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Turf War: Artificial vs. Natural

By Bruce Fordyce

While artificial turf does not require mowing, watering (for growth), pesticides or herbicides, it is not maintenance-free. To keep the turf looking the way it is suppose to, regular ''brushing'' is required. Simple bloom-like devices all the way up to rider machines are available.

Editors' note: wades into the contentious debate between artificial turf and natural turf grass. Passions run high on each side of the discussion. The editors strive to provide a balanced look at the pros and cons of each product, and leave it to the reader to make up their own mind as to which choice serves their needs best.

According to the United States Department of labor, Bureau of labor statistics, grounds maintenance workers held about 1.5 million jobs in 2008. It is projected to increase to 1.7 million by 2018.

Artificial Turf

Artificial turf was introduced in the 1960s, but it was not until the early 1980s when an improved second-generation product gained popularity. In the late 1990s, an in-filled artificial turf arrived that duplicated the look and playability of natural grass, and formed the basis for today's artificial turf product. With improved appearance, performance, drainage, durability, quality and safety, the artificial turf market is making inroads into three major segments: athletic fields, landscaping and golf courses.

Why The Growth? - According to advocates, several factors contribute to the increased demand for artificial turf, including improved safety, playability and appearance. Other factors advocates cite include: The proliferation of multi-use athletic fields, with durability a key factor in increased utilization. Lower annual operating costs and reduced maintenance requirements are also cited, as well as environmental aspects such as eliminating water usage, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and utilizing recycled auto tires for the infill. Artificial turf extends playing seasons for all sports, and the ability to use the surface in all weather conditions.

The Numbers - As of 2009, there are reportedly 5,500 artificial turf sports fields in use in the United States; the Association of Synthetic Grass Installers estimates that in 2009 more than 60 million square feet of artificial turf lawn was installed in the U.S., up 20 percent from 2006.

Increased Playing Time & Safety - Advocates claim that artificial turf fields can be utilized around 3,000 hours per year with no ''rest'' required, more than three times that of natural grass. This translates into increased practice and playtime, as well as the flexibility to use the field for ''other events.''

Environmental Advantages - More than 2.2 billion gallons of water are conserved nationwide each year because of artificial turf sports fields, according to some published estimates. Using crumb material from granulated used tires for sports field infill means that 25 million auto tires per year do not end up in landfills. And, artificial turf does not support potentially harmful insect infestations.

Cost - Proponents argue that artificial turf is a cost-effective option on a long-term basis. When factoring in the expenses of irrigation and maintaining a grass playing field each year, the cost more than pays for itself during the lifetime of the surface.

The Association of Synthetic Grass Installers estimates that in 2009 more than 60 million square feet of artificial turf was installed in the U.S., up 20 percent from 2006. In 2009, nearly 1,000 artificial turf fields were installed in North American schools, colleges, parks and professional sports stadiums.

Bermudagrass is a major turf species for sports fields, parks, golf courses, and general utility turfs. Common Bermuda grass is drought resistant, grows on many soils, and makes a good turf if fertilized and mowed right. Bermuda may be planted from either seed or sprigs and with proper management will provide a high-quality turf. However, the newer hybrid bermudas are generally far superior.

Natural Turf Grass

There are approximately 50 million acres of managed turf in the U.S. This places turf grass third in total acreage nationwide. In addition, it is estimated by the Economic Research Service that the turf-grass industry, in all its forms, is a $40 billion industry.

The Numbers - Turf grass provides playing surfaces on more than 700,000 athletic fields, and more than 17,000 golf courses. The turf industry provides jobs and economic opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Americans, from seed and sod producers, to lawn care operators and landscapers.

Environmental Aspects - Turf grasses provide safety and dust control along millions of miles of highways and thousands of airport runways. Turf grasses provide environmental protection and enhancement by purifying and protecting water, soil and air. The ''average-size'' front lawn offers the cooling effect of about 70 tons of air conditioning. A 2,500 square foot lawn absorbs carbon dioxide and releases enough oxygen for a family of four. A healthy lawn absorbs rainfall and reduces runoff up to 80 times more efficiently than impervious surfaces.

There is an estimated 50 million acres of managed turf in the U.S. This places turf grass third in total acreage nationwide. Besides providing jobs for hundreds of thousands of landscape workers, turf is the number one or two agricultural commodity in states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Artificial Turf Verses Natural Grass Athletic Fields

Passions run high on either side of the issue, and there are a lot of contradicting numbers flying through the ether. However, some statistics and statements are less disputed.

Installing an artificial turf is more expensive than turf grass
Artificial turf is said to last 8-10 years, whereas turf replacement is more a function of how well maintained the field is (barring natural disasters or other calamities). Cory Jenner, a consultant from Appel Osborne Landscape Architecture, said; ''Financially speaking, artificial turf is more cost-effective over time,'' Jenner said, ''although the initial installation of a turf field is twice that of a natural grass field. Looking out 20 years, the cost per event on a turf field is about $300, compared to $970 per event on a natural grass field.''

Maintaining Artificial Turf Is Less Expensive Per Year - While this is one of the main selling points of artificial turf proponents, natural turf advocates will say that this is not necessarily the entire case. They argue there are more operating costs associated with artificial turf than one might expect. Artificial turf fields may require additional infill, irrigation on hot days (to cool the surface for play), the use of chemical disinfectants and sprays to reduce static cling and odors.

Nonetheless, with artificial turf, there is no requirement for watering (other than for cooling), no herbicide treatment and the surface will be suitable for play no matter how bad the weather has been.

