Getting creative with artificial turf

We have found reasonable solutions to campus recreational needs by thinking outside the box for the creative use of synthetic turf in areas that really can’t sustain natural grass because of the site, the amount of use, or both.

As assistant director of facilities and projects for campus recreation services at the University of Maryland, College Park, since 1992, I’ve seen our natural turfgrass green space dwindle to make way for the needed building and parking lot expansion of a growing institution.

The synthetic turf on the LaPlata Beach site provides space for informal use for the 5,000 students on the north side of campus.

While we join most athletes in preferring “real grass,” spreading more use over fewer areas of green space just wasn’t feasible. Our campus recreation athletic fields are used for club sports, intramural sports, some varsity sport practices, kinesiology classes, and student scheduled and unscheduled recreational activities. That’s 25 to 30 weeks a year of activity from 4 p.m. to midnight or later during the week and all day on the weekends. Add to that summer camps that run all day long at least two months of the summer, and special events of all kinds that are slipped into the schedule.

The big field

Our first, and largest, synthetic turf field was originally installed in 1994. The field surface was surrounded by a running track surface (warning track). A gravel area along one side served as storage space for four soccer goals, six field hockey goals, eight lacrosse goals and benches. The field subsurface included a recycled rubber material mixed with a binder that was poured in place and allowed to set, forming a solid, but porous, elastic layer. It was topped with a conventional Desso tufted polypropylene artificial surface with a rubber backing.

Photos courtesy of Tony McEachern, UMD.
The Cole Field House synthetic turf surface is divided into two sections. Note the goals set into the dasher board.

We replaced this field with a synthetic infill system in 2004. Our procurement policy stipulates a bidding process. It’s not financially advantageous for us to limit the bidding to one source. We develop the specifications to meet our requirements without naming a branded product or specific supplier so that several companies have the option of bidding. FieldTurf got the bid and met the specs, making a nonproprietary product that had about twice as much fiber as their branded products at that time and a longer fiber. We spec’d a length of 2.25 inches, compared to the 2 and 2 1/8-inch products most companies were offering. I believe the longer the fiber, the longer the field life, and we now spec a 2.5-inch length. We also spec a deeper layer of rubber infill than used on most fields, extending to within .5 inch of the top of the fibers.

Northeast Turf of South Portland, Maine, was the installer. The existing surface and surrounding track surface were removed. Existing subsurface drain tiles were kept, with additional drainage included and modified as necessary to allow for installation of the full area fence to fence. The existing drainage material consisted of an 8-inch base of a blended bluestone, a local material name for its bluish color. It’s an angular aggregate with particles that range from .25 to .75 inch. It’s relatively easy to grade with a blade and has enough fines in the mix to settle into place once it’s rolled, yet still provide adequate drainage capacity. We maintained the green turf area at 420 by 320 feet, but extend lines to within a couple of feet of the edge to gain playing space. To retain the “safety zone” between the field space and the surrounding fencing, we included a synthetic turf warning track around the perimeter of the field. It’s 10 feet wide on three sides and 25 on the side where the goals are stored. The entire synthetic surface is 440 feet by 355 feet, for a total of 156,200 square feet (3.59 acres). The  warning track provides a designated jogging/warm-up area and helps spectators identify viewing space off the playing field.

Photos courtesy of Tony McEachern, UMD.
Pads cover part of the synthetic surface as Cole Field House hosts the Maryl and State High School Wrestling Championships.

We opted not to include irrigation in the site renovation. (A fire hydrant now on-site would allow us to use rolling water cannons if necessary.) The new surface does get a little hotter than the original synthetic did, but irrigation only lowers the surface temperature temporarily, and the evaporation of the water applied would only increase our already high humidity levels in the summer. We’ve determined that misting systems for the players provide a more significant cooldown for them when heat is a factor.

The big field is a controlled-use area. We only allow clear liquids and no food items, including sunflower seeds, on the field. Our clubs and other groups that are a part of the recreation program must check out the keys and check them back in each time the fields are used. For special events and outside groups, we provide staff during the activities to ensure policies are enforced.

Cole Field House

Cole Field House was constructed in 1952 and served the varsity athletic program for 50 years. The last varsity basketball game was played there in 2002. The floor was removed, leaving the arena with only a wood subfloor. We opted to install a synthetic surface of tufted nylon that could serve our recreational activities (soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, etc.), as well as graduation ceremonies, trade shows, concerts, receptions and other activities. The nylon surface is more resilient for uses that require large structures such as stages, and with the indoor site, we wanted to avoid the tracking of infill rubber around the building.

