Athletic Fields: Natural Grass or Synthetic?
Consideration to switch an athletic facility from natural grass to synthetic grass usually boils down to a common goal; less maintenance so it is cost effective. There is an assumption that the man hours and maintenance costs are significantly in favor of synthetic. It is also often assumed that when a field is seeing a lot of use, specifically areas that are considered high traffic for your venue, it can create areas that, especially toward the end of your season, may have a playability impact and require significant maintenance. But is synthetic truly better?
A properly built and maintained natural grass field will still perform even in the areas that appear to be becoming worn. Do not confuse appearance with playability! If the field has been properly developed and maintained, it will continue to perform and restoring the grass in these worn areas does not take much time and effort.
With natural grass, the two most obvious areas that have a financial impact are watering and mowing. To start, many facilities, even if those that have a quality irrigation system in place, overwater their turf, especially in the Spring. This not only will affect the overall water bill, but also will weaken the roots of the grass while promoting the speed of the blade growth. The faster the blades grow, the more the turf must be cut. If the proper turfgrass is in place relative to your sport and environment, for example, a grass that has drought resistance qualities, your water bill can be significantly reduced, even during the high heat/ dry months. Add to that a proper watering schedule specific to the grass type and season, the amount of water required can be significantly reduced. Adding rain sensors to automatically shut off watering during rainy days or rainstorms is impactful on the health of your grass. Less maintenance will be required as well having a positive budgetary impact.
Fertilization programs are essential to the health of turfgrass. Choose the correct fertilizer for the type of grass and the environment. Equally as important is the timing of the applications. If early-stage fertilizer is applied before the rise ground temperature, it will negate its effectiveness. Most fertilizers require moisture following application. However, if the grass if overwatered or the application is too close to a rainstorm, the fertilizer can be washed away or pool causing more damage than benefit. Again, using the correct fertilizer, proper application timing and appropriate volume can have a positive impact on your budget.
One of the biggest advantages of natural grass is the ground-heat impact. Natural grass can absorb and dissipate heat to an extent keeping the mid-day ground temperature very close to the air temperature whereas, on a hot, sunny, low wind day, synthetic turf can elevate surface temperatures as much as 50% higher than natural turfgrass.
Another positive impact of natural turfgrass is the improvement of air quality. Turfgrass, as a green leaf plant, solicits the photosynthesis process producing oxygen while reducing carbon dioxide. Turfgrass is also a natural air and dust filtration system.
Playability may be the largest difference among the two. Potential injuries from direct impact on healthy grass has historically had an advantage over synthetic turf. Players tends to be able to gain a better grip on natural grass. Even healthy but worn, high-trafficked areas still perform extremely well. Just because the area is stressed does not mean it will have a negative impact on the game or practice.
When comparing typical maintenance costs for a well-maintained natural turfgrass field to a synthetic field (post-installation, including typical and often unsightly replacement sections but not including the additional required equipment as there is specialty equipment required), you will find the cost is negligible. However, the proven mental and physical health advantages of a turfgrass field far outweigh that of a synthetic field.