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Synthetic Turf: Faking It Never Felt so Good

DANNY FASOLD | Landscape
When synthetic turf was first invented in the early ’60s, it was hardly impressive. There was only one type available at the time, and it was rough, off-color and uncomfortable. It was called AstroTurf, and while it quickly took off in popularity, it was a far cry from looking the least bit authentic. But the sports world didn’t care about authenticity. It wanted practicality, which AstroTurf offered in spades. It made its professional sports debut at the Rice Stadium in 1974, site of Superbowl VIII. The product later lined the Riverfront Stadium, which served as the setting for two consecutive championships for the Cincinnati Reds. By the ’80s, fitting sports fields with AstroTurf had become common.

The reason it was so popular was because it offered a lot of perks so far as maintenance was concerned. No one had to worry about chunks of soil being upturned by flying feet during a particularly physical game, which can be a huge problem for athletic fields. And perhaps most importantly, these AstroTurf-covered fields never had to be watered, fertilized, or mowed. This made things a whole lot easier . . . and less expensive.

But even its staunchest supporters couldn’t deny that AstroTurf was an ugly substitute for the real thing. No one in their right mind would ever consider replacing their front yards with the product. After all, the stuff looked less like actual grass and more like carpet. It would have been aesthetic suicide, a left-handed insult to good taste. So far as the residential market was concerned, synthetic turf and homes had nothing to do with each other.

My, how things have changed!

The synthetic turf of today offers a lot more than just AstroTurf. Some of it looks so realistic you’d have to bend down and touch it just to know that it’s fake. Individual blades of grass offer subtle nuances in color and shape, giving them a serene, natural and overall real look.

“When my company got into the business just 10 years ago, most brands of synthetic turf still looked really fake,” says Chris Heptinstall, president of All Pro Industries, Inc., Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. “That was by far the biggest problem at the time. Now it’s gotten to the point where you can walk on it, look at it and have no idea that it was synthetic unless somebody told you.”

Including synthetic turf into your company’s repertoire can be a great growth strategy. Most landscape companies don’t work with synthetic turf, but being the one company in your area that does can really help give your company a leg up. Imagine your customers having beautiful, green lawns that they hardly ever have to water. Sure, you would have to charge more to install it, but it would pay for itself in only a couple of years through water savings alone.

You will already have a clientele to market to and all the necessary tools to do the job. “It’s a very easy add-on service,” says Heptinstall. “All you need is a plate compactor, a couple of wheelbarrows to move the base material, shovels, brooms to brush in the infill and some utility knives to cut the turf. That’s pretty much it.”

Many of the early types of synthetic turf—while still an improvement over the plain, carpet-like style of AstroTurf—were embarrassingly unrealistic. The blades of grass were all of the exact same shape and color. If they looked as if they’d just come out of the paper shredder, that’s because they did.

Newer synthetic turf products are more realistic. Each strand of grass on a patch of top-of-the-line synthetic turf is woven in by hand. They can come in a variety of shades—evergreen, olive green, light green—the list goes on. Giving the lawn a rich color palette will add to the natural overall look and feel. Companies such as All Pro even offer a layer of artificial thatch that can be added to the turf’s surface for that final realistic touch.

After the turf has been installed, there’s not much else left to do. Mowing, fertilizers and pesticides become obsolete. Watering is minimal, and should be done only to cool or quickly clean the turf. This is the true beauty behind synthetic turf. Its ability to exist with very little maintenance makes it the perfect solution for homeowners who find themselves too preoccupied to take their mowers out for a Sunday afternoon spin.

Older brands of synthetic turf were typically installed with a sand infill to help keep the product in place. The problem with using a sand infill, though, was that it would absorb whatever spilled onto it. For example, if a dog urinated onto the turf, that urine would get soaked into the sand and stay there. From here, it wouldn’t take very long for an odor to form. Sports drinks and other sugar products also posed a problem for sand-backed turf. Should any of it spill onto the surface, it would stay there and cause bacteria to form.

“Sand will act as a sponge,” says Cynthia Kiktavi, an eco-landscape designer for Tiger Express, Anaheim, California. “Whatever it absorbs will stay trapped there. It can really be a breeding ground for bacteria if you’re not careful.”

