Know the facts before investing in a synthetic turf sports field
Only 15 years ago, a grand total of 82 synthetic sports fields were constructed in Canada and the United States. By 2011, about 1,400 artificial fields were built, and the number this year will exceed 2,000.
In spite of the increased demand for synthetic turf fields in recent years, the artificial fields represent just a fraction of the number of total sports fields.
“Although it seems like synthetic turf is really expanding, it’s still a very small drop in a huge bucket,” said Mark Nicholls, president of Turf Industry, a Georgia-based not-for-profit company which offers an unbiased voice to provide industry insight, strategic guidance and educational tools to those interested in receiving fact-based information to help them navigate the complexities of the synthetic turf industry.
Nicholls, who also heads UBUâ€ˆSports, a manufacturer of synthetic turf systems, was keynote speaker at a synthetic turf sports field symposium in November at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute.
“Synthetic turf has really reached mass acceptance in the last decade,” he said, admitting that “there’s nothing better than natural grass to play on” when it is pristine, making it “the perfect surface” for any sport.
The recent growth in the synthetic turf industry, however, has presented new challenges, including the need to educate and train more people to be able to keep up with the rising number of installations.
Nicholls said there are currently about 150 competing companies in North America which sell synthetic turf for sports fields. His manufacturing facility in Dalton, Ga. not only serves the companies he owns, but more than 80 of his competitors. He said not only does he compete against these companies, but, when wearing his manufacturer’s hat, is also a supplier to them.
Municipalities considering the addition of a synthetic turf field to their stable of natural turf fields should have a knowledge of the history of the synthetic turf industry so that they have a better understanding of what they are getting into, he said.
This is mainly because if a vendor suggests a field should last 20 years, he has no basis in reality for making such a claim because no field has ever lasted that long. Even a 15-year projection is mere speculation, Nicholls said, adding the average synthetic turf sports field should last between eight and 12 years.
“That’s the reasonable return on investment.”
The technology behind the type of field sold today is only about 15 years old.
Synthetic turf’s origins date back to the 1960s. At the time, a study had been commissioned by the Ford (Motor Company) family with regard to imminent changes in a modern urban society. Among the study’s findings was that urban children were destined to become obese. It was deemed that there weren’t enough places for children to play in an urban setting, largely because taller buildings were blocking the sun from green areas, causing natural turf to die.
Two companies competed to develop a synthetic turf product which would address the problem. Monsanto, which won the bid, launched a product it called ChemTurf. It wasn’t until the construction of the Houston AstroDome that much attention was paid to the product. The sports stadium, dubbed at the time “the eighth wonder of the world,” originally had a glass roof which shielded a natural turf playing surface. Because glare from the roof had become an ongoing problem, it was painted over but caused the turf to die. Monsanto installed its new product which the media renamed AstroTurf.
By 1977, sand-filled surfaces came along, and the current rubber systems or rubber/sand systems took hold about 20 years later.
Nicholls said that anyone who believes the significant increase in the number of synthetic turf field installations in recent years is the next “gold rush” needs to know that for every 20 to 30 new companies entering the industry, another 20 to 30 are leaving it.
Make sure you know who you’re dealing with, he said, noting their history should be checked, testimonials from previous clients should be heard, and a track record of their experience in the profession should be understood. Additionally, an insured warranty needs to be acquired.
An insured warranty is like a bond whereby an insurance company backs up a vendor’s warranty for a period of usually eight years. If the vendor goes out of business in the meantime, the customer is still protected for the life of the warranty.
“Any credible vendor will automatically have to offer that to you because they don’t have a choice. Anyone who does not have the insured warranty is not a credible vendor and not someone you should be doing business with.”
An insured warranty will cost about $3,000 to ensure the field survives the covered lifespan and is provided sufficient protection.
