Watering Synthetic Turf—Really?--Part 1

By Randy Gaddo

I remember the first time somebody suggested that I consider putting an irrigation system into a synthetic-turf field. It was one of those “Say what?” moments.

The department was in the middle of evaluating whether to use natural turf or synthetic turf on a couple of new recreational soccer fields, exercising due diligence in doing the cost-benefit analysis. Items such as player safety, rubber in-fill, markings, and a myriad of other elements to consider in the emerging synthetic industry were being scrutinized.

Then someone—I think my facilities manager—told me the department would have to decide whether or not to put in an irrigation system. I looked at him like he was from Mars and said, “Why would we need irrigation on a synthetic field? I thought we were trying to reduce our water use!”

Of course, this was back in the days when dinosaurs walked the earth, and I’m sure parks and rec directors are now much more enlightened and informed on this subject than I was. But there was a time, not so long ago, when that reaction was not so unusual; however, maybe there are still a few people who would be surprised to know they need to irrigate synthetic fields.

An Important Maintenance Component
“Irrigation of synthetic fields is an important maintenance component,” says Darian Daily, Sports Field Manager since 2003 for Paul Brown Stadium, home venue of the Cincinnati Bengals of the National Football League. With a degree in plant and soil science, Daily is at home on natural-turf fields; however, he is responsible for both synthetic and natural game and practice fields.

“Having water available helps with cleaning and for temporary cooling of the synthetic fields,” he adds. “With that said, most synthetic fields don’t have irrigation systems installed because of the need to cut costs.” At this point, he estimates that a majority of synthetic fields don’t have in-ground irrigation systems or even water hookups. As a board member of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), Daily keeps his green thumb on the pulse of the industry.

There are more than 12,000 synthetic-turf fields currently in the U.S., according to the Synthetic Turf Council (STC), a non-profit organization founded in 2003 to serve as a resource of information (www.syntheticturfcouncil.org). The STC also estimates that about 1,500 synthetic fields were installed in North American schools, colleges, parks, and professional sports stadiums in 2015 alone.

Reasons To Irrigate
If Daily’s estimation is correct, that equals many, many synthetic-field users who are not experiencing the benefits of watering the fields. In reality, there are several good reasons to irrigate synthetic turf, but they aren’t readily apparent.

Daily lists several key benefits:

  • To flush contaminants such as dust, dirt, bodily fluids, etc. through the system. A properly constructed synthetic field enables water to quickly drain down through granulated rubber in-fill into a sub-surface drainage system that carries it out to purification facilities.
  • To help “settle” the in-fill during construction, and when in-fill is added.
  • To break the static cling between synthetic-turf fibers and the rubber in-fill material, which will eliminate the dark look of a field after maintenance or games; it also makes the turf fiber stand up and look like it’s supposed to.
  • To temporarily cool a field for a period of about 45 minutes after watering.

“Watering is still generally considered a luxury item when converting a field to synthetic turf,” says Daily, noting that often, ironically, a big selling point for installing synthetic fields is eliminating the need to irrigate.

Of course, Daily is dealing with a professional sports-team budget, and the Bengals’ stadium field, converted to synthetic turf in 2012, is also used for other high-profile special events, such as concerts. A parks and rec director trying to sell the need to absorb the up-front costs of converting a recreational field to a synthetic field, or building a new one from scratch, will need to be convincing to explain to purse-string holders why the cost of irrigation should be added.

“The synthetic-turf industry has promoted little or no maintenance for many applications of synthetic turf for many years, and this continues to perpetuate even today,” says Greg Parker, an STC member who is Brand/Specification Manager, Mirage/2Wire Controls with Underhill International Corporation. He adds that there are now government regulations requiring field testing and compliance every two years that didn’t exist even four or five years ago.

Right The First Time
However, the perception that conversion to synthetic turf will eliminate many maintenance requirements, including the need to irrigate, makes it easy to cut irrigation from the budget entirely; it is a mistake that can have serious implications down the line. 

Parker advises anyone considering a synthetic field to—at a minimum—prepare the field for a possible addition of irrigation. He suggests installing everything except for sprinkler heads and pump stations that can then be added later at a fraction of the cost. He cites as an example the city of San Francisco, which has built several large synthetic sports fields in Golden Gate Park, outfitted with the preparatory systems.

“It is also advisable to have a design professional involved in properly sizing the supply and distribution systems based on the sprinkler heads to be used,” he says. “These systems require someone who is knowledgeable in distribution of large volumes of water at relatively high pressures. The consequences of a poor design and poor construction can be catastrophic and generally too costly to correct, once built.”

Parker echoes all the benefits of irrigating synthetic turf that Daily espouses, but also explains that irrigation can increase the material life of some synthetic fibers, reducing their potential to become prematurely brittle or stiff.  “Some sports, such as field hockey, actually require a specific amount of water on the field to provide resistance to the ball so it skips rather than bounces,” he notes.

Parker notes that player safety should be the number-one reason to irrigate synthetic fields, even in the face of budgetary pressures. “There are a multitude of studies specific to player fatigue and sports injury due to heat exhaustion, particularly with hot field temperatures,” he says. “End users don’t realize that a synthetic field can reach summer, daytime temperatures of up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit; that is hot enough to melt most high-quality athletic footwear, not to mention being very uncomfortable for players.”

Public awareness of sport injuries, particularly concussions, is starting to change decision makers’ opinions about the benefits of irrigating synthetic fields. In many instances, the risk of injuries outweighs the cost of adding an irrigation element. For private schools or private/public universities, it’s more of a necessity and is budgeted accordingly.

Ways Of Watering
The level of budgeting also will be driven by the widely varying methods of getting ample water onto synthetic fields. There are quite a few choices of “irrigation systems” for synthetic fields:

  • Quick couplers around the perimeter of the field
  • Quick couplers with mechanical hose reels and impact sprinklers
  • Portable “rain-guns” that plug into quick connects along the perimeter of a field and require manual efforts to constantly move up and down the sidelines.

A number of different types of pop-up sprinkler heads, some requiring a separate valve for operation and others with the valve built into the sprinkler, are similar to what the golf industry has done for many years but on steroids in terms of radius and flow.

Some less-apparent consequences of not providing for irrigation of synthetic fields can be another stimulus for decision makers. For example, hotter climates could lead to shorter hours of use. In Arizona, there is no play in the middle of the day in the summer heat without irrigation; and even then, the cooling effect only lasts a limited time, depending on temperature and humidity. However, this in turn can pit public expectations against reality, and turn compliments about the field to complaints.

You Decide
There is still the question whether irrigation of synthetic fields is absolutely needed or not; the decision is very much a function of local desires, budgets, competing resources, and the resolve to engage in long-term operations and maintenance of the systems. The point is that anybody looking at synthetic fields should carefully weigh the topic of irrigating them.

The Sports Turf Managers Association (www.stma.org) is an excellent source of information about synthetic fields as well as natural turf.

“Our members manage natural-grass fields and synthetic fields, so we provide information and education to help them with both field types,” explains Kim Heck, CEO of STMA. “However, 99 percent of our membership manages natural-grass surfaces, and 44 percent manages a synthetic surface within their inventory. Our members who manage a synthetic surface … agree that a synthetic surface is another tool and resource to help them provide safe and playable fields … and field overuse is a real challenge.”               

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 cwo4usmc@comcast.net.