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Commentary Aug 31, 2010

How long until someone dies of heatstroke on a synthetic turf field?

By Chris Hummer

Did you know there are studies out there recording synthetic turf field surface temperatures of 200 degrees on a day when the air temperature was 98 degrees? Did you know that synthetic turf field surfaces are hotter than black asphalt?

My feet know it. I am writing this article just two hours after playing at Wakefield Park in Fairfax County Virginia on a day with a 97 degree air temperature, wearing black shoes. The tips of my toes have heat blisters. We didn’t have a thermometer, but the surface was literally too hot to touch with bare hands. It had to be north of 150 degrees. Water steamed off my shoes when I squirted them.

How hot is too hot, especially for kids?

Adults are adults. We can decide when it’s too much (we called our game short, it was just too much. Guys were walking, and it was no longer fun.) But our kids can’t decide not to play as easily. League and Tournament administrators put them out there on days like this without thinking too much about the heat. If the air temperature was 150 degrees, would you even go outside? The waist-level temperatures on a turf field on a hot day can reach that level.

If there were a lightning storm coming, we’d pull the kids off the field for safety. If it rained too much on a grass field the night before, we won’t let them play for fear of damaging the field or twisted ankles. If there’s a little frost on the field in the mornings for an icebreaker tournament in March, the whole day’s schedule gets backed up. But on a sunny day with no rain, 97 degree air temperatures don’t seem to even enter into the minds of league, tournament, or field directors. “It’s a beautiful day, just get out there and run you little superstars!” seems to be the blissful mentality of adults who are supposed to be protecting children.

Has anyone died from heatstroke suffered on a synthetic turf field? I don’t think so, at least not that I’ve heard. But it took a boy getting killed a few years ago in Virginia by a goal that flipped on his head during high winds to wake everyone up to the danger of non-anchored goals that had been around for 50 years. Now local municipalities are patrolling fields looking for non-anchored goals, and threatening to literally remove and destroy goals they find in violation! Is it going to take a death from heatstroke to wake up the soccer community in a similar way to the dangers of these fields?


Rush towards synthetic turf is the lazy choice

I love the idea of synthetic turf fields for two reasons. They give us a true roll of the ball – though it’s really too fast for quality soccer – and allow us to use them almost non-stop, regardless of weather.

Beyond those two benefits, however, the rest of the comparison criteria to natural-grass are essentially a load of you-know-what, in my mind. And I should know. I grew up as the son of a leading sports field contractor and sod farmer. My father’s company even got into the synthetic turf field business early on, before abandoning it due to price competition no longer making the long-term liabilities worth the risk.

Maintenance-cost savings is the most commonly-mentioned benefit, but that ignores the initial installation, engineering, and financing costs. The maintenance costs are just an easy solution for government entities that don’t have expertise in natural-grass management and struggle with annual maintenance budgets. It’s easier to float a bond then to politically secure enough budget dollars to properly maintain a real grass field. For every turf field funded by tax payer bonds, maintenance budgets get the relief. The savings is essentially free money for the operations side of the equation, but tax payers know nothing is free.

Sure, the annual maintenance costs of synthetic vs. natural-grass may be slightly less when you don’t have to mow a grass field 30 times per year or fertilize it, or kill weeds. However, there are plenty of other costs that SHOULD be going into synthetic maintenance that are being ignored as much as fertilizer is with real grass. That neglect is going to cause these fields to require re-installation much sooner than they really should, only driving the lifetime cost of operation even higher.

Synthetic fields should be groomed, have more infill added, disinfected, have gum removed, sports drink spills flushed; and be repaired immediately when a seam tears or other problem crops up before someone breaks a leg. Professional sports field managers say it costs about $20,000 per year to properly maintain an average synthetic field.

When was the last time you saw that much money go into a grass field? If we actually spent $20,000 per year on grass field maintenance, they would be in much better shape, and thus the desperation to move from grass to synthetic would not be nearly as high.

Industry Secret Alert: Public parks and field maintenance budget directors don’t like to grow grass because they have to mow more often. Good sports field managers grow healthy grass as fast as possible within safe chemical and nitrogen limits. Besides the presence of excessive weeds and crabgrass, the layman’s guide for judging whether or not your local grass sports field at least fairly maintained with the best intentions is if it requires mowing at least once every five days during peak growing seasons, and at least once per week the rest of the time.


