Feature Article - November 2016
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The Playground Checkup

Safe, Long-Lasting Playgrounds Require Standardized Maintenance Practices

By Rick Dandes

Inspections & Equipment Lifecycles

The frequency of inspection will be determined by many factors, including equipment age, usage and materials, as well as external factors like the age of the users, climate and vandalism, Spencer said.

In Alaska, Durand and his staff inspect their playground equipment five times a week during the summer months. In Anchorage during the summer, there is daylight 21 hours a day. "We do sanitation, loose soft fill adjustment, note any vandalism and dispatch a repair crew if any safety issues are observed, potentially closing a piece of equipment if repairs cannot be immediately realized. We also fill out a playground inspection form monthly and do power washing at the same time," Durand said.

The life cycle of his surfaces also affects maintenance, Durand added. "Engineered wood fiber (EWF) requires annual topdressing and almost daily raking; poured-in-place seems to have about a life span of about 10 to 15 years; synthetic turf fall surfacing is a new product for us, and we like its resistance to arson through the sand infill."

Meanwhile, Huffstetler, in Arkansas, has a similar schedule, minus all the daylight hours that Durand has to work with in the summer. "Our visual inspections are daily. We do major inspections every month. At that time we inspect every bolt. If a citizen sees a problem or broken equipment and reports it, we jump right on it. We power wash our equipment every quarter. With our poured-in-place surfaces, we use blowers everywhere twice a year. Fiber chip surfaces are replaced every two years."

The lifecycle of equipment, Spencer said, is highly dependent on many variables, the frequency of usage, number of people that use the space on a regular basis, type of equipment, weather conditions, likelihood of vandalism, care and maintenance of the equipment. "It's a good idea," she suggested, "to consider lifecycle costs when purchasing a playground, as these decisions will affect the cost and frequency of maintenance over time. For instance, poured rubber surfacing typically has a lower maintenance cost than loose-fill surfaces, but it's more expensive initially. Wood fiber is usually the least expensive surface initially, but it will need to be raked when displaced to maintain its attenuation properties and will need to be topped off as it decomposes or migrates outside the use zone.

"If there is proximity to a coastal environment," added Lukas Steinke, CEO of a play equipment company based in Greenville, S.C., "something installed directly on the beach and close to saltwater, then the need for maintenance goes up dramatically, and it is fair to assume that the lifecycle of the equipment also changes. Not a huge portion of our installations are directly on the beach, but the maintenance is fairly intense for the owner-operator when it is."

Maintenance Scheduling

Inspections can be broken into several groups, Hardesty said. Many routine maintenance tasks are custodial in nature, and should be completed regularly (some daily), including:

  • Picking up litter.
  • Sweeping walkways.
  • Checking potential wear points and moving mechanisms.
  • Inspecting and tightening hardware connections.
  • Leveling and replacing displaced loose-fill surfacing.
  • Loosening compacted surfacing.

Other tasks do not need to be completed as frequently. For these, create a schedule of preventive maintenance jobs that should be performed periodically due to age, use and the environment. For example, it may become necessary to touch up the paint on equipment that's been scratched and scraped, or install replacement swing clevises and motion bearings.

It is imperative that those responsible for maintenance of the playground understand the maintenance requirements necessary to keep it safe, attractive and to extend its useful life.

Lastly, the facility manager should plan on a detailed, thorough safety audit and inspection of the playground's structural integrity. This should happen at least once a year and be performed by experienced, trained personnel.

In general, you can break down maintenance inspection schedules in this way, Hardesty said: "High-frequency inspections are daily or weekly inspections that examine items such as: Is there any broken glass on the playground or surfacing? Has there been any vandalism? Does the equipment appear to be in good working order? Is there any insect infestation? Has any loose-fill surfacing been displaced and in need of maintenance?"

These general and quick inspection questions are items that should be considered daily by the owner-operator and the supervisors who are watching over the play area, he said. "A great tip for catching these items is to post signage with phone numbers and ways to communicate if the general public notices apparent hazards in the play area. The general public and its users can be a great tool for the overall care and maintenance of play areas if creative ways to involve them are sought."