Sports Fields in Context

Making the Right Choices in Synthetic & Natural Turf

By Joseph Bush

The debate over whether to install a synthetic field or natural turf field sometimes isn't difficult because the choice is not either/or. The hard choices sometimes come years after a school or park district or pro sports entity elects to add synthetic fields to a collection of natural turf fields.

A New Look at Natural

Stantec Sports Group leaders Meg Buczynski and David Nardone say they are seeing a re-focusing on natural turf fields after a boom in synthetic field building or conversions at the start of the 21st century. Clients who five years ago were so focused on adding synthetic fields to relieve pressure on their natural fields have recently been switching their attention back to the original natural turf areas.

"Synthetic turf really started taking off in 2000, 2001," Buczynski said. "Synthetic turf is a large upfront cost, but what we're seeing now is, with our clients, those people who have synthetic turf, they're realizing they need to do, rather than just maintenance, some actual reconstruction work for their natural grass fields—amending the soil to get better grass growing conditions; increasing the pitch on the fields to get better surface runoff; different types of things to get better drainage and better grass growth on your fields."

Nardone said field caretakers today are savvy and learn fast when experts advise them.

"Maybe they don't know what the best seeding ratio is or exactly what they want for amendments, but they tend to understand more of the process," Nardone said. "We get very site specific. We walk the field with our client, have some additional surveys done if they don't have any to really understand what's happening with the existing field, the existing topography and drainage. We take soil tests, send those out so we can understand the physical makeup of the soil, but also the organic content in the soil, and we can kind of assess and make recommendations what those improvements might need to be."

Part of the problem with maintaining, renovating or overhauling natural turf fields is that many have been established in communities for decades, Buczynski said. Maybe soil tests have never been done, and new staff is trying to take advantage of all that is available.

"So, you're really kind of starting from scratch, especially in municipalities," she said. "These fields were built in the '70s, the '60s—they're just old. That information's not there. Over time, depending on the maintenance practices, they've added things to the field or maybe they haven't added to the field, so there are things that happen over time that you don't necessarily know about when you want to get a read on what's in there now."

Though you'd get just as many folks in the industry touting synthetic as natural for its ease of maintenance, return on investment, playability, safety, etc., Buczynski and Nardone said one attribute synthetic turf does not boast is sentimentality.

"People still like to play on natural grass," Buczynski said.

"There definitely are purists," Nardone added. "Even though there was a trend the past couple of years where a lot more synthetic baseball fields were built, purists, especially at the community level, would rather be on natural grass. The trend is to take a look at their natural grass fields and do some renovations to them."

Let Safety Be Your Guide

Mike Tarantino has always had to let safety be his guide in making decisions between synthetic turf and natural turf. Tarantino is the director of facilities, maintenance and operations for the Poway (Calif.) Unified School District, which owns 92.5 acres of multi-use natural grass sports fields, 59 acres of high-profile natural grass sports fields and 21 acres of synthetic turf.

Overall, Tarantino said he divides his fields into high maintenance and lower maintenance. Multi-use fields may have a few weeds and less color, but are playable and safe. The higher profile areas, like high school game fields, are synthetic. Playability and safety outweighed a so-so return on investment, he said.

Clients who five years ago were so focused on adding synthetic fields to relieve pressure on their natural fields have recently been switching their attention back to the original natural turf areas.

Before synthetic fields, Tarantino and his staff had only two months in the summer to make the natural fields safe and playable after a 10-month schedule that started with football, moved to soccer and finished with lacrosse. Concerns for safety from the community pushed Tarantino to consider synthetic.

"When deciding whether or not to install the synthetic turf, I did a cost analysis based on maintenance and irrigation on a natural grass sports field versus maintenance on the synthetic, and the results were eye-opening, as I determined I could save the district $38,000 per year," he said. "My analysis didn't stop there; I needed to add in replacement cost, and this cost once added in didn't make the payback look very rosy—about 30 years. Considering that the synthetic turf's warranty was between eight and 10 years, the field would actually need to be replaced twice. We still moved forward based on the playability, safety of our student athletes and community use."

He said the main reasons for choosing synthetic over natural turf are maintenance budget, water conservation if applicable, community needs, sports types, investment payback, expectations for the fields and aesthetic and safety standards.

"Synthetic turf sports fields should not be installed based on keeping up with the Joneses," Tarantino said. "I know all sports turf managers would prefer maintaining natural turf; however, synthetics are an option when you cannot maintain natural grass based on use/abuse, playability and safety of the athletes. The gist of this is, it all comes down to dollars and sense."

Maintenance Matters

Once a synthetic field is in place, Tarantino has simple advice.

"The only trick for maintaining synthetic turf is it must be maintained," he said.

Tarantino and his crew brush the synthetic fields every other month, deep groom once or twice a year, sweep as needed, and hose them off before the start of each sport's season. For his natural turf fields, Tarantino uses soil sampling to determine fertility needs, soil salinity and pH.

"I cannot stress how important this is," Tarantino said. "The soil sample results drive everything I do to that natural grass field. The report dictates what fertilizer formula I will use and gives me some insight into soil compaction."

