Maintenance & Operations: Synthetic Turf

Beyond the Basics
Synthetic Turf Fields Have Come a Long Way

By Tammy York

No matter what you call it, synthetic turf has come a long way from its initial debut. Synthetic turf is being used in more applications than ever before. As you know, you can find synthetic turf being used for football fields from the high school to college to professional level. It is even used in some arid areas as lawn grass for that evergreen look without the high price tag for water, fertilizer, pest control and maintenance.

One of the great appeals of synthetic turf is the simple fact that it never needs to be fertilized, mowed or watered. Maintenance isn't completely eliminated, but it is simpler, depending on the type of field and usage patterns. In some cases, the crumb rubber and sand infill might need to be redistributed because of compaction and uneven high-use wear patterns. Also, debris needs to be removed, and most fields benefit from the occasional rinse.

Responsible Use

Many existing synthetic turf fields are reaching the end of their life cycles. As these fields are coming up for replacement, the industry has taken note of the environmental concerns with recycling old fields and is making strides to be more environmentally responsible. This has resulted in facilities that can take the polyethylene portions of the old turf, once it is clean of sand and crumb rubber, and recycle it. The polyethylene fibers are ground, melted and recycled into another polyethylene product. The sand and crumb rubber can be removed from the field, cleaned, and reused or used as a top-dressing for natural turf.

New synthetic turf is different in that the fibers are more durable and can handle greater usage. And, the industry has been developing more renewable options. For example, some synthetic turf backings are now made from polyols derived from soybeans, a rapidly renewable resource, rather than petroleum-based products.

Play Ball

At the same time that existing synthetic turf football fields are reaching replacement age, another synthetic turf application has been gaining in popularity—college and professional baseball fields. Usability is one of the key reasons. A small amount of rain can make a natural turf playing field unusable, and this is especially true of baseball fields.

For fields that aren't at the professional level, rain can often cancel a game. This eats into the revenue the field can generate because a canceled games means ticket and auxiliary sales don't occur. Plus, for teams that have only one field to use for practice and play, weather can greatly decrease the amount of practice time they have on the field.

Synthetic turf doesn't have the same constraints.

"Last year at the University of Kansas, the baseball team played on natural grass, and prior to the season they missed 19 days of practice due to the residual effects of weather—mud from snow melt," said Todd Britton, marketing manager with a synthetic turf manufacturer. "They needed to not miss any days of practice so they went with synthetic turf in their Hoglund Ballpark Stadium and haven't missed a single practice since."

A synthetic turf baseball field's substructure is designed roughly the same as a football field's. There is a dynamic draining base consisting of drainage tiles that direct the excess water away from the field and either into storm drains or a retention basin. Over the drainage base is a pervious layer of geotextile covered with a combination of small and large sized stones. Resting on top is the synthetic turf with the sand and crumb rubber infill.

With the drainage system underneath and no dirt to become mud soup, the fields can be open to play when a traditional natural turf field would be covered with tarps and shut down. Any time you can keep your ballfields open and safe for play, you increase the number of practices and events that can occur at your venue.

In the past seven years, university after university has adopted synthetic turf for baseball and intramural field usage applications. Synthetic turf ball fields can be opened up to other opportunities from Little League to high school.

"Synthetic turf fields reduce maintenance, let the team use the field year-round, and generate revenue that the organization might not be able to generate otherwise," Britton said.

A few of the colleges and universities that have synthetic turf fields include St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, The Ohio State University in Columbus, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., Long Island University in New York, Columbia University in New York, Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

The driving factor in collegiate baseball fields switching to synthetic turf is the increased field time. The synthetic turf baseball fields have improved to play like a natural turf ballfield, including a more natural ball bounce.

"Baseball is one of the last sports that really embraced artificial fields," said Troy Squires, global VP of sales and marketing with a synthetic turf manufacturer. "Mainly because the coaches are particular about how the field areas perform, whether it needs to be fast, slow or grass-like."

The areas of the field that are traditionally dirt are referred to as skin areas. "The root zone thatch layer's texturized fibers help hold in the sand and rubber infill," Britton said. "You don't see infill flyout at the bases, plates and batter's boxes."

To get the skin areas to work like dirt and not grass, the fibers must layover quickly. These skin areas are made with a fiber designed to resist abrasion, which is important because of the amount of sand used in these areas. For comparison, a football field has a maximum of 50 percent sand in the infill, but a high-level baseball field is going to have a minimum of 70 percent sand.

Baseball fields can also be "tuned" to produce slow, medium or fast speed of play. This is done by modifying the infill materials, infill depth and underlying base material. And, high-use areas such as home plate can be removed for maintenance or replacement.

Maintenance of synthetic turf baseball and intramural fields is similar to football field maintenance. The primary areas where infill maintenance is required include the batter's boxes and sliding areas because the infill can migrate out of those areas. Batter's box maintenance should be done every couple of games, and the sliding areas once every couple of weeks. Regular scheduled and assigned maintenance to these areas will make sure that the fibers and infill last the expected life of the field.

Intramural Fields

"Much of what we see in college-level intramural sports is mega-projects—the equivalent of four to five fields together in one location," Squires said. "The fields are funded by student fees. Students are voting for this, and that was unheard of 10 years ago."

