The challenges of maintaining artificial turf athletic fields
March 28, 2011 By Mike Jiggens
AS demand for playing time on sports fields increases among user groups
across Canada, many areas have been forced to consider the installation
of synthetic surfaces so that their natural fields stand a better
chance at wear recovery.
In many of these cases, the decision to go synthetic is often done reluctantly as the costs of material and installation can be extreme, and such issues as player safety continue to be questioned. But the lack of traditional maintenance practices required, the cost savings in fertilizer and chemicals, and the ability to use the fields around the clock have made the decision to go artificial easier to make.
Choosing the right type of field, however, is still a key consideration.
February’s Ontario Turfgrass Symposium at the University of Guelph heard from three individuals who have made the transition to artificial turf in recent years in their respective communities. Each spoke of the challenges involved as well as key considerations others might want to make before installing a synthetic surface of their own.
Frank Cain, a consulting supervisor with the University of Guelph’s department of athletics, recently oversaw the installation of a FIFA 2-Star certified field, across from the private Cutten Club, which was constructed primarily for rugby use.
“They’re not maintenance-free,” he said. “We found that out rather quickly when we installed the field.”
Hours are involved each day for its maintenance and, as demand for the field increases, so does the amount of labour required to maintain it.
Cain said athlete safety and the ability to offer consistant playing conditions are paramount. To achieve those standards, he said a FIFA 2-Star quality field with 1-Star durability were prerequisites laid out in the bidding process. This helped to immediately eliminate companies which could not meet such stringent standards.
In order to maintain the strict FIFA-standard warranty, however, the field’s upkeep has to be done according to FIFA specifications.
“It’s a lot of work and documentation and a lot of requirements to make sure your warranty’s still good after all the years of play and use,” he said.
The work to maintain an artificial field at such high standards is repetitive, Cain said, and much of it involves the cleanup of litter and foreign debris. Items such as bobby pins and cleats are often cleaned up off the field.
Because the field is maintained in a non-traditional manner—as compared to the upkeep of a natural turf field—labour doesn’t necessarily have to include members of a grounds crew “so you can get away with a less qualified staff.”
“Through proper maintenance, you should be able to use it as often as possible.”
Aside from rugby, the field is used for field hockey, lacrosse and soccer.
Cain said if larger repairs are required to the field, the work shouldn’t be undertaken by part-time staff. Rather, the manufacturer should be consulted so that any required work doesn’t violate warranty issues. Doing it yourself can cause more trouble, he said.
When purchasing a synthetic field, the manufacturer will recommend the type of equipment that should be used to maintain it. Additionally, the contractor who installed the field is apt to want to sell the buyer a piece of equipment to capitalize on its markup. But it soon becomes apparent that maintenance work can often be done cheaper by using equipment that staff has fabricated itself, Cain said.
“Make sure you do your homework before you start buying equipment.”
At the Guelph field, Cain said staff likes to break up the infill with grooming equipment, loosen it up and then regroom the surface so that it’s level. An all-in-one piece of equipment hauled by a Gator is used to do the work. It has a magnetic bar to collect metallic debris, tines to “shake up” the infill and a grooming brush at its rear.
Another maintenance tip he suggested was to drag a holed, rubber safety mat which helps the fibres to stand up straight. He cautioned, however, to be careful with sweepers which can potentially destroy the artificial turf fibres.
Signage posted at the field outlines a number of strict rules which user groups must abide by to help reduce the amount of damage to the field. For example, eating sunflower seeds on or near the field is strictly forbidden.
Occasionally, summer temperatures will exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit which means the surface temperature can reach about 165 degrees. In such cases, there should be no play on the field.
Another rule forbids the use of athletic shoes with removable cleats. Athletes must adopt footwear with molded cleats.
“If you’re going to spend money on an artificial field, put in lights because the only way you’re going to pay for the field is to rent it out as often as possible.”
Cain said both lights and bleachers will help the field to be paid off that much faster.
