Solid Ground

Ensuring Turf Is Tough Enough

By Sue Marquette Poremba

hile under drought conditions, the University of North Carolina made national headlines (and endured public ridicule) for watering its artificial field hockey turf. To most of the country, it looked like nothing more than a waste of precious water. After all, there can't be any possible logic to watering fake grass.

On the contrary, explained Jon Pritchett, CEO of a synthetic turf manufacturer, international and NCAA field hockey bodies require fields to have a wet surface. Watered for only a few minutes before a match, the wet turf gives the balls a better bounce and the athletes better footing. The wet field actually results in fewer injuries, as well as a more exciting game.

Stringent grounds maintenance requirements are hardly unique to field hockey. To cope with the wear and tear on their natural turf, high schools, colleges and community recreation organizations across the country are steadily turning away from grass fields to the more durable, multi-use synthetic surfaces.

Perhaps the best argument for artificial surfaces comes from a Monday Night Football game this past November. Heinz Field is best known as home to the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, but per an agreement with state and local governments, the field is also used by the University of Pittsburgh for college football games and by local high schools. By the end of September, the natural turf was in bad shape. The weekend before Pittsburgh's Monday night game against the Miami Dolphins, Heinz Field hosted the WPIAL football championships, which involved four different games, and the Pitt Panthers wrapped up their home season. The grounds crew quickly replaced the turf, but a steady driving rain before the game turned the field into a bog. Players were ankle deep in mud, and neither team was able to score until the last seconds of the game. Perhaps the most enduring picture from that evening came after a football was punted. Instead of bouncing when it hit the turf, it landed, as one announcer said, "like a lawn dart." It was a grounds crew's nightmare scenario.

But it is also a good reminder for those who care for any type of field. "Water drainage is critical," said Kevin Price, a spokesperson for another artificial turf manufacturer, specifically citing the debacle in Pittsburgh. "You don't want a quagmire. That's part of the turf installation. The water should drain at 30 inches per hour." And of course, with artificial turf, the field won't turn footballs into lawn darts.

Synthetic selections

Communities and schools are turning to synthetic turf fields over natural turf because, as seen in Pittsburgh, too much use can destroy grass and dirt. Even the most diligent grounds crew will struggle to keep the field in good shape if the field is used every day for different reasons.

The Lester H. White Boys & Girls Club of Broward County's NFL Youth Education Town (YET) Center recently installed synthetic turf on its flag football field, replacing a heavily used multipurpose field.

"The kids love this field. They love being outdoors playing on the field. They feel as if they are in a state of paradise," said Brenda Fulmore, Broward County Boys & Girls Club's unit director.

"We utilize the field for more than just our flag football program," she added. "The kids are allowed access to the field after the homework period, and they are out there, running and jumping. The boys play flag football. The girls lounge around and talk and jump rope. They are safe—without worries. Watching them play after being cooped up inside all day is like watching the transformation of a butterfly."

Synthetics are even more popular at the college level. Penn State University, for example, decided to install a synthetic turf with the feel of natural grass. It replaced the turf on Bigler Field and the West Campus IM fields, used for lacrosse, rugby, intramural soccer and Ultimate Frisbee, not to mention all sorts of pick-up games. Replacing the turf, according to Penn State officials, allows teams to still play and practice in inclement weather, something they weren't able to do on grass and dirt.

Artificial turf can save money for recreation organizations, at least after the initial full installation. Up front, it can cost between $650,000 and $1.5 million to put in a synthetic turf field. The cost depends on the type of material used for the actual turf, the infill material, drainage issues and other individual costs.

But as time goes on, the artificial field can save money in maintenance. "First, it allows for water conservation," Price said. "It reduces the amount of pesticide needed. It needs less equipment to care for it. And its usability is greatly enhanced."

Turf care

Today's synthetic turf fields are used for everything from football and multipurpose playing fields to backyard putting greens. With the exception of the field hockey turf, gone are the hard, abrasive nylon fields on top of cement. Instead, turf manufacturers use polyethylene, polypropylene and similar polymers for the grass-like surface. Infill, usually consisting of tiny rubber pellets or sand, cushions the playing surface.

"All of today's products are softer," Pritchett said, and that saves wear and tear on a player's body.

Caring for a turf field is simple, but proper upkeep is vital to the longevity of the surface. While the turf doesn't need to be mowed, it does need to be swept regularly. Many of the manufacturers recommend nothing more complicated than a leaf blower or a backpack blower. Blow across the face of the turf, rather than into it, to avoid disturbing the infill. It is recommended that the field be swept at least once a week.

Maintenance crews need to keep check of the infill levels, which can be replaced. If the infill becomes too low, it will cause matting of the turf fibers and can destroy the field.