Usability is a false benefit proposition

Maintenance cost comparisons are not really the thing that the synthetic turf sales people and business managers at parks departments “pitch”, perhaps because they know synthetic always costs more than all but the most high-end natural-grass fields. The big benefit they tout is something they call “usability”. They say that even though synthetic turf is more expensive, that its increased total hours of usability changes the cost comparison equation.

They measure hours of availability against natural-grass. They point out the administrative efficiency savings of scheduling that usage due to less need to re-arrange things if fields are closed. And they point out the revenue generation possibilities in renting unused time on fields with no usability limits.

This is all true – assuming you install lights, are allowed to keep them on late enough, that you’re not spending more administrative time policing field usage and permits, and that your demand for field rentals stay high.

However, even with more total available hours of usage for a synthetic field, citing that benefit over well-maintained grass fields does not hold up. Dollar-for-hour-of-usability, properly maintained natural grass still comes out way ahead.

And don’t forget the heat issue. It’s only a matter of time before field owners feel the risk of injury or death from excessively hot field becomes too much to ignore, and they start closing fields when air temperatures go over 90 degrees. What impact will that have on the “usability benefit”?

Well-built and maintained grass fields can provide usability hours much closer to those of synthetic turf. Mostly because they drain quickly so rain does not take them out of commission for the rest of the day (or next). But there are other benefits as well, such as quick self-recovery when they are damaged so they can stay open, and less wear and tear on athletes’ joints. Heat is also not an issue. In fact, natural grass surfaces are actually cooler than air temperatures on hot days.


A closer look at the costs

Most of the fake fields going in today have a total price tag of over $1 million when the up-front engineering, legal, and financing costs are factored in. And don’t forget, those fields have a limited lifespan – made even shorter if poorly maintained. Several fields in the Washington, DC area where I live, play, and coach have been in for over five years…and it shows. The seams are coming up around the permanent lines (another lazy approach, spending more on lines to be sewn/glued in for multiple sports instead of painting). It is VERY expensive to fix those seams, and in most cases, if you don’t use the original installation firm, repairs can void your warranty! How backwards is that?

Through personal observation and my industry experience, I can say with confidence that few of these fields were properly installed in the first place, for the same reason grass fields owned by governments stink: few know how to properly supervise the details of a specification, assuming the specification is even correct.

Many are uneven, don’t drain well, and have visible seams. Few are being re-filled with more rubber pellets, and I can’t recall the last time I noticed a publicly owned field having been recently groomed, disinfected, or a repaired seam.

Government stewards who float a bond and walk away are neglecting these fields even more than our grass fields. These fields will likely need replaced every 8-10 years for safety reasons alone. It shouldn’t cost another $1 million to do so, but it will cost half of that number for sure.

Think about that. $1 million up front, plus minimum maintenance, plus interest on the bonds. That puts the total costs of a fake field at $125K per year easily for a 10 year life. While for $150,000 up front, a professionally maintained irrigated and draining grass field should support 75% of the usability of a fake field on a “proper” maintenance budget of $25,000 per year. Plus, there are no real lifespan issues. You can repair irrigation. You can add more drainage. And you can even re-sod an irrigated field completely for less than $45,000 turnkey.

Using those numbers, a natural grass field costs less than half a synthetic turf field, maintenance “savings” included, and never really needs replacing. Such a well-maintained grass field would easily deliver at least half of the “usability” of a synthetic, and much more if the climate can support a Bermuda grass variety. That means dollar-for-hour-of-usability, that natural grass comes out ahead.


The answer?

I’m happy to have some synthetic turf fields around – especially when there are so few good quality grass fields. Synthetic turf is has become a necessity. We even get to train in the winter with them. However, their need is over-rated. If we were properly taking care of the natural grass fields, synthetics would not be nearly as necessary, and the taxpayers are paying the price. A product being touted as a cost savings solution is far from it. It’s a maintenance budget savings solution, but an overall cost increase by far.

Ask any athlete other than a field hockey player whether they’d prefer a quality natural grass field or a synthetic, and anyone being honest is going to say “give me the real thing”.

I propose floating a bond for a $10 million, 10-year natural grass maintenance budget increase. That same money could go towards 7-10 new synthetic fields, or it could renovate and properly maintain 30-35 natural grass fields.

Which would you rather have?

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