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The Business of: Sports field maintenance

Keeping turf fields in prime condition is about precision and expertise
A synthetic field at Asbury Park High School at Asbury Park Public Schools in New Jersey, by FieldTurf, is one of various fields that needs regular maintenance and care.
A synthetic field at Asbury Park High School at Asbury Park Public Schools in New Jersey, by FieldTurf, is one of various fields that needs regular maintenance and care.

Installing a synthetic-surface athletic field can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Any school district that invests in one and then treats it as a maintenance-free luxury may end up spending a lot more money on repairs and replacements.

“Nothing in this world is maintenance-free,” says Brian Bingeman, founder of Turf, Track & Court, a synthetic-turf consulting company based in Hershey, Pa. “You can get 25 percent more life out of a field if you maintain it properly. For a million-dollar field, that equates to a quarter million dollars.”

That extra life comes at a cost, but it’s cheaper than replacing the field. Todd DeWolfe, vice president of sales and business development for Pittsburgh-based ProGrass Synthetic Turf Systems, says a $5,000 annual budget should keep most synthetic fields performing as designed—and make them last a few years beyond the warranties.

Routine maintenance

For every 10 hours of play on a field, districts should do one hour of maintenance, says Dave Martin, director of operations for A-Turf, a manufacturer in upstate New York. Exactly what routine work needs to be done varies depending on the surface and the climate.

“Pay attention to the manufacturer recommendations and try to adhere to them as closely as possible,” says Darren Gill, vice president of global marketing for Montreal-based FieldTurf. “We spend a lot of time, energy and money to understand how to best maintain our surfaces.”

The details can vary slightly depending on the surface’s construction but, overall, the object of routine maintenance has multiple purposes:

  • To ensure that the synthetic fibers, or the “grass” blades, remain upright
  • To level the infill, which is the mix of rubber pellets and sand that is spread between the fibers to give the surface its earth-like firmness
  • To prevent the fibers and infill from becoming compacted and hard, which can lead to injuries.

Various tools and machines achieve those effects, from something as simple as a vehicle dragging specialized brooms, to something as nifty as a power groomer that uses rotating brushes and vibrating screens to remove debris and redistribute infill pellets.

Sports field maintenance tips

Start slow. One of the more common mistakes Darren Gill of FieldTurf sees is over-maintenance. “Especially in the first six months, that field needs very little work done,” Gill says. “It’s still going through a break-in process. Use the manufacturer’s maintenance manual as your guiding light” about easing into the upkeep process.

Look for hotspots. Look for hot spots off the field, too, advises Dave Martin of A-Turf. For example, on a baseball diamond, the on-deck circle is used a few dozen times per game, yet might be missed in a maintenance check because it’s not perceived as being part of the action. Other obscure hot spots may be found in the bullpen, or along the sidelines where players congregate and stretch during games.

Prohibit some behavior. Preventative measures can go a long way toward prolonging surface life, says Todd DeWolfe of ProGrass. That can be as simple as posting signs advising people what not to do on the field, such as chew gum, spit out sunflower-seed shells or walk pets.

Pass the test. Using annual G-Max testing, which has been common for NFL fields but is also used more regularly at schools, is recommended by Brian Bingeman of Turf, Track & Court. A G-Max test identifies hard or soft spots. Repairing them ensures an even performance across fields, which promotes longevity and safety.

Infill will also need to be topped off, in general, every five years because it gets carried away pellet by pellet in the cleats and shoes of every athlete, coach and band member who uses the field. “Typically you want 3/4- to 5/8-inch of the fibers showing,” DeWolfe says. “You never want more than an inch showing because then you’re playing on parts of the blade that were meant to be covered by infill.”

“If half of the blade is laying on its side, all the impact is on the side of the fiber rather than the tip,” Martin adds. That creates damage from friction along the length of the blades, which can fray them. “The surface will have a tendency to wear out much quicker,” he says.

Debris can also be a challenge. Athletic tape, mouthpieces, orange peels, hair pins and screws are items commonly swept out of turf. If not cleaned out, debris can damage lower portions of the blades and can block drainage. Martin recommends an annual deep cleaning, which could cost from $1,500 to $4,000. Other manufacturers suggest every six months to two years.

On baseball fields, specific trouble spots to watch for are the edges of any dirt or clay areas, such as the pitcher’s mound or infield. “Dirt can build up along the edges of the synthetic turf and if you’re not staying up with that maintenance, it gets crusty and hard,” Martin says. That can prevent water from draining properly and it can cause ground balls to bounce erratically.

