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Natural Grass Or Synthetic Turf?

The good news is that you're acquiring a new multi-sports field. The bad news is that your desk suddenly resembles a city skyline, with different stacks of brochures and catalogues advertising everything from seed to sod to synthetic turf to maintenance products you never knew existed.

Welcome to the decision-making process. It's nerve-wracking, especially since there’s probably been plenty of input (not all of it useful) from front-office management to end users who want to weigh in on what to do next.

Let's get two things straight before choosing a field surface. First, everyone has a favorite type of surface. There are those who love a natural-grass field, and there are those who favor synthetic turf (and people who have equally strong emotions against one or the other). Second, there is no one “right” choice across the board; there is only the choice that is right for the given installation.

While there are many factors to consider, the one to remember is that the ultimate goal is to provide a safe and stable playing surface for athletes. Once that is established as the priority, it is easier to move forward.

Obtain Help

First, find a professional partner who can help weigh the options. When working with a consultant, such as a licensed design professional, Certified Field Builder or someone with expertise in sports fields, it’s important to define your remaining needs and priorities.

Before consulting with that person, quantify those needs by keeping a list of relevant questions. You may even want to send the list to the consultant prior to meeting with him or her, to provide a better background about the proposed facility.

First, think about the use of the planned facility:

• Will it be used year-round, or will it be closed during certain seasons? Will it be used for practice as well as games?

• Will it be used to host any other special activities, such as community fairs, school field days, etc.?

• Will it host different types of sports (football, soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, etc.) or just one?

• Will it host field events, such as javelin or hammer throw?

• Do you anticipate any events held on the field to be televised?

• Is this the only field in the area, or are there others that can be used in case of problems or rainouts?

Next, consider the site for the facility:

• Is it in an area where there are utilities, such as water, sewer and electricity?• What is the soil like? Does it drain well?

• Is the facility out of the way, or in public view?

• Will the area be open to the public 24 hours a day, or will it be closed when not in use?

Then, examine the budget to determine:

• How much do you want to spend on the finished facility?

• What are the maintenance capabilities? (Nothing is maintenance-free, so be honest and try to quantify how much maintenance funding is in the budget as well as the capabilities of the current maintenance crew, including the available time and expertise).

Finally, ask yourself:

• What's the local climate like? Does it rain a lot, or very little?• How hot is it during the playing season?

• How likely are the athletes in the area to observe any rules regarding footwear, field closures and permissible activities on the field?

There are many questions, but having the answers can help define needs so a professional partner can translate them into a decision that is right for you.

Maintenance: The Common Denominator

When making a decision about field type, remember that all fields--natural or synthetic--require maintenance. Synthetic turf does not need to be mowed, but it is not maintenance-free; it requires regular care to keep it performing well, just as a natural-grass field does.

No one type of field is perfect, so the best approach is to determine which field can provide the most desired qualities. Define the priorities, and know where there is room to compromise. Consider the pros and cons of each field as dictated in Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual:

Natural Grass

Advantages:

• At the professional level, players and spectators still seem to prefer natural-grass fields. A recent survey of the National Football League Players Association found that a majority of players preferred natural grass.

• Natural turf does not hold heat like synthetic surfaces.

• While easily damaged by heavy use or poor weather conditions, natural-grass fields are inexpensive and easy to repair; if they are vandalized with spray paint or other materials, the damage repairs itself as the grass grows.

• Since they are not permanently lined, it is easy to convert natural fields from one sport to another.

Disadvantages:

• In the parts of the country with a severe winter, grass goes dormant by the middle of October, and field repairs must wait until spring. If the fields are seeded in late summer or early fall (depending upon the geographic area), they must be closed so that the grass can establish itself.

• At a minimum, fields require mowing and marking, and if the weather is not conducive, regular irrigation is necessary in order for the fields to remain usable; occasionally, they also need fertilization, topdressing, weed and pest control and more.