We again developed open specs to allow multiple suppliers to bid. FieldTurf got this bid, too, and developed a product to meet our specs. This surface was installed by a combined crew of FieldTurf distributor Northeast Turf, whose staff had not put down a nylon surface previously, and DOC Turf Installers (DOC Sport Surface Contractors, LLC.) whose crews were experienced with nylon turf installations. The nylon product has to be seamed tightly, much like carpeting, so the seams are not visible. Infill systems don’t require such a tight seam fit because the surface is at the bottom of the 2.5-inch lengths of fiber and covered by the rubber infill.

The Cole Field House shortly after the tufted nylon synthetic turf was installed.

Instead of a rubber backing on the nylon material, we specified a recycled tire rubber pad for the entire 210-by-105-foot area. The installation was completed in 2003.

Since there was a concrete wall around the arena floor, we brought in Gameplex portable dasher boards made by Athletica. When surrounding the entire floor, they cut the useable space to 200 by 100 feet. Goals can be set into the dasher board. The space can also be divided into two spaces to allow two activities at once.

La Plata Beach

The next project was our La Plata Beach site, an informal recreation space located among the high-rise housing on the north side of campus. Clark Companies, out of upstate New York, got the project. They installed a FieldTurf Tarkett product that is high in fiber count (though not as much as on the big field), with a fiber length of 2.5 inches and a 2-inch layer of rubber infill. The installation took place in August and September of 2007.

Before the installation, the only close access to green space available to the 5,000 students on that side of campus was this 50,000 square feet of natural grass in a park like setting surrounded by a ring of trees. We left the strip of natural turf under the trees and installed the synthetic infill turf in the center of the area, approximately 32,000 square feet.

Outdoor volleyball court

Another out-of-the-box use of synthetic infill turf is the outdoor volleyball court at Washington Quad. This small area between four of the oldest four-story dorms on campus had been covered with a slab of red asphalt with basketball hoops at both ends. The hoops had been removed in the late ’80s, but the asphalt stayed for 20 years. The administration decided to renovate the site, and we wanted to provide some recreational space for the students, but basketball and a sand volleyball court were rejected by the project development team. So, we proposed an artificial turf volleyball court that they accepted because of the flexibility it provided for other uses. We developed open specs for a bid on an 84-by-54-foot section of synthetic surface (allowing for 12 feet of perimeter space beyond the actual court lines) with 2.5-inch long fibers and 2 inches of rubber infill. Sprinturf got this project, and the installation was just completed. We modified a Sportsfield Specialties, Inc. football goal access box system for the sleeved volleyball posts. The synthetic surface gives the look and feel of natural grass whether it’s used for volleyball or just as a gathering spot.

We continue to look for creative ways to provide safe, aesthetically pleasing places for recreational pursuits and have found that with a bit of creativity, sometimes things that may not have seemed possible work out and meet the needs of all involved. The creative use of synthetic infill turf has certainly allowed us to better serve our campus community in their leisure activities.

David Flumbaum is assistant director of facilities and projects for campus recreation services at the University of Maryland in College Park.


Field Marking and Maintenance

Though we tried several different athletic field-specific paints for lining the big field, we’ve gone back to the vinyl acrylic latex paint we’d used on the polypropylene surface. It sticks better and lasts longer. We only need to paint three times a semester. We have six colors painted, with an average of four used during a typical sports season. The lines aren’t always TV-ready bright as they’d need to be for a varsity stadium field, but they work well according to the feedback from our field users.

We handle the maintenance on the La Plata Beach and Washington Quad synthetic surfaces at the same time as the work on the big field. We have the RT Groomer that FieldTurf provides with their installations. It is equipped with a spiker to help loosen up the top .25 to .5 inch of rubber infill, and tines to help raise the turf fibers back up. We also have a 15-foot Greens Groomer to brush the field. We use one of these two procedures every two weeks. We find that a longer interval results in a shabby appearance that doesn’t meet our standards. We use a small, pull-behind sweeper to pick up any small debris and, on occasion, will use a blower to remove leaves.

We also opted for a solid green surface for the Cole Field House synthetic surface for the greatest flexibility in use of space. Because of the wooden subsurface, no water is used on the field surface. Instead of painting lines for sport events, we use duct tape. Spectators can’t discern the difference from the seating bowl. We’re proactive, working to prevent problems whenever possible, so the surface is tarped for events when food will be served.