Maintenance Series: Sports Turf

Toughen Up Your Turf

By Dawn Klingensmith

Having a successful turf maintenance program doesn't necessarily depend on having the latest equipment or optimal mowing and watering practices, though those things certainly help.

In fact, much of the time, some of the most beneficial things you can do for turf health do not necessarily occur outdoors.

We're talking about the three C's: communication, cooperation and coordination.

"The biggest, most important thing for turf maintenance is that you really need to have everyone on board, working toward the same goal. Your parks division has to sync with your recreation division and your athletic division; that way, everyone is on the same page about proper maintenance and each division will do its part," said Travis Sales, park services manager for the city of Mesquite, Texas, which has won six Texas Turfgrass Association awards for its sports fields. (Sales has since become the association's president.)

For example, all parties might agree that practices and games won't take place in weather that is likely to tear up the field.

Perhaps teams can arrange to practice somewhere other than the playing fields so the turf has periods to recuperate. And perhaps coaches and instructors who use fields for warm-ups can do so on a different area of the turf each time in order to minimize wear and tear on any particular area.

"It's hard in this day and age because sports are played year-round, but see if there are some fields you can give a rest to so they don't get worn out," Sales said. "Four weeks of rest can make all the difference in the world if you've got stressed turf," and six to 10 weeks is even better.

Establishing protocols and ensuring compliance requires continued cooperation. "But with that in place, you have a good beginning to a strong program," Sales said.

When it comes to synthetic turf maintenance, "One of the greatest challenges is educating your players. You don't want to get gum on the field," said David Pinsonneault, a spokesman for the Sports Turf Managers Association and public grounds superintendent for the city of Lexington, Mass.

In some cases, educating the public also is necessary. Parks departments trying to minimize herbicide use may need to defend the presence of dandelions on playing fields. On the other hand, "The public must realize that sports turf managers are educated and trained professionals who at times will need to apply pesticides and herbicides in order to reduce weed and pest problems," said George Van Hassteren, a spokesman for the Professional Grounds Management Society and the director of grounds operations at Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, N.J. "They care about their fields and the players who participate on them."

Besides the three C's, there are four critical elements to maintaining established natural turf, Sales said. Those elements are fertilizing, watering, aerating and mowing.

Pinsonneault added a fifth element: overseeding, or spreading seed over established turf. "Overseeding can get overlooked," he said, "but it's important for new growth so your turf remains dense and filled in."

Overseeding is especially beneficial where wear patterns are apparent. For example, a football field sees the most action between the 20-yard lines, so that area may require overseeding as well as topdressing and needs to be managed differently than the rest of the field. On a soccer field, the goal area takes the most abuse.

Van Hassteren added yet another element, which applies to both natural and synthetic field maintenance. That element is documentation. "Implementing a solid program, as well as documentation, will reduce lawsuits stemming from field conditions and increase player safety," he said.

Keeping logs also tends to reduce water consumption and chemical use, he added.

Natural and synthetic sport fields have different maintenance requirements, of course.

The first step in caring for natural grass is conducting a soil analysis to determine its nutrient levels and composition; a texture analysis can be done, as well, as sandy soils and clayey soils behave differently. To be successful, a maintenance program should center on these analyses. The fertility program, in particular, depends on these findings.

Among other things, a soil test will help determine which fertilizers to use and how often to apply them. "Generally, in my professional opinion, there are two categories—the person who never fertilizes and the person who fertilizes way too much," said Sales, adding that a good rule of thumb is three times a year.

People also have a tendency to overwater, Sales said, and automatic irrigation systems don't necessarily fix the problem. "Too many times, people set a controller in March and never go back until it's time to turn it off for the season," he said.

Computer software, wireless communications and other technologies are revolutionizing irrigation practices; indeed, they have the potential to do away with overwatering. Well beyond the budget of many sports facilities, PC-based central control systems with specialized software enable users to manage and operate an entire irrigation system from an office. Some computer programs can optimize water distribution right down to a single head, which would help eliminate waste on large facilities like golf courses. Other computer-controlled water-management tools receive real-time data from equipment on the field, and then automatically stop sprinklers or adjust run times according to measured rainfall. This software works best for single, continuous site applications.

Sales' irrigation system has flow meters that bring broken sprinkler heads to his attention, and pinpoint their locations.

Aeration is important on all soils, but it is critical on soils consisting of heavier clay. It's difficult to aerate too much, but frequency usually depends on the availability of laborers and field usage patterns, as aeration disrupts use of the turf. Sales aerates once a week.

Aeration "alleviates compaction caused by wear and tear of players," Sales said.

When a field is too compact, water won't sink in and may actually "sheet off" onto adjacent property, he added.

Enabling water and oxygen to infiltrate the soil is critical for root development. Aeration can also reduce injuries and joint discomfort because it provides for a cushiony surface.

Sales recommends mowing two or three times a week. It's a generally accepted practice to lop off no more than a third of the grass leaf; however, ideal turf height varies by type of sport and, in some cases, the coach's preference based on his or her assessment of the team.

"To be aesthetically pleasing, you may incorporate mowing patterns," Sales said, "but the main reason you want nice, healthy turf grass is for player safety. If a child hits the ground, I want him to hit a nice, soft, luscious turf."

Another reason is that insects and weeds tend not to thrive in thick, healthy turf, which reduces the need for chemical applications.

Although it seems logical that synthetic turf would never require chemical sprays, weeds can actually take root among the fibers. They can be pulled by hand or spot-treated with herbicide, provided manufacturers' recommendations are adhered to.

