Extend the life of artificial turf sports fields with proper maintenance practices
Regular field maintenance can add a few years to an artificial field’s life expectancy
December 5, 2023 By Mike Jiggens
Artificial turf sports fields, on average, will have a lifespan of eight to 10 years, depending on their amount of use and how well they’re maintained. Regular maintenance practices that include some of the finer, often overlooked details can extend the life of a synthetic field a little longer, saving the municipality several thousands of dollars.
“A good, robust maintenance program of some very basic things is the key to longevity on all your turf fields,” Cam Lawrie, facilities supervisor for outdoor sports fields at the University of Guelph, says.
Lawrie was one of three key presenters in October at Sports Turf Canada’s sports field training day at Brampton’s Teramoto Park. Maintaining artificial turf is not difficult, he said, as long as the work is done regularly and short cuts aren’t taken.
All four of the University of Guelph’s full-size artificial turf sports fields are in the process of being replaced, but they’ve lasted longer than average.
“We’re proud to say they’ve lived well past their suggested lifespan,” Lawrie said, noting they have reached their 11th and 12th seasons of play.
If not overused yet maintained regularly, artificial turf fields can achieve similar lifespans. The owner’s manual provided by the synthetic turf vendor is the most important tool to have on hand, he said, adding it contains everything needed to know about proper maintenance. Log sheets documenting all maintenance practices – no matter how big or small – rank second in importance. Good record-keeping will also help to stave off potential lawsuits and litigation.
“The most basic thing you can do every day is walk your fields. We aim to do every field every day at the University of Guelph.”
Maintenance employees walk the entire field from top to bottom or side to side in five-yard-wide passes, looking for anything out of the ordinary, including the presence of garbage, sharp objects and damage to the turf. Lawrie said “damage” is a broad term that might include divots in the infill, a separated seam, burn marks, fluid leaks or melted turf fibres. Walking a field offers a better vantage point to detect inconsistencies.
Lawrie suggested taking photographs of anything out of place, including a reference point of something in the background that will help dial in the precise location of the inconsistency.
Multi-sport synthetic fields will exhibit different wear patterns, depending on the sport. The corners of a field will undergo more wear when soccer is played than when the field is used for football. Soccer players taking corner kicks tend to make practice kicks before striking the ball, creating divots in the infill.
Infill divots are easy to spot, Lawrie said.
“When the infill is removed from in between the fibres, the spot will look very bright.”
A sturdy push broom is usually all it takes to repair infill divots. The infill is simply swept back into the cavity using a circular motion. Maintenance personnel will become more familiar with detecting divots the more they walk their fields, he said, and will become more adept at repairing the damage. It’s important the right broom is utilized, however. One with stiff, plastic bristles will work better than a broom with limp bristles.
“The stiffer the bristles, the easier it is to push the infill back into the hole.”
An understanding of how the field was constructed will also help with divot repair, Lawrie added, noting it’s not as easy as simply sweeping infill back into a hole. A deeper divot might be realized on a sand-based field, requiring additional sand to help support the turf fibres. He recommends overfilling with sand – by about a millimetre or two – followed by an overfill of infill by the same amount.
A sand leveling rake will help to ensure the divot is properly filled.
A magnet bar is an easy-to-use tool that will pick up sharp metal objects which might not be readily seen during field walks. Screws, nails and pins are among the metallic objects most tracked or discarded onto a field. Magnet bars are especially invaluable on artificial turf fields surrounded by a track, Lawrie said.
At the Guelph campus, the first order of business following a track meet is to walk the field while pushing a magnet bar. Track and field athletes usually have a number pinned to their shirt during competition, but the safety pins can sometimes fall off or are haphazardly disposed of at the end of competition. They can easily be tracked onto the interior field and may blend in with the infill if they’re black in colour.
“Some of the things you find on these fields is horrifying.”
Infill can also be compacted in certain high-traffic areas of a field, such as goal mouths or team bench areas where a coach might constantly walk back and forth. A leaf rake can be used to loosen up smaller packed-in areas, Lawrie said, but he cautioned they might not be as effective in larger areas where a power broom is recommended.
It’s easy to see if infill compaction has sufficiently been loosened by looking at the turf fibres. He said if they are no longer matted down, raking was successful.
Other forms of maintenance must be adopted, depending on the circumstances. Sunflower seed shells and confetti are often strewn about a field with little regard to how they must be removed. Lawrie said sunflower seed shells usually need to be removed by hand.
“I haven’t found a real good way to get rid of sunflower seeds from an artificial turf field in an automated or large-scale way.”
Confetti is often tossed on a field during a celebration and is especially difficult to remove when wet as it sticks to the field’s turf fibres.
Lawrie said the best measure to prevent sunflower seed shells or confetti from littering a field is to instruct staff to politely ask players, coaches and spectators to move elsewhere if they wish to indulge.
Artificial turf fields can also be compromised by nature. During the field day, a large flock of seagulls congregated at one end of the park’s artificial field.
“They’ll poop all over your field and leave feathers all over your field,” Lawrie warned, adding athletes don’t want to slide into or be tackled atop bird excrement. Scaring birds away from fields works effectively, especially if border collies are put to work.
Nets and uprights must be anchored and well inspected regularly. Cracks in the infrastructure or missing bolts must be detected to prevent an accident from happening.
Chewing gum, broken glass and vomit are among other challenges confronting maintenance crews. Chewing gum is a particular concern, Lawrie said, but he noted placing a big bag of ice atop gum for about 20 minutes will help with its removal.
“When that gum is frozen, it pretty easily pries out of an artificial turf field. It’s much easier than trying to do it when it’s warm and soft and sticky.”
The propellant in aerosol cans, such as computer keyboard dusters, can also work effectively to freeze gum.
Athletes will occasionally get sick on a field, requiring sanitizing with a
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