Sand-based turf is also much harder than what most property owners would prefer. This takes away from what many people expect out of a lawn, which is a soft, cushiony texture that you can lay down on and sprawl around comfortably. If this is what you’re looking for, you should opt for a rubber-based product.

Companies such as Tiger Express specialize in synthetic turf that uses a special kind of rubber infill made from recycled tires. This rubber comes cryogenically frozen so as to prevent the leaching of potentially harmful materials. After the rubber backing is installed, it will begin to thaw and become soft.

“Rubber acts as a good, solid buffer to put over the ground,” says Kiktavi. “It will make the turf softer, especially compared to a synthetic turf that uses a sand infill, which can be quite hard. With rubber, you can put a swing set on the turf and if a child falls, you know that they’re safer.”

When considering artificial grass, you should be aware that not every rubber-backed product is necessarily safe. Some products are lined with an inexpensive chrome rubber, which is the lowest grade rubber there is.

These low-grade rubbers create microbes that can damage the turf and overall aesthetic look.

Don’t be afraid to spend a little bit more for the higher-quality product. Synthetic turf doesn’t come cheap as it is, and if your customers are going to make the investment, you may as well go all the way and purchase something that will last. Higher-grade rubber products have the quality and endurance homeowners expect out of their lawns.

Depending on how much traffic your clients expect on their lawns, a synthetic turf application may be more than just practical—it might be necessary. John Law, director of technical services at ValleyCrest, Calabasas, California, explains, “A natural grass turf can take about 400 to 600 hours of play per year. So it’s a matter of having to figure out how many hours a year the turf is actually going to see foot traffic. If you run the calculations and it comes out to over 400 hours, then we determine that a natural turf lawn wouldn’t be able to take that kind of wear, in which case we recommend artificial turf.”

You’re unlikely to ever come across homeowners who expect to see this much wear on their lawns, but such traffic is very common for sports fields and public parks.

However much your clients intend to use their synthetic lawns, one thing should always be brought to their attention: synthetic turf absorbs sunlight. On summer days, especially, people should be aware that if it’s hot outside, it’s going to be even hotter on an artificial lawn unless cooling measures are implemented. “Synthetic turf has a tendency to get about five to 10 degrees hotter than the outside ambient temperature,” says Heptinstall.

Property owners will want to periodically cool the turf down by either watering it with a hose or activating the irrigation system. If the turf in question is being used as an athletic field, water it down before every game for about 10 minutes. If you’re wondering what the point of synthetic turf is if you still have to water it like a regular lawn, know this: You don’t have to water it like a regular lawn. Just water it periodically on hot days so that it’s tolerable to walk on. You wouldn’t want anyone suffering from heat exhaustion!

You will also want to stress to your clients the importance of occasionally fluffing the lawn up like you would a carpet. “The grass fibers will get matted down over time,” says Law. “We’ll use a special machine that’s not that much different than a vacuum cleaner— it’s like a rotating brush that picks up all the fibers and shakes them around for a bit. When you’re done, the turf is fluffed up again and looking nice.”

Other than these minor maintenance issues, synthetic turf is really quite self-sustainable. Once it’s installed, it’s there to stay. Should there be a massive summer drought, no worries; those plastic plants aren’t going anywhere.

In certain parts of the country— especially in California—cities that are having trouble keeping up on steady supplies of potable water are offering rebates to help pay for synthetic turf installations. Many homeowner associations are beginning to embrace these products. “Water districts and HOAs alike are thinking more and more in terms of water conservation these days,” says Heptinstall, “especially on the West Coast.”

In addition to helping to cut back on water usage, synthetic turf serves as a great fire break. Should a fire happen to come in contact with the turf, the fire will singe and put itself out. “It will literally extinguish itself before it has time to spread,” says Kiktavi.

Having a green, luscious lawn can make an otherwise humdrum property the prize of the neighborhood.

Synthetic turf offers homeowners a way to please their neighbors’ eyes as well as do away with those pesky two-day-a-week watering schedules that everyone else has to adhere to. They may not be picture-perfect, but they look pretty good. And in a time where it truly pays to save on water, it’s nice to have options.

 
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