Tomorrow's Turf

Budgets and the Environment Drive Trends in Natural and Synthetic Sports Fields

By Julie Knudson

Ask just about any sports field manager what they're looking for in turf today, and they're likely to tell you better playability and reduced maintenance costs. Also on their minds are ways to reduce the environmental impact of installing, maintaining and disposing of their fields. That means using fewer chemicals and minimizing water consumption for natural surfaces, and keeping fields in use longer and sending less material to landfills for synthetic fields. As we look at the current trends in turf, we see those issues are exactly the drivers moving the sports field industry forward.

All Natural

San Diego State University's renovated grass practice facility in Southern California is set to open later this year after nearly three quarters of a million dollars in upgrades. Ron Hostick, CSFM, SDSU's athletic area lead, said the project was designed to convert an existing grass field into a robust facility that provided the Division 1 school with a more recruiting-friendly environment. And because the team plays weekend games on Qualcomm Stadium's natural turf field, the organization wanted to maintain a similar surface for practice.

Even though they were replacing grass with grass, the renovation was extensive. "Basically, we went back to scratch," Hostick said. "We regraded the entire facility and then put a two-inch sand cap on top of the existing sand/natural soil kind of blend that we had, just to give us a little better drainage right on the top of the surface."

Other improvements to the facility include a new irrigation system with computerized controls, flow meters and fertigation capabilities. "We'll be able to make fertilization applications through the irrigation system, but primarily our main thing is that we can add soil penetrants, which we think are vital to good sports turf," Hostick said.

The growing availability of organic products is a welcome evolution, though many sports field managers feel the offerings don't quite replace their traditional chemical-based programs.

"I think the biggest thing I'm seeing is that we're getting much better organic fertilizers available to us," Hostick said. "I'm still not at a point where I feel comfortable going completely organic. I'm experimenting with it on some multi-use fields, but on really high-intense use fields, I'm still staying with the mineral fertilizers."

SDSU's weed pressure is fairly low, and with pre-emergent applications, Hostick said he's able to control most weeds. "Our most difficult period is when we try and make the transition from ryegrass in the winter to bermudagrass," he said. "We just about have to go with a chemical solution because the transition just doesn't happen quick enough, as close as we are to the coast."

Hostick said his keys to a good grass field continue to be maintenance, aerification and fertilization. "That's what makes the field. If you don't have the capacity to put somebody on it three days a week, you really should be looking at synthetics in my opinion."

Abby McNeal, CSFM, past president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) and current director of turf management at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said, "Our fertilizer program is ever-evolving."

Her team starts each year with a generic road map, but tweaks it as needed to address issues such as a budget cycle that changes midway through the growing season, "which gives us a challenge to figure out how we finish off one budget cycle and start a new budget cycle."

It's a situation that McNeal said isn't uncommon. "I know I'm not the only turf manager that has that issue, but we look at best practices and spending our dollars that way. I've used some coated products, some longer extended release products to help to get a little bit more out of our fertility program and then supplement in between."

To minimize environmental impact as well as product and labor costs, the team at Wake Forest favors a largely reactive weed, pest and disease program. "We will do preventive [measures] because we have had a couple fields that have had some grub-related issues, so we will do a more preventive application during the right cycles of the year," McNeal said. "After that, our weed management program is to just grow strong, healthy grass and spray as few chemicals as we have to." She believes it's a program that's not only better for the students using the fields on a regular basis, but also for the visiting athletes or campers that come through.

One change the team at Wake Forest has made from previous years is the addition of a growth regulator to help increase the fields' density as well as to reduce vertical growth. "We still mow just as often, but the density on our plant is a lot healthier," McNeal said, adding that the incorporation of liquid fertilizers and changes to their granular program combined with the growth regulator for overall good results. "It was a combination of all of those things that have given us the results that we see today," she said.