Tarantino uses a couple things he has picked up from the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) to maintain his natural grass fields. At the STMA national conference, he watched as Iowa State University horticulture professor David Minner presented "a field in a field."

"It was a great idea for spreading out maintenance dollars," Tarantino said. "For example, if only a portion of your natural grass sports field needs repair or maintenance, why do the entire field? Look at the worn or damaged area as a field within a larger field where the larger field may not require any maintenance or renovation work at all, then apply dollars only to the smaller field."

Tarantino also uses the Playing Conditions Index (PCI) that was developed by the STMA to assist in rating his natural grass sports field playability and safety. While the PCI doesn't tell managers what to do, he said, once filled out and totaled, it gives an understanding of where fields rate, and based on budget and standards gives a starting point to begin repairing or renovating the sports fields.

Water Concerns

Tarantino is interested also in how science can help people in his position. He has had his eye on the work of James Baird, assistant cooperative extension specialist in turfgrass management and assistant turfgrass horticulturist at the University of California Riverside.

Baird says much of his research revolves around an aspect of turf management that currently concerns turf managers in southern California and the Southwest, but is informative to any turf manager who doesn't like to waste water: water conservation and water quality.

"It may not be what every field manager is worrying about at the moment, but ultimately, we are running out of potable water to irrigate turf and landscapes, and we must either manage turf with less water or with poorer quality water that it usually high in salts," Baird said.

"At UCR, we are approaching these challenges from every angle, including: improving turfgrasses to withstand summers with less water, or cool-season grasses, or to retain color during winters, or warm-season grasses; evaluating commercial products for water and salinity conservation; determining the best ways to manage turf using recycled water; and evaluating alternative methods of irrigation including subsurface drip irrigation."

Baird sees his and his department's role as not just developing better methods and grasses but also helping turf managers choose products to maximize their efforts and fields.

"Turf managers are having to produce the same or better turf conditions with diminishing resources, whether that be budget or water," he said. "Our industry has more than its fair share of 'snake oils' or products touted to do or save this or that. One of our jobs at UCR is to help them separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak."

One of the aids managers are using more in Baird's opinion is turf colorant as an aesthetic boost. Its use cuts down on water use and overseeding in the winter. Baird and his team are testing various colorants to gather data to make choices easier for managers.

"We are evaluating several pigments and pigments with resin, sometimes referred to as paints, for aesthetics, longevity and color fastness," he said. "Pigments with resin appear to more popular with end users because of their realistic, or preferred, color and longevity. However, they are more challenging to work with from an operator's point of view because they are closer in consistency to that of household paints and therefore harder on the spray equipment."

Though it's obvious that Baird is a natural turf specialist, he believes there are situations for which synthetic is the answer. Baird lived in New Jersey before California, and observed the way the facility formerly known as The Meadowlands Sports Complex was used.

"Constant use by professional, collegiate and high school teams playing football and soccer, not to mention concerts," Baird said. "They tried the turf module concept to replace worn areas of the field, but ultimately there was just too much use and traffic. Ultimately, it comes down to concentrated traffic. You can't be playing on natural turf 24/7 and expect it to survive."

Baird does not understand, however, why synthetic turf is used in warmer climates.

"The main issue I have with artificial fields, especially in Southern California, is surface temperatures during warmer weather," he said. "I've heard about temperatures approaching 180 degree Fahrenheit or above. These fields must be irrigated with water to cool the surface. So, if the argument in favor of artificial turf is water conservation, I don't see it in our climate."

Get What You Need

Ken Mrock is in charge of all the fields the National Football League's Chicago Bears play and practice on, both natural and synthetic. He's been with the Bears for 27 years, long enough to see practices and products and equipment come and go or stay, and the advent of artificial turf and the rise of new synthetic science and products.

The latest technology Mrock is fascinated with is artificial lighting to extend grass growing windows. SGL (Stadium Grow Lighting) is a Dutch company that provides a system that includes lighting on wheels so that field managers can pinpoint areas that need extra light. The system also includes computer analysis of grass growth as well as controls for nourishment, water, air, CO2 and temperature.

The NFL's Green Bay Packers, Major league Baseball's Miami Marlins and Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls have used the system, and Mrock said it could be in the Bears' future.

"It has extended the life of the grass and shortened the recovery time of the grass plant, keeping it very much playable and keeping a good turf cover," he said. "Talking to quite a few people, it seems to be the way we're going. It's not for everybody—it's expensive. You spend the money the way you have to spend it if you want the result."

There's no doubt that an NFL fields supervisor has resources many only dream of. Mrock says the team installed a heated field at their practice facility in the 1990s, and moved that hot water and glycol system to the stadium field in Soldier Field in 2002 to help keep the grass growing as well as help make the surface soft yet firm. There are also field sensors in order to watch moisture and salinity and temperature.

For all that Mrock can buy, he said he will never stray from lessons learned beginning with his days in golf course management. There are certain traits to grass, and tried-and-true methods for maintaining and growing it, that will always guide turf managers regardless of their budget and location.

