Fields of Dreams

Trends & Best Practices in Sports Turf

By Rick Dandes

Choosing the right outdoor sports surface for a playing field or track can be challenging for facility managers and owners. Whether installing a brand-new synthetic or natural turf field or upgrading what you already have, stakeholders must always first consider the safety of users, while balancing other factors such as initial funding, and future maintenance costs, experts say.

As with any major asset, synthetic turf and natural turfgrass sports fields need well-planned and funded management programs to protect the owner's investment, said Thomas Serensits, manager of the Center for Sports Surface Research at Penn State. This includes hiring a dedicated and knowledgeable sports turf manager to develop and implement the program. Management of sports fields also requires a budget that reflects the amount and types of activities that take place on the fields. The budget must have the flexibility to expand as the demand for field time increases.

Meanwhile, as far as trends go, Serensits explained, "We are seeing an increased focus on field safety on both natural and synthetic turf. With the NFL instituting its field testing program several years ago, we are seeing the concept of routine field monitoring filter down to the college, high school and recreational levels. For example, more and more field managers are monitoring field hardness (G-max). Also, more field managers are conducting field inspections on a regular basis—things like looking for failing seams and monitoring infill depth levels on synthetic turf and high-wear areas on natural turf. The idea is to catch small problems before they become major problems."

The Choice: Synthetic vs. Natural

When a facility owner is faced with a deteriorating sports field, selecting a new surface is not always an easy decision. Both natural turf and synthetic have their benefits and drawbacks.

Natural turfgrass playing surfaces have been used successfully for many years, and there is a wealth of scientific data documenting their safety. Moreover, given proper management and balanced use, natural grass fields can withstand and accommodate multiple sports team usage.

Cool-season grasses adapt to favorable growth during cool portions of the growing season. Optimum growing temperatures range from 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. These grasses are generally found in temperate and subarctic climates and may become dormant or stressed during periods of high temperatures.

Examples of some common cool-season grasses, Serensits noted, are Kentucky bluegrass, rough bluegrass, annual bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, annual ryegrass, tall fescue, fine fescues and creeping bentgrass. The most popular cool-season turfgrass used on athletic fields include Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and tall fescue.

Warm-season grasses adapt to favorable growth during warmer periods of the growing season. Optimum temperatures for growth are between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. These grasses are generally found in tropical and subtropical climates, and some examples are bermudagrass, buffalo grass, zoysia grass, bahia grass, seashore paspalum, kikuyu grass, St. Augustine grass and centipede grass. The most common warm-season grass used on athletic fields is bermudagrass.

While natural grass surfaces may become worn from excessive use, those portions of the fields can be easily, economically and quickly replaced. With proper management, a natural turf field can be maintained year-after-year for a fraction of the cost of an artificial turf surface over its projected life expectancy.

Meanwhile, synthetic turf has become increasingly popular as a surface for playing fields, as it offers a number of advantages over natural turf, the most important of which in most instances is playability. These fields have an 8- to 10-year lifespan and can be used almost every day, whereas natural turf fields need time to recover after play or after a weather event. So-called second- or third-generation synthetic surfaces even look much more like natural turf and use various infill materials on top of the base to mimic the feel of natural turf, reducing injuries and making the field more acceptable to athletes. Additional advantages of synthetic surfaces are zero fertilizer use, greatly reduced pesticide use, greatly reduced water use and no need for mowing.

"'In terms of cost," Serensits said, "artificial turf is more cost-effective over time," although the initial installation of a synthetic turf field can be twice that of a natural grass field.

Weather is another factor to consider when deciding whether to install synthetic or natural turf, but is it a major factor in selecting a particular surface system? "It really is not," suggested Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of a Cheektowaga, N.Y.-based synthetic turf manufacturing company.

"If you are from Arizona, where there is a lot of sunshine, you have to deal with heat and direct sunlight. If your facility is in northern Minnesota there is snow and cold weather," Dobmeier said. "Our suggestion to buyers is simply this: Invest in quality, invest in a plush system. Go out and buy the best, and that best will suffice, whether it is in Arizona or Minnesota. Now unfortunately in this business, there are many field builders that are also marketers that don't market for the benefit of clients."

Try to go with someone who won't oversell the market, meaning they are not trying to install hundreds of fields every year, Dobmeier continued. "Honestly, this industry can become overly complicated. There is not a system that is best for baseball vs. football vs. soccer. There is not a system that is best for Arizona vs. the north or west to California. Get a plush system, get it installed by an outstanding installation company, do business with a company that has been around and that is going to answer the phone and respond to when something might be loose or there is simply a question that needs answering."

The wrong suppliers, inexperienced installation crews, poor follow-through—the reasons for a project failing vary, but the result is often the same: wasted time, energy and dollars, Dobmeier said. "Bottom line: As a recreational surfacing company, we are in the specialty construction business. That means there will be changes, adjustments and modifications to even the best-laid plans. Having clear communication between your team and the company hired is a critically important first step in weathering the bumps along the way. But even the best communicators need to back up their words with actions."