Sometimes, too, the turf will stain or seams will loosen. Almost all manufacturers provide manuals on how to care for the field, Pritchett said. He advised that grounds crews become familiar with the manufacturer's suggestions on how to care for the turf field.

Grooming and tining the fibers is also recommended to lengthen the life of the field. Bill Campbell, president of another synthetic turf manufacturer, said the equipment needed depends on the use of the surface and the location. There are commercial groomers and utility vehicles on the market for this purpose, some of which are able to operate on today's synthetic fields without tearing up the turf or displacing the infill.

While Campbell generally recommends avoiding having to plow the turf field, he recognizes that areas in the Northeast and Midwest do have to worry about snow, especially during the late fall and early spring sports seasons. If you must plow, it is best to use a light vehicle with a special blade made for artificial turf. "When you do plow a field," he added, "the ground is often still warm. Once you plow off the snow, you will have a nice green field."

The life span of a synthetic turf field will vary depending on how you use the field, as well as the quality of your manufacturer. "If you treat it carefully, like you would natural grass, you should get a decent life span from the turf," said Price. "They are designed for heavy use, but anyone installing the turf needs to consider how it will be used upfront."

Replacement costs are usually less than initial installation because most of the preliminary work, like creating the base for the field, is already done. Also, it may only be sections of the field that need replaced so it can be done over time, rather than at once.

Healthy Fields, Healthy Players

As the popularity of synthetic turf continues to rise, so will the risk of staph infections.

"Synthetic turf is a contact point for infections," said Dr. Rod Walters, former director of sports medicine at the University of South Carolina and now a consultant with a synthetic turf manufacturer. "Natural grass isn't as much of a problem."

Walters cited research that looked at staph bacteria on different surfaces: terry cotton (like terry-cloth robes), 100 percent cotton, 60-40 cotton blends, polyester and polypropylene. The bacteria lived the longest on the polyester and polypropylene, the two totally artificial surfaces and materials used to make synthetic grass. Many sports uniforms are made from polyester, as well.

In addition, because of their close contact, athletes are among the groups most at risk to develop a staph infection. "One out of every four people are carrying staph," Walters said. "If a kid has an open wound, he is more susceptible to share or pick up germs."

While it isn't possible to completely prevent a staph infection, there are ways to minimize the risk. First and foremost, Walters explained, athletes should practice good hygiene. Secondly, they should avoid sharing items like towels, water bottles and sports gear. Even a simple fist bump can spread the infection. Because open wounds help spread the bacteria, cuts and scrapes should be cleaned and covered before participating in any sports-related activity. Coaches and adults should also be alert to someone with an abscess, boils or a rash, as these can be signs of a staph infection.

Grounds crews can also do their part to lower the risk of staph infection. If having natural grass isn't a viable option, there are now antimicrobial treatments available that lessen the bacteria's ability to cling to the synthetic materials.

"The material of the turf doesn't cause infection," said Jon Pritchett, "but it can carry it from person to material."

While natural grass is generally safe when it comes to bacteria, sand used on playing surfaces or outdoor volleyball courts can carry germs, according to Judi Nelson a spokesperson for a sand-cleaner manufacturer. Mechanical screening mitigates this problem by lifting the sand and sifting it through oscillating screens. This has a multiple sanitizing effect:

  • Debris such as rotting seaweed, food waste and animal droppings is screened out of the sand, rather than left to deteriorate and provide a fertile ground for bacteria growth. It's critical to do a very thorough job of screening this dangerous debris out by screening rather than merely raking or manually picking up trash.
  • As the sand is sifted, it is fluffed, aerated and further dried, again reducing favorable conditions or growth of bacteria, which thrive in dark and damp conditions.
  • As the sand is sifted, it is turned and exposed to the sun's purifying ultraviolet rays. It is well known that ultraviolet radiation is probably the most effective and safest way to destroy dangerous bacteria.

Staph infections spread swiftly and can be deadly. Proper hygiene, caring for wounds and keeping facilities and equipment clean and protected are the best defenses.

Play ball

Not every school or parks and recreation department has switched to artificial turf, of course. Community baseball fields are still, by and large, natural grass with dirt infields and warning tracks.

Baseball infields require special grooming. David Lynch, a spokesperson for a manufacturer of a groomer designed specifically for infields, explained that keeping an infield smooth and level is safer for ballplayers—they won't twist an ankle if they don't hit holes or tiny hills—and it makes for a better game because balls aren't taking bad hops or hitting rocks. Some groomers also have tines that will allow a wet field to dry faster.

Speaking of wet infields, clubhouses should keep a calcined clay product on hand to spread on the dirt after a rain. For years, cat litter was a handy substitute for the calcined clay. It is recommended, however, that the cat litter be kept for its original use and not put on the base paths. When mixed with wet earth, cat litter becomes a slimy mess.