Sports field managers' concerted efforts to employ more environmentally friendly management practices is something Mark Novak, sport group leader at the Boston-based engineering and consulting firm Stantec, is noticing more these days, and he knows how difficult it can be to implement effectively. "I've seen communities and municipalities trying to make a more focused effort towards organically maintaining their fields. That is a tough jump to make, though. It takes a lot of expertise, and it's a lot of trial and error."

He said he's also seeing more organizations incorporating synthetic surfaces as a way to support the health of existing natural fields, mostly by reducing wear and tear and giving the grass a chance to rest. "Synthetic turf gives them the ability to really practice and pound down the synthetic turf," Novak said, "giving the natural grass surfaces the proper amount of time to recover, and giving their maintenance staff time to focus on maintenance … to keep those surfaces in tip-top playing condition."

Darian Daily, head groundskeeper at Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, might consider a natural grass surface when his team begins researching options to replace their 7-year-old synthetic field later this year. Even though games are played on synthetic turf, the players are already accustomed to both types of surfaces. "We not only take care of our stadium field, which is a synthetic field, but we also have three natural grass fields that the team practices on through the year," Daily said.

With improved technology, he's even able to support a bermudagrass field, something that Cincinnati's northern climate didn't allow a decade ago. He said the viability of seeded varieties of bermuda in the upper transition zone is a notable improvement. "Those could really be an advantage to a sports field manager where, say, after high school graduation, you're able to seed in the middle of May [or] first of June, and the bermuda will actually grow in from seed and have your field covered by the time football season rolls around in August." Daily also points to the reduced cost over sodding or sprigging as another advantage of using the newer generations of seeded grass.

"We're seeing a movement in the industry now where synthetic turf is not only becoming a more accessible solution, but they're also getting rid of the skinned infield area … and going with synthetic turf."

Synthetics on the Rise

Wake Forest's latest addition is a synthetic baseball field, which was a first for McNeal. "Synthetics in baseball to me is new, and it's a bit different," she said. "Whereas in football and soccer and multi-use fields, those sports are played differently than baseball is, so a synthetic baseball field to me plays a bit different than a synthetic football field would."

While researching options for the new synthetic field, McNeal found that a wide range of more environmentally friendly infill materials and products were available, including coatings that inhibit bacterial growth and infill with different mixtures of sand and rubber to get the feel as close to natural grass as possible. "We spent probably four to five months researching and diving into it," she said, explaining that coated sand and infill materials aimed at reducing waste and landfill were among the trends she noticed during her search and selection process.

The players at Wake Forest have given McNeal good feedback on the new baseball field. "It plays really true," she said. "The bounces come right through the infield. There are no bad hops."

A slight incline in the outfield tells players they're nearing the warning track, and McNeal left open the possibility of adding lava rock later if needed. Synthetic was chosen because the existing facility would have required extensive renovation to support a new grass field, a project that McNeal says wouldn't have received sufficient funding.

Staffing and maintenance requirements post-installation also swayed the school's decision toward a synthetic surface, and McNeal said it's a route more organizations like hers are taking. "I know at least two other schools in our conference that have them. We will be playing on them by next baseball season, next spring. I know of a couple [schools] in the upper Midwest that also have them going in."

Installing synthetic fields exclusively for baseball is a trend that Mark Novak is seeing as well. And even though traditionalists continue to advocate for natural grass in baseball, Novak reported, "We're seeing a movement in the industry now where synthetic turf is not only becoming a more accessible solution, but they're also getting rid of the skinned infield area … and going with synthetic turf."

Challenges exist in the high-wear areas that are likely to see the most action, such as where athletes dig in at home plate or slide into second base. "I think it's always good to recommend they have contingency plans in mind to address those areas with continual maintenance," Novak said, "and also maybe after four or five years of use, swapping out the home plate area or areas around bases with new carpet to make sure that infill levels are at the appropriate level and fiber breakdown doesn't go too far."

Funding the purchase of synthetic fields has increasingly been a challenge for many schools and municipalities in recent years. "A lot of municipalities that don't currently have synthetic turf fields would like one," Novak said, "but with the current economic conditions, they're struggling with ways of funding these surfaces."

Safety is playing its own role in prompting innovations in synthetic surfaces.

