infill many times throughout the year, which can be done with an inexpensive hand tool. McNitt also recommends investing in a Clegg Hammer to monitor surface hardness. "The investment might seem high, but you spent $700,000 on the field," he said. "For $4,000 you can get one, and it's what the NFL uses to monitor surface hardness on their fields before every game."

Painted areas require particular attention during regular maintenance, since those areas can become among the hardest parts of the field. "In the NFL, we are suggesting that an area gets painted four times and then that entire paint in that area is removed," said McNitt. "And sometimes you even have to remove crumb rubber because it's coagulated together."

If your field is still under warranty, your synthetic turf manufacturer might pay for someone to come out and test the field annually with an impact device to tell you how hard the field is, and also to test the infill depth. But monitoring field performance becomes even more critical once the warranty has expired—when field owners try to continue to use a field well beyond its expected life.

"There comes a point in time when, regardless of how much maintenance you've done on the field over the years, that field will no longer perform," said Doyle. "So if you're not periodically testing the performance of the field, you will not know for sure that your field is reaching the end of its useful life."

Doyle additionally recommends that someone walk the field on a regular basis to check for foreign objects and look for areas that might be in need of repair. To help recreation managers maintain their synthetic turf fields, the Synthetic Turf Council offers a variety of free technical guidelines in the Resource Center section of its website. These include maintenance guidelines, performance guidelines, guidelines for reusing and recycling synthetic turf, and other helpful resources.