Nothing lasts forever. Take tattoos — they’re pretty trendy these days and have always carried an aura of permanence and commitment. But you know what else is pretty popular at the moment? Tattoo removal services. Industry figures show that the money spent on tattoo removals has skyrocketed 440 percent in the last 10 years to more than $75 million.

Sometimes, you just really need to make a change.

That’s also the case on synthetic athletic fields. On natural turfgrass, switching out lines or logos for a different sport or team is mostly just a matter of waiting for the grass to grow and mowing. But on synthetics, paint is a little more like a tattoo: getting rid of it is possible, but it requires some specialized products and a little effort.

Removals can be rare

“I think that most paint removal work being done is at the professional level, in the big stadiums and domes,” says Milo George, who operates Professional Sports Field Services, a full-service maintenance provider based in McComb, Ohio. “A lot of our experience with it has been at the NFL level.”

But there are other types of venues where paint removal is required. For example, George works with one university that typically has football markings on its main soccer field. “But when they have a big soccer tournament, they ask us to remove the football lines,” he says.

Mike Woody, owner of SportCare, a synthetic field management company based in Bridgewater,

When it comes to bigger paint removal jobs on synthetic turf, like removing paint from an entire end zone, a more automated machine that actually extracts the paint is needed — like the Mantis Hydro Extractor from Eco Chemical.

New Jersey, says that he gets many more calls for repainting than he does for paint removal. Normally removal is requested when a field owner needs to change between sports. “They want to go from field hockey, for example, to lacrosse … or a football coach doesn’t want to see any other lines at all – like the other sports don’t exist!” jokes Woody.

Paint removal isn’t a major maintenance item for many synthetic athletic fields and is still perhaps most common in big stadiums, says Griffin Brady, sales and marketing specialist with Eco Chemical, which manufactures both paint and paint removal products for synthetic sports fields. But there is growing demand for paint removal in different segments of the sports field maintenance industry, he reports.

Large sports complexes hosting huge youth tournaments in different sports are the primary example.

Eco Chemical recently began working with Grand Park Sports Complex in Westfield, Indiana.

“They have 31 multipurpose fields – eight of which are synthetic,” says Brady.

Some of those synthetic fields need to be able to be converted between different sports. For example, what is a soccer field one day might need to be a lacrosse field by the following weekend. Therefore, removable paint and related equipment was needed. There are also many smaller college, high school and municipal sports fields that do some paint removing for various reasons, adds Brady.

Picking the right paint

“There’s a huge range of paints out there today,” says Jeff Fisher, synthetic turf product line manager with Pioneer Athletics. It’s important to carefully consider your paint choice before painting, especially if there’s a chance that it might need to be removed, Fisher emphasizes. “You want to make sure you’re using a paint that fits the time frame you’re looking for it to last, as well as the manpower and equipment you have to remove it,” he says. Another recommendation he offers: test out paint to see how long it lasts and how easy it is to remove in a small area before applying it to the whole field.

Fisher notes that different paint manufacturers take different approaches to paint removability. “There are paints that are designed to basically break down by themselves and be gone in a couple of weeks – they’re water-sensitive and don’t really need cleaners to remove them. They’re designed with the short-term in mind,” he says.

Then there are longer-lasting, up to season-long paint systems that are truly removable – “there’s a specific cleaner that goes along with the paint and allows it to be a liquid again, breaking it down not just physically but chemically so that it can be rinsed through,” Fisher explains.

The P-REX from Pioneer Athletics. Both of these machines have brushing, rinsing and extraction equipment mounted on a zero-turn mower chassis.

Both Pioneer Athletics (GameLine) and Eco Chemical (TempLine), for example, offer these types of paint systems that are designed to last for specific periods of time and also offer cleaner chemicals formulated specifically to work with their respective paints.

Fisher says that the use of stronger, semi-removable paints followed by aggressive scrubbing to remove them, is where many problems occur. “Those paints aren’t designed to break down, so there’s ghosting and it’s really difficult to get that last .05 percent out. And the amount of effort used to scrub them can be damaging to fields.” There are also “permanent” paints designed to last up to two years that are really not removable, he adds.