Unlike turf grass, however, with artificial turf, there is a hidden cost of disposal. Because the field is filled and top-dressed with a crumb rubber material, the material may require special disposal. According to Justin Wallace, Director of Communication, Sod Solutions, Inc. ''When the synthetic turf runs through its life-cycle, it must be ripped up and replaced at a much higher cost than that of re-sodding a turfgrass field, something that shouldn't even be necessary if (the turf grass) is cared for properly.''

The difference in maintenance costs for the two surfaces is largely a function of the staff time required to care for natural grass. The maintenance schedule for a natural grass field generally includes weekly mowing and watering; daily cleaning of trash and glass; fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications; and line painting.

Maintaining an artificial turf field requires daily cleaning of trash and glass; removal of substances such as gum with a solvent; and grooming with a special vacuum to ''fluff up'' the field. It also involves an occasional fungicide treatment. There may also be the need to wash the synthetic grass surface to bring it up to its original fresh color and feel.

Irrigation-restriction ordinances and drought mitigation are quickly becoming an ever-present reality and issue for landscape maintenance professionals. To address this reality, new and mix-seed grasses are being introduced that offer the beauty of turf but in more drought-tolerant and pest-resistant varieties. Celebration Bermudagrass(TM) is an example of a grass that was engineered to need less fertilization and mowing, as well as offering drought-tolerance.

Fields As Profit Centers

Henry Van Antwerp of Controlled Products (a synthetic turf manufacturer) commented: ''A synthetic turf field will allow the customer to have 3000-plus events per year versus the normal of about 400-plus on real grass. In today's economy (or any economy for that matter) most everything comes down to the dollar, synthetic fields are income centers on all levels.''

At Cincinnati's Turpin High School, the field is rented 80 percent of the evenings between January and October. The school has raised $40,000 a year for the last two years from rental fees alone.

New Natural Grasses

According to Wallace, ''New improved turf grasses have made the need for synthetic varieties unnecessary in warmer climates. Celebration Bermudagrass(TM) is an example of a grass that was engineered to need fewer inputs like fertilization and mowing, thus saving money for the end user. Celebration is also extremely drought-tolerant, requiring less water over the course of a year. It also was designed to have rapid lateral growth, able to quickly self-repair any damage sustained.''

St. Augustine grass is the second most popular turf grass behind Bermuda. St. Augustine is known to be deep rooted, tough, and fast growing. This grass is good for coastal regions; it thrives in heat, but does poorly in cool climates. It performs excellent to fair under drought conditions, and is moderately good under heavy foot traffic. At the moment, the most common installation method is sodding or plugs. Compared to finer textured grasses like the Bermudas, St. Augustine has large flat stems and broad coarse leaves. It has an attractive blue-green color and forms a deep, fairly dense turf.

Athletic Fields on Hot Days

Artificial field surface temperatures have been documented as high as 199 degrees on a sunny day with an air temperature of 98 degrees. Researchers at Brigham Young University reported that the surface temperature of an artificial turf football field on campus averaged 117 degrees, with a daily high of 157. On an adjacent natural grass field, the surface temperature averaged 78 degrees, with a daily high of 89. Researchers at Penn State University studied the effect of using irrigation to reduce surface temperatures of artificial turf fields and discovered that temperature could be decreased with irrigation, but the effects were short-lived (20 minutes).

Real grass needs fertilizer, but recent advances in organic fertilizers are taking some of the issues caused by chemical fertilizers off the table. More and more municipalities are looking to organic fertilizers and pesticides to mitigate potential health hazards.

Environmental Concerns And Impacts

Unlike natural grass, artificial turf doesn't require treatment with pesticides and fertilizers; however, some towns are having great success using organic grass fields. And, of course, advances in new types of grass that require less water and fertilizer are on the rise. According to Trent Ryan of Turffalo, ''A turf area just 50 foot square absorbs carbon dioxide, ozone, hydrogen fluoride and perosyacetyle nitrate and releases enough oxygen to meet the needs of a family of four.'' Artificial turf fields do not cool the environment like natural turf, nor do they help to filter air and water pollutants. Artificial turf only needs irrigation to cool down a hot surface for play.

Once installed, however, artificial turf leaves little future choice but to install another artificial turf field when the first one needs replacing. Once plastic replaces natural grass, it kills living organisms in the subsoil making it impossible without years of soil remediation to grow anything on that surface.

One of the leading artificial turf companies is FieldTurf. According to the company, their fields have hosted The Super Bowl, BCS National Championship Games, World Cup Matches, The World Series, and the World Baseball Classic. 21 of 32 NFL teams have chosen to play and/or practice on FieldTurf.

The Future

Due to its history and market dominance, natural turf grass is not going anywhere. Increasing irrigation restrictions and pesticide/fertilizer requirements will be met with new grasses and grass seed mixes that require less water and are more environmentally rugged. Hybrid lawn landscapes are on the landscape as well, especially in areas entering potential permanent drought conditions. However, artificial turf is a growing market as well.

''Synthetic fields are the future,'' asserts Van Antwerp, ''water resources are dwindling, there are too many risks involved with all the pesticides, herbicides and chemicals needed to keep real field looking and playing okay.

Wallace of Sod Solutions, Inc. comments: ''There are some situations where using synthetic turf may be an appropriate choice. Synthetic turf might be right for a field in northern states where the prime growing season lasts just three months per year, or in a domed or covered facility. In South Florida, however, where grass thrives year-round, natural turf offers too many long-term benefits that can't be duplicated by 'plastic grass.'''

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June 18, 2019, 8:48 am PDT

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