Hot spots

Hot spots are small regions of the turf that are played on more frequently, or intensely, than other areas. Examples include where lacrosse and soccer goalies stand, along the football hash marks, and where corner kicks are made in soccer and kickoffs in football.

Paint, graduation and trucks

If the field designers opted for painted lines over permanent ones, then there will be some related maintenance issues..

Darren Gill, vice president of global marketing for FieldTurf, says one key is using the correct paint. Some paints are designed for short-term use, some for long-term. Some are designed to be removed with water, some with special solvents. Paint that’s easily removed from one surface may leave ghost marks on another.

When hosting special events on a synthetic field, such as graduation ceremonies and pep rallies, you can usually put chairs directly on the surface. “But if you’re bringing on food,” Gill says, “or if there are other risks for the turf, then you’re going to want to put a cover on it.”

The more weight that’s put on the field, the more heavy-duty the cover needs to be. And if vehicles are being driven onto the field during setup or breakdown, the tires should be covered so they don’t damage the turf.

Another example is any place where players line up for repetitive drills, such as the penalty mark in soccer, where dozens of balls will be kicked in one practice. Such activity causes the infill to diminish more quickly.

An athletic or maintenance department employee should check hot spots before every game, DeWolfe says. Schools also should keep a bucket of infill near the field so maintenance staff or players can top off hot stops, Martin adds.

“I tell people to overfill,” Martin says. “If there’s only a quarter-inch of blade of grass showing, that infill will get dispersed at the next practice.”

If not, the fibers will get torn down to the backing, which is the layer at the bottom of the grass blades that holds the turf together. If the fibers tear out, it results in a hole in the surface—right down to the stone base. And in the worst cases, that could cost from $500 to $10,000 to repair.

Regional concerns

Other considerations for turf fields are snow and exposure to ultraviolet light. Though outdoor fields are generally not used during winter months, they need to be cleared of snow and ice at the beginning of the spring sports season. The rough winter of 2013-14 led to some questionable solutions, DeWolfe says.

“People were suggesting certain things that weren’t necessarily good for a field, like spraying salt water on the snow,” and using pick axes to break up ice, he says.

Fields can be plowed, but if the snow is more than six inches deep, it will get compacted by the plow, DeWolfe says. Also, a plow should leave an inch or two of snow on the field so as not to scrape away infill pellets.

Attaching a 2x4 or a piece of PVC pipe to the bottom of the plow blade can prevent the plow from scraping away the infill. But Martin recommends another tactic: If the schedule allows, just let the snow melt.

As for UV rays, in the southern United States and at high altitudes, districts need to be especially diligent at keeping infill levels high to prevent damage to the lower parts of the fibers. “Technology has come so far that it’s not as much of a concern as it used to be, but in year 10 of your field the fibers may start breaking down,” Martin says.

Keeping infill at the recommended level allows UV light to strike only the tips of the grass fibers, rather than the sides. This can help a field last longer, Martin says.

Because UV will cause a field’s color to fade, Martin suggests storing a stock of extra turf where it will be exposed to sunlight, such as on a roof, so it will fade at the same rate as the field. Then if a patch is ever needed, material from the stock will match in color.

In-house vs. third party

A primary question at any school sports facility is whether to tackle maintenance in-house or outsource it to the manufacturer or a third-party consultant. In-house maintenance has in recent years given way to experts from outside companies. The reason is that modern synthetic turf materials are more complex, requiring a more specialized approach, say Bingeman, of Turf, Track & Court.

He advises that district leaders handle routine grooming themselves. But for the deeper cleaning needed once or twice per year, he suggests one of two routes: Hire the surface manufacturer, if they provide that service, or a third party that is either recommended by the manufacturer or certified by a trade organization such as Synthetic Turf Council, SportsTurf Managers Association or American Sports Builders Association.

The key is to ensure that a third party has a proven expertise with the specific surface it’s working on, and that it’s not using unapproved equipment or servicing the fields too often to justify a high cost. The right machine for one type of surface may damage another, and an experienced maintenance company should know those specifics.

Whatever maintenance strategy a district uses, DeWolfe suggests consulting the manufacturer anytime questions arise. Because the surface warranties are so long—eight to 10 years, in many cases—both parties have a strong interest in solving and preventing problems. “It’s really a marriage,” he says. “We are a partner for the life of the system.”

Chris Nicholson is copy editor.