Feature Article - May 2020
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Understand Your Options on Playground Safety Surfacing

By Emily Tipping


When is loose-fill not ideal?

"Loose-fill surfaces, like engineered wood fiber, are not usually suggested for play areas for those under 2 years of age, due to the possibility of placing it in their mouths," Merchlinski said. "Outside of the age restriction, almost all other factors, environmental or equipment, can be designed for loose-fill surfacing. Additional products such as wear mats and ADA ramps can be added to improve accessibility where needed."

"In order to maintain the best performance out of any surface, maintenance is always a factor," Merchlinski said. "Surfaces like engineered wood fiber or loose-fill materials are no different. Kids at play are very aggressive of the surfaces they play on. They drag their feet under slides. They come out of slides and push loose fill away. They kick their feet while standing at ground-level play panels. All of these high-wear areas create additional areas of maintenance. These areas will need to be raked back in or leveled off. Keeping these area filled in maintains fall safety and keeps puddles from forming."

Wear mats help address the problem of high-traffic areas, where loose-fill material gets dispersed and displaced more quickly than the rest of the playground. Areas like slide runouts, the ground around spinners and the surface beneath swings tend to see more displacement than others. You should stay on top of such problems by regularly raking the surfacing material back into place, but adding a wear mat is another solution to provide additional protection for these spots.

When Rapho Township, Manheim, Pa., wanted to add a zip line to its playground, they wanted to be sure they provided a surface beneath with good impact attenuation, so their first choice was engineered wood fiber.

"The problem," Merchlinski said, "was a lean staff that was already stretched thin, so maintaining the area directly below the zip line was going to be a problem if they were to use loose-fill surfacing."

Wear mats weren't a solution, he added, because "normal topical mats were either not long enough or would displace and end up causing more problems than a solution."

Instead, he said, his company suggested a new product that's been in development. "It's unique in that it is built to the same thickness as the surrounding loose-fill surface so it never sinks, never displaces and always maintains a safe surface to fall onto. The system is easy to install and requires no special tools or equipment."

Unitary Surfaces

Unitary surfacing like poured-in-place or interlocking rubber tiles may have a higher cost at the beginning, but it also brings many unique benefits to the mix.

"A unitary surface," said Carmen Soileau, marketing and sales support for a manufacturer of playground and sport surfaces based in Baton Rouge, La., "will provide excellent fall height protection and safety, as well as the capability of adding in-laid designs to enhance any theme our customer might want.

"The surface is also seamless, porous and slip-resistant," she added. "We use it for both playgrounds and splash pads and water play areas."

The higher up-front cost of unitary surfacing is somewhat balanced by the much lower maintenance cost over the life of the playground.

If you're on a tight budget, bonded rubber mulch is the least expensive unitary option.

It is a one-layered system made from shredded recycled rubber bonded together with a polyurethane binder. "The common belief is that bonded rubber is a lot less expensive than poured-in-place rubber," said Darren Toomey, founder of a safety surfacing company based in Driftwood, Texas. "But when you run the numbers, this is only true for 3-inch thicknesses and less. When you compare the two systems at 3.5 inches thick, the cost is the same. I would rather give my customers a poured-in-place system because it is more durable than bonded rubber mulch, so they save money in the long run with a longer-lasting system."

Rubber tiles are another option. "One of the benefits to rubber tiles is that each tile is made in a factory by machines, so human error and environmental challenges are eliminated for the tiles themselves," said Misty Toomey, with the same Driftwood, Texas, company. "However, because they are manufactured in a plant, they come in pieces that have a predetermined thickness, making it difficult to change the surface thickness throughout a playground under equipment requiring different fall heights. This can cause playground owners to overspend on thicker tiles than they need in some areas, unnecessarily increasing cost due to the additional materials." Design capacity is also more limited, as with poured-in-place you are not limited to squares and right angles.