Jameson Sheley is a certified field builder and certified track builder and project manager for St. Louis-based Byrne & Jones Sports.
Last year, within months of one another, two Illinois public high schools just 12 miles apart in Pinckneyville and Du Quoin unveiled state-of-the-art artificial turf fields and new running tracks. Throughout Illinois, school districts are evaluating their athletic facilities and investing in upgrades as civic assets to express a quality of life attractive to families.
But the selection of a new track or field and its installation can be fraught with missteps. There are innumerable companies with marketers singing the praises of the athletic surfaces they peddle. School districts should understand that all products are not created equal and proper planning, installation and maintenance of what’s under foot is essential for safety and lasting value.
Let’s start with safety. There are a number of college research studies comparing the safety of natural versus artificial turf. Unfortunately, every one of them is underwritten by proponents of either natural turf or artificial turf with outcomes that favor the advocacy. We see one inescapable constant – artificial turf, when installed correctly, is a uniform surface that generally stays in good condition after countless games, band practices and the like. Sod fields can be shredded after one game and are more difficult and costly to maintain. Anyone who saw the gimpy-legged Washington Redskins quarterback RG III in the 2012 NFL playoffs collapse in a heap after planting his foot on a cratered and torn up natural turf field gets the picture.
But the uniformity of an artificial turf field can also be deceiving if it is not installed properly. When a player takes a tumble on a synthetic field, he’s falling on a cushion of sand and rubber pellets that serve as the infill at the base of the turf blades. Sand can get hard over time unless properly maintained, but more problems can occur if the contractor installs the wrong size rubber granules to save money. If you walk on synthetic turf and your ankle tends to turn, it’s likely the granules are too large. Using granules that are too small will make the surface too hard and possibly impede drainage.
The safety aspects of choosing artificial or natural turf may become a moot point over the next five years. That’s because the NFL is moving to reduce its liability to injuries by creating new rules that could make fields unacceptable to play on game day. Essentially, the NFL is testing all its fields for hardness. If a field exceeds a safety standard, no game can be played and teams will be liable for lost revenue. Natural turf fields, which freeze in colder climates during the winter, will not fare well in this test. These rules to mitigate liability – as they so often do – will eventually trickle down to the high school level. Artificial turf may become the only option for an uninterrupted season.
Turf and track types
Selecting artificial turf is like purchasing carpet. In general, less expensive products tend not to last as long as a more expensive product. Turf design duplicates the bounce of the ball on natural turf, so field hockey, lacrosse, baseball, soccer and football fields will be different. Additionally, highly specialized sports, like field hockey, require a “shock pad” underneath the surface to cushion it – a more expensive proposition than sand and rubber infill used for multi-purpose fields.
A turf’s life span can range from five to 12 years, depending on the type of turf installed, level of usage, quality of the base, and diligence of maintenance. So schools should consider the cost of replacing the turf – typically about 50 to 60 percent of the original cost of the entire project. A $750,000 artificial turf can cost about $450,000 to replace if it has a properly constructed base that can be reused.
As for tracks, the size will be determined by the events the school anticipates hosting. Du Quoin and Pinckneyville selected eight-lane tracks suitable for regional or sectional events. Some schools opt for six-lane tracks sufficient for dual league track meets.
More than 90 percent of schools opt for polyurethane surfaces generally composed of a black mat with a structural spray coating. It should have a life span of 20 years with a re-spray coating every five years. There are more expensive systems, but no matter what installation is chosen, reputable installers should follow proper manufacturers’ guidelines for the amount of materials required for the track system. It is important to require that the construction manager carefully review the bill of lading to double check the material amounts installed with the required amounts in the specifications. When contractors cut corners to pad margins, the quality of outcomes suffer.
Most schools want upgrades performed when school is out during the summer, sometimes putting off construction until mid-June to accommodate the use of facilities for graduation ceremonies. When planning an upgrade, schools should first consider that it can take up to five months from the time a school commits to the project to putting the first shovel into the ground. This is largely because of the design schedule and permit review process. Engineers and designers need three to four months just to create a final plan to price for contractors. Projects then need to be bid in late winter to early spring for schools planning a summer installation.
Permitting can include approval from multiple agencies including the state department of natural resources, the local sewer district, other state, county and municipal offices, and in some cases, levee districts. Permitting invariably encounters storm water management, water quality, erosion control, and other environmental issues. Meanwhile, design and engineering requires a thorough evaluation of site selection and site geometry (so the surface fits the site), mapping of existing utilities, storm water retention and water quality concerns before finalizing construction bid documents.
Once projects start, typically at the end of May, the timeline for completion can shrink even further if a school wants the field ready for August practice. A lot of things have to go right – especially weather – if a new field or track is going to be installed in 60 days. Construction firms vary in handling a compressed schedule, but the best outcomes start with working closely with schools to manage the schedule and expectations while planning each step of the project long before construction is started. A lot of overtime and weekend work will add to the cost of the project.
Maintaining artificial turf is easier and less expensive than natural turf, which requires irrigation, seeding, aerating, fertilizing, and replacement of damaged turf. However, artificial turf needs to be groomed to fluff the blades, remove debris and swept twice a month under heavy use and once a quarter with lighter use. Seam repairs are also occasionally required. Many schools pay for these costs by renting their fields.
A new rubberized track should stay in good condition for five to seven years before requiring a resurfacing coat. The track should have a total life span of 15 to 25 years, depending on the type installed and the asphalt base.
Community school budgets are tight, but administrators can find long-term value in upgrading athletic surfaces. They just need to make smart decisions on safety, turf and track surfaces and understand construction timelines and maintenance costs. Only then will they get the community asset and support they seek.