“Maintenance free” is a marketing slogan that’s slapped on car batteries, home siding and just about every product sold via infomercial. The reality is that everything requires some sort of maintenance if you want it to perform well and stand the test of time.

“Synthetic turf maintenance is crucial to the longevity, performance, safety and appearance of a synthetic turf field,” explains John Baize, managing director of Act Global, an Austin, Texas-based synthetic turf manufacturer. He says that a poorly maintained synthetic turf field may exhibit premature aging, uneven surface, compaction, infill loss, poor shock absorption, loss of traction, drainage issues and more.

Baize also serves as chair of the Synthetic Turf Council (STC), and last year led a task force that created and published “Guidelines for Synthetic Turf Maintenance,” which is available for download on the STC website. The goal of the publication is to provide detailed guidance for those who own and maintain the roughly 8,000 synthetic sports fields now in use across North America. “This is an important reference guide for field owners. Our voluntary guidelines help answer many questions from owners, buyers and specifiers about the maintenance program for a synthetic turf field throughout its useful life,” states Baize.

This type of information hasn’t always been so readily available. “Many of the fields installed 10 or 15 years ago were sold on the idea that they were low-maintenance or no-maintenance,” says Patrick Warner, field care service manager with Chenango Contracting in Johnson City, N.Y. “Unfortunately, that is not correct. There are things that have to be done to synthetic fields on a regular basis. In fact, there are a few manufacturers that now require certain maintenance steps be done in order to maintain the warranty.”

Chenango Contracting installs FieldTurf fields, but provides maintenance and repair services for all brands of synthetic fields. “We start by looking at what kind of field it is, and what the manufacturer’s guidelines are,” he explains. Warner says that while some synthetic turf manufacturers provide detailed maintenance instructions for their products, others are not very specific.

FieldTurf is one manufacturer that has created an extensive maintenance guidelines booklet and accompanying DVD to help sports field managers and their staffs understand how and why the company’s fields should be maintained. It walks field managers through steps ranging from how to create a comprehensive maintenance log to various groomers, brushes and cleaners that can or should be used.

Cleaning and grooming synthetic turf fields isn’t just for aesthetics. This type of maintenance helps prolong the life of the surface.

Warner says that while there are many different brands of synthetic fields on the market there really are only a handful of different manufacturers and, fortunately, many maintenance protocols apply across the spectrum. The goal of some procedures is to protect the field; others are done to help protect the players on the field.

Perhaps the most critical maintenance step, says Warner, is to regularly de-compact the infill. “Rubber, especially small granules of rubber, will compact over time and make the field harder,” he states. “And the harder the field is, the higher its GMax is.” The GMax rates how much force is being transferred from the field to the athlete when they hit the ground, says Warner, noting that there’s increased focus on this safety measure as concerns over concussions rise. Describing the testing process, he says, “A 20-pound weight is dropped from 2 feet, and that is supposed to simulate a 6-foot man hitting the ground at a full sprint.”

While the attention started at the pro and college levels, it’s spreading throughout the sports turf industry, he says. Whether by regulation or to protect against liability in lawsuits, field owners will need to routinely check and ensure that their fields are within the safe range on this test. For example, Warner notes, “If a school doesn’t have a GMax test done yearly, that opens them up to a lawsuit. There’s been quite of few of those, unfortunately, around the country lately.”

In addition to de-compacting, Warner usually does a thorough debris removal on the fields he maintains. “We use a vacuum unit that actually lifts up the top portion of the rubber infill and sifts through it. The unit has a HEPA filter on it, so the air is completely sealed, allowing it to take out all the hair particles and the skin and dust and dander and other debris. Then the rubber is put back onto the field,” he explains.

This is usually followed by a brush sweeping machine. “It’s called a static brush – it’s a hard-tipped bristle brush made out of nylon. It moves the infill around a little bit to even it out, and it helps stand the fibers up,” Warner says.

He also adds infill to the high-traffic areas, such as the center area or the goalmouths on soccer and lacrosse fields. Just like on a natural turf field, those areas are more prone to wear. “Over time, your field wears down; the fiber actually gets shorter and shorter,” says Warner. “When the fibers get shorter, they can’t hold as much rubber, and when that happens the field ends up with a higher GMax because it’s harder.”

One critical maintenance step is seam analysis, basically checking for any seams that might be lifting up. Depending on the manufacturer, seams in the turf may be joined mechanically (sewed) or chemically (glued). “We also check all the perimeter anchorage to make sure everything is holding down by the track or along the edge of the field,” Warner details. “Sometimes we also apply an antimicrobial spray that will help kill MRSA [a dangerous staph bacteria] and things like that.”

