Feature Article - October 2016
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Scratching Below the Surface

How Safe Is Your Playground Surface?

By Rick Dandes


Bonded Surfaces: Upsides & Downsides

Bonded or synthetic surfaces, though generally more expensive, have a greater life span with a substantial reduction in maintenance requirements, said Jennifer Smith, vice president of a manufacturer specializing in poured-in-place and rubber tile surfaces, based in Baton Rouge, La. "Many of these materials include a warranty on materials and installation including safety. When installed correctly, synthetic surfaces provide enhanced safety, excellent drainage and a better deterrent against insects, sharp objects (such as glass or needles) and mold/mildew growth."

Synthetic surfaces, on average, require much less material to provide the same or better fall protection. For instance, Smith said, 6 inches of rubber mulch can provide 10 feet of fall height protection, while it would take 12 inches of wood mulch for similar protection, assuming these applications are maintained daily. A synthetic surface would require an average depth of 3.5 inches to provide 8 feet of fall protection. "Additionally," Smith said, "with synthetic surfaces, designs and colors can be introduced into the playground landscape, adding an extra layer of fun and excitement for guests."

Hollowell agrees with Smith, and added that "poured-in-place, or bound surfaces also meet all requirements set forth by the American Disabilities Act. It's permeable. People, children can safely play on the surface, even after it rains."

Poured-in-place is a good non-slip surface, even as it wears. It also provides wheelchair access and has a high enough rolling resistance to ensure that a severely challenged person will be able to navigate the playground safely.

Bound surfaces like PIP are very low maintenance. This is why school districts and city and recreation officials often prefer it. Maintenance personnel can sweep or blow off leaves every few days as required. "Our industry recommends that the owner reseal the surface every two to three years, depending on the usage. It's a very inexpensive process," Hollowell said.

The downsides to these types of surfaces is that they 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, observed Mrakovich. "I would also suggest getting your unitary surface impact-tested periodically, every three years or so. The reason? Because unlike loose-fill surfaces where you can measure the thickness of your surfacing to see how much you need to top off periodically to keep it at safe levels, you can't see what's going on down below the top wear layer of a unitary surface."

The surface may look good on the top, he said, but if it has begun to decay or is getting harder beneath the wear layer, it might 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.

Another bonded surface option consists of tiles. Brennan Prins, director, of a Petrolia, Ontario-based company that produces rubber surface tiles, said that "when it comes to playground surfaces, it's all about beginning with the end in mind."

His company's rubberized tiles offer great fall protection, and are cost-efficient and durable, made to last 25 to 30 years. "We have zero maintenance required with our tiles. That does not mean it won't get dirty and won't need cleaning. Poured-in-place surfaces must be maintained or they will fail compliance tests, because it slowly becomes clogged with dirt and debris. Poured-in-place achieves fall safety, but performance gets worse. Rubber tile surfaces, if well-built, can last a long time."