Supplement Feature - October 2015
Find a printable version here

Play It Safe

Regular Maintenance, Testing Vital to Improving Safety

By Deborah L. Vence

The Pros and Cons

To choose the best surface for your playground, though, it's important to know some of the pros and cons of the different types that are available.

"There is an old saying in the playground world, 'There is no such thing as the perfect playground safety surface,'" Pittam said. "Meaning, each type of surface has a disadvantage. There is, however, an acceptable surface for every budget and maintenance attitude."

Loose-fill surfaces, such as engineered wood fiber (EWF) and rubber mulch, are among the most affordable options and are readily available nationwide.

"Both require little skill to install and maintain, making them a great install-and-maintain-it-yourself surface," Pittam said.

"Unitary surfaces, such as poured-in-place and artificial turf offer reduced-maintenance advantages over the loose-fill surface options, but come at a greater cost and usually require trained specialists to install and repair them," he added. "IPEMA-certified fall heights of some unitary surfaces tend to be lower as well."

Like Pittam, Mrakovich noted that loose-fill surfaces generally are less expensive, do not require professional installation, drain well and, on average, give greater fall height protection than unitary surfaces.

"The drawback," he stressed, "is [that] more maintenance is needed since loose surfaces are just that—loose. So, they tend to scatter in high-use areas and need [to be] raked, leveled and replenished periodically in order to keep them safe and accessible, which increases maintenance costs."

Unitary surfaces have more upfront material and installation costs, require professional installation, can be extremely hot during summer months and generally 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 high budgets and limited help to maintain their playgrounds. They usually have longer warranties on materials, except in areas that are considered high use, such as swings and slide exits," he said. "Ask for warranty details before purchasing."

The primary pros to unitary surfacing—including poured-in-place, tiles and turf systems—are twofold, added Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of a Cheektowaga, N.Y.-based playground safety surface supplier.

The first is, "consistently terrific shock attenuation over the course of time (year in and year out). Because they are stationary and substantially unchanging, when a child needs the shock attenuation of the surface, it's there—every time—without the reliance on unrealistic maintenance, including leveling and replenishment, needed for loose fill," Dobmeier said.

"High-impact areas with loose fill are rarely in the condition needed to meet testing requirements at the critical times children need that shock absorption. With unitary systems, close to 100 percent of the time the surface is as needed, when needed," he said.

The second pro is that, "unitary surfaces offer fantastic aesthetics that complement the playground equipment and the playground setting. Playgrounds with unitary surfacing are more frequented because children prefer playing on them," he said.

Malles said the pros of loose-fill EWF or rubber mulch is the low cost and vast distribution model, while the cons involve having to groom it and backfill as needed.

"Poured-in-place surfacing pros are that it is aesthetically pleasing and has the ability to incorporate creative designs and is ADA-compliant," Malles said. "Cons are that it is the highest cost of any playground surface and typically only has a life cycle of three to five years. It is also 100 percent manufactured on-site during installation, so the compliant depth and mix rate is variable to the environment it's being made in, as well as the installer who is involved (i.e., difficult quality control)."

Meanwhile, the pros of playground tile surfacing include ease of installation, endless design possibilities, ADA compliance, interlocking/floating installation methods, freeze-thaw compliance and longer life cycles.