Feature Article - November 2017
Find a printable version here

Look Out Below!

Evaluating Your Playground Surface Options

By Dave Ramont

Lab vs. Field Results

Recently, there's been a push by the AS™ to separate the impact test standard F1292 into two separate standards, one for lab testing and one for field testing. Mrakovich believes this is because there's a sense by the consumer that lab test results may not always represent "real life scenarios" for a surface. "I think lab testing is always a good option to at least get a feel for how a surfacing will perform at various heights, but going out to a real live playground and performing an impact test is always the best option if you can afford to get it done, at least on a surface that has aged and is used a lot."

Playground safety expert Kutska explained that the field test process will not change from what is currently in test standard F1292. "It is not a mandatory test but it's slowly gaining acceptance for post-installation testing of unitary surfaces prior to final payout. That is a good thing and it's the only way for the owner or surface manufacturer to know the installer did what they were supposed to and that the owner got what they paid for. Often these surfaces are installed at just below the threshold limit, which likely will fail shortly after installation, if it would even pass a field test prior to payment."

Prins explained that they don't just manufacture to the standard, as many manufacturers do. "Our product has been engineered to comply with the safety ratings mandated for vehicle impact safety by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—performance that exceeds current playground regulations by nearly 50 percent."

Mrakovich suggested that owners make sure to get test data from the manufacturer showing test results in all three temperature ratings—25, 70 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. "I've tested surfaces on-site that range from over 120 degrees to below freezing, and environment can

definitely play a role when it comes to how well the surface will absorb impact during not only freezing temps, but some can get too soft in hot temperatures, too." He added that since most results come from a lab, you should ask the manufacturer if they have any field test data showing how well their surface does in an actual playground in harsh temperatures if your location is prone to such. "You'd be surprised at how different it may be due to drainage, usage and, of course, temperature variations."

It's true that, besides environment, drainage is a key consideration. "Drainage is extremely important for all safety surfaces. The systems are porous, and long exposure to standing water can begin to break down the product, causing mold and other issues," Anderson and Stout explained.

Mrakovich said that loose-fill surfaces especially need good drainage to help keep the surface resilient and provide longevity. He said to imagine water sitting just below the surface when temperatures plummet: "The surface that was once safe and resilient will get harder and less safe as the temps go down." He added that unitary surfaces utilizing a foam base also require good drainage as the foam can retain water and will get less resilient as the water freezes.

Kutska explained that unitary surfaces like PIP are made with loose rubber held together by a urethane binder, adding that while there are two types of binders, only one holds up to UV radiation over time, which becomes an issue in some climates. Plus, he said, "Urethane hates water. It does not last long if not properly drained. That is not just surface drainage but subsurface drainage as well."

He suggested installing the surface level at plus or minus 2 percent to begin with. "That is the slope allowed on a playground platform and considered level but still has some drainage capability."

And Kutska agrees that loose-fill surfaces also require good subsurface drainage to perform as they're designed. "Likewise, diverting surface runoff away from the play area is something that is often overlooked. Stormwater runoff will carry solids and other contaminants into the playground surfacing that can negatively impact performance and longevity over time."

New playgrounds are not the only customers of surface manufacturers, as owners of existing playgrounds are also trying to keep up to date as innovations and trends occur. "Many of our customers with older playgrounds have tried a number of other surfacing options that did not live up to their expectations; this is often the reason for their call," Prins said.

Anderson and Stout agreed, adding, "We've recently seen quite a few older playgrounds removing the old wood fiber/sand surfacing and replacing it with PIP or artificial turf systems, or refurbishing/replacing the old PIP systems with new ones."

But as budgets get squeezed, more playground owners are forced to just upgrade the equipment and surfaces they already have, according to Mrakovich. He said his company has been asked to add accessible pathways with a bonded system, which "takes the top couple inches of the EWF surface and binds it with a urethane binder to create accessible pathways for a fraction of what it would take to remove everything and replace with a traditional bonded rubber surfacing such as PIP or tiles." He added that this, in combination with the use of wear mats in high-traffic areas, retrofits the current surfacing into a more accessible surfacing.

Manufacturers and designers continue to make strides when it comes to providing safer playground surfaces. And as a former playground operator, Kutska said he's seen how far many have come in inspecting, maintaining and repairing their facilities. But he feels there's still a lot of work to be done on all levels, especially with what we now know about concussions and traumatic brain injury, and he said there's a long way to go when it comes to complying with even the basic minimum thresholds. "We need to up our game when it comes to inspection and maintenance. Field testing surface systems would be a good start."