Feature Article - November 2017
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Look Out Below!

Evaluating Your Playground Surface Options

By Dave Ramont

Unitary Choices

Poured-in-place surfaces are porous and consist of rubber materials that are typically mixed, poured and troweled on-site. Lisa Anderson is general manager, and Alex Stout is an estimator for a Corona, Calif.-based manufacturer of PIP, tile and artificial turf surfaces. They said that PIP surfaces are lower in overall cost than tile or artificial turf systems, and list some of the other pros as well, including the ease of day-to-day maintenance; the ability for owners to make minor repairs; and the many color choices available, with the ability to add designs to the playground surfacing. And they point out that many of their systems utilize recycled tires. "We're seeing an increase in the use of PIP systems on LEED projects," they said.

Anderson and Stout added that, compared to EWF or sand, PIP does not need constant monitoring and maintenance to ensure the material is at the proper thickness required for proper safety. They add that PIP is not prone to insect infestations, does not become a "litterbox" for area animals, and doesn't have kids coming home with splinters or sand-filled shoes. "Simply, PIP is a much cleaner overall safety surfacing environment than the wood fiber or sand options." Dirt can be removed with a light pressure-washing, and every two to three years it's recommended to apply a new coat of resin over the wear layer. "This can be done by the owner or by our crew," Anderson and Stout said.

Another thing that attracts customers to the PIP surfaces is the design factor, especially now when emerging playground trends might feature flowing hills and sloping grades. Facilities can choose from many color schemes, inset patterns and themes. Anderson and Stout said that their projects often may have a landscape architect or playground equipment supplier involved with design services. "But when needed, we work with the client to suggest color mixes and designs that work well with their areas or create the look they are trying to obtain."

Some facilities utilize PIP surfaces in only certain parts of their playground, sometimes to help provide better ADA accessibility.

One thing to consider with PIP surfaces is that they can become very hot to the touch, and color selection can affect this as well. Prins mentioned a few other potential drawbacks, such as premature surface breakdown in high-wear areas including beneath swings and at the bottom of slides. "Shrinkage around perimeter and seams requires unsightly repairs, and weeds may eventually start to grow through seam areas, and repairs are very noticeable," he said, adding that since the product is hand-troweled, inconsistent application and thickness can equal inconsistent fall protection. "Do your research! Challenge manufacturers on their warranties and truly understand what is covered and not covered within that surfacing warranty. PIP surfacing is porous. Over time, dirt and debris will begin to settle within the surface, hardening with each year that passes."

Prins explained that as a result, HIC values that meet required AS™ standards on day one may diminish rapidly, "rendering the surface unsafe within a few short years."

Rubber tiles are another popular unitary surface. Once again, these will involve higher upfront costs than loose-fill systems, but Prins believes that these costs can even out. "When you factor in the long-term maintenance and labor costs of a loose-fill system over the course of a playground structure's life, the costs often far exceed the initial investment of a unitary surface backed by a solid warranty."

Prins also pointed out that if a tile needs to be repaired or replaced, it can typically be done quickly and cheaply by someone with minimal training, and would not be noticeable.

Anderson and Stout agree that rubber tile repairs are simple, as is installation. "Tiles can be purchased and self-installed by the end consumer. When a repair is needed, it's as simple as removing a tile and replacing it with a new one."

And like PIP surfaces, design options are abundant. Prins said that as part of their quotation process, an entire site plan is designed. "This will include colors, pattern and design, right down to the amount of glue and tools required for the project."

The tiles can be lightly pressure-washed when dirt appears. Prins also pointed out that some of their products are up to 95 percent recycled, explaining the "circle economy" they're developing within their sphere of products: "Year one, we provide a playground tile to a client, and 18 years later we reprocess the old tile into a new roof paver, fitness tile, or even into a new playground tile."

But Prins also cautioned that since there are many different tile designs on the market, some come with disadvantages by design, including potential seam separation if they're not installed correctly. Anderson and Stout echo this: "Tiles can curl or shrink over time due to weather exposure, leaving trip hazard gaps between the tiles. Tiles are more difficult to install when dealing with going around posts or in curved areas due to the cutting required to do so."

In fact, some tiles are porous and some are impervious, so drainage issues may vary. Impervious systems don't contain air pockets that are susceptible to clogging, so the body of the system shouldn't become contaminated with fine particulate matter, therefore maintaining its intended safety performance.

Synthetic grass or artificial turf "… allows owners to keep the look of natural grass on the play areas that want to keep a more natural look without having to use wood fiber or sand," said Anderson and Stout, though they added that turf is not recommended for mounds or hills. As far as maintenance, they say the turf "requires some raking to redistribute the infill material and 'lift' the blades. It also requires some rinsing off from time to time with water, and new infill materials applied as required."

Mrakovich said that synthetic grass is "as close to the real thing as you're going to get and still be safe." He added that if infill is used, high-use areas should be maintained to proper infill depth, "especially to maintain impact attenuation qualities since infill tends to scatter after initial install or get compacted over time."

Mrakovich also pointed out that, while unitary surfaces might look fine from the top, as they age you can't really tell how well they'll absorb an impact from a fall unless you perform an impact test on them. "I've been on unitary surfaces that look great and even feel resilient, but once I tested them, they didn't perform nearly as well as I thought they would have from higher fall heights. It's surprising what a fall from eight feet will require to keep your child safe from traumatic brain injuries."