Nicholls said potential synthetic turf sports field customers need to realize that companies which had been installing about 12 fields a year only 10 years ago are now trying to do about 150 a year. This means that if they haven’t invested in quality control, best practices, more maintenance, more equipment, more skilled labour and more training, the quality of their product and workmanship is likely suffering or will suffer.
“At the same time, you have to build a bigger, more skilled workforce. You can’t have one crew do 10 fields and then try to do 150 fields with one crew.”
Even if one crew is split into two, each will be supplemented by newer, inexperienced workers. Nicholls said it is therefore important for vendors to stay focused on quality control, best practices and training, adding it is equally important for the municipality to deal with a vendor who has real experience in this regard.
Significant science and technology goes into the way synthetic turf is made, including type of fibre, stitch rate and infill type, and tailoring the turf type to a specific sport needs to be understood, he said. A dedicated soccer surface will differ from one meant for football.
“Not all synthetic turf is created equal.”
One surface does not fit all, nor can it optimize player safety in every sport. Saying so “is a convenient manufacturer’s answer.”
Not all products are even close when it comes to performance, Nicholls said, and too often synthetic turf is compared to carpet or natural grass.
“It is neither. It is not carpet and it is not natural grass.”
A natural grass field which does not perform to standard can be remedied through such practices as aeration, overseeding and irrigation. This provides the flexibility and means to manage its performance and safety value.
Before purchasing a synthetic field, become educated about the product, understand its elements and become involved in the decision-making so that the field will provide the expected performance for a decade, Nicholls said.
Player safety is a primary concern before a field is purchased. When a young football player is tackled and hits his head on the playing surface, “that surface that he is impacting is just as important as the helmet on his head.”
Purchasing from the lowest bidder without having detailed specifications can be dangerous. The cheapest bid may not be the best product to address player safety, Nicholls warned.
Purchasing a synthetic turf field can be compared to buying a car at a used car lot. One looking to buy a car will normally have at least a base knowledge of automobiles. If he simply asks the salesman for the cheapest car on the lot, he is apt to be presented with a rundown 1970s model, but if he asks for a specific make, model, colour, type of wheels, stereo, etc. and everything is detailed, he would then likely accept the cheapest-priced automobile which meets his specifications, or at least compare that cost to those at other car lots.
“But if you know nothing about synthetic turf, how can you detail out what you need?”
If a detailed specification isn’t written before entertaining bids for a new synthetic turf sports field, a municipality will end up with that 1970s lemon, he said.
Prepare an evaluated bid, Nicholls said, adding he wouldn’t want to accept a flooring company’s bid to build a sports field even though its quote was $1,000 less than that of a quality contractor who has installed several fields.
As a manufacturer working for more than 80 companies which build systems today, Nicholls said he watches these companies carefully. As an installer as well, he might find himself outbid on a project. Wearing his manufacturer’s hat, he said he’s apt to be familiar with the site to which the product is to be shipped. He also knows his competitor was the lowest bidder for the job, but the product he’s ordering doesn’t meet the specifications.
“Now I understand why they were $10,000 lower, and that’s a problem for me as a man. Ethically, that’s a problem for me.”
Not only is Nicholls a competitor but he’s also the supplier to the winning bidder.
“I know they’re cheating.”
He said he will tell those companies that they’re not meeting the specifications, that they’re missing some things, and that they should do things right. Sometimes, those companies will acknowledge the error of their ways, but occasionally they’ll tell Nicholls to “shut up if you want to continue to be my vendor.”
Nicholls said he has been telling his peers in the industry that if they don’t start to create better standards and better products, that they will kill the industry. Their response is that they’re not killing the industry, but are responding to customers’ primary concern of price. Nicholls’ peers in the industry have told him that if customers cared so much about the quality, they would write better specifications.
Nicholls’ rebuttal is that the customers often don’t know what to write to ensure they get a good quality playing surface.
“If they knew what they were getting or could get, they would write a better specification. My argument is we need to get educated and buy better systems.”
Nicholls challenged his audience to Google “synthetic turf field failures,” telling them it will reveal hundreds of fields in North America that have failed in only the past two or three years.
