Feature Article - February 2018
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Get Ahead of the Game

Successful Sports Field Maintenance

By Dave Ramont

As far as some proactive ways to combat overuse, Gill said they avoid excessive soccer wear around goal mouths and corner kick areas by designing over-sized playing field areas to allow for shifting the field around the space. "Using GPS to lay out fields allows a quick and less labor-intensive turnaround."

Gill said they use locally available materials when possible and select plant materials and turfgrass that perform well in their region. "We give careful thought to where we place drive-through and walk-through gates to secured facilities in an effort to spread wear from access and maintenance traffic."

Gill said they also maintain six synthetic turf fields—all located at high schools and all rectangular, used for football, soccer, lacrosse and rugby. "We take full advantage of the few carpet fields we have by painting lines for multiple sports for each one." And while Gill thinks that synthetic fields are great when used in the right situation, he feels that no matter how well you maintain them, they never looks as good or performs as well as they do in their first year.

Contrary to common perceptions, synthetic turf surfaces are not maintenance-free, according to Biggers, who added that the typical life of a synthetic turf field is eight to 10 years. Field usage will determine the frequency of maintenance, which should include an occasional cleaning with a vacuum sweeper. This removes foreign material from the turf, fluffs up carpet fibers and softens the infill material.

Gill also recommends light aerification of the infield material to reduce compaction, which can be measured with impact testing or a G-max meter.

"G-max testing registers shock-attenuation performance and is one measure of safety of sports surfaces," Biggers said, adding that carpet seams may need to be inspected and repaired using seam tape and proper adhesive. He added that some field managers choose to spray synthetic surfaces with a disinfectant to aid in surface cleanliness.

Down in South Florida, where heavy rainfall is common, Pappas said that the infill in synthetic fields tends to move a lot. "So you spend a lot of time dragging it, manicuring it and adding topdressing to make sure you've got a uniform surface."

Pappas also pointed out that synthetic fields radiate a lot of heat, so make sure you have a decent watering system to keep them cool. And he added that while they can become a bed for bacteria, he doesn't often see performing an anti-bacterial wash in maintenance contracts at the rec level, as budgets don't usually allow for this.

In St. Charles, Ill., Randy Dupuis is a sports turf manager at the East Side Sports Complex, which encompasses approximately 120 acres and is overseen by the St. Charles Park District. The park features many amenities, and includes four softball fields, a football field, three full-size soccer fields and seven multi-use fields, which are also available for rental events such as cancer walks. And there are four baseball fields, three of which have artificial infields. Dupuis said they maintain the crumb rubber on the synthetic turf fields, which is done weekly, and run the groomer over the infields about once a month. "The big problem with artificial fields is cleanup, and particularly sunflower seeds. We use brooms, backpack blowers, a large blower we pull behind a Club Car, and a shop vac. It takes two people about two hours each."

Dupuis cautioned that there's a lot of misinformation out there regarding synthetic fields, whether spread verbally or through the Internet. "We only get our information from experts in our industry, not just for this but for everything we do," he said.

When it comes to natural dirt (skinned) baseball or softball infields, Pappas said they're more labor-intensive than other sports fields to maintain, and clients often overlook this. "Anytime you're dealing with clay surfaces of any sort, there's a lot of management that goes into it. The pitching mounds need to be repaired, the holes that get dug need to get filled, packed, re-sloped and graded; same with home plate or your batters boxes."

Clay also requires a lot of moisture management. "If you've got it too wet or you get too much rain, you're looking at a possible rainout. And if it gets too dry, you're looking at a dusty, hard, cracking field possibly," Pappas said.

There are many types of clay surfaces, and in South Florida it's typically sandy clay, which is less beneficial. But there are engineered soils on the market, according to Pappas, which are pre-mixed profiles of silt, sand and clay at a specific ratio that gives you better playability depending if you're at the parks, collegiate or professional level, with each requiring a different level of maintenance.

Biggers agrees that infield surfaces are challenging to maintain. "Proper dragging under proper conditions is an acquired skill. Try to avoid moving an excessive amount of the skinned clay material, and keep a few inches from where the skinned area transitions to the grass area."

Biggers suggested that occasionally regrading an infield using a professional contractor with laser-guided equipment can be money well spent. "Additionally," Biggers said, "lips may develop in the transition area from clay to grass, and may require removing or adding material and re-sodding."

What about trends or new technologies with regard to sports field maintenance? Gill said their equipment vendors are constantly improving their products based on input from turf managers, making a huge difference in the quality of their work. For example, a central irrigation control system and weather station "… have made a huge difference in our ability to effectively manage water release and rootzone moisture. Using an RTK GPS rover and CAD to lay out fields for painting has saved countless labor hours," said Gill, who added that they're also using GPS drones for data collection on athletic fields for aerial mapping and surveying.

Pappas said that the biggest thing that's happened in recent years, especially with regard to Bermudagrass, is the arrival of fraise mowing. "It's essentially an extremely aggressive version of verticutting, where you're removing your thatch layer, any weed seed built up in that top profile, and we're seeing fields regenerate stronger and they're lasting longer." Pappas said this has led to less re-sodding and less weed pressure, resulting in less herbicide applications.