Q: The amount of damage we have had on our school fields has been excessive. We had a lot of winter rains on poor-draining fields. The pandemic caused us to host fall and spring sports this spring, which really increased wear. Our users, parents and school officials are all disappointed in the field conditions and are beginning to talk about options going forward. Replacing natural grass fields with synthetic surfaces keeps coming up. I prefer natural grass, but that is not my decision. What are your thoughts?
A: I continue to get questions related to field conditions this spring, and this question is largely a continuation of my last Q&A. I have seen a number of fields that have shown their limitations with bare ground over significant portions of the field. Field managers have been explaining the issues to those questioning field conditions, but some people just do not understand how fields that had good turfgrass cover in previous years are now “falling apart.”
The situation has become so bad that some schools have begun looking into field rebuilds later in the year. Some groups are thinking that a synthetic surface will solve all their maintenance problems. It still amazes me when I hear the amount of money a school is willing to spend on a synthetic field when they were reluctant to spend a small fraction of that cost on either the proper construction or maintenance of their natural grass field.
My suggestion, as an educator, is to try to educate those around you (e.g. athletic director, school superintendent, etc.) that may be involved in this decision. I know some field managers are at ease with their school’s administration. However, others may not have that type of relationship. As the most informed person on field maintenance, I would encourage you to start gathering information on renovating and/or rebuilding your fields. If that is well beyond the scope of your position, at least offer to assist. This may be the best chance you have of getting a field built correctly.
One place to start would be to contact the Certified Field Builders in your state or area. To be certified they must have worked at least three years and have built at least 20 projects. Not only must they demonstrate their expertise to be certified, but these experienced individuals also tend to have access to quality building materials at good prices. They can help develop a realistic construction budget and help ensure the end product will be a better-performing and safer facility for years to come. Depending on your field’s age and its original construction, you may be able to get by with a drainage and playing surface renovation, or they may recommend a total rebuild.
Many of these builders are also certified in constructing facilities that utilize synthetic turf on the playing surface, so they are able to make construction comparisons. If your school is really interested in switching to a synthetic surface, they should also educate themselves on not only the cost of installing these fields, but also the implications of using synthetic surfaces. There is substantial information available related to cost, management, injury rates and player preferences of using these surfaces that may surprise people at your school. The two most common surprises are the maintenance requirements for synthetic fields and the recent studies that show much higher injury rates on synthetic surfaces.
There is a lot of information available to those interested. A number of organizations – including Turf Producers International (TPI), Synthetic Turf Council, and STMA – have readily available resources related to the use of their products that can be downloaded and shared. The time you spend getting this information together can really pay big dividends toward getting quality fields for your school’s athletes.
Grady Miller, Ph.D. Professor and Extension Turf Specialist North Carolina State University
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