Synthetic turf changes: what’s normal and what’s not?

Many synthetic turf fields are in use today and more are being built every week. Ultimately though, every field will wear out and need to be replaced or rebuilt. And most of those will be replaced with new synthetic surfaces.

With all the fields in play today, it’s inevitable that problems will crop up. Some fields may have experienced extreme events or natural disasters. Some have not been maintained properly. Unfortunately, the latter category causes most of the problems and causes a shortened lifespan. Occasionally, fields may be found to have component flaws or manufacturing defects. Some projects may not have been built properly or installed properly.

When fields show signs of problems after installation and before the warranty expires, owners will typically contact their vendor and ask for advice or help. Make no mistake: this is the proper way to address a warranty concern. Here’s how:

  • Contact the entity that issued the warranty (this is generally the manufacturer of the turf itself) with your concern and make sure your complaint is in letter form. Keep a copy.
  • In general, the more documentation you can provide, the more substantiated your complaint will be. For a list of all relevant materials, see below.

If the warranty is valid and has language that protects the owner from failure (for a specific amount of time), the vendor (generally the manufacturer of the turf) is obligated to respond and to investigate the concern. And it’s typical the vendor will be interested in helping, since they want a satisfied customer.

Keep an eye on your field

As previously mentioned, there are a few fields that will not make their warranted life due to these flaws or defects. However, these problems rarely happen all at once; they typically happen over a long period of time, sometimes years, so a field owner needs to be vigilant about conditions and changes.

In the beginning, a problem may be barely noticeable, and unfortunately that leads many owners to shrug it off. But while the following will sound self-evident and maybe even obnoxiously obvious, it’s still a fact: grass fields can repair their own damage. Synthetic fields can’t. The longer you let a problem go, the worse it’s going to become. We wouldn’t have to say this if we didn’t see it all too often, so for what it’s worth, get problems documented/addressed promptly because they will only contribute to the deterioration of your field.

Signs of design or construction flaws that are not related to the synthetic turf playing surface are fairly simple. These may include the following:

  • The lines on your field showing waviness or not being as level as when installed
  • The field or track showing an undulating surface or not being as level as when installed
  • Cracking in concrete curbing or sidewalks
  • Water standing or puddling on the field or track, especially if it wasn’t there previously.

These are all indicators of a potential problem in design or construction and may be linked to an underlying soil issue.

The main causes of total failure of a synthetic field system are fiber breakdown and loss of tuft bind. These are two completely separate issues. In loss of tuft bind, the entire fiber begins to pull through the backing and of the turf. Eventually these will make your field look odd (furry or “weeds” as they are known in the industry) due to the inconsistent length of the tips. This will be obvious as there will be longer fibers found across the field. This situation will only get worse over time.

It is common to see loose fibers on a field after installation. These fibers, usually 2 to 2-1/2 inches in length, are from inlays or perforations and barely attached and most will be cleaned up during installation of infill brushing or the first year of use and maintenance. It is NOT common to see loose, longer fibers on your field. If longer fibers (4 to 5 inches) are found on your field, it could be an indicator of low tuft bind. These loose fibers in most cases will be “V” shaped from the tufting process.
Fiber breakdown is when the fibers in the system begin to exhibit splitting, fraying, discoloration, matting or complete breakage. Breakage can be in stages. UV, usage, maintenance and incorrect infill levels all can contribute to fiber breakdown. Unfortunately, there are some fields that have fiber that exhibit this breakdown from manufacturing component flaws as well. If you believe you see this, call your vendor and ask for a review.

Importance of infill

Field owners should monitor their infill level and make sure they stay within the specified levels of their vendor. It’s simple, the proper level of infill supports/protects the fibers. Less infill will not and exposes more of the fiber, which will allow it to lay over. If you are seeing darker areas on your field, almost like dirty spots, this is an indication the infill is too high. This could be an indicator of fiber issues (fiber loss will no longer cover the infill). The best way to monitor infill level is hand measure with an SFS depth gauge (used for foam insulation) or to use a Gmax testing service. By entering “Gmax testing in (your state),” for example, you will likely find a number of vendors who can help you. Be sure to check references and professional certifications to find the best possible partner. Gmax agencies will document your infill levels during the testing of your field.

If you end up having an issue that doesn’t get resolved to your satisfaction with your vendor, you may need to consult with a professional. A consultant knowledgeable in the issues can greatly increase your chances for success, should things get adversarial with your warranty provider. An experienced team can also greatly expedite your timeline for repairs or replacement.

With any luck, you’ll be in the majority of field owners whose facilities have a long and happy lifespan. However, remember that keeping proper documentation is always a good habit to follow. You’ll never regret having excellent records.

Guide to what to save

Yes, it’s easy to say “Everything is online” or “The company that put in the field has all this on file” or even (a personal favorite) “We have a copy of that somewhere.” None of those is a substitute for actual recordkeeping. At a minimum, your records relating to the field should include:

  • Any pre-contract marketing/correspondence, any presentation documentation (some will video tape all presenters), sales samples, all proposals, specifications, contract, submittal, as-built, warranty, testing documentation during construction.
  • A copy of your contract with the installer
  • Operation and maintenance guidelines from your installer (including warranty requirements)
  • An executed copy of the warranty
  • Attic stock (extra materials) of all components and colors: Most contracts will have an allowance of materials to be retained.
  • Any and all repair requests and warranty correspondence.
  • Documentation of the infill levels at completion of the field: This is essential to make sure you received the specified amount to protect your athletes as well as your system investment. Some will go as far as to request the shipping/bills of lading for the infill deliveries to make sure the weights/amounts are proper.
  • A maintenance log of all activities, especially if your vendor’s warranty requires this. You will want to prove you have done your part to keep the field in good condition. Note: Maintenance logs should show the owner has adhered exactly to the recommendations concerning maintenance, which may mean the use of certain methods, products or service providers, so if you have copies of receipts for those products or services, include them as well
  • Perform Gmax testing on your field every year or at a minimum, every two years. Most Gmax testing agencies will document the infill levels and overall condition of your field.
  • Take photos of the field at any time, especially after installation and if you have any concern at all. Photos should include problem spots when they first appear. Do not wait for them to worsen before taking photos or reporting them.
  • Do not wait to document any repair/warranty concern. The longer you use the field while knowing of a concern, the harder it will be to convince a court that you did as much as you could do to resolve your issue with your vendor. (Nobody encourages litigation, but the fact is that a court will typically look at the amount of use (years/months) regardless of any non-prorated warranty language.)
  • Act quickly and remember that delays in response, delays in meetings/inspections, delays in testing all add up to time and that works against YOU, the warranty holder and on the side of the installer/warranty issuer.

John M Schedler CFB, CTB, is Baraka Sport’s principal and has more than 30 years of experience in the construction of sports facilities throughout the USA and internationally,