Infield dirt can be cleaned to re-energize and clean the soil, improving the playing surface.

"Effective cleaning is accomplished by lifting the sand from the surface, screening it through a powered oscillating screen, retaining all objects larger than the chosen screen size and then returning the sand or soil to the seedbed," said Mike McPherson, a sales representative for a manufacturer that produces screeners for landscaping and beaches.

Grooming the field should be done slowly and deliberately. Try to avoid going into the outfield grass. In fact, the groomer should be kept at least six inches from the grass.

Once the infield dirt is cared for, grounds crews need to focus on the bases themselves. A poorly installed base can cause injury. One athletic field equipment manufacturer suggests the following tips:

  • Turn each base upside down and check attached anchor stanchion for loose screws, bolts and rusted or broken welds. Document all observations thoroughly.
  • Turn each base right side up and check condition of base cover. Look for rips and cuts in the rubber or canvas. These are potential tripping hazards for ballplayers. Repair or replace them immediately.
  • Make sure all bases retain good surface texture and resiliency. Smooth base covers or bases that have lost all resiliency present a slipping hazard to ballplayers. It is preferable to clean bases with a quality tire or vinyl cleaner rather than apply multiple layers of paint, which may cause the base cover to harden over time.

Warning tracks need special care, too, said Lynch. "It may be a different material than the infield, so that needs to be taken into consideration."

Weather worries

One thing no groundskeeper can prevent is the effect of Mother Nature. Too much sun can dry out a natural grass field, while too much rain can turn a field into a swamp. If the turf is artificial, as long as it has good drainage, the field can withstand almost any type of weather. (Poor drainage and hurricane-like rain can leave you with a wading pool, but the field should stand up to the excess water.) If the turf is natural grass and dirt, the ideal situation is to have a field that looks almost as good at the end of the game as it did before it started.

Field covers are the best way to protect any playing surface from the elements. Bob Curry, a spokesperson for a manufacturer of field covers, explained that sports facilities have the option of a lightweight cover for rain (good for baseball facilities) or heavyweight covers that not only protect from snow but can also be plowed over. Snow is removed first, then the cover. The covers also protect the field from debris. For example, Curry said, there are fields in New York State that are in flood plains. The tarps used on these fields make it easier to clean the silt and muck after a storm.

Lightweight tarps will cost about $5,000 for a baseball field to $15,000 for a football field, while heavyweight covers run $15,000 for baseball to $50,000 for football-sized fields. Curry recommends baseball fields in a high-wind area use heavy covers to keep them from blowing or being damaged by strong gusts. It takes a half dozen people to man the baseball tarps, while football covers come in sections and require eight people per section.

Equipment needs

Parks and recreation departments need equipment that can perform a wide variety of tasks, including mowing, towing, transporting crew/supplies, lifting and loading pallets, trail maintenance, snow removal and digging (planting trees and gardens or installing fencing and water lines), said Kristen Gill, a spokesperson for a grounds equipment manufacturer. "The nice thing about compact equipment, like a skid-steer loader or utility work machine, is that you can do all those things with only one piece of equipment. The versatility of compact equipment allows you to maximize your equipment investment," she said. "You can save money and shop space by not having to buy several machines dedicated to only one task, like a dedicated mower, snowblower, pallet fork, etc. Attachments can be easily switched out by one person in minutes. And for the tasks that you only need to do a few times a year, like grinding stumps or trenching water lines, you can rent the attachment from a local dealer."

Along with a utility machine, a utility vehicle is a vital piece of equipment. "They can haul tools, fertilizers and sporting goods in the box. [Some] utility vehicles come standard with hydraulic dump cargo box, to save time and labor unloading materials such as rock, sand, dirt or mulch," said Gill. "I know of a parks and rec department that uses our utility vehicle to water hanging plants on the light poles in the downtown district. It is perfect for maneuvering on narrow sidewalks and parked cars."

Loaders are also a common component of any parks and rec fleet because of their versatility. They have the ability to lift up to 3,200 pounds as high as 6.5 feet, depending on the model. There are attachments available for loaders to complete just about any task required—from planers to repair curbs and streets to tree spades for planting trees to chippers for grinding branches and tree limbs. They are compact enough to get in tight spaces that larger equipment cannot but still powerful enough to complete tough jobs with ease.

One utility vehicle is all most park and rec departments need to handle their field maintenance chores, said Gill. "Utility vehicles can be used just about anywhere."

In addition, if the field is natural grass, a mower will be needed.

No matter what type of playing surface, if it is well maintained, it should endure years of pleasure.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.