Feature Article - July 2019
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In Safe Keeping

The Right Surface Is Crucial to Playground Safety

By Dave Ramont


Sometimes playground sites incorporate a combination of loose-fill and unitary surfaces, installing a unitary surface where more accessibility is desired and loose fill under and around taller play equipment. "We install some ramps of PIP into mulch pits for ADA purposes," said Toomey.

Kutska said local weather conditions are critical to the performance and life cycle of any surface. Water will freeze in northern climates, and standing water can rot organic surfaces and synthetic surfaces using binders. "I've seen too many brand new surfaces fall apart in a year when they did not have a good drainage system."

He explained how drainage issues can result from both surface runoff and poor subsurface drainage and high water tables, saying this is true for both loose-fill and unitary surfaces. For instance, EWF or sand can freeze as hard as a rock, or freeze/thaw cycles might cause subgrade stone and soil to affect the raised feet on the bottom of rubber tiles that function as shock absorbers, lowering impact attenuation. "Do it right the first time. Provide good surface and subsurface drainage," Kutska said

Naperville, Ill., is a large suburb of Chicago, with 74 playgrounds throughout its park system. Jessica Burgdorf is the project manager for the park district's planning department, overseeing playground construction and development. She said the most common surface type for their playgrounds is EWF. Four sites have a PIP surface—which are one or two solid colors—and three sites utilize a combination of EWF and PIP. "Buttonwood Park is located within a neighborhood's detention area, and poor drainage and difficulty with maintenance led us to switch from EWF to PIP during a 2014 renovation," said Burgdorf.

"The common theme with our sites that have PIP is that they're larger community parks that include a parking lot among other amenities," according to Burgdorf. She added that they're planning to use synthetic grass at a future development and are considering switching to it at another renovation. They also have separate sand areas with ground-level components at seven sites.

So what are some factors they consider when choosing a surface? "Each surfacing type must be ADA-compliant," said Burgdorf. "Other factors include overall volume of anticipated use, cost and required maintenance."

Regarding maintenance, Burgdorf said the EWF is raked at least twice a month and refilled every one to three years as needed, to ensure proper safety depth. "For maintenance with PIP, patching is typically required after five to seven years, mainly under swings. All surfacing maintenance is completed by Naperville Park District staff." She said that they do have two staff members who are CPSI-certified.

IPEMA provides a third-party certification service for playground safety surfaces, which validates a manufacturer's conformance to impact attenuation standards, as well as validating EWF and LFR products. "More and more playground owners are specifying IPEMA-certified products for their playgrounds, and thus it's a must for manufacturers to have their products third-party-certified," said Mrakovich. "I think it puts owners' minds at rest that another entity besides the manufacturer is making sure products are up to spec and safe for them to use."

Kutska explained how impact attenuation standards have recently been revised and updated. The AS™ F1292 standard has been split into two different standards, and another new one is in the making. These surface tests are conducted at three different temperatures and from different heights—including above and below the certified critical height.

And while Kutska is seeing some progress when it comes to playground managers maintaining and testing their surfaces regularly, he feels there's still a long way to go. "This includes the manufacturers and designers of playgrounds. The owner needs to step up their game and get knowledgeable in all factors related to their local environment and the reality of their agency's ability to do a good job in the design and execution of their plan. And they then need to understand their role in supplying the necessary resources to inspect and maintain the play area in compliance with today's best industry practices."

He also said they shouldn't settle for "bottom basement" requirements. "Why design to the minimum requirements of the standard and have the surface fail in one or two years?"

Current AS™ surfacing standards state that if a surface is not performing to the minimum requirements, the owner is to take the play area out of service until it can be brought into compliance. "This is an important fact and consideration in selecting your surface system that nobody seems to care about or try to inform the customer," said Kutska.

Kutska feels municipalities and elected officials aren't always recognizing their responsibility to create a good maintenance budget for each playground, and Toomey agrees, believing that playground managers aren't diligent enough when it comes to performing regular testing on their surfaces. He said that if money were not an issue, everyone would check their playgrounds on a regular basis. "The bottom line is if people don't have money to fix the problem, they don't want to know about it. Once they know their playground is non-compliant, they must do something about it."

Playground managers have a lot of considerations when it comes to selecting safety surfaces. And while playground accidents will never be eradicated, much progress has been made in terms of making our play spaces safer for our kids. But there is still work to be done.