• In heavy rain, fields can flood and become muddy, necessitating cancellation and rescheduling of games.

• It may be necessary for grass fields to “rest” between heavy uses, in order to allow the grass to recover. If fields are overused, they will be skinned and bare of grass, particularly in areas that see heavy use.

Synthetic Turf

Advantages:

• Synthetic turf does not grow; therefore, it does not need mowing, nor does it need to be relined constantly. (It can be permanently marked for multiple sports.)

• Aesthetically, these fields are attractive, with a deep, uniform green color that shows up well on television as well as in still photography.

• In areas where there is frequent and/or heavy rain, synthetic-turf fields drain quickly and are usable sooner than natural-grass fields.

• Fields made of synthetic turf handle more play without “resting” between uses.

• During winter months, synthetic-turf fields can allow regular snow removal (with manufacturer-approved equipment). The fields’ ability to heat up in the sun also helps melt snow, allowing them to be playable before natural-turf fields.

Disadvantages:

• Unlike their natural counterpart, damage to synthetic fields can be complicated and costly to repair, meaning that not all events should be held there. (For example, UEFA, the European governing body for football, also known as soccer, has noted that javelin and hammer-throwing events can damage synthetic turf and must be held elsewhere.)

• Heat builds up quickly on synthetic fields, which may create a safety concern for athletes in warm climates.

• There is sometimes a health concern. Grass fields contain natural organisms that break down contaminants found in bird droppings or in bodily fluids like sweat, blood or vomit. Synthetic-turf fields do not have these naturally occurring bacteria, and owners may need to keep the fields clean and disinfected.

In most cases, synthetic fields have a high initial installation cost; however, it is essential to consider that regular mowing, fertilization, etc. will not be necessary.

Just as there are different types of grass, there are different types of synthetic turf, as well as different types of infill (the particles within the turf system itself, usually crumb rubber or a mixture of sand or crumb rubber, although other materials are used as well). A professional partner can help explain the properties of each type of surface, natural and synthetic, and explain why one or another may work better in different situations.

Note: A fairly new entry into the market is the hybrid field, an artificial-turf field that has been purposefully sown with natural grass as well, in order to try to maintain as many of the playing qualities and advantages of both fields as possible. If you are interested in this emergent technology, discuss it with a professional partner; like both natural grass and artificial turf, the hybrid field has its advantages and disadvantages.

This information is not a complete analysis; other factors apply, and should be taken into consideration as well. And as mentioned above, it is rare that one type of field has all the advantages (and no disadvantages); in most cases, there is give-and-take in the decision-making process.

Many organizations have found that, rather than settling on one type of field, there is an advantage to having a balance of both natural and artificial facilities available.

The artificial-turf facilities help avoid rainouts and rescheduling by allowing for games to be played sooner after a rain, while the natural-grass fields host events like community fairs or fireworks displays, which have the potential to cause expensive damage to a synthetic surface.

“Having constructed both natural-grass and synthetic fields at locations throughout the northeast, our experience is that organizations that have a synthetic field nearby will see improvement to their natural-grass fields," says James Catella of The Clark Companies in Delhi, N.Y.

"The ability to have multiple practices and games by various teams on the multipurpose synthetic field allows for facilities personnel to dedicate more time to their maintenance practices of the natural-grass fields. They also experience improved conditions because of the rotation of use on the natural-grass fields due to the availability of the synthetic field during inclement weather conditions.”

By working with a competent partner, by taking into consideration the pertinent facts about the use, the site, the budget and more, and by weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each surface, you'll wind up with a clearer path through the decision-making process and a better feel about the decision you’ll eventually make.

Note: The American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) is a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports-facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books and technical construction guidelines for athletic facilities, including athletic fields. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA’s Membership Directory. Info: 866-501-ASBA (2722) or www.sportsbuilders.org

Mary Helen Sprecher has been a technical writer for more than 20 years with the American Sports Builders Association. She has written on various topics related to sports-facility design, construction and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and is a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.

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