Cutting costs with artificial turf

The park district of Crystal Lake, Ill., was looking to create new revenue streams and reduce costs. Two years of research by Jack Sebesta, superintendent of recreation, led to a bold move—a $504,000 project to replace the skinned infields of four softball fields with synthetic turf.

The Boncosky Softball Complex, in the district’s 309-acre, multiuse Lippold Park, already had the reputation as one of the best complexes in northern Illinois. The four fields, with traditional skinned infields and natural turfgrass outfields, were clustered in a pinwheel configuration. It was primarily an adult softball complex, though it was also used for youth softball and fast pitch. One field was set up to serve as a full-size adult baseball field. Sebesta says, “These fields were in great shape, but a crew member spent a minimum of 1.5 hours working each field every day to keep them that way. Nearly all that maintenance time was spent on the infields.”

Research

Sebesta began researching synthetics. He says, “Years ago, I’d played on AstroTurf and I knew this third generation of synthetics was a much improved product. In early 2004, I started researching those changes, comparing the various products on the market through Internet data and talking with suppliers, and making site visits to see synthetic installations and question those using them.”

Seeing the possibilities, he dug into the data to present a detailed costs-to-benefits plan to the five-member park district board. Removing the skinned infields would eliminate the need for materials such as calcined clay and marking chalk, cutting material costs by 97 percent. With skinned infields, a full-time staffer was on-site from March to mid-November and was joined by a seasonal worker from late April to September 2. Without them, the seasonal worker position would become unnecessary, reducing labor costs by 98 percent.

Photos by Jim Bennett
Installation of the Sprinturf infield worked around the existing fencing. Note the curb placement within a foot of the fence line.
This view along the fence line shows the installation work moving forward.
The subsurface is complete and the installation of the Sprinturf layers is underway.

Sebesta says, “Over a 10-year period, the cuts would reduce labor costs by $173,000 and materials costs by $115,000. We’d cut water costs by $11,000 and reduce fuel use. Overall cost savings projections reached a total of $321,000. In addition, we could redirect some of the full-time staffers’ time, allocating approximately $25,000 per year to other projects.”

Sebesta’s research also showed that the synthetic infields would eliminate most rain-related cancellations. He says, “That would allow us to extend our fall leagues and add a spring league, bringing in $390,000 in additional net revenues over 10 years. We’d be able to rent out the fields for youth or adult practices or games when they weren’t scheduled for league play. I estimated those rentals at $6,400 per year, for a total of $64,000 over 10 years.”

He’d also done his homework on the infield renovation and installations costs, determining overall project expense at $504,000 dollars, including regrading the outfields. “That all added up to a five-year payback on synthetic infields under warranty for eight years, and projected by most estimates to last at least 10 years. And, when replacement would be needed, all the subsurface work still would be in place.”

Installation

Sebesta’s three finalists had been Sportexe, FieldTurf and Sprinturf. He says, “I spec’d the Sprinturf in part because I wanted the all-rubber product in the infill. On the safety side, the way the bats are advancing, we’re trying to slow the ball down a bit. I thought the rubber did a better job of that than the sand/rubber mix. With the mix, we would have needed to groom more often, so we’d be breaking down the synthetic turf blade a bit more and shortening its life. It also appeared the all-rubber infill gave a better GMax [surface hardness rating]. All of the synthetic carpets we considered were made in Dalton, Ga., but I did like the look and feel of the Sprinturf product and it had a heavier backing. It was the right choice for this application. That doesn’t mean we’d not look at a different manufacturer for a future project.”

The surface design selected features a tan-colored base path, pitching circle and batter’s box, with the remainder in green to mimic natural turfgrass. The markings are incorporated into the synthetic material.

Work began in early February of 2006. Reil Construction of Union, Ill., was the general contractor. Sebesta says, “We had worked with them on previous projects, so we had a comfort level going into it. The complex was originally constructed 22 years earlier, and we knew there would be settling. That required work within the outfield following the removal of the skinned material to match the two surfaces. The installation itself met the standard Sprinturf specifications for the base and drainage systems. Water soaks through the porous material to subsurface infield drain lines and is then directed through additional drain lines to the detention area. We also had specified within the contract that all work would take place around the existing fencing. They did a great job of getting the curb within a foot of the sideline fencing.

This view from the natural turfgrass outfield toward the infield shows the work nearing completion. Note the level transition between the outfield and the infield surfaces.
The rubber infill material is applied to the installed synthetic infield. The tan and green colors selected mimic a natural turfgrass skinned material surface.
The Sprinturf synthetic infield.

“We chose not to run irrigation pipe beneath the synthetic turf because we were concerned about the damage a break could cause. We did have two of the existing water lines redirected to avoid that. We have quick connectors beyond the home plates just behind the backstop and along the sidelines running outside the in-play area. Our general contractor did everything up to the point where the carpet was installed.”

Maintenance

Maintenance is minimal with the synthetic infields. They drag the field three times a year using the pull-behind broom supplied by Sprinturf. Once or twice a week, a staffer walks the base path with a 5-gallon bucket of the rubber infill, placing material in any low areas and raking it in by hand. There’s been no need for chemical applications of any kind on the synthetic infields. The few weeds that have appeared along the outer perimeter are pulled by hand.

The outfields are a combination of Kentucky bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses. Sebesta says, “We use a small walk-behind mower for one pass on the turf directly bordering the synthetic infield. The discharge is directed away from the infield, into the outfield grass. The remainder of the natural turf is cut with a ride-on John Deere.”

With air temperatures of 93 degrees, the infield surface can reach 129 degrees. Six inches above the surface, temperatures are back to air temperature. “Our main heat concerns are for the catcher and home plate umpire, as they’re consistently closer to the surface. We have watered the fields to cool them down on three occasions. They quickly drop to air temperature levels, though they heat up again in about two hours. That’s been long enough to keep them playable,” Sebesta says.

Results

Field use opportunities have exceeded expectations. The fall leagues expanded from five weeks to seven weeks and used all four fields rather than three. A five-week spring league was added, also using all four fields. The summer and fall leagues were 100 percent filled. The spring league was about 80 percent filled.

Sebesta says, “I’d initially estimated only $6,400 annually in additional rentals. Our fiscal year runs from May 1 to April 30.  Play started the second week of May in 2006. Our rental revenues hit $23,000 by April 30 of 2007.  We’re on track to reach just over $30,000 in added rental revenues by the end of our second fiscal year.”

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.