Colleges and universities are realizing the benefits of integrating students into the social fabric of the university by having various recreational sports and sport clubs for the students to join, and as such are increasing their support of intramural sports. Students are also demanding more fitness activities from colleges and universities vying for their enrollment. The synthetic turf industry has devised systems to help meet these needs.

Used as a recruiting tool, the intramural department can host tournaments where prospective students can see the university's facilities and the different club sports available to them. "Large university projects are designed to service their student clientele instead of raise money," Squires said. "Colleges are very competitive, and students are expecting health and recreation facilities for fitness."

"Intramural fields are one of the fastest growing segments in synthetic turf market. Recreation departments are increasing the demand for these multiuse fields as less space is available for fields for each individual sport," Britton said. "For example, Texas A&M University installed a 430,000-square-foot field for their intramural sports clubs to use, and the fields are used every day."

While football and baseball might be thought of as the popular sports, some 5.3 million college students participate in intramural sports. "The National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association stated that between 2008 and 2013, there would be over $4 billion in recreation sports construction, with 96 new construction and 62 expansion projects," Britton said. "The average price is $21 million per project."

Many projects turn into multi-build projects such as the ones at Texas A&M, University of Tennessee and OSU, where universities add square footage to accommodate more athletic programs and get maximum use out of those areas.

Intramurals can include such sports as football, soccer, lacrosse, flag football and more. Most intramural fields are built to a standard size and divided into what is needed. The size of the field can be modified to accommodate different games, which might not need a full-sized field such as flag football.

"It is important to know your demographics to understand what type of field you need," said Darren Gill, vice president of marketing with a synthetic turf manufacturer. "It is important that synthetic turf meets your needs, including skill levels and category of sports being played on the field."

For example, a pile height of the synthetic turf for contact sports is 2.5 inches with heavy weight infill for college and NFL football, whereas a non-contact soccer field for Major League Soccer, high school or college can be a pile height of 2 inches with less infill.

"By taking the time to do a study and see what you need, you will get a better facility with the best use for all the participants," Squires said. "Keep the intramural field safe by using the same shock attenuation levels as on a football field in a stadium."

It is important that the field be stable and feel the same throughout the entire field underneath the athlete's foot. No matter what their application, fields must have a consistent G-Max value, a measurement that demonstrates the shock-absorbing properties of the surface. To ensure safety, you should have your field's G-Max levels retested on a regular basis.

"If a field has a G-Max value of 200 then it is deemed to be at a level that clients should consider field replacement or remediation," Gill said. "We have 7,000 fields, and less than 10 percent are tested on a regular basis."

One of the issues in the marketplace is field owners do not always maintain their fields properly. Not performing regular third-party testing of the field can result in rising G-Max values and the possibility of serious injuries.

Pay to Play

Another growing trend in recreation is "pay to play" fields. Revenue generation is the driving force, and the greater the number of days the fields can be open for use, the higher the revenue for the field's owner.

"Communities with large soccer complexes and baseball complexes where they host tournaments can generate revenue to subsidize the complexes," Squires said. "The tournaments are designed to bring in a lot of people to the community and with them tourism dollars for hotels, restaurants and entertainment."

This can be a huge boon for park districts looking to generate more revenue to support additional programs and services.

"Parks and recreation is converting to artificial turf because of the return on investment," Gill said. "They are making sure that their dollars are working for them. Artificial turf products have become more affordable, making it easier to see the ROI since the fields can be played on virtually around the clock year-round."

Most parks can justify costs of the artificial turf because of the increase in usage.

Field Selection

Synthetic turf is made from polyethylene fibers for the grass zone with the short nylon fibers of the root zone to reduce infill migration and keep the playing surface more consistent. To get the right field for your application, talk to synthetic turf consultants who can guide you through the process.

Many companies offer synthetic turf for a variety of applications. Realize that you are developing a partnership with the company providing the synthetic turf, installation and warranty. Experts in the field recommend going with a company with a long-standing track record of installed fields that after years of use are still in good condition. Ask for references, go and see the fields, talk to the field managers to get a hindsight-is-20/20 perspective, and watch games being played on the different manufacturers' synthetic turf fields.

Selecting the right field is a challenge because each field, whether it is meant for baseball, football, lacrosse or soccer, has its own needs in terms of ball bounce, ball speed, shock absorbency and usage patterns. For example, football fields are primarily concerned with shock absorbency or low G-Max values, lacrosse fields need to hold up to foot traffic and lacrosse creases, and baseball infield areas need durability.

By working closely with a synthetic turf consultant and making compromises where you can, you can get the most intramural use out of your field. Everything including the underlayment, fiber height, fiber structure, infill materials and infill height can be adjusted so the fields can be designed to fit your specific needs.

Also remember to take into consideration that synthetic turf fields will not last forever. Eventually you will need to replace the synthetic turf and reclaim or repurpose the infill. By selecting fields made from components designed for future recycling now, you can save your organization time and money down the road.

Synthetic turf fields can save resources and increase revenue while decreasing the costs of watering, fertilizing and maintaining the field.

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