Gone are the days of squishy grass and pothole-laden school fields: artificial turf fields are becoming an increasingly popular option for districts nationwide for their ease of use and cost-effective maintenance.
There are approximately 8,000 turf fields in the United States, including at public K12 schools, and the number is growing, according to Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council. In 2011 alone, nearly 1,000 synthetic turf fields were installed in North American schools, colleges, parks, and professional sports stadiums, compared to just 400 fields installed in 2003, Doyle says. “More and more high schools are seeing the benefits of synthetic turf, particularly as it allows them to play all day every day, which is impossible on a grass field, and save money,” he adds.
Artificial turf was first used to replace natural grass in Major League Baseball at the Houston Astrodome in 1966. This turf had little resemblance to what is used today—it was often built over a concrete base, causing more injuries and altered playing conditions (for example, a baseball bounced higher and faster on artificial turf). FieldTurf modernized turf fields in the 1990s to replicate natural grass, providing a softer and safer but durable surface, according to Darren Gill, vice president of global marketing at FieldTurf. Today, he adds, there are at least 20 more companies that offer similar artificial turf services. These fields are usually made of plastic grass and rubber infill, and resemble natural grass fields.
When considering installing an artificial turf field in a district, administrators must consider funding, sustainability, potential health risks, and relationships with community groups and school neighbors. These fields provide an opportunity for administrators to connect with constituents on a project that could benefit the whole community.
Cost and Community Support
An 80,000-square-foot field from FieldTurf costs an average of $750,000, including base preparation, materials, and maintenance over a 10-year period. While natural grass is cheaper to install, at about $570,000, it costs more to maintain and has fewer options for usage (for example, the amount it can be played on during a school day without damage), according to Gill. With excavation work, a turf field takes almost two months to install, he adds.
While these fields are a large expense, many districts gain full funding through community groups. For example, last June, the school board of the Fort Worth ISD in Texas, the heart of football country, agreed to allocate $1.4 million of noninstructional funds to purchase turf fields for two high schools, and two booster clubs each presented a plan to the district to reimburse the costs. The Paschal Legacy Project had been raising funds for athletics upgrades for years, according to its website, and the Arlington Heights High School All Sports Booster Club gained increased community support, as well. The fields were ready for play by the start of the school year. Both booster groups will pay the full projected cost of about $710,000 per field by September 2017 with community member donations.
“The Fort Worth ISD believes these projects are a wonderful opportunity to support school improvement through public-private partnerships,” says Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Walter Dansby. “While the district is providing the [financial] security, the booster clubs at both schools are shouldering the expense.”
A major advantage to artificial turf fields is easy maintenance, according to Jim Dobmeier, president of ATurf, a mid-size field builder focused on high school fields. “Once it’s installed, maintenance is very minimal—a couple of hours once or twice a month,” Dobmeier says. To maintain the field, a custodian can use a machine with a brush, typically pulled behind a small vehicle, to erect the fibers when they get matted down from use. They can also sweep the field to pick up debris like leaves or trash.
“It’s absolutely easier to maintain,” agrees Superintendent David Miceli of the New Providence School District in New Providence, N.J., where a turf field was installed in the summer of 2008. “The amount of usage has increased tenfold just by eliminating past weather-related circumstances that would impact it,” he adds.
For example, teams can practice on the turf field in the rain, without worrying about tearing up the grass for other sports, Miceli adds. When the school began a spring lacrosse program in 2000, it took away the time needed to reseed and fertilize the natural grass field to prepare for the fall soccer and football season. With the artificial field, playing conditions are consistent year round, Miceli says.
At Fort Worth, initial advantages included the savings generated in reduced maintenance costs from irrigation, sod, fertilizing, mowing, and equipment repair, as well as the smooth surface free of sprinkler heads, low spots, and crevices caused by paint lines over time, according to Clint Bond, a district spokesman. “There is no recovery time for a field that serves different student activities, either,” he adds. “If a football game played in the rain damaged a [natural grass] field, the band and other sports might not be able to use that field, potentially, for weeks.”
The biggest disadvantage, he notes, will be planning for eventual replacement. Turf fields usually last about 10 years, depending on exposure to sunlight, usage, and maintenance, according to Gill. Though exposure to UV light affects longevity, turf fields are UV stabilized, says Doyle. “I’m not aware of shorter warranties because of location,” such as between hot, sunny Arizona compared to cooler and cloudier New England, he says.
