Feature Article - January 2015
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Safety for the Duration

Keeping Playground Equipment & Surfaces Safe Now & in the Future

By Rick Dandes

"Initial installation methods, such as watering and compacting the EWF in layers," Mrakovich said, "will help speed up the knitting process, which makes the surface firm and stable for accessibility purposes. Folks normally don't install it like that, so you have to wait on natural compaction to occur, which will happen over time when children run on it and when it rains. This helps the knitting process to happen." Knitting is when the fibers from the wood intertwine and get tight. This creates a more firm and stable surface. That's why water is essential during installation. Products such as wear mats can help decrease maintenance in high use areas such as swings and slide exits.

Unitary surfaces, Mrakovich explained, such as PIP (poured-in-place rubber), rubber tiles and synthetic turf, have more up-front material costs, require professional installation and do not have the same impact resiliency as most loose-fill products. However, they do not require a lot of maintenance so they are desirable for those that have bigger budgets and limited help to maintain their playgrounds from a safety and accessibility point of view.

The final example of IAS materials is a composite surface using a combination of loose fill, rubber and matting. For example, a stone drainage base topped with a geotextile fabric for drainage purposes. This is then covered with bags of recycled rubber material. The same rubber present in the bags is then poured over the top of the system to fill in between the bags and create a level surface. This is then covered by a containment mat to keep everything together. This composite approach creates a very effective system.

There are some specific common surfaces that are not acceptable for use as protective surfaces. These surfaces include concrete, asphalt, packed earth and grass. All are too dense and do not provide impact absorption. Because of this, these surfaces do not adequately protect against critical head injuries and should not be used as a protective surface regardless of the fall height of the equipment.

checking the thickness of the surfacing in and around use zones is of utmost importance, Mrakovich said. Unitary surfaces such as tiles and PIP can harden over time due to exposure to the sun so getting an impact test done in high-use zones periodically is critical. It may still look good on the surface, but it's hard to tell what is going on underneath. Drainage is another issue over time that could make a surface less safe during colder temperatures. Imagine standing water just below the surface that is not draining out of the play area and how less resilient a surface will be if that water freezes.

The best thing a playground owner can do is their homework about what maintenance will be needed for their surfacing. Then, come up with a program to regularly inspect and maintain it. Check to be sure you use the recommended thickness of the surface for the fall height required. With loose-fill, make a mark on the equipment post so you can see when the surface needs to be topped off. Some synthetic manufacturers may recommend an impact test every so often to make sure the surface is still resilient. 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. As far as professional installation is concerned, if you consider poured in place, make sure the company is IPEMA certified. One of the things that buyers don't realize when buying poured in place is that IPEMA certifies the vendor's installation crews as well as the product itself since installation is so critical with this sort of surface.