Do You Need A Safety Net?
By Randy Gaddo
Driving on Interstate 85 in Georgia along a route I had to transit quite often for a number of years, I had one enduring image.
On a long, flat stretch of highway, I saw in the distance these tall black columns rising in the sky. As I drove closer, I saw they were enormous metal pipes towering some 90 to 100 feet.
Strung between the poles was the largest netting I’d ever seen. There were also at least two dozen poles spaced about 50 feet apart, and black netting arched gracefully from one to the other.
I had no idea what it was, and when I asked around, somebody told me there was a golf driving range nearby, and the netting was all that kept any errant balls from crashing into my windshield.
When I first saw the netting, it was in good shape, and I marveled at the enormity of the task it must have been to construct. But over the years, as I continued to drive that route, the netting went from great looking to torn here and there to shredded in large places and finally to large sections hanging down, leaving gaping holes.
I haven’t driven that route in years, but that image stays in my mind, and I’ve always had questions. Did the golf range close? Did the owners run short on cash and defer maintenance on the netting to the point that it became an eyesore instead of a protective shield? I’ll never know.
You Get What You Pay For
One thing I’ve learned is that netting can be a blessing or a curse; it all depends on what you need it for, how good the netting and infrastructure system are, how well it is installed, and how it is maintained.
“What I’ve found after more than 20 years selling and installing netting systems is that, for the most part, you get what you pay for,” comments Bob Watson, on TurfNet. He has been a member of TurfNet since 2002.
TurfNet (www.turfnet.com) was founded in 1994 as a place for golf course superintendents to share experiences and opinions, avoid problems, save money, help others, and get help when needed.
Watson is president of Net Connection in Birmingham, Ala., and deals with golf courses across the U.S. to plan, design, and install netting systems. He often faces a hard sell because expending funds on protective netting is generally the last thing customers are planning to do. In most cases, it comes down to necessity and liability.
“Tolerance for liability is a determining factor when considering the length and height of a netting system,” says Watson, adding that aesthetics and budget are the two other primary considerations.
“Are you trying to protect a school yard, a road, a parking lot, or just prevent balls from going into the woods?” he says. “A good supplier should provide ball-trajectory studies as well as knowledge and experience gained as a result of working with other customers with similar conditions. They should also offer several pricing options for your consideration.”
Trajectory studies use ball-launch data captured by radar tracking. The study helps develop a model that assists in determining the best optimal heights and locations of netting barriers.
Something Must Be Done
Golf courses are a lot like airports; many of them were originally constructed in the middle of open land or on the outskirts of a town. Then, over the years, the city grew, and homes, businesses, or both began to encroach on the perimeter of the courses. This encroachment would often cause serious conflicts between the public and flying balls—or flying airplanes.
As any parks and rec maintenance or management pro knows, when there’s a conflict between the public and the operation, it becomes a point of constant contention until something is done. Either at a ball field or golf course, balls interacting with traffic or people become a liability. You can fight it, but eventually netting becomes one of the best—and sometimes the only—solution.
As with any aspect of facilities maintenance, there’s the right (and often more expensive) way of doing things, and there’s the wrong (likely the cheapest) way.
When thinking about possibly using netting, there are several key considerations:How high should you go, what quality of netting is appropriate, and what type of poles, hardware, and cable should be used?
“Customers never complain that their new netting system is too high,” Watson says. “In fact, within a few months, most wish they had gone higher.”
Having dealt with netting situations for youth-sports fields, I can attest to that fact. Invariably, no matter how high the netting or how many balls the netting stops, if one pop foul goes over, one soccer ball goes down in the gully, or one golf ball cracks a windshield, the cry of “Why didn’t you go higher?” will be heard.
Of course, when netting is installed, some neighbors may complain that it is an eyesore, that it detracts from the aesthetics, or lowers their property value. While this may be true, I would think it’s better than having a golf ball go through a window. Some places even try the type of netting system that can be raised or lowered either by hand or by powered device.
Watson tells of one customer who had that type of system due to citizen complaints, and his company would take the netting down in winter and put it back up in spring. “They stopped doing that after three or four years, probably due to the expense,” he says.
He also noted that those types of systems don’t generally work well with large-scale, outdoor netting systems. “If they did work, everyone would have them,” he says. I would add that if the netting system is needed, it probably needs to be up all the time to be effective anyway.
A Closer Look
There are four main types of netting:
There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Some are more rigid, some do better with high-wind loads, some are more UV-resistant, and some have more give. The variations are too extensive to include in this article.
A parks and rec department that is considering netting should study the variations closely to determine which would be best for the specific application, and/or work with a trusted consultant in the industry who can cut through the confusion.
“A high-quality net, properly installed on a well-built infrastructure, should have an 8- to 12-year life expectancy,” explains Watson. “This will vary due to weather events—some can last 15 years.”
The infrastructure consists of poles, hardware, and cables. Poles are wood, steel, or concrete and, again, each has advantages and disadvantages. Wood is less expensive but can become a maintenance headache, and can also be a target for pests, such as woodpeckers or beetles. Concrete is the most expensive. Neither wood nor concrete poles can be safely extended if there is a need to go higher. Steel poles can be extended later, but both the pole and its foundation must be designed and constructed to support that possibility.
It doesn’t pay to buy quality poles and netting and then go cheap on the hardware.
The cables, bolts, clamps, washers, and guy wires should all be utility-grade, extra high-strength, and galvanized. They should meet specifications approved by organizations like the American National Standards Institute and the American Society for Testing and Materials.
It is no simple task to drive tall, heavy poles into the ground and add netting that will withstand wind loads, ice storms, UV rays, and anything else Mother Nature can throw at them; considerable engineering is needed to ensure the poles will stay where they’re put.
A good example occurred this winter out West, where ice storms brought down sport netting, Watson recalls.
“We are putting poles up to 170 feet high for some customers,” he says, adding that his company works with engineering firms to ensure the proper geotechnical studies are done prior to designing the pole foundation. “We are putting those poles minimum 30 feet in the ground with concrete and rebar,” he says.
Buying What’s Best For You
There are many companies that sell netting systems, so finding the best contractor at the lowest prices can be a challenge.
“We fill a very unique niche, and many people don’t understand the business,” says Watson. “I have found that it is best to educate potential customers on all aspects of our business,” because educated customers will choose the best contractor for their needs.
Potential buyers should first educate themselves as much as possible so they can narrow their search for a contractor to the best two or three, and then interview each separately. “Ask a lot of questions,” Watson suggests, emphasizing that the questions should be identical for each contractor. Interviewers should have a common scoring sheet and take notes to keep careful track of each contractor’s responses. This will help quantify the final decision to hire the best qualified company.
Watson also stresses that the lowest bid is many times not the best bid. Minimizing pole size or using lower-grade netting or hardware might bring the up-front costs down, but that will be dwarfed by the repair and replacement costs down the line, not to mention complaints when netting is in a state of disrepair.
When I saw those big nets along the interstate, I wasn’t yet involved in parks and rec. As a member of the general public, I remember how shabby the netting looked as it deteriorated. Now, as I think about that image with a more trained eye, I realize that either somebody went broke, closed the range without bothering to take the netting down, or were still in business but somebody was not paying attention.
Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or email@example.com.