The issue is especially difficult for municipalities that must weigh the cost of a new synthetic field against hardships in maintaining budgets for services such as police officers, teachers and road repairs. And while playability may go up and maintenance may come down with the installation of a synthetic field, even long-term dollars continue to be a concern. "The problem is where are they going to come up with the money to put in the turf field, and then generate some kind of capital replacement fund for 10 or 12 years down the line," Novak said.

Safety is playing its own role in prompting innovations in synthetic surfaces. The risk of concussions is gaining attention in the NFL and across all levels of sport, said Novak. He's in favor of padding or other resilient underlayment under the field to help soften the blow when players go down, because, "[Y]ou're going to want a pad there to help absorb some of that impact. And the good thing about pads is that you don't feel them when you're walking around on the surface but when you do fall, you're not going to be as sore in the morning."

Paul Brown Stadium's synthetic field is nearing the end of its lifecycle, and Daily is already keeping an eye on what the industry has to offer for his next field. "What I'm starting to see now is that companies are starting to look at two different changes," he said, "one being the fiber itself. Monofilament seemed to be the rage about three or four years ago, and there seems to be a lot of issues that have come up just with infield displacement." He sees new generations of turf incorporating a combination of monofilament and slit film material to limit movement, along with infill advancements that replace traditional rubber-sand mixtures with rubber- or acrylic-coated sand to improve footing while simultaneously helping with heat reduction. "Also I've heard people playing around with ground-up coconut shells, kind of that green-type industry looking at different forms of infill."

Daily will need to carefully consider disposal costs and options when planning his replacement project. He estimated it could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 to dispose of their current field, and cited the possibility that landfills may one day stop accepting turf material altogether, saying, "Who knows in another eight years whether we'll even be able to get rid of our fields?"

Recyclability continues to be a major focus for synthetic turf manufacturers. "The industry is looking, as is the Synthetic Turf Council, to establish guidelines or guidance for the reuse, repurposing [and] disposal of synthetic turf once it's reached the end of its useful life that does not involve sending it to the landfill," said STC President Rick Doyle. "Already some companies, though they haven't announced [yet], are pelletizing these fields and then using those pellets to make landscape ties and all sorts of different products."

Extending the product's lifecycle through better durability may also help to lessen disposal concerns. "You're starting to see that some turf companies are providing warranties that go beyond the current eight-year normal warranty term. There are new technologies coming down the pike that will extend the durability or improve the durability of fields."

Doyle said that increased emphasis on regular maintenance will go a long way toward extending the life of a field, and he anticipates significant announcements by the industry this year with respect to the recycling of synthetic turf.

Other innovations making their way into the wild include field systems with pads underneath coupled with shorter pile height and less infill, so the pad provides uniform resilience across the entire field. Advanced infills are also becoming more widely available. "Crumb rubber is still the proven infill for resilience, durability and low cost, but there are other elastomer infills—TPEs (thermoplastic elastomers), EPDMs (ethylene propylene diene rubber), coated sand and coated rubber," Doyle said, adding that different types of fibers, fiber blends and thatch layers were gaining popularity as they create a more realistic look, reduce fly up and contribute to improved durability and performance.

Recyclability continues to be a major focus for synthetic turf manufacturers. "The industry is looking, as is the Synthetic Turf Council, to establish guidelines or guidance for the reuse, repurposing [and] disposal of synthetic turf once it's reached the end of its useful life that does not involve sending it to the landfill," said STC President Rick Doyle.

Another issue that manufacturers continue to grapple with is the problem of heat buildup in synthetic surfaces. Doyle said that innovations are on the horizon that will better address heat concerns.

"The industry is looking hard at ways to reduce heat buildup in the plastic fibers and in the infill." As manufacturers craft solutions to this and other issues, Doyle believes organizations will consider synthetic fields for a wider variety of situations. "I think synthetic turf is becoming a viable solution for many different applications, and will continue to be a solution that is carefully considered by not only field owners, but parks and rec departments, homeowners and municipalities."

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