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Sports field drainage isn't a "sexy" topic, but it's an important one. Photo courtesy of Rettler Corp., Stevens Point, Wisconsin

When it comes to sports fields, success or failure relies on drainage. If a sports field sheds water efficiently and is ready for action in a reasonable amount of time, it's a desirable, successful facility.

However, if there are puddles of water or slick, muddy areas where the grass can be easily uprooted—it’s a problem.

Although there is no formula to make a field drain perfectly, there are reasons it may not:

  • The amount of precipitation in the area

  • The type of soil the field uses

  • The way a field is built and maintained

  • The time needed for a field to rest and dry.

Exploring these factors may help to identify the source of a problem.

What Type Of Soil?

In natural fields, how well the facility drains hinges upon several factors. The first is the type of soil in the field. A native-soil field uses the soil originally found at the site when it was built. Many existing fields fall into this category.

While the true native field (which only uses the original soil and nothing else) may be the technically eco-friendly option and the least expensive, it may not be the most efficient in terms of drainage, and may absorb water more slowly than the field manager would like. In addition, the soil may also compact over time, and drain even more slowly.

Therefore, some native fields are known as modified native-soil fields, and include not only the original soil, but amounts of sand, peat, compost, and other materials to provide a better-growing medium, or a sand-cap field, in which the top portion of the soil is replaced with sand, either during construction or over time.

A second type of system is sand-based, in which the native soil is completely removed and replaced with an under-drain system, a drainage media layer (principally stone), and root-zone material (mainly sand) to improve drainage.

There are other systems as well, but the majority of municipal fields use one of the above.

What Type Of Slope?

A field drains in one true plane (that is, from one side to another, or from one end to another), or it is crowned (meaning sloped in more than one direction, often from the middle of the field outward).

Draw water away from the playing surface. Photo courtesy of Stantec, Boston, Mass.

The low areas where water runs after it leaves the field are where perimeter drains must be installed; without these, areas such as the space behind a soccer or football goal, or the area around the benches where players sit, will collect water, eventually becoming hazardous and unusable.

Different sports have different slope recommendations: Slope Chart

Are You Keeping The Water Moving?

Good drainage starts with limiting the amount of water that goes onto a field. Ideally, the only water that lands on a sports field should come from either rain or irrigation. In other words, water should not enter a field in another way, such as running down bleachers, dripping off dugout roofs, running down nearby hillsides, etc.

Often, the field manager's job is maintenance—either daily, on a game-by-game basis, or according to some other schedule. A few tasks commonly undertaken in maintenance can affect drainage.

For example, those charged with maintaining baseball and softball fields often find that dragging the skinned areas results in a buildup of material where the grass ends and the infield dirt starts. This buildup creates a ”dam” that traps water and doesn't allow it to drain.

Similarly, if a sports field is surrounded by fencing, make sure grass under the bottom of the fence is kept trimmed. Because a mower may not be able to reach this area, the use of a string trimmer is required. Also check for any buildup of leaves or other debris along the fenceline.

Does The Field Get To "Rest” Between Uses?

And so we come to the great problem facing almost every field. Unless a facility is part of a multi-field complex, which allows for regular rotation, it's a sure bet the municipality can't afford to give a field much time off.

Unfortunately, that leads to use of fields when they're wet and muddy—which in turn leaves them bare and damaged—leading to complaints from athletes.

It's a difficult situation, and, unfortunately, the field manager is often caught in the middle. In a perfect world, fields would be rested and allowed to dry, and any damage to the grass would be mended naturally.

In reality, that's not the case, and is one of the reasons many municipalities consider installing at least one artificial-turf field to help lessen the burden on fields that need some time off. (Artificial fields have their advantages and disadvantages—but that's an issue for another time.)

Proper maintenance can go a long way to improving sports field drainage. © Can Stock Photo Inc./Alens

Good drainage for a field is the result of a confluence of factors. Some—the type of soil and the amount of precipitation, for instance—are out of the control of the facility manager, but others, including maintenance techniques, can be used effectively.

Drainage isn't what is known in the trade as a ”sexy” issue. It doesn't have the wow factor of a new scoreboard or a nice dugout, and players rarely remark, “Hey, great drains,” upon entering the facility. For that reason, it's often overlooked or underfunded when facilities are built.

But, unfortunately, the success or failure of the facility will rest on the way it can drain water and be ready for players. And make no mistake—it needs to be ready when they are.

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 relating to sports-facility design, construction, and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, and health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.

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