"It's always going to take a human being to work with Mother Earth," he said. "Some of the old principles are the best. Feeding and irrigation. The same things we do with ourselves. The plant isn't any different. Rest and recovery, just like with athletes, is important for the turf. I always tell people, 'We have athletes out there and they have water breaks to hydrate. The demands are the same.'

"What's even tougher for grass plants is when it gets hotter. The one thing about natural grass, it does come back. It doesn't always look the best, but it does come back. Knowing its limits—how many events or practices or games before it would be a detriment to the health of the plant and to the safety of the participant that's on top of it?

"You want to keep as much cover on the field as possible, by overseeding, or if it needs at some point a re-sodding of an area or a field in order to make sure that it is safe for the participants. You always have to feed the plant just like we have to feed ourselves. It's fairly simple. Knowing what the plant's needs are and giving it the proper nourishment to strengthen it for environmental challenges."

The synthetic field used by the Bears is seven years old. Mrock said both natural turf and synthetic turf have at least one thing in common: They need tender loving care.

"With synthetics you have to groom them and make sure that they're level," he said. "If (the field) gets displaced you want to make sure you get back the integrity and the flatness and cushion. With natural grass there is a lot more work regarding the irrigation, the fertility. Both have to be treated as an ever-changing surface."

Last but not least, especially in a business so often on TV and in the presence of tens of thousands of attendees, Mrock wants his stadium field to look it finest.

"All the seats are pointed at the field," he said. "That's the stage."

Managing Constant Use

Abby McNeal wishes she had "a" stage, but she has several, as the director of turf management at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. McNeal oversees 69 acres of property, including a football stadium, baseball stadium, soccer stadium, soccer practice facilities, football practice facilities, golf complex, golf practice facility, track facility and a field hockey field. Among those fields are natural turf and four synthetic fields, three of which are split film, monofilament and traditional, the latter being a field hockey preference.

With this number of sports comes constant use of the fields, and this is what McNeal describes as her most difficult challenge: when to give the grass what it needs, and how. There are cold- and warm-weather grasses, fields that need a good shade grass, and athletes are on them almost every day for 10 months.

"Our athletes train year-round, and the grass doesn't always grow year-round," said McNeal, in her third year at Wake Forest. "Our Bermudagrass goes dormant, and we're still practicing and training on it, so to manage healthy turf as long as you can when it is actively growing and push it as hard as you can, you're still doing it under repetitive traffic.

"Here in North Carolina the Bermudagrass growing season is late May, early June through September, early October, and it is pounded that entire time, not necessarily by our varsity athletes, but we have camps from the first of June to the first of August when varsity returns, then we have varsity men and women, specifically on our soccer facility.

"So we have one small window of downtime where they're not really training and it's right when it's coming out of dormancy so our maintenance schedule has to be looked at that way, but they're still training on it a couple days a week right now (December). Then winter break, then back in mid-January and start training again. There's not much I can do to get it to recover because conditions are not conducive to growing. Managing it while it's not growing is just as challenging as managing it as hard as we can when it is growing, yet it's being trafficked pretty much year round."

McNeal said she looks for any window to aerify and top-dress, and for the best fertilizer programs. Aerification can be core or what she calls "a knifing aerification," just to keep the surface loose and promote more dense turf. She evaluates the fertility program on a yearly basis and tries to balance sprayable products and granular products.

Because Wake Forest's soccer teams are annual standouts, McNeal has to keep soccer fields playable pretty late into November for NCAA postseason play. For this, she overseeds with rye for longevity, playability and aesthetics.

"Each year, I look at what's the latest rye grasses that are out there that give us the best overseed to get us what we're looking for," she said.

The trickiest synthetic field problem facing McNeal is how to care for the synthetic baseball field, which is much different from the football team's two synthetic fields because of the nature of the sports' rules and action. Baseball fields include clay for mounds and basepaths and on-deck and foul areas. That clay, as well as a wide variety of other natural debris, litter the synthetic areas, sometimes staying on top, sometimes working its way deeper.

McNeal deep-cleans the field before the season's start and then tries to find any other windows for the two-day process. For regular maintenance of surface debris, like maple tree helicopters or sunflower seeds or leaves or pine needles, a groomer behind a tractor suffices. At times a blowing implement is necessary to bring debris to the surface before grooming.

Also, McNeal has begun using a process akin to steam cleaning a carpet. Water is mixed with the clay to form a solution, and the slurry is vacuumed up. She said there is some rubber displacement but not as much as they guessed there would be. McNeal believes that constant care will extend the life of the field, an extension made necessary by the demands put on her by the athletic administration to get 10 years out of her synthetic fields.

"There's my pressure point, and if we're not going to make it how close to it are we going to get?" McNeal said. "I'm trying to do as much as we can from a maintenance standpoint to keep our coaches happy, and make sure the players are safe. There's no perfect field. You've just got to make the best that you can out of the situation that you're in at that time and do the best you can to think outside your normal box. We don't work in a bubble, you have to be adaptable to it all. I feel like we're very open-minded and try to learn new things."

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