Biting The Synthetic Bullet

It’s 4 p.m. in late October, and it’s been raining buckets for most of the day. The phone lines are ringing off the hook. With the crisp air and saturated ground, parents everywhere want to know the status of tonight’s games.

Luckily, teams can still play youth football.

Until recently, the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department was in the same situation as many other facilities--teams needed to play, but it was a tough decision whether to sacrifice the integrity of the fields. So, after asking questions and getting advice about the feasibility of switching the playing surfaces from natural to synthetic, here we are, a year later, and it’s time for kickoff.

The park district recently finished several major construction and revitalization projects to give the recreation department nine synthetic-surface playing fields of various sizes.

Youth/flag football, soccer, lacrosse, etc., can now be accommodated on a near year-round basis without having to restrict play due to field limitations.

This article will take a look at an estimated cost comparison of one of the district’s athletic fields that measures 100 yards by 40 yards, versus natural turf of the same size over an eight-year time period.

This period was chosen due to the life cycle of a synthetic surface. Since many of the costs are fixed for both surfaces, it makes it easier to provide an analysis on if “biting the synthetic bullet” and changing to a different playing surface is an appropriate choice for some communities.

It is important to realize that there are some assumptions being made in this comparison. For starters, the cost of one field is figured and multiplied by four in order to obtain a more accurate yearly estimate.

Second, the field is graded with solid turf and a superior root system, so this work was not performed. An irrigation system has already been installed, so the associated costs are not figured into the equation.

The five main considerations are:

• Irrigation

• Mowing

• Painting

• Pesticides

• Fertilization


Since irrigation is a large contributor to the overall cost of field maintenance, let’s start here. The field is irrigated almost daily for eight months of the year, which amounts to 240 cycles. There are 28 sprinkler heads for this size field, and the water cycle runs about 80 minutes. A complete cycle sprays nearly 8,000 gallons of water.

Additionally, the utilities department charges different prices for different water consumptions, so the total cost of water usage for the month is divided by 30 to get an average daily expense. The cost of commercial water also consists of sewer charges, so 8,000 gallons will equal $35.82 per day.

From these numbers, the proposed water cost for one year is $8,596.80.

Mowing, Pesticides, And Fertilization

Mowing and pesticide applications are costs that rival those of water. Mowing is calculated at a minimum of three times per week for nine months. Fuel is included at roughly two gallons ($6.00) per cut, as well as 40 minutes of manpower at a rate of $10 per hour ($6.67).

Fertilization covers over-seeding and scheduled fertilization. Over-seeding with 600 pounds is $597, while scheduled fertilization done a minimum of four times per year equals $210.

Pesticide application is done twice each year on a pre-emergent and post-emergent schedule. Pre-emergent spraying is done in the early fall to resist the growth of fall and winter weeds. Post-emergent is done on an as-needed basis.

Both of these applications are used with a broadcast sprayer. The application normally takes roughly 1.5 hours for a field this size; since the sprayer is used for additional grounds and landscapes, the cost of the machinery is not included in the comparison--only the pesticide, manpower, and fuel consumption.


Presently, when painting the fields, aerosol cans are used instead of concentrated paint mix. While football uses the field 10 weeks per year and soccer needs 25 weeks per year, the two programs do not overlap in the playing season, so we are not able to save paint by doing both simultaneously.

Soccer requires half the amount of time and paint of a normal football field. A case of paint retails at $51.50; it takes seven cases and four man-hours for each football field and three cases and two hours for each soccer field.

The yearly total is $8,367.50 for both.

Add It Up

To summarize, the cost of maintenance for natural turf:

Water--240 cycles x 35.82 = $8,596.80 per year

Mowing--40 weeks x $12.97 = $518.80 per year

Fertilization-- $597 (over-seeding) + 4 applications of fertilizer = $807.00 per year

Pesticide application--$39.20 per year

Paint--35 weeks = $8,367.50 per year

Total = yearly total ($18,329. 30) x four fields x 8 years = $586,537.60

Synthetic Turf

Since synthetic turf is very much like carpet, it is beneficial that lines of different colors for all types of sports can be stitched together, so the need for additional marking paint is almost nonexistent. On the other hand, if you wish to have a simple football or soccer field, you can then apply extra temporary lines with field paint to fit the need for different programs.

Although the $263,000 price tag for synthetic turf may seem like a no-brainer compared to the $586,537.60 for natural-turf maintenance, there are still costs to consider when converting a field.

For instance, the site will need multiple types of stone or gravel to create a strong surface and a combination 50/50 blend of evenly distributed, rounded sand and rubber pellets. And don’t forget about purchasing the turf and repairing it on occasion, which tends to be costly.

A grooming machine (approximately $13,000) also is needed periodically to “stand up” individual strands and redistribute the pellets so that it takes on an appearance of grass rather than carpet.

Below is a diagram of a common base system that is used to create the substrate of a field. Keep in mind all of these components carry a price tag as well:


The synthetic turf became a viable option to replace natural turf for the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department. This may not be an option for every district or agency, but be sure to consider all of the factors to understand how a department can maximize its programs and rentals while lowering the cost to maintain playing surfaces.

Alex Sullins is the adult athletic supervisor for the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department. He can be reached via email