Feature Article - February 2017
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The Best of Both Worlds

Know When to Rely on Synthetic or Natural Turf

By Joe Bush

There doesn't have to be a choice between installing and maintaining natural or synthetic turf fields. Each has its pros and cons, and an ideal situation is to have both—a synthetic field can take more traffic with little effect, while natural turf is favored by many athletes for its springiness and by purists for its aesthetics.

Many times, what matters the most is simple: What is the best way to use budgets—both installation and maintenance? How do you decide between higher installation expense and lower maintenance cost, as with synthetic turf, and the low entry cost but higher operation and maintenance expense of real grass?

Find the Best Value for You

Brian Daviscourt, a horticulture graduate student and athletics maintenance intern at Oregon State University, recently delivered his master's thesis on a study he's done for the past three years. Focused on five synthetic and five grass fields, Daviscourt used budgetary and maintenance information as well as usage data to determine which type of field was a better value.

"If someone was going to plan to install a field or was thinking about upping their maintenance program to deal with certain conditions, it would give a little bit more information into that. So, by looking at the number of hours that a field is being used, you can kind of figure out if your money is truly being used efficiently, to come up with a unit price essentially," Daviscourt said.

"If a maintenance program is putting a whole bunch of money into a synthetic field and they're barely ever using it, the cost they're paying to provide an hour of use to somebody is much higher than someone who would be using a natural grass field for the same amount of traffic. My goal was to estimate how much each maintenance department was spending to provide an hour of use to a single person."

Synthetic fields have a mean cost of $3.25 per player use hour, and natural grass fields have a mean of $3.48 per player use hour.

Though the study took three years, Daviscourt was able to look at information covering a 20-year period to include installation and resurfacing of synthetic fields. The analysis included field installation, the years of maintenance between installation and the first resurfacing, and a similar number of years after resurfacing.

For synthetic turf fields this meant the life-cycle analysis included the projected discounted costs for 16 to 20 years, as most synthetic infill systems have a warranty that expires after eight years, but many facilities attempt to extend the life of their fields to 10 years. For maintenance and replacement scenarios with different planning lives—16 years versus 20 years—the net present value (NPV) of future dollars was converted to annual equivalents by amortizing the NPV into an annual equivalent payment using the discount rate.

Hours of use and participant numbers for the fields were collected from athletic directors, coaches, online schedules and player rosters. By multiplying the hours of use by the number of participants, the number of individual hours of use could be calculated. Then by dividing the individual hours of use for a single year into the annual equivalent, the cost of providing an individual with an hour of use was determined.

Daviscourt concluded that synthetic fields had a mean cost of $3.25 per player use hour, and natural grass fields had a mean of $3.48 per player use hour. It cost less to provide an hour of use on synthetic infill because most of the synthetic fields in this study had almost three times the hours of use as the natural grass fields.

Maintenance, Traffic & Water

Daviscourt admits this empirical take on the grass versus synthetic debate is not the only basis for making a decision. He lists three major criteria: money, traffic requirement, and access to water.

He said research has continued to support the idea that natural grass fields are less expensive to maintain in the long run. However, his case studies suggest that once you take hours of use into consideration, synthetic fields end up costing less to provide an hour of use.

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for field choice & use; climate & usage patterns are unique to regions, facilities and communities.

"In talking with maintenance employees across the state, a theme became clear: Most of the schools did not have the budget for year-to-year maintenance on natural grass fields and would be forced to cut out aerations, topdressing, fertilizer applications, etc., yet several of these school districts had synthetic fields," Daviscourt said. "Turns out it is easier to raise money for installing a new synthetic field than it is to raise money for improving maintenance on the grass fields they already have."