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These days, many contractors are getting a little help from a surprising new resource: synthetic turf. From backyard putting greens to play areas to low maintenance lawns, this water-free alternative is sprouting up all over the place. Contractors who are getting involved in synthetic turf installation find that it?s a profitable way to add another dimension to their business with very little investment.
Synthetic turf isn?t exactly new, of course. But modern materials and manufacturing has brought it a long way from the hard, plasticlooking surfaces of the ?70s. Today?s synthetic turf is much more aesthetically appealing than in days past. It can be virtually indistinguishable from natural grass by sight and is soft and pleasant to walk and play on.
New manufacturing and installation methods have led to turf that stands up to traffic and doesn?t fade in sunlight. It also comes in a variety of ?species? that mimic the real thing. And let?s not forget that it?s always freshly cut and always green.
?The fiber itself has changed over the years,? says Chris Heptinstall, president of All Pro Putting Greens. Years ago the fiber was more rigid. Now it?s softer and gives the feel of natural turf.?
These qualities have enabled synthetic turf to gain new appreciation from widely diverse audiences. Environmentalists like it from a water conservation perspective and because it doesn?t need fertilizers, pesticides, or polluting lawn mowers to look great. Homeowners are seeking it out because of its low maintenance appeal and because it offers an affordable way to have that backyard putting green many have always wanted. Maintenance professionals and municipalities are choosing it to help keep a well-manicured look even in the most challenging places.
The grass is always greener
While synthetic turf isn?t going to replace all of our lawns anytime soon, there are several applications where it simply makes sense. More schools are installing it in their playing fields to save taxpayers the money of expensive maintenance programs and to keep fields in use by virtually eliminating downtime. Synthetic turf also enables schools to use fields for multiple purposes. Because today?s synthetic turf is extremely durable, grounds can be used for many activities without worrying about damaging the surface.
Municipalities and commercial establishments are finding several practical applications for synthetic turf. It can be especially useful in places like parking lot islands, medians, or other isolated strips that are difficult to access for mowing and watering. It has also found its way into heavily trafficked public areas like outdoor theatres and other community gathering spots, where it?s very difficult to keep the ?village greens? from turning into the ?village browns.?
While this new generation of synthetic grass has been showcased in public settings for several years now, residential customers have started bringing it home as well. Private putting greens are one of the biggest growth areas. ?We got involved because people were asking for it,? says Amy Graffum, operations manager and designer for Hennessey Landscape Services in Plaistow, New Hampshire. ?There are so many avid golfers out there who would love to be able to go out after dinner and do some golfing in their own yard. It?s also a conversation piece. It?s something that gets people outside together.?
This interest in private putting greens reflects the growing attitude among homeowners that a yard is more than just a place to put your house. ?Today, people want to stay home more and enjoy their yards with family and friends,? says Heptinstall. ?They?re turning their backyards into places to relax and recreate. Adding a putting green is one way to do that.?
Synthetic turf is also an appealing solution to a number of tricky home landscaping challenges. ?It offers an alternative where natural grass may cause a problem or have difficult maintenance issues,? says Chris Scott, director of marketing for X-Grass, which makes a variety of artificial grass products. ?It?s especially ideal for areas around pools and other parts of the yard you just don?t want to mow.?
Keith Thykeson is owner of Pioneer Golf, a supplier and installer of a variety of golf and lawn surfaces from Synthetic Turf International. He?s seeing growth in the demand for these products in the home lawn and landscape market for a number of reasons.
?In the past, the vast majority of calls we got were for putting greens,? says Thykeson. ?Now about seventy-five percent of our calls are from customers inquiring about other lawn and landscape applications. Either they can?t grow grass in a particular part of their yard because there?s not enough light, or they have pets and are tired of looking at a lot of dead spots on their lawn, or they are simply tired of spending so much money and time mowing and watering.?
The last example is one reason synthetic turf is showing up on the radar of a lot of water conservation organizations these days. In areas where water restrictions make it challenging to keep other kinds of turf green, some are turning to this alternative.
?I think the big catalyst is the shortage of water,? says Bob Delozier, vice president of Eco Alliance Synthetic Grass, based in Redlands, California. ?More contractors are getting involved because many more consumers are requesting it. The high price of water is driving customers to research these options. The more they see it, the more they want it.?
Chris Scott agrees. ?There has been real growth in activity in lawn replacement, especially in California and the Southwest where water conservation is a big issue. Not only does it eliminate the need for water, it also eliminates the need for chemical applications.?