Chenango Contracting can also conduct fiber simulation analysis. “This tells us how long the field is going to last. It basically shows how fast the fibers are breaking down. We’ll take a few samples all throughout the field and make sure everything is on its right course,” says Warner. A UV analysis can also be conducted to show how well the surface is holding up to sun damage.

GMax testing provides an analysis of field hardness, and concerns over player safety are putting more emphasis on this testing. De-compacting infill and adding infill to high-traffic areas may be necessary to ensure field safety.
Photos courtesy of Chenango Contracting.

While some of these specialized tests and treatments require a qualified contract maintenance firm such as Chenango, Warner says there are many things field managers should be doing to help maintain their playing surfaces.

“One thing you absolutely have to do is to add infill to high-traffic areas,” emphasizes Warner. “Having a company come out a couple of times a year to do that is wonderful, but you should be checking that every week.” Just as the infill protects players, it also protects the turf fibers. “The less infill that’s there, the more exposed fiber you have and the faster it gets beat up. So the more infill you have, the more it will protect those fibers,” he explains.

Warner advises field managers to regularly clean and remove debris from fields. “If there are trees around your field, leaves are going to come down on the field, so you have a synthetic product that now has organic material decaying on it. That’s not something you want,” he explains. Regularly removing leaves is a quick way to avoid having a major problem if weeds and moss start growing on the field. And, if you do spot a weed or two, pull them up right away, he adds. Let them go and a larger area can quickly be covered by weeds, and then hand-pulling is no longer an option.

Synthetic Turf Maintenance: The Basics

Routine Maintenance: Ongoing

  • Conduct inspections and perform minor repairs to avoid playing hazards
  • Keep the playing surface clean and free of debris and contaminants
  • Check and maintain proper infill levels to provide a consistent surface
  • Brush and groom the surface to enhance its appearance, keep grass fibers upright, and maintain even infill levels

Comprehensive Maintenance: Biannual

  • A professional field inspection can assess the field, especially heavy wear areas, identify weak or loose seams/inlays and repair damage. Sport performance testing should also be considered.
  • Decompaction of infill is important for improving shock absorption and synthetic turf drainage .
  • Perform a detailed check of infill levels, adding and redistributing infill, and leveling the infill to the field builder’s specifications.
  • Clean the surface using a combination of mechanical brushing and suction to remove surface and embedded dirt and debris.
  • Use a magnet attached to your maintenance equipment to remove metal objects from the field.
  • Weed and pest treatment should be performed as required.
  • Partial removal and reinstallation of infill material may sometimes be necessary to remove foreign matter that has contaminated the infill system, relieve grass fibers that may be trapped in the infill or improve drainage.

Excerpted from the STC Guidelines for Synthetic Turf Maintenance.

There are also preventative maintenance steps field managers can take to preserve their fields. One common problem, he observes, comes with lacrosse goal areas. The goalie stands in the same area for much of the game, without the roaming that typically occurs with soccer goalies. This leads to heavy wear in a very concentrated area of the field. Encouraging coaches to move the goal areas or putting down a protective mat during practices can help alleviate this wear dramatically, suggests Warner. “If those areas aren’t taken care of, they can cost you $8,000 to $10,000 to replace down the road,” he states.

Another preventive step is to ensure that water bottles aren’t left lying on the field. Having them bake for hours in the sun can actually melt the turf underneath, leading to costly damage, says Warner. The same is true for the Plexiglas soccer bench covers, which can reflect the sun’s rays against the fibers and burn holes in the field. One common myth that actually doesn’t really damage fields is dumping Gatorade or other sports drinks onto the surface. Most synthetic fields drain very well and the next rain will wash the sports drink through. “That’s not going to hurt the field unless you dump it in the same spot over and over and over and get a sugary buildup,” says Warner.

How often a specialist should be called in depends on how long the field has been down and what type of fibers is involved, Warner says. He tries to visit all the fields he maintains twice each year. “I always recommend to schools and other field owners that they have a certified maintainer come out to look at their field at least once per year,” he notes. “And any field that was installed around 2007 or earlier is going to need more attention. First, they’ve been in the ground longer. And, second, the technology of the turf itself at that time wasn’t up to par with what it is today.”

The issues spotted during inspections can often be fixed under warranty, says Warner. Even those problems not covered under warranty might be able to be fixed relatively inexpensively if caught early. Failing to keep up with regular maintenance and inspections, he cautions, can let small issues turn into big problems, and then the repairs become more difficult – and expensive.

Removing debris from a field is a critical maintenance step. Specialized equipment can remove hair and skin fibers, along with other foreign material. This metal material was collected from a single field