Look for the following, said Dobmeier, when deciding which surfacing company is best for you:

  • Reputation in the industry. Does the company demonstrate a clear understanding of the industry, as well as an understanding of your needs? Do they respond thoroughly and expediently?
  • A proven track record. Has the company worked on similar projects over many years? Are they proven experts in the field?
  • A written warranty from the company. Evaluate it in terms of content and length of time, and consider the company in relationship to the warranty. How have they handled their worst warranty situation?
  • Financial strength and stability. Does the company have staying power? How long has the company been in the industry, and are you confident the company will be in business throughout the life of the warranty?

Tough Decisions

"I believe the most important factor in choosing a surface is always safety," said Nick Titus, assistant athletic director, facilities, University of Buffalo. "Due to issues with our field, presumably from the polar vortex last year, we had ruts in our synthetic turf field in the spring of 2014, which left us no choice but to replace the turf and the sub-base. In doing so, we also installed a shock pad to help with the field's G-max test to make it safer for the students."

Another consideration, Titus said, was the amount of wear and tear on the field. "Our turf was 9 years old," he said, "and most turf manufacturers will tell you the life expectancy is anywhere from seven to 10 years. While we would have liked to have had the old turf for a couple more years, ultimately it had reached the end of its useful life.

"We learned in the process of replacing our field that products have evolved significantly since we last installed our turf," Titus added. "The synthetic turf manufacturers are making their products more and more like natural grass in the look and the feel while competing. Our coaches and students said the new surface showed a remarkable difference. Before we replaced our turf, they would often complain about our turf after going on the road and competing on other schools' new turf. These new products could be a consideration for the schools that can afford it, just to keep up with the newest technological advances in the fields. I know when we made the switch to synthetic turf, one of the biggest reasons was the flexibility the turf allows. We can have multiple teams and other programming on the turf without tearing it up. Also, being in Buffalo, snow can be cleared fairly easily for our use."

Tim Van Loo, manager of athletic turf and grounds at Iowa State University and secretary/treasurer of the Sports Turf Managers Association, has been at Iowa State for six years, and said there have been no major renovations of the fields in that time period. "We've only built infields," he said. "We haven't done any kind of renovations. There have been a lot of areas that we've done a lot of seeding on, we've had to do some re-leveling and re-sodding. In the case of baseball or softball, you could get a lip buildup. When we did a softball field, we took the sod off and leveled the entire area. It was a small renovation, done because of the way our infield functioned. A lot of renovation begins with a visual. If something is not draining properly, if something is not working in the right way, then that is the point where something has to happen."

At Iowa State, in Ames, Iowa, a lot of the construction is dictated by weather and how user-friendly the fields are in that weather.

"We knew our season starts in the middle of March and goes to May," Van Loo said. "Then we pick up again in the fall and go to the first or second week in November as long as weather permits. We built a softball field so that it drains very quickly, because we get a lot of frost. The infield is hydrophobic, it doesn't take in any moisture, so it doesn't freeze at all. It can get hard, but it doesn't retain moisture. It is an infield that if it is nice in January you can go out there and use it. I would argue that I have a softball field that is just as user-friendly as an artificial baseball or softball field. So a lot of it is how it is constructed. The key thing is to know when you are using it, the time of the season, and construct the field according to that."

Maintenance Issues

It is important, Serensits said, that people realize synthetic turf is not maintenance-free. Just like with natural turf, synthetic fields require routine maintenance in order to provide maximum safety and playability. Field maintenance budgets should reflect this. Instead of mowing, they need to be groomed. Instead of fertilizing, infill needs to be added to high-wear areas. Proper maintenance is key to maximizing the lifespan of a synthetic turf field.

All synthetic turf manufacturers have recommended maintenance practice. These include sweeping, dragging, loosening and redistributing of infill, and cleaning. Cleaning may involve watering and the use of special solvents and cleansers. Depending on use and weather conditions, a sand-rubber mix may need to be added annually to help restore the field's resiliency. The sports turf manager will also need special knowledge in troubleshooting and minor repairs, such as seam repair and snow removal. The installer can provide this information per the manufacturer's guidelines.

"For natural turf fields," Serensits said, "one of the key maintenance practices is to constantly over-seed high-use areas. For example, down the center of a football field or at the soccer goal mouth—constantly seeding these areas is important to keep grass coverage. This idea is to create a 'seed bank' in the soil so that new plants are ready to take the place of plants that are worn away. It is also important to use the proper species. During field use, perennial ryegrass should be used due to its quick germination and establishment."

All natural turfgrass fields are living, breathing organisms that require mowing, watering, fertilizing, time off from play and, depending upon disease and pests, the application of plant protectants. To help ease compaction from heavy play, fields may be aerified multiple times a year. High sand fields require more attention to detail in the areas of watering and fertilization. They also require additional maintenance through top-dressing.

At the University of Buffalo, Titus said, students use a field owned by the town, "and both the city and the university have worked together to try to build the turf up over the past five years."

The field is used many times a day all summer by recreation and summer leagues. The university and city have spent a lot of time and money re-sodding the field after summer leagues to prepare for the university team's fall practices and ultimately the spring.

"Lately," Titus said, "we have worked with a consultant that core-tests the grass turf four times a year to make sure we are adding the proper nutrients to help the field regenerate. The town aerates and topdresses the fields multiple times every year to help build the turf. They re-sod the areas that are beyond repair. We also make sure we have the watering program scheduled appropriately."

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