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

If a field is receiving so much traffic that it frequently experiences turf loss, synthetic fields may be a better choice, he said. This assumes that the amount of traffic is so great that additional fertilizing, seeding, aerating and topdressing does not adequately improve the wear tolerance of the field to make up for the amount of traffic it receives.

In a common scenario, a natural grass field is used both for games and for practices causing significant turf loss because athletes return and drill in the same location every day. Solutions for this would be to talk with coaches to get the team to rotate though drilling locations on the field and move the goals for every practice; provide or find a practice facility to relieve traffic on the game field; or have property dedicated to sod production to repair frequently used areas of the field such as the center, goal mouths, penalty or free kick areas, where the shortstop stands, etc.

Daviscourt said access to water is a much simpler decision-making factor.

"In areas where water is limited and causes turf loss or dormancy during the playing season, synthetic fields may be a better choice," he said. "In areas with an over-abundance of water, where loss of surface stability and muddy conditions are commonplace, synthetic may be a better option if intensifying cultivation practices and improving the drainage doesn't compensate."

If he were in charge of a facility that could use one type of field or the other, or both, Daviscourt said he'd choose both.

"I would offer the synthetic surface for the practice events," he said. "If I had two fields, one natural, one synthetic. I'd rent out most of the practice times on the synthetic and then I'd use the natural grass for the games. The synthetic turf, with the amount of use you can put on it, fills that requirement very well. I'd use synthetic for winter events. December through March here in Oregon you really can't use natural turf because of the amount of rain and the temperature slows down growth, and so I would close the natural grass field in the winter. Natural grass would be for games and overflow practice. Synthetic would be day to day."

One Size Does Not Fit All

David Nardone is sport group leader for synthetic field manufacturer Stantec and a member of the board of directors of the Synthetic Turf Council. He said there is no one-size-fits-all strategy and set of tactics for field choice and use; climate and usage patterns are unique to regions and facilities and communities.

There is general advice for those on the cusp of decision-making, however, especially when leaning toward synthetic. Once the choice is made, there are common sense steps, Nardone said.

"Hire an experienced independent consultant to help you through the process to get the quality product for a fair price," said Nardone. "Follow the manufacturer's recommendations to start. Make adjustments to your routine based on the level of use on the field. Consult the manufacturer and installer, use them and your consultant as a resource. Based on how your facility is used, you should come up with the best practices and maintenance schedule."

Nardone said there's a synthetic option for all budgets. For tighter budgets, SBR rubber—recycled tire—is a proven product and a durable fiber. Combined with good carpet construction and with safety pads, it's a solid product. On the high end, monofilament fiber, alternative infills and high-performance safety pads will raise the cost considerably, but should be considered based on the level of play or for a stadium or high-level soccer facility.

For communities worried about potential health hazards using rubber tire infill—studies on the hazards have disagreed and as a whole been inconclusive—Nardone said there are alternatives, but, "We caution our clients on these new materials, and always advise them to seek the most proven alternatives."

There's no doubt that natural grass fields require more attention than synthetic, even with the increased and more varied use on synthetic fields.

One of the new options for end-users is field safety pads, Nardone said.

"With greater awareness of concussions, people are finally focused on the field safety," said Nardone. "We have been recommending pads for years; not only do they create a safer playing surface over the life of the system but they provide better field surface performance."

Nardone agrees with Daviscourt on field usage; the biggest difference from natural grass fields is related to available hours of field use.

"Natural grass limits the hours of play it can support, based on the type of field construction," Nardone said. "Synthetic turf fields can support almost unlimited use with half the maintenance, no fertilizer and no water. The con for synthetic turf is surface heat in the warmer months. However, we have technology to help mitigate these surface temperatures."