Synthetic turf is not as low-maintenance as buyers sometimes assume. They have unique maintenance requirements, such as disinfecting, grooming and topdressing. Recent outbreaks of MRSA infections have been linked to synthetic turf, underscoring the need for a proactive maintenance program. Besides potentially sickening people, microbial growth can cause discoloration and foul odors and may even cause turf decay.

Pinsonneault, who oversees three synthetic playing fields, has them disinfected once a year, and he also keeps disinfecting kits on hand, which he'll deploy right away if a player bleeds on the turf or an animal leaves a secretion of a different sort.

"We've found several fields that were being used as a litter box," said Jacob Maynard, head of business development for FieldGroomers, a synthetic-turf cleaning, testing and maintenance services provider headquartered in Indianapolis. "This is why we always recommend being proactive and treating your field with a disinfectant or antimicrobial application. Either purchase the equipment and solution or hire a specialized contractor."

When properly applied, antimicrobial sprays provide a long-lasting protective layer against infectious bacteria, mold, mildew and germs. The sprays also kill staph and MRSA.

Other maintenance procedures, such as G Max (hardness) testing and deep cleaning, should be outsourced, with contract terms based on such factors as type of sport and climate conditions.

However, on a day-to-day basis the three basic components of field maintenance and preservation include keeping the surface free of debris, keeping the fibers in an upright position and preventing the infill from becoming compacted. "I would say another main concern is keeping the amount of infill at a consistent level," Maynard said. "We've come across fields that were under-filled or have settled over time and the owners are unsure how much rubber to put back in the field."

Synthetic turf manufacturers provide owners with additional "super sacks" of infill, Maynard added, but turf managers often lack the equipment or knowledge to put it in. As a result, his company now offers a top-dressing service that makes use of the super sacks left behind.

Responsible turf maintenance includes brushing the field at least once a week to raise the turf fibers and re-level the crumb rubber; de-compaction with a tine rake at least four times a year to soften the top quarter-inch of field for a safer playing surface; and regular site inspection.

"The sports turf manager will also need special knowledge in troubleshooting and minor repairs, such as seam repair and snow removal," Maynard said.

Athletic technicians inspect Pinsonneault's fields daily for unevenness, debris and other hazards.

In addition to this type of regular monitoring, "Have an outsourced, certified contractor visit your field before football season to check for loose seams, provide an infill depth report and conduct a G Max test," Maynard recommended.

All playing fields need to be periodically inspected, with five main objectives in mind. "We identify loose or torn seams, presence of debris, consistency of infill, field hardness and fiber wear," and then redress any problems, Maynard said.

Regular grooming, or brushing, is necessary to keep turf fibers in an upright position. There are drag brushes that can be pulled using a tractor or mower. Brushing improves footing, redistributes infill, reduces static electricity and improves the look of the playing surface.

Fallen leaves may seem harmless enough, but they should not be allowed to remain on the surface for any length of time because if they decompose into the infill system, drainage could be impeded.

The Association of Synthetic Grass Installers recommends that power washers never be used on artificial turf.

After any treatment applications, the turf should be rinsed in order to dilute the treatments and help flush them through the turf backing and into the base and soil materials, the association recommends. This also helps spread the treatments throughout the depth and breadth of the field.

One such treatment is an anti-static spray for player comfort. Synthetic turf fields produce static, but it's controllable.

Like natural turf, synthetic turf occasionally requires topdressing on areas that have lost crumb rubber.

Like their natural counterparts, synthetic sport fields are also subject to wear patterns, which careful maintenance can slow or prevent.

For example, "Wear and tear is an issue in the lacrosse goalie areas because a lacrosse goalie is constantly in the circle during all practice and competition," Maynard said. "So this area is the first to wear out and typically has the lowest level of infill on the field.

"The best way to prolong the turf as a whole is to use the entire space on the field by changing up your drills to encompass the entire field. Lacrosse goals, baseball running paths and pitcher's mounds usually need to be replaced before the entire field is removed."

Carefully maintained synthetic turf may provide 10 to 15 years of playability. It certainly won't last forever, no matter how diligent a turf manager tries to be.

It is highly recommended that synthetic turf sport fields undergo G Max testing because the hardness or softness of the surface affects player safety and field owner liability. G Max testing measures the shock absorption of sports surfaces. Test results indicate how much shock an athlete absorbs on impact with the field. The higher the G Max value, the harder the field, which can pose a threat to players.

G Max values rise in accordance with high usage, compaction and infill segregation. Grooming and top dressing can go a long way toward keeping G Max values within the optimal range. It is recommended that fields be tested by a service provider that is in compliance with ASTM standards.

Other reasons for G Max testing are to make certain the turf is performing in accordance with the manufacturer's standards and warranty and to detect potential problems before they become critical.

G Max testing also provides owners with written documentation of a field's condition, which is a valuable asset if faced with litigation.

Whether a field is natural or synthetic, one of the trustiest maintenance tools for the turf manager is communication. "One of the biggest things I find helpful is networking with peers and staying educated about the latest advances. Professional associations are a big help," Pinsonneault said.

As previously discussed, communication along with cooperation and coordination must occur among turf managers, program directors, coaches, players and even the general public. But though this team approach serves a turf manager well, a "home field" mentality does not. However fierce the rivalry is between sports teams, "Call your peers in neighboring towns and find out how they're doing things," Pinsonneault suggested.

After all, in the event of a turf disease outbreak, a drought or some other challenge, you will all be squaring off against a shared opponent.

Editor's Note

Welcome to the first installment in our Maintenance Series. We will regularly bring you information on keeping your facilities performing at their optimum, from sports fields to playgrounds, and pools to parks.

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