Feature Article - October 2016
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Scratching Below the Surface

How Safe Is Your Playground Surface?

By Rick Dandes

Talk About It

When you need a new playground safety surface, you need to know what to ask potential partners and manufacturers. Your first priority must be safety and accessibility.

This could change depending on the location and age group, said Smith. "However, the surface you choose must be IPEMA Certified to provide fall protection according to American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) 1292 and it must be ADA accessible as per AS™ F1951."

Other considerations should include proper drainage, low maintenance, life span and cost, she said. "Choosing a company to provide your safety surface can make all the difference in the safety and long-term performance of your playground surface. Look for a company that has experience and longevity in the industry. A good company will step you through the process and help you select the best surface for your facility and not just the surface they can provide. A good company will be transparent and provide you with information regarding past projects similar to yours. They will provide references for you to call or visit so you can see similar applications first hand (old and new). A good company will stand behind their work and provide you with support before, during and after the installation."

Begin, Mrakovich said, by asking the manufacturer for recent impact test results per American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) 1292, within a few years, and if they have any test results from an actual installation out in the field. Are the numbers on the edge of failing? If using EWF, ask for test results for AS™ F2075, or for loose fill rubber, ask for AS™ F3012, which checks for sieve analysis, tramp metals like nails and staples and hazardous metals like lead, mercury and arsenic.

Get a recent AS™ F1951 test result showing it passes for accessibility, Mrakovich said, "but also see if the vendor has any installation instructions or maintenance recommendations to keep their surface accessible. If you can maintain it, you can rest assured you'll meet ADA guidelines if you install it correctly per the manufacturer's instructions.

Availability is also key, Mrakovich said. Any vendor can sell you something. But will you have the support available when you need it, will the vendor be there when you need to know how to get the most out of your purchase or when there is a warranty issue?

Budget considerations are bottom-line issues everywhere these days, Mrakovich said. It's easy to say, "let's put a unitary surface in so we can lower our maintenance costs," but unitary surfaces range from $10 to $20 a square foot while a loose fill surface such as engineered wood fiber is only about $1.50 to $2.50 a square foot. For some large school districts and municipalities that have literally hundreds of playgrounds, it's easier to top-off and maintain the playground on a weekly or monthly basis, than forking out a large sum of money and draining their budget. But if you don't have the personnel to maintain a loose fill surface, maybe a unitary surface is for you."

The Weather Factor

All of the surfaces mentioned can be used in various climates, Smith said. "The biggest challenges with fluctuating climate are safety and fall protection, impact attenuation."

During the summer months, anything exposed to direct sunlight will become hot. "This is not different for playground surfaces that become very hot when exposed to direct sunlight," Smith continued. "For all playgrounds shoes are always recommended. Parents and caregivers must exercise caution before allowing a child to play on the surface or playground equipment until it has been self-examined for temperature. Is it hot to the touch?"

The best way to help reduce the temperature of surface on a playground is to include a shade structure. But placing a shade structure directly over the top of the equipment may not be enough, Smith advised. "The best results occur when the shade structure is strategically located or angled to block sun exposure according to the direction of the sun during the hottest time of the day. Another consideration is how close the playground is to a glass, mirrored or metal building that may be reflecting on to the surface early in the morning or later in the evening."

Meanwhile, during the winter months when the temperatures fall below freezing, the impact attenuation performance of the safety surface can be compromised. "In this case," Smith said, "it is recommended to discontinue use until the surface is no longer frozen. For this situation, a surface that is porous and includes excellent drainage is ideal."

When you need a new playground safety surface, your first priority must be safety and accessibility.

You wouldn't necessarily think that drainage would lend to a surface's safety, but it does, Mrakovich added, agreeing with Smith. "Imagine a surface that doesn't drain well in a cold climate where temperatures fluctuate, causing snow to melt and then re-freeze overnight. Any amount of frozen moisture that is within the surface makes the surface less resilient and unable to provide good impact attenuation, so eliminating water from the surface will minimize this and help the surface to last longer, too. It really goes back to making sure the owner/operator of the playground has the surface installed properly and that the testing they receive simulates in the lab what the actual surfacing is going to be out in the field. When you look at the test results, look at the description of the surface to make sure it represents what you are purchasing from the vendor.

Mrakovich recommends limited play in harsh temperatures no matter where you live. "Better to be safe than sorry," he said.