Ahead of the curve
Contractors who get involved will be ahead of the curve in areas where the market is driven by water issues. No matter what the geographic area, those who get involved in recreational installations like putting greens will have one more offering in their repertoire of services to set them apart from the competition.
?Synthetic surfaces, especially golf greens, allow contractors to connect with customers that they wouldn?t otherwise reach,? says Heptinstall. ?And these installations can lead to other valuable work. A contractor might sell a green for $5,000 but then return and put in $10,000 in landscaping around it.?
It?s relatively easy to start offering synthetic turf. One of its priqualimary attractions for landscape contractors is that they already have the equipment, skills, and labor they need to tackle this new service. ?The beginning steps are very similar to installing a patio or other hardscape,? says Graffum. ?We already had that part down. It was not difficult to learn the rest. The manufacturer was very helpful in providing the training we needed to get started.?
A synthetic turf application begins with well-compacted ground that has been cleared of existing sod. A sub-base of crushed stone is applied and compacted. The turf is laid on top and an infill consisting of crushed rubber, slag, sand, or a mixture of materials is spread over the turf and raked or brushed down into the fibers. This keeps fibers upright while providing a cushioned base that more closely simulates real turf.
When installation is complete there is very little maintenance involved. In the home landscape, the surface should be kept free of leaves and other organic debris with a leaf-blower, broom, or by hand.
Quality products and quality installations are the key to repeat business and profitability.
Proper compaction and drainage are absolutely essential. If the subbase isn?t well compacted, shifting will occur over time.
Making accurate calculations of the amount of product needed will help ensure a perfect installation with no waste. ?Turf has grain to it and you don?t want to cross grain the product,? says Thykeson. ?Accurate calculations mean no waste to cut into your profits and no hauling or storing of extra product.?
There are many other details involved in a first-class installation. It?s critical for contractors who want to start working with synthetic turf to educate themselves on the products available and on proper installation techniques. ?Training is the key for high quality installations,? says Heptinstall. ?Do not cut corners. Don?t try to reinvent the wheel.?
?Training is number one,? agrees Delozier. ?There are guys out there who are doing it too cheaply. In the beginning it looks okay, but in a year or so it doesn?t. This gives other contractors in the industry a bad name.?
Thykeson agrees. ?Some contractors put their hands on the cheapest product out there because it looks good to their profit margin. We call these guys ?trunk slammers.? They put the product in and they?re gone. Pretty soon there are problems and you can?t find them to bring them back and address them.? Thykeson has been involved with quality control not only as a distributor and installer for Synthetic Turf International but also as a member of the Synthetic Turf Council Board, a quality assurance board for STI. Education has been a top issue for the board, which is currently in the process of establishing a certification program to identify STI installers who have met high standards for training and technical expertise.
?We?re trying hard to make sure installers have the proper education so they don?t harm the incredible momentum of this product,? says Thykeson. ?If you use poor products or do poor installations, it will lose momentum.?
Manufacturers are eager to provide the training and support needed. ?Our whole business is built on helping and educating contractors so we can make sure they?re successful,? says Heptinstall. ?We provide a tremendous amount of support, including online training, 24/7 technical support, and a quarterly magazine that covers things like installation tips, job estimating, and marketing programs.?
Creative marketing is one of the hallmarks of Heptinstall?s company. ?Our philosophy is that we?re not successful until the contractor is successful first. We do everything we can to assist the contractor in getting those orders.?
One marketing program that has been particularly successful is the ?Build A Green Day.?With this program, homeowners purchase a putting green at half-price by providing some of the work themselves under the supervision of the contractor. ?This program enables the contractor to have two customer bases,? says Heptinstall. ?For every customer out there who can afford a turn-key installation, there are hundreds who can?t but who would pay half-price for a kit and guidance from the contractor. At the end of the day, the installer still makes a good profit, but the labor comes from the homeowner and his golf buddies (who are usually speculating on how soon they can add one themselves).?
With quality work, your synthetic turf installations will soon start marketing themselves and you?ll start reaping the rewards. Synthetic turf offers a healthy profit margin. ?With replacement lawns and putting greens, you?re looking at a margin of between 35% and 45%,? says Scott.
Manufacturers are introducing new synthetic grass products every year. Various colors and styles make it easier to match the texture and look of the real thing. X-Grass is even in the process of developing a biodegradable, synthetic turf.
?We?re going to see continued growth in the use of synthetic turf over the next ten years,? says Scott. ?Products have come so far from the Astroturf of the ?70s. They have so much more appeal and consumers are really embracing it.?