When the rain is coming down sideways or the snow is blowing, there’s no better place for sports than an indoor field. In those kinds of conditions, there’s a world of difference between indoor and outdoor athletic fields, but is there really that big of a difference when it comes to maintaining indoor playing surfaces? Not really, say some sports field managers who have experience working indoors.

Eastern Michigan University boasts an indoor FieldTurf field covered by an Arizon Structures bubble. Maintenance includes daily removal of any debris, as well as use of a Groomright groomer. The playing surface is also sprayed with chemical cleaners about twice each month.

“We treat our indoor and outdoor fields pretty much exactly the same,” says Scott Wilhoit, assistant director of athletic facilities and operations at the University of Cincinnati. In fact, the school’s indoor field is also an outdoor field for part of each year. “We put an inflated structure over the field for about four to six months annually,” he explains.

The Sheakley Athletics Complex was built two years ago, and last year a Yeadon Domes (www.yeadondomes.com) inflatable structure was erected over the field during the winter months. “In March, we take the bubble down and the field becomes our competition lacrosse field,” says Wilhoit.

When the field is covered, the uses are much more varied. “There’s a lot of demand for the indoor field,” says Wilhoit. “The field gets used by just about every sport now – come December, it’s booked pretty much from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.” The football team uses the field to prepare for bowl games; the lacrosse and soccer teams use the field for practices, as well as the track teams and intramural teams. “It sounds crazy, but even the golf team uses it,” Wilhoit notes.

Then there are local soccer and lacrosse teams that rent the field. “In this area, we’re the only one that has an indoor field,” says Wilhoit. “Even the Cincinnati Bengals don’t have one.” That team has made arrangements with the school to use the field in the event of severe weather, and another local college rented the field last year to prepare for a bowl game. Even with the tremendous use the indoor field receives, Wilhoit says the surface holds up well to the wear and tear.

The field surface is AstroTurf (www.astroturf.com), and the school has a contract with the company for regular inspections of the playing surface. A local service provider handles occasional grooming and cleaning, usually on a monthly basis, and Wilhoit says there isn’t really a need to groom the surface any more or less once it’s covered. “It can be a little more difficult to groom the field when the bubble is up, because you need to get the infill all straightened out and there’s not a lot of space in there, so we’ll usually groom it right before the bubble goes up, and then right when the bubble comes down because there are lifts and other equipment used on the field to take the structure down, and that can displace the infill a little bit and it needs to be leveled off,” he says.

For that reason, the use of athletic equipment carts on the field is discouraged, and when the school marching band uses the indoor field for practice, some heavy rolling equipment is prohibited. “We treat it like our outdoor game fields in that respect,” says Wilhoit. “We really try to keep the surface nice and clean.”

Wilhoit says the biggest difference in caring for the field after the bubble goes up is an increased need for “preventive maintenance” in the form of education. “We don’t want the trainers pouring stuff like Gatorade all over the field. Outdoor fields get naturally cleaned by the weather, but not indoor fields,” says Wilhoit. “It’s not going to destroy the field if it gets something on it, but we might have to take a hose to it. It will then drain just like any other field. Still, we ask them to dump anything like that outside, or the field surface could get pretty disgusting.”

There could also be health and safety concerns, he adds: “People don’t understand that the weather actually helps these fields – the sun and the rain help to keep them clean, and the field doesn’t get that inside the bubble.” Coaches, managers and trainers are all contacted and asked for their cooperation in keeping the surface especially clean during the covered months.

Indoor sports facilities present some maintenance challenges, such as limited space to move equipment around the edges of the field, but generally are maintained similar to outdoor fields.

Wilhoit says that the transition between indoor and outdoor (covered and uncovered) went smoothly, especially since this was the first year of going through the process. The inflatable structure can usually be put up or taken down in about four days, though a week is usually budgeted to account for weather conditions. “The biggest thing is that you can’t take it down when it’s wet out, or it can get moldy when you store it,” he explains. “When it’s going up, it usually takes one or two days to get all the structures in place, but the actual inflation of it only takes a couple hours.”

Installing the lighting inside takes another day once the structure is up. Once the field is covered, the athletes notice a big difference, “but we treat it pretty much like a normal outdoor field,” says Wilhoit.

