By Michael Wear
As synthetic turf came into the athletic field many sports field managers were wary and thought it would change the industry and they would become obsolete. It did, in fact, change the industry, but many of the same skills, practices and principles applied to natural grass field management are transferable to synthetic turf. Just as we had to learn the playing surface and all of its intricacies, and what did and didn’t work for natural grass, we have to learn those same things for synthetic turf. Once we learn the intricacies of the surface, we transfer our natural grass talents to the synthetic aspect.
Just as with natural grass, there should be three key components of focus for any synthetic turf maintenance program:
So why perform maintenance on synthetic? Isn’t it maintenance free? We perform maintenance on synthetic to achieve safe fields, maintain and extend the playability of the surface, and for the aesthetics of the field. Safety for the players, coaches and anybody who steps foot on the field. Playability is how the ball rolls, bounces, plays, etc., just like with natural grass. The aesthetics can be more difficult, and include teachable moments for players, coaches, parents and administrators. Synthetic turf maintenance has two aspects – regular and specialized.
“Regular maintenance should be based on the amount of use, the type of use, the area on which the field sits, and the time of year,” stated Milo George, CEO of TurfTecs.
The amount of use and intensity of use are key in determining which maintenance practices need to take place and when they need to take place. The area the field sits on, geographical location, determines if leaves or pine needles will be a big issue. What is the environment surrounding the field? What time of year is it? Does your dew point get low enough to cause deep infill freezes, making snow removal impossible without tremendous damage to the field? Do you see a ton of rainfall? What are the summers like? All these factors need to be considered when developing a maintenance plan for any synthetic turf system.
Manufacturers have maintenance manuals, and the usage intervals vary by manufacturer: anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks, or 80 to 120 hours of usage. Therefore, usage hours increase maintenance through necessity, increasing the amount of time and money spent on the field.
What does the appearance of synthetic turf have to do with maintenance? What does your natural grass experience tell you? If you are new to the synthetic aspect of the industry, get out on your field daily!
“Excessive wear shows up much more slowly with synthetic turf than natural grass, so by the time you see the problem in synthetic turf, there’s not much you can do,” George stated.
Just as with natural grass, the “shadow principle” applies. The “shadow principle” is simply, how often is your shadow cast upon your field? If your field sees your shadow multiple times a day, you will be in tune to the nuances and needs of your field. You will notice the indicators of serious issues appearing before they become true safety hazards or cause severe field damage. The reverse is true. If your field only sees your shadow once or twice a week, or even more sparingly, it will be obvious due to lack of maintenance issues becoming big time and money expenditures because you didn’t see it before it became a serious problem. Items that need to be watched are fiber wear, seam issues and ridges and valleys in the infill.
What key steps should your maintenance plan utilize? Cleanliness should be the first step in your synthetic turf maintenance plan. Based on the season, the environment and usage, daily litter pickup should be integral in your maintenance plan. Being out on your field daily walking it for litter, dead bug, leaf and any other foreign object cleanup allows you to get to know your field. It enables you to be able to inspect your seams for possible future seam issues or to catch them before they become larger and a safety hazard. Daily cleanliness gives the opportunity for you to do an inspection of your fibers and the wear they are seeing, and, in turn, helps you stay on top of hardness/compaction issues before they become safety hazards, and before irreparable damage is done to the fibers.
The biggest issue when it comes to maintenance of synthetic turf fields is under maintaining it, with a close second being over maintaining the field. The issues from over maintenance are as serious as under maintaining your synthetic surface, but the effects are noticeable much earlier than under maintaining. Over maintaining your surface leads to rapid fiber breakdown, which, in turn, causes you to lose more infill on a given day compared to a well-maintained field. The loss of infill creates hardness issues (compaction), which leads to things such as your field being so hard players are at a higher risk for traumatic brain injuries. It also results in increased fiber wear, and a shorter life of the field.
A lot of the same tools used during natural grass maintenance can be used for synthetic turf maintenance as well. Use a drag broom to brush or groom the field at the manufacturer-recommended hours to keep fibers standing up and infill in its proper place. A magnet should be dragged over the field at least twice a year, but more frequently if necessary. A magnet drag will remove debris from construction, screws, cleats, etc. Some great hand tools for maintenance include a carpet rake, leaf rake, and push broom – all of which can be used for leveling infill, raking/brooming infill in when topdressing smaller areas such as slide paths, batters’ boxes and pitching mounds. For gum removal, a great tool is a spaghetti scoop. They’re cheap, and when the gum is sprayed with gum-removal spray, the spaghetti scoop gets inside the fibers and scoops the gum out without damaging the fibers. Backpack blowers and leaf vacs are great tools for removing leaves, sunflower seeds and more. Other items to have on hand are tube sacks or buckets to fill with rubber so during a game or tournament you can quickly topdress areas that need it – such as a pitching mound – just like during a game on a natural clay infield. Brooming is done the same as dragging an infield. Start and stop in the same place. Never start in the same place for multiple days in a row, alternate the pattern, crosswise, 45-degree angles, etc.
The Synthetic Turf Council (STC) recommends an annual deep clean of your synthetic turf field. A sweeper vacuum is to be utilized to clean foreign debris and objects out of the infill. It stands the fibers back up, and reapplies the infill into its proper place to decrease compaction, and increase the health and aesthetics of the field. It accomplishes this through a rotary broom on the front of the equipment that flings debris and infill up onto a vibrating screen that drops the infill material back on the field, and collects the debris and foreign objects in a vacuum collection that is hauled away. This is a maintenance practice that should be done with specialized equipment by highly trained professionals. If you decide to buy your own equipment, it is not cheap, so find the right one for your needs, get the necessary training, and make sure it is done right. Improper sweeper vacuum maintenance can lead to severe field damage, costing a lot of money and shortening the lifespan of the field.
Synthetic turf fields need to be topdressed just like natural grass fields. Topdressing sand and rubber (or whatever kind of infill your field has) is done just like natural grass topdressing. Attach your topdresser to a machine that can operate and tow it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re utilizing a broadcast or drop spreader topdresser. Pre-mix your material and put the material down in what is called lifts. A lift is simply a pass over the entire field putting out the materials in the appropriate amount. 1/8” to 1/4” per lift. The biggest difference between synthetic and natural grass when it comes to topdressing is after doing a lift or two of topdressing you need to broom your field. If you are only doing one to two lifts (not more than about 3/8” of material in total), the broom you utilize for regular maintenance can be used to broom the material in. If it is more than that, utilize a Laymore-type piece of equipment with nylon bristles. The procedure is to do two to three lifts of material, Laymore the infill in at an angle pattern, then topdress two to three lifts and broom it again. Do this until your infill depth is at the proper depth, which is between 1/4″ and 3/8” below the fiber height.
As part of your maintenance plan, you need to do regular depth and hardness checks on your field. I recommend doing it at least quarterly, but, depending on usage, it may be necessary to test more regularly or even less regularly. A Clegg hammer and infill gauge are not super cheap, but worth having on hand and learning how to properly use. If they are not in the budget, consider hiring a professional to come in and do these tests for you. This helps you keep up on infill and hardness issues appropriately maintained through topdressing, and gives you a third-party unbiased expert opinion that can be useful when requesting more funds for maintenance or replacement needs.
Michael Wear is owner of Perfect Pitch Turf Solutions, a provider of solutions and services to improve the safety and quality of synthetic athletic fields.