This summer, our CWH intern, Jackson Caudle of Occidental College, researched the costs and benefits of living and artificial turf on athletic fields. Having played football throughout his life, this subject hit close to home. It’s also a timely topic for CWH as we work with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) to connect schools and school districts with water-saving incentives, which includes a turf replacement rebate. In this week’s #SummerScienceFriday, we compare the trade-offs between living and artificial turf.
During the hot summer months, the sun is out longer, and you may find yourself needing to use more water to keep your grass green. This is the reality for many living in southern California, but it can be a larger issue for those who manage athletic fields. Unlike typical front lawns, fields are large and often need to be kept in ideal conditions for sport. This includes frequent watering and maintenance. Over the past decade, many athletic fields have been converted from natural to synthetic turf in an effort to conserve water and save money on their monthly water bills. It may seem obvious that we should pick the most water-efficient option, but it’s not that simple.
Construction of Athletic Fields
For those not too familiar, synthetic turf is a plastic replacement for grass, created using three layers of material. A top and bottom layer made of plastic mimic the feel of grass and hold in the middle layer, which is typically filled with recycled pieces of tires, other plastics, or sand. In order for the synthetic turf to be laid down, construction takes place over a period of several days, where workers build a concrete border around the area where the turf will be laid and drainage areas are installed underneath. This extra construction can be expensive, but because turf fields do not drain water like natural turf, it is necessary.
In comparison, natural turf is easier and cheaper to install. The process starts by rototilling the ground where the turf will be laid. This churns the soil and clears off any organic material that will get in the way of the turf. Long strips of grass are then rolled out, covering prepared soil. Finally, the natural turf is watered to help the seeds grow and take root in the ground.
Source: Friends of Rahway River Parkway
It costs approximately $275,000 to install synthetic turf, whereas the cost for installing natural turf onto an athletic field is around $160,000. Although seemingly cheaper, natural turf requires more maintenance and watering which means a cost for constant, additional labor. On the other hand, synthetic turf may be more expensive to lay down than natural turf. It requires less intensive maintenance, which saves on labor costs. Typical maintenance for synthetic turf can involve raking, sweeping, and patching holes in the turf.
Heat and Cooling Effects
Natural grasses have cooling mechanisms like evapotranspiration, to lower its ambient temperatures. Synthetic turf does not. On average, artificial fields heat up at least 20°C more than grass, which can lead to heat stroke and dehydration in athletes playing on the fields. The most effective way to cool synthetic turf is to spray the turf with water, but this conflicts with water conservation methods, a major selling point of synthetic turf. However, it is important to note that these synthetic fields only need to be watered during use. In comparison, natural turf requires routine watering to stay in good condition.Natural fields can be expensive to maintain, needing landscaping crews, large amounts of fertilizer, and thousands of gallons of water to keep them in playable conditions.
So synthetic or natural turf?
When deciding between natural and synthetic turf, one should consider the trade-offs between water usage for aesthetics or replacing synthetic turf every decade. This infographic can be used as a guide to help compare the benefits of each.
It’s important to note that although operators of athletic fields only have the options of synthetic and natural turf, homeowners have a third, much more efficient option. This would be replacing their grass lawns with lawns made of more water efficient, native plants. Currently, MWD is offering a program for homeowners who wish to replace their grass to assist in this transition. MWD offers free plants, sprinkler modifications, and stormwater retention features, along with a $3 per square foot rebate upon completion of the project. Click here to learn more about how you can change your lawn to save money! MWD’s Landscape Transformation program is a great incentive for converting smaller patches of living turf with drought tolerant, native plants. Native plants create habitats for local wildlife and make a great accent to the areas surrounding athletic fields and golf courses. Learn more about MWD’s incentives at SoCalWaterSmart.
UCLA- “Comparison of the Lifetime Costs and Water Footprint of Sod and Artificial Turf: A Life Cycle Analysis."
The Guardian-“California turns to fake grass in response to drought.”
FieldTurf- “How it works: construction and installation.”
FieldTurf- “Cost analysis.”
Yaghoobian, N., Klessi, J., & Krayenhoff, E. 2010. “Modeling the Thermal Effects of Artificial Turf on the Urban Environment.”