Testing, tracking — and the old-fashioned eyeball test — all play a role in determining when it’s time to replace a synthetic field.
Your car’s tires have indicators to warn you when the tread is worn to a point where safety and performance are compromised. Your car’s brakes have indicators that make a screeching sound when the pads have reached the end of their useful life. Unfortunately, there is currently no such dummy-proof way to tell when it’s time to replace your synthetic turf sports field. That means there’s often confusion about exactly when a field needs to be replaced, and why.
“That’s something that the industry is debating,” reports Darren Gill, vice president of marketing, innovation and customer service at field manufacturer FieldTurf (FieldTurf.com). At this point, he says, the recommendation is to begin by undertaking some scientific tests. “The major test, obviously, would be GMAX – that would certainly be an excellent way to determine whether your field is still in a safe, playable range…. A GMAX test at least gives you a quantifiable data point.”
Even if a GMAX test shows numbers near or beyond the safety threshold, though, that doesn’t mean a field automatically needs to be replaced. There are things that can be done to restore some of the field’s safety attributes, most often by adjusting infill levels.
“The infill level is something that can be added to, but you want to monitor them over time to see how they potentially change,” Gill explains. “You can try to remediate that field and bring it into an appropriate level. But if not, that’s a sign that you should be planning for, or at least getting to the point where you starting looking at, replacement.”
Even for managers who have kept up on their maintenance, fields reach a point where the performance begins to deteriorate and, at that point, no amount of increased maintenance is going suffice and the field will need to be replaced.
“At a certain point in time, the field manager will have a decreasing ability to get those sport performance and shock absorption [test results] the way they want them to be,” says John Baize, managing director at Act Global (ActGlobal.com), a sports turf manufacturer.
It’s important to note that infill and GMAX are only part of the equation. Another important factor is the quality of the grass fibers on the field.
“You can look to see if your [grass blade] fiber is still in good shape and you can add infill to it, or if the fiber has degraded to the point where adding infill is no longer an option,” says Darren Gill with FieldTurf. “The difficulty with fiber wear, frankly, is that there is no test to actually help you understand whether your fiber has worn past the point of acceptability.”
Different fibers wear in different ways, Gill explains, so there is no one way that the fibers will react as they age. But there are some common symptoms to look for. For example, the monofilaments – like hair – will begin to split on the ends. This is often noticeable even without a close-up inspection, he says: “You’ll end up walking off the field and the fibers will have attached themselves to your shoes.”
Even if the fibers aren’t fraying, they might be a cause of field replacement. “On a brand-new field, the grass fibers stand up, creating a nice appearance and making it easy to add infill. “Whether it’s our company or one of our competitors’, most of us have pretty good looking fields when they’re brand new,” says Baize. But over time, he says, differences in the quality of the field surface, the quality of the installation and the quality of the maintenance start to show themselves.
One way to observe this is when the grass fibers lay down over top of the infill. “Once the fibers lay down it becomes hard to put in infill after that,” he explains. “Once the field lays down and it’s eight years old, it’s not going to want to bounce back up again, and then you’re not able to put the rubber back into the field.”
He notes that there are maintenance providers who claim that they can “come in with a mega-vacuum and suck it up – stand the fibers back up – and put more infill in” but it becomes progressively more difficult to do so once the grass blades lay down. The quality of the turf will be one determining factor; on some surfaces, the structure of the grass blade is so weak that it doesn’t want to come back up, says Baize. In this case, the only solution may be to replace the field.
On a positive note, if the grass blades are standing up and infill can still be added, then worn fibers (like split ends) don’t necessarily pose a safety risk to athletes. The threshold for fiber quality often comes down to the preference of the field users, says Gill. Some might deem that their field needs to be replaced when the fiber looks a certain way, while others would consider that same field to still be perfectly playable. “That’s more of an aesthetic value than it is a safety issue,” he adds.
“You know you have to replace your TV when you turn it on and nothing happens, but sports turf is more subjective,” agrees Baize. What looks worn out to one field owner may look just fine to another.
Sometimes, things fall in a middle ground. For example, a field as a whole looks and performs at an acceptable level, but there are certain spots that are unquestionably worn out. Penalty kick dots, goal mouths on soccer fields and the goalkeeper area on lacrosse fields are prime wear areas, observes Baize. One option short of replacing an entire field is to replace these worn areas. While it’s not optimal, “it is a bridge,” particularly in areas that are worn down the backing and are not holding any infill, he says.
When you start doing patch-work, those patches are probably better than the rest of the field. Still, if the patch is done well, the impact on play is likely to be minimal, he adds. What will stand out is the appearance of the new area.
“It’s like painting one door on an old car,” says Baize. For that reason, some sports turf managers, when a new field is installed, will order an extra roll and lay it out on top of a building so that it’s out of sight but is still exposed to the elements the way the actual field is. “They’ll just let it sit out there and age with the turf, so you have a little more consistency when you patch the field,” he explains.
Another method for gauging whether a synthetic field should be replaced is to simply look at its age. “What we’ve seen is that 8 to 10 years is a good estimate of how long a field should last,” says Darren Gill with FieldTurf. “We certainly see fields that are in their thirteenth or fourteenth years, but I think when fields get to that 8- to 10-year mark – especially that tenth year – it’s really time to look at replacement.” Still, he says in cases where an older field is still producing acceptable results in GMAX testing, it may not be necessary to replace the field if it is also still meeting the aesthetic threshold of the user.
In extreme cases, a synthetic field might need to be replaced even if the surface itself – the fibers, infill, etc. – are looking and performing fine, but there are problems with the subsurface construction. “On older fields, you’re seeing that as one reason that fields are being replaced, for sure…. Ten years ago, there weren’t as many qualified engineers or base builders, so there are some fields now that exhibiting long-term issues underneath the field,” Gill observes. He adds that the industry has advanced dramatically in the past decade as far as the engineering and construction methods that go into installing fields, so he expects that to be less of a concern – and cause for field replacement – in the future.
It doesn’t happen too often, but a field owner suffering from drainage problems may eventually decide that they can no longer afford to have their field made unplayable by water, says Baize. “There are maintenance providers that can come in and do a deep cleaning of the infill to try to alleviate drainage issues,” he says. This is an example where a field manager, even if they are doing their routine maintenance, can benefit from having a professional synthetic turf maintenance company come in to perform specialized services that can extend the useful life of the field, perhaps extending the period before field replacement is necessary.
One final factor that can force a field replacement is a decline/change in its playing characteristics. Especially on high-end fields, there may be playability reasons that a field needs to be replaced, even if the GMAX test results come back OK and the field looks fine.
“On a soccer field, for example, if the fibers are laying down, then the ball roll may be too fast, or the ball may bounce too high,” says Baize. Each sport has certain requirements, and there may be situations where the field simply no longer works for a given sport.
“The decision to replace a field has to be stratified: number one, make sure there is no player safety issue; once you do that, you have to ask whether the field is working properly for the sport(s) it is being used for,” he advises.
*Photos: Anthony Crisafulli and Activitas