Painting with removal in mind

The way paint is put down will have a large bearing on how easily it can be removed, but “generally, people aren’t thinking that far ahead,” says George. “We’ve been asked to remove some paint that was put down improperly and it’s a task – it’s borderline impossible.” One common example is paint that was put down in a single thick application in an effort to make lines or a logo really pop on a synthetic field. “We like to do a light paint, give that a little time to dry, and then come back and put the final coat on. If you try to do it in one pass, it’s going to be a lot harder to get off because you’re going to have globs of paint in there that are binding up fibers together,” says George.

“You don’t want to put the paint on too heavy, because then you begin to saturate the rubber,” agrees Woody. “And you can’t really get paint off the rubber … then you need to evacuate the rubber and put fresh infill in.” The goal when painting, he adds, should be to “put on just enough so that it’s clean and bright.”

Oftentimes for fields that are constantly converting back and forth between events, the goal is just to have a line that players can easily see – if you need a bigger, brighter line, do a second light coat in the other direction.

In cases where SportCare is painting lines or logos that they know will need to eventually be removed, crews often pre-treat those areas with a clear coat. “That allows for much easier removal,” says Woody. “The paint doesn’t last as long – it’s a little like painting on a Teflon pan – but it comes off very easily.” If the lines or logo need to be on the field for a whole season, he definitely wouldn’t recommend this pre-treatment step, but if it’s something that needs to be on only for a big game or tournament, the clear coat saves tremendous time and effort in the removal process, says Woody. Pre-treating is especially helpful on older synthetic fields, where it is often more difficult to get paint off, he observes.

Brady offers another painting tip to help ensure easier removals: “Any of the airless sprayers can be outfitted with elbows that swivel to allow you to choose what angle you’re spraying,” he adds. While most people set theirs to spray straight down into the turf, he says that making some adjustment to direct the paint spray at an angle, even 15 to 20 degrees forward, can make a big difference. “That way you’re going to paint the side of the grass rather than the crumb rubber,” says Brady.

“I think that most paint removal work being done is at the professional level, in the big stadiums and domes,” says Milo George, who operates Professional Sports Field Services, a full-service maintenance provider based in McComb, Ohio. “A lot of our experience with it has been at the NFL level.”
PHOTO: PROFESSIONAL SPORTS FIELD SERVICES

Getting geared up

“A lot of removals are done without equipment, but that’s truly doing it the hard way,” says Brady. In these cases, doing a drag or a groom over the paint first may help by breaking off any bigger chunks of paint. The key step, though, whether you’re doing it by hand or with equipment, is to spray a special removal product designed specifically for the paint being removed. “Essentially that resolubilizes it, turning it back into a liquid,” says Brady.

“You can use scrub brushes to agitate it all together and then immediately rinse it with a garden hose.” Again, this is the hard way to remove paint, he emphasizes.

The easier approach is to use equipment designed specifically for this task. Here again, there are choices.

Those with smaller paint removal jobs – taking lines out rather than removing a large logo – often look to walk-behind equipment. Pioneer Athletics, for example, offers the Blitz motorized walk-behind brushing machine and Eco Chemical offers its Scrub Bug and Water Bug, which use motors to help make the scrubbing and rinsing processes less labor intensive. When it comes to bigger jobs, like removing paint from an entire end zone, a more automated machine that actually extracts the paint is needed (like the Mantis Hydro Extractor from Eco Chemical and the P-REX from Pioneer Athletics, both of which have brushing, rinsing and extraction equipment mounted on a zero-turn mower chassis).

“If you’re going to be removing more than a lacrosse line or coach’s boxes or something like that, using equipment will make it a lot easier and more efficient,” says Fisher. “The big machines are designed to do logos and end zones.”

When it comes to large painted areas, or areas where paint is frequently put down and removed, extraction is important, says Fisher. “Sucking up the liquids keeps the paint from getting into the turf and plugging up the backing,” he explains. Without extraction, “if you’re doing a lot of large-scale removals, even numbers, you can rinse it through if you have a lot of water. But over time, you’ll get build-up within the infill or below the backing.” Extraction is less important when it’s just a matter of removing a line here or there, Fisher adds.

When it comes to removing graffiti paint, a special level of caution is needed, says Fisher.

Vandals often use oil-based spray cans and a common mistake is to a.) think that immediate action is required; and b.) rush to the hardware store for some super-strong paint cleaner. This approach may get the paint off, but might seriously damage the field in the process, he says. Instead, Fisher recommends contacting the field manufacturer to see what removal product they might recommend for that specific field fiber and paint type.