Going the FIFA route is the best way to not only ensure the quality of the field, but also the integrity of the supplier, he said.
Jay Todd, director at Toronto’s Downsview Park, which has a number of both natural and artificial turf fields, echoed Cain’s sentiments about the amount of maintenance required in the upkeep of synthetic surfaces.
With only a small contingent of staff assigned to maintain the fields at the federally-operated park, the amount of work required can be labour-intensive.
An old airplane hangar once owned by the de Havilland Aircraft Company and the Canadian Forces has been converted to house indoor synthetic playing fields. Although rainfall washing up debris isn’t an issue, its concrete floor promotes shifting of the artificial surface. The weight of the rubber underlayer was meant to stabilize the playing surface, but it is wearing and starting to pull up, Todd said. He suspects the synthetic turf will need replacement within the next couple of years.
He advised turfgrass managers who already look after artificial turf fields or are considering installing one to not leave heavy equipment atop the surface for extended periods of time because the weight will damage the turf.
Because the artificial fields at Downsview Park are used for more than just sporting events, spills of various liquids will frequently get into the turf fibres. In those cases, and with spit or blood coming into contact with the fields during sports events, maintenance staff will mist the field with a solution of hydrogen peroxide and brush it back and forth among the fibres to keep it clean and prevent bacteria and mould from settling in.
Abuse of the fields is fairly high, Todd said, but educating the various user groups can help them show some respect for the fields.
“Common sense is what it’s all about.”
Frank Erle, manager of TD Waterhouse Stadium at the University of Western Ontario in London, spoke of the challenges he has faced through the years at the artificial turf field.
Built in 2000 to accommodate field hockey at the Canada Games, the field was touted to last 10 to 12 years, but the company which sold it went bankrupt in 2003 and the field started to fall apart by 2005.
The turf had “shrunk” which required stretching and patching it in places. Its two-inch rubber underlayer was starting to split and its fibres were disappearing to the point where the turf’s white backing could clearly be seen.
The deterioration of the field began in 2005 which prompted the university to look into its replacement. Erle said the biggest obstacle he faced was trying to persuade the university’s administration that the field needed replacement when the key decision makers had understood the original field was meant to last upwards of 12 years. Claiming it was a safety hazard, and having the backing of team doctors, the administration green-lighted the project.
A user committee of the university’s football and rugby coaches and two soccer officials was struck, and set out on a province-wide tour to look at other artificial turf fields, paying particular attention to their type of fibre.
“We knew we would go with an infill field as opposed to a carpet-based,” Erle said, but added they had to choose between a monofilament and polyfilament system.
Another key consideration involved how much “spraying” of rubber granules would take place in game play. When a player is tackled, a spray of granules will often be kicked up and fibres will stick to equipment and be tracked into unwanted areas, creating a mess.
“One of the things we wanted to look for was a type of turf that did not have a really bad spray.”
As part of the committee’s fact-finding mission, they attended an athletic business conference at which more than 20 artificial turf manufacturers exhibited their products. The committee examined each of their samples to determine how easy it was to pick out the individual fibres, and ran their hands across the samples to see what kind of trail was left behind.
“It was surprising what we found out by doing those two little things,” Erle said, adding if it was relatively easy to pick out little pieces of turf from the samples, it would be easier yet in a game situation.
A consultant was hired to assist in the selection process with the stipulation he be present on site during the new turf’s installation. Erle said the university did not want to get “burned” a second time as it had in 2000.
The committee opted for permanent stitched-in lines for football and soccer to avoid having to continually paint lines on the field.
The new field, installed in 2007, is 67 yards wide, falling short three yards to comply with FIFA standards. The university, however, hired a company which certifies fields to test the surface so that it met FIFA 1-Star and 2-Star standards, even though it can’t be officially designated as such.
“We’re very happy with the turf,” Erle said.
The old turf was purchased by a paintball organization in Calgary for use in its facility.
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