“It’s the gravitational pull and the lack of knowledge.”
If proper specifications aren’t written, vendors will take elements out of the product in order to become the lowest bidder and thereby maintain their businesses.
“These systems are failing at a fraction of what their useful life should be.”
Nicholls said the buzz words are “buyer beware.” Good specifications must be written, and then the vendor must be held to what is written. It is important to work with credible people and to protect the constituents of that municipality, he added.
Before figuring out what is needed, a municipality must know the field’s intended use. If it’s use is 70 per cent soccer and 30 per cent football or vice versa, it will be a completely different surface with different fibre, different amounts of fibre, different fibre structure and a different stitch rate.
A usage chart can be consulted to help with the right choice. He said to locate on the chart the sports which will share the field and cross reference it with the type of turf which is best for both. If that’s not possible, it is suggested that the “best” recommended turf be located for the primary user which is at least ranked as “better” for the secondary user.
Knowing when a synthetic turf system has reached the end of its effective usefulness is like knowing when a car’s tires need replacement. Over time and with use, the pile of the fibres will slowly wear down.
“How long that takes depends on how well you maintain it, how good the quality was when you bought it in the first place and how much you use it.”
If a motorist drives his car erratically, his tires won’t last as long as they would if he drives sensibly and rotates his tires regularly.
A synthetic turf field fails when the fibre has become so short that sufficient infill can no longer be put in so that the field is still safe upon impact when a body is thrown to the surface. The fibre is the “tread” on a synthetic sports field.
Nicholls said more fields have failed over the past six years than during the previous 40 years.
At the request of the Sports Turf Managers Association, Penn State University has been testing various synthetic turf surfaces to grade the various fibres at different stages of testing which simulates various amounts of wear.
Synthetic turf fibres are made from polyethylene pellets which are mixed with a colourant, a UV stabilizer and other additives. They are mixed, melted down and forced out of a Spinneret Plate. About 85 per cent of the resin in the polyethylene pellets in North America come from Dow which is a company with good quality control and the producer of a good product, Nicholls said. Some vendors, however, will buy their product from offshore.
There are three common grades of resin used in fibre production with only nine cents a foot separating the cost between the highest and lowest grades. The problem, Nicholls said, is that not many people are aware of the degrees in resin quality, but those who do specify the higher grade.
If football is to be the primary sport played on a synthetic turf field, the best type of fibre is slit film. If soccer is to be the primary sport, monofilament is recommended as it is best to withstand slide tackling and providing overall game performance.
Consistent play is also dependent on fibre spacing. Corn rows, for example, will not allow a soccer ball to roll an equal distance in all directions whereas ISOâ€ˆgrid spacing ensures more consistent results.
The turf’s backing can be compared to the foundation of a building in the sense that a building is only as strong as the foundation on which it is built.
A synthetic turf’s backing system is a field’s foundation.
“It is what makes the whole system work.”
An 18-pic polybac primary layer is better and stronger than a 13-pic layer, yet the cost difference is marginal. The secondary backing is a coating at the back of the turf which gives it its all-weather durability while the third layer is a stitch-lock layer to better hold stitching and seams.
There are different types of seams. A chemical, or glued-in, seam is not Nicholls’ preferred choice because the glue can let go over time, causing the seams to pop up. A lap sewn seam can lead to “speed bumps” on the field while a flat sewn seam is a better option. He said there is no difference in cost between the two types of sewn seams. The way in which they are sewn differentiate them from one another.
The best possible seaming method is the hybrid or flat weld seam, Nicholls said. It is “bullet-proof” buts adds about $15,000 more to the overall cost of the field.
Some may argue that the additional $15,000 might mean having to sacrifice the purchase of new goal posts or another needed item while others will suggest that if they’re going to pay $800,000 for a new field, that an additional $15,000 is a small price to pay to ensure a seam never comes loose and presents a tripping hazard.