Turf's Up, It's Time to Play

Author: Ron Tetelman

The athletic program in any school is a vital component of the overall educational experience. Athletics plays an important role in developing healthy fitness habits, self-esteem, school community involvement, and overall academic performance. When investing in an athletic field, school districts should evaluate their needs to install a field that is best suited for their specific athletics requirements. With this in mind, let’s discuss the comparison between natural grass and synthetic turf fields.

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Natural Grass vs. Synthetic Turf Life Cycle

The key requirement for the successful maintenance of a natural grass surface is the ability to periodically allow the field to lie fallow or to be “rested”.  A school district could invest significant resources in placing natural grass on its athletic

fields, however, without successful maintenance and rest, the lifecycle is relatively short. Unfortunately, due to the shortage of field resources, most districts are unable to shut down a field for a few months. Therefore, while the initial investment of a natural grass field may be appealing, overuse will result in rapid deterioration. The installation and maintenance of synthetic turf may be more expensive for the first ten years versus natural grass, in the long–term, synthetic turf often represents a better overall investment. Synthetic turf increases field utilization as well as flexibility by allowing a community to rest the remaining natural grass fields. Turf grass can triple the amount of playing time on a field.

It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Astroturf

Many people confuse current synthetic turf alternatives with first generation “Astroturf”. Astroturf was a knitted nylon fabric carpet spread over concrete, with a coarse carpet texture that resulted in injuries including turf toe and turf burn. These original surfaces have been replaced with the introduction of the latest generation of synthetic turf, a grass-like surface that replicates lush natural grass in appearance and function. The improvements provide a year-round, all-weather playing surface built to withstand extended use without requiring downtime for recovery. 

The improved synthetic turf system utilizes a varied blade length (pile height - generally from 1.5” to 2.5”) of polyethylene fibers and an infill of sand/rubber pellets, acrylic coated sand or a cork/coconut shell mixture, among others, which is placed atop a shock/drainage pad. Shock pads improve the safety and consistency of the performance throughout the field. Blade length and system characteristics are determined by the specific activity requirement. The carpet, infill and pad are placed atop a fine stone aggregate base with an embedded perforated pipe under-drainage system. The system provides a forgiving surface with the required support for the safe athletic movements involved in soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and football.

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Advantages of Synthetic Turf

  1. Increased playing and practice time for athletes: In a normal season, teams may lose 20% of fall and 50% of spring play and practice time due to bad field conditions.  Most or all of this time would be recouped if playing on a synthetic surface, since weather doesn’t affect field usability. Because of its design, synthetic fields can drain 10 inches of rain per hour and their ground surfaces don’t freeze, enabling winter use as well. This is not the case with natural grass fields, many of these facilities need to suspend contests and practices due to wet conditions.

  2. Extended field use: While sodded natural grass fields need to rest for a growing season after installation, synthetic turf fields can be used within hours of installation.  Turf grass managers recommend against using a natural grass field for more than 20 – 24 hours per week, or 680 – 816 hours per year, for a three-season window, but a synthetic turf field can be utilized around 3,000 hours per year with no “rest” required.  The life span of a synthetic turf field is typically warranted for eight (8) years, but with proper maintenance it can last several years longer. 

  3. Positive impacts on community: The addition of synthetic turf fields gives the entire community additional flexibility to use and maintain its athletic field resources. Soccer clubs, recreation departments and summer camp programs can be accommodated on weekends with no negative affect on field conditions. Because of this, club and camp programs could potentially be expanded, increasing opportunities for children and adults alike. With the addition of sports lighting, the hours of use are extended and working parents can more easily attend games. The durability of synthetic turf also eliminates having to cancel events due to field conditions, keeping busy athletic schedules on track.  

  4. Improved safety for players: Studies demonstrate that current synthetic turf system fields result in lower numbers of serious injury than well-maintained natural grass.  Due to the inability to “rest”, natural grass fields in a typical northeastern community are becoming worn out and unsafe. Synthetic surfaces allow for year round use with proper practice sessions, as opposed to spring athletes practicing on paved surfaces, leading to a reduced risk of injury. Providing synthetic turf fields will improve player safety and provide a restoration period for other natural grass fields.

  5. Positive impacts on the environment: Synthetic turf eliminates the high demand for water, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. There is a potential savings of up to 1,500 gallons of water per week during the summer, dry season. Because of its make-up, synthetic surfaces do not require mowing, reducing pollution and contamination from mowers, and geese do not congregate on synthetic fields.

  6. Low maintenance: Synthetic turf field care is minimal, providing considerable cost savings to districts as opposed to the continued maintenance needed to properly preserve grass fields. Maintenance for synthetic fields includes brushing the fiber up, clearing the area of leaves and litter on a weekly basis, and de-compacting the infill three to four times a year. Firms specializing in synthetic turf maintenance, will provide services for costs average of $7,500 a year.

Synthetic turf provides a solution to maintaining grass fields as well as creating a new venue for athletic and community events year-round. Its sustainable design addresses environmental challenges and safety concerns. The new and improved turf, is low-maintenance, extremely durable, a smart investment for any district and community.