A year-round inflatable structure is used to cover the Indoor Practice Facility at Eastern Michigan University, and maintenance of that field is very similar to the synthetic field at the school’s outdoor stadium, says Kara Corwin, coordinator of the Indoor Practice Facility. The facility opened in February 2010 and features a FieldTurf (www.fieldturf.com) playing surface, the same as the outdoor stadium.

“Day to day, we have to pick up any trash and remove any gum that is on the field,” says Corwin. (Student employees perform these tasks.) “Then there’s a schedule we follow using a special groomer,” she adds. The school uses FieldTurf’s Groomright groomer, which performs three different functions, each specified at a different interval ranging from monthly to bimonthly to biannually. “The program is called BARS: brushing, aerating, raking and sweeping,” she explains. A John Deere Gator is used to pull the Groomright when performing these field maintenance tasks.

The most often performed task is sweeping, which is done on an as-needed basis. “That really is just what it sounds like, a basic sweeping – it cleans the fibers of the field,” she explains. While the sweeping cleans the field, the process mostly leaves the black rubber infill unaffected. The only time that infill is affected is during aerating. “The aerating you can only do twice a year, and not at all until the year after the field was installed,” Corwin points out.

The field also must be cleaned for health and safety purposes. “We spray the field with products purchased from Pioneer Athletics (www.pioneerathletics.com),” says Corwin. “We usually do that twice per month during our busy season, and then once each month the rest of the year. That’s really to kill anything and everything on the field. We really have to use a chemical cleaner because we don’t have the elements like you would outside.” A tow-behind boom sprayer is used behind a golf cart for that job. Corwin states that the field usually dries within 10 or 15 minutes after spraying, but play is kept off the field for a little longer period after cleaning.

Corwin says that perhaps the biggest challenge in maintaining the field is finding a “window” of time during the week when the popular field is not being used in order to schedule needed maintenance. “It is used by our athletics department during the weekdays, including golf, baseball, softball, soccer and football,” she explains. “Then, there are nightly and weekend rentals of the facility for local sports groups and club teams. We usually need about a two-hour window to do what we need to do, and it can be hard to find that time.”

Andre Bruce, sports field manager for the Kansas City Chiefs, says the team’s indoor practice facility doesn’t get a lot of use, but says that maintenance of the field is very important. “We really treat both of our fields [indoor and outdoor] the same,” he says. It helps that both fields use the same surface – Sprinturf (www.sprinturf.com). This means that the same maintenance program can be followed on both fields. “And I know that one should work just like the other” from a playability standpoint, he adds.

Bruce says that about once each month he drags the fields with a spring-tine rake, which helps to comb and level the infill material. “It has drag brooms on the front of it, and then right behind that it has an electric rake that you can raise and lower,” he explains. “Usually we just drag it with the broom and that pushes the rubber back down into the surface.”

Periodically, a specialized company will be contracted to decompact the field, Bruce adds. “They use an SMG Sport Champ (http://en.smg-gmbh.de) machine to go down and pick up the sand and rubber. There’s a tray underneath with holes to let the rubber and sand fall back through. At the same time it will pick up and collect sunflower seeds, hair, paper clips, fingernails – anything that’s out there,” he explains. “You’d be surprised how much hair and material you get out of your field once you do it.” At regular intervals, usually once each year, the indoor field is sprayed with Bac-Shield (www.chemtexlaboratories.com), an antimicrobial cleaner, to ensure safety.

Bruce says that three overhead doors provide him plenty of access to the indoor field when he needs to bring equipment in for maintenance. There is ventilation inside, so gas-powered Gators can be used as needed. It’s also sometimes necessary to drive across the indoor field, for example when moving football practice sleds. On the outdoor game field, Bruce says he tries to keep utility vehicles off to the sides and away from the playing surface as much as possible. He notes that’s not always possible indoors where there’s less space surrounding the field.

Whether they’re geared for NFL football players or youth soccer teams, indoor playing fields offer many advantages. “They really are the way to go when there’s a lot of use involved,” observes Bruce. “Maintaining them properly will keep them looking and playing as new as possible for as long as possible.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.