At the high school level, artificial fields can have 500 or more uses annually, Dobmeier adds. “Natural grass in most parts of the country would never be able to use one single grass field 500 times—it could never hold up,” he says. “[With a turf field], every time, conditions will be pristine, and it’s not going to cost significant extra dollars to keep it that way.”
Conflicting data has made it difficult to conclusively assess injury rates on artificial turf fields versus natural grass. Various studies over the past few years have shown different data. A five-year study of eight high schools in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2004, nine years ago, found similar injury rates between FieldTurf fields and grass, but different types of injuries: FieldTurf had higher incidences of injuries that caused minor time loss (the number of days absent from practice or games), noncontact injuries (such as those from running or sprinting), surface/epidermal injuries, and muscle-related trauma (such as strains or pulls), while natural grass fields had higher incidences of serious 22-plus days time loss injuries, head and neural trauma (such as concussions, since impact is less on FieldTurf), and ligament injuries.
But just three years ago, a 2010 three-year study of college football players published in the same journal concluded that in many cases, FieldTurf was safer than natural grass, with significantly lower total injury incidence rates, as well as significantly lower minor, substantial, and severe incidence of trauma. However, the most recent study, in 2012, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that college football players suffered knee injuries about 40 percent more often when playing on artificial turf versus natural grass, though specialized footwear developed for turf fields, as opposed to cleats for natural fields, may decrease the chances of injury, the authors note.
“There was obviously concern about injuries—we did spend a lot of time studying the difference between the first generations of artificial turf versus the field turf that’s out there now,” says New Jersey’s Miceli. “The original [turf field] was more of a concrete base, but today’s turf field has fibers, and is certainly much safer. We have not experienced an increase in the number of injuries as a result of a turf field.”
Health concerns also arise over the use of ground rubber in artificial fields. Made from recycled tires, ground rubber (also called tire crumb or crumb rubber) is often used as infill between turf fibers to provide stability, uniformity and resiliency to these fields, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Ground rubber varies in quality, and can contain dangerous chemicals like lead or mercury. A 2009 EPA study found that the concentrations of materials that made up ground rubber were below levels considered harmful to humans who might inhale or ingest it; however, the study was limited, and ground rubber can vary widely in quality, it states.
Another concern is temperature, as turf fields can be hotter to play on than typical grass. A turfgrass specialist at the University of Missouri reported that on a sunny 98°F day, the air temperature at “head-level” height on the turf field was 138°F, and the surface temperature of the field was 173°F, while the surface temperature of nearby grass was only 105°F. Similar high temperatures were found in studies at Brigham Young University and Penn State University. “People have to use common sense and take necessary precautions, like scheduling practices at different parts of the day,” says Dobmeier. “The single most important thing is for athletes to be hydrated on the field.”
The EPA does not believe there is evidence of an elevated health risk from using artificial fields, and the decision to use them remains a state and local decision, according to its website.
While schools tout the increased field usage, neighbors often raise concerns about how the field and lighting will affect their area. In New Providence, N.J., community groups from neighborhoods adjacent to the high school initially raised concerns about installing lights on the field for evening football games and other sporting events, and the increased use and noise that might impact home values, in the suburb community of New York City. Miceli says he spent time with community people to discuss and work through some of those issues, and after about two years reached a compromise on what days and times the field could be used.
The school board created a policy that allows the lights to be on Monday through Thursday until 8 p.m., and for two regular season Friday night games each year until 10 p.m., but not for Saturday or Sunday games. “It’s a fair compromise for the neighbors, but still allows the district to maximize the capacity of the field for our teams and the band,” Miceli says. “It worked out really well.”
Just six miles away in Westfield, N.J., these concerns were partially responsible for preventing a field from being built at all at the Westfield School District’s high school. Last September, residents turned down a $16.9 million bond referendum that would fund both districtwide roof repairs and a lighted turf field. Many residents viewed the field as a luxury, especially considering the low economy, and were concerned about the cost and the potential noise issues in the surrounding residential neighborhood, according to local news reports. District leaders were disappointed by the outcome of the referendum.
“Our 6,300 students benefit from the decisions that are made on their behalf,” Westfield School District Superintendent Margaret Dolan said in a statement released Sept. 25. “We will set a new course with the facilities committee of the board of education who will plan to readdress the needs of our buildings and fields.”
On Dec. 11, Westfield residents passed a $13.6 million bond to fund only the replacement and repair of roofs for the district’s 12 buildings, without the turf field or lights.
Alison DeNisco is staff writer.