Raising the Grade on Playground Surfacing Safety

Safety Surfacing

By Jim Dobmeier

hen did failure become an acceptable option? Americans have long strived for greatness—in business, in industry and in the security of our nation. Yet when it comes to the safety of our playgrounds, we continue to fall far below the acceptable level of what's needed to keep our children safe from preventable injuries.

While the most recent report card by the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) gives America's playgrounds a C+, surfacing scores continue to lag far behind. When appropriate depth of loose-fill material and appropriate surfacing for a six-foot use zone were assessed, America's playgrounds received an embarrassing F.

The question remains: What is needed to bring the grade up and create a playground able to deliver what is needed most—safety?

Some say the answer is as simple as taking steps to consistently maintain the required level of loose-fill material. But even with the most aggressive maintenance programs, the depth of a loose-fill surface is not deep enough to meet federal requirements. By definition, loose fill is just that—loose. In fact, moments after children take to a playground that uses loose material, the depth at critical fall areas is compromised. In reality, there is no way to maintain the appropriate level of loose fill consistently, so when loose fill is used in a playground, safety is immediately compromised.

As playground safety continues to gain attention, so do playground-surfacing options.

Although the initial investment is more expensive than loose fill, surfacing systems such as poured-in-place and tiles are now recognized as the safest option due to their consistency, durability and shock absorption. In addition, they are less expensive than loose fill over the life cycle of the product because there is no replenishment or maintenance cost. As the poured-in-place name implies, the surface is poured on-site and cures in place. Created with a mixture of urethane and rubber, a poured-in-place system will not move or shift as children play, meaning high-impact areas are never without or lacking in protection. Because poured-in-place surfaces are created on-site, thicknesses can be modified within the playground to meet varying critical fall heights. This minimizes cost without sacrificing the safety of the children.

Poured-in-place systems feature a granulated rubber top surface bound together by a high-strength, weather-resistant urethane. The top surface is troweled over a resilient rubber basemat, which provides the shock absorption in the system. Applying a generous volume of the granule-urethane mix in the top surface layer is critical to the structural integrity of the system and significantly impacts the life expectancy of the surface. The average life of a poured-in-place system is seven to 10 years, depending on use and climatic conditions. After its useful life, the surface can be re-topped at a fraction of the price of the initial investment. A re-top gives the surface a brand-new look, added resilience and many additional years of use.

When selecting a poured-in-place supplier, consider the following advice:

  • Ask about the amount of material (per square feet) in the top layer. The more material used in the top layer, the more strength and the longer the life of the top surface. The increased material also creates superior tensile strength (side-to-side pulling) and superior taber abrasion (top-down wear).

  • Ask about the quality of urethane and rubber. All product components are not made equal. There are many types of urethane that are produced for a variety of other applications. Urethane for playground surfaces requires particular levels of tensile strength, flexibility and working time versus curing time. The urethane component is the strength of the surface. Using a proven urethane can increase the life expectancy of the surface by up to five times that of a surface made with a low-grade, poorly formulated urethane. Rubber is also produced in different grade qualities. Using rubber with a low dust content and high production quality creates consistency. Too much dust causes the urethane to be absorbed, reducing the amount available to bond granules and strands together. The bonding provides strength to your system. Also look for rubber that is consistent in size and color, free of contaminants, and formulated with a high percentage of ultraviolet stabilizers. The biggest enemy of a surface, besides use, is the sun.

  • Ask about the type of warranties offered. All warranties are not created equal.

  • Ask about the experience of the installation crew. A poorly installed surface equals a poor surface. The best installation crews are full-time, poured-in-place applicators with a proven track record.

  • Ask for references from satisfied customers. Evaluate the duration and content of the warranty and the strength of the company behind the warranty.

In the interest of playground safety, the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) provides a third-party certification service whereby an independent laboratory, Detroit Testing Laboratory Inc. (DTL), validates a surfacing manufacturers' certification of conformance to ASTM F1292, Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation under and around playground equipment. Surfacing companies that display the IPEMA playground surfacing certification logo have received written validation from DTL that their products conform to the requirements of the standard. Check the IPEMA Web site (www.ipema.org) to confirm product certification and the IPEMA-certified thicknesses and critical-fall-height matrix.

For children and playground attendants with special needs, a poured-in-place or tile system adds a crucial level of safety a loose-fill surface cannot provide. When a consistently even surface is installed, wheelchairs, braces and crutches can negotiate the playground without difficulty, thus conforming to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the ASTM F-1951-99 determination of playground surface accessibility. In addition to being user-friendly for the entire population, the porous design allows water to drain from the surface, preventing slips due to puddles on the playground.

Asking the right questions and making the right choice is the first step toward helping America raise the grade on the safety of our playgrounds.


Jim Dobmeier is president of Surface America. For more information, visit www.surfaceamerica.com.

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