How to maintain sports pitches in an era of budget cuts

Councils and sports clubs have to provide good playing surfaces even while facing severe cuts. Maureen Keepin reports on the available options.

Maintenance: little-and-often programme advised for artificial surfaces   Image: Technical Surfaces
Maintenance: little-and-often programme advised for artificial surfaces Image: Technical Surfaces

With nearly every area of public and private expenditure currently being scrutinised, sports facility maintenance will inevitably have to carry its share of the dramatic cuts in council funding.

Drastic times call for drastic measures. There are many private clubs that report they cannot afford winter waterproof clothing or fuel for their machines. One council looking to save £30m is passing over the management of its bowling greens to club members, thereby dusting its hands of the responsibility and upkeep and staff costs.

What else can be done? What products and services are there to help councils and sports providers save money during the current squeeze and the longer term?

Lindum Turf managing director Stephen Fell feels few smaller clubs will be able to afford to returf at the moment and says: "They will most probably opt to overseed the worn areas, although when it comes to particularly vulnerable sections of the pitch, such as goalmouths, they can opt for reinforced turf such as our Lokturf."

Richard Campey of Campey Turf Care Systems says: "The fundamental issue to be addressed when looking to make economies should be how to be more efficient and reduce costs in that way. It is by improving your maintenance programme, not reducing it, that you will make long-term savings."

Tim Cannon, manager of Spearhead Turf and a member of the Turfgrass Growers Association, emphasises: "Managers should not take shortcuts. Correct drainage and good aeration are particularly important. If this is not correct whatever else you do will not make the surface come right."

Machinery also has its part to play. Huge progress has been made with combination machines, which now save time, labour and material costs and promote sustainable maintenance. The Koro recycling dresser, for example, combines three functions in one machine - it aerates the soil vertically and horizontally, eliminates any underlying compaction and recycles the soil from the root zone to produce a fine surface tilth and reduce the amount of new top-dressing required. Further information is available at www.campeyturfcare.com.

Natural turf

Pitches at grass-roots level are really just not built well enough, says Billy Martin, Kestrel Contractors director and Sports & Play Construction Association (SAPCA) natural sports turf chairman.

"There is a litany of badly-designed sports fields throughout the UK that have suffered at the hands of well-meaning specifiers," he adds. "They lack the balance needed to deliver sustainability.

"Specifiers and contractors have been guilty of cheap and cheerful specifications that fail within one or two years, leading to not just a waste of taxpayers' money but also more dangerous pitches, which cost a fortune to rectify."

Martin goes on to explain that if sand slits are installed into clay soils, the soil will shrink as it dries out in the summer months. The aggregate that the slits have been backfilled with then slumps into the bottom of the trench or resulting fissures, leading to a drop in surface levels. Unless these are topped up immediately with sand, the side walls of the slits will cave in and be capped over with the impervious soil. Mowing regimes then further compound this problem.

"Clients investing a substantial amount of money on multiple pitch builds will find it galling to be told afterwards that they need irrigation or the whole system will fail," he points out. "And unless sufficient irrigation is available, the problem can return year after year."

Together with other conscientious contractors, Kestrel helped form the natural sports turf division at the SAPCA to raise the standards of sports facilities. As a result, two months ago a natural sports turf code of practice was launched

"We have already noticed in the tenders we are now receiving from consultants that sand slits are disappearing off the radar," says Martin. New specifications have laterals closer together with sand mixed through the topsoil to produce a perched water table effect that is less susceptible to drying out.

"We need to have a balance in our designs. It is not very professional to install drainage then watch it fail through onerous maintenance regimes that are required for the new systems to work," he adds.

Combating poor drainage can deplete limited resources in the current economic climate. Terrain Aeration operations director Lynda Green suggests the key to long-term savings is to tackle deep seated compaction in the soil structure. Waterlogging on any surface will prevent play and cause grass diseases, which require expensive remedial action with feeds and fertilisers.

Green says of the company's star product: "Terralift offers a clean, reliable, cost-effective and environmentally impact-free system for the treatment of compacted soil structures through the forceful injection of air into otherwise poorly aerated soil."

Football pitch aeration with Terralift generally lasts five to seven years and aeration of a golf course will last 10 to 15 years. In addition, it can be an economic but highly effective alternative to installing a complete new drainage system.

Speedcut Contractors managing director Dick Franklin says: "Regular maintenance is essential for constant playability. However, good construction and drainage will ensure that whatever treatments are carried out - such as aeration, top-dressing and scarifying - will provide beneficial results. When playing surfaces are poor, we are usually called in to do remedial work, such as drainage or Gwazae deep-probe aeration using compressed air."

Damage can often take place to natural turf surfaces in the current freezing conditions, either through disease or physical damage where people have been walking on the frozen surface. In icy conditions such as these, no grass recovery can take place, even where there is perennial ryegrass present.

Overseeding needs to be undertaken as soon as the temperature starts to rise and seed breeders including Top Green and Barenbrug offer mixtures that can grow at lower temperatures. Jayne Leyland, UK research and development manager for Barenbrug UK says: "Bar 50 SOS is an ideal mixture because it germinates and grows at 3 degsC. The quicker repairs are carried out the better and sooner the surface will come back into play after this considerable cold snap."

Artificial surfaces

Sweepfast technical manager Dr Colin Mumford stresses that artificial carpets are not all-weather surfaces. "Heavy frosts such as we have been experiencing, ice or snow make these surfaces unplayable because of possible safety issues," he advises.

For general maintenance, he recommends keeping the surface clean and describes measures that can be taken to minimise contamination. Removing leaves and litter are vital and for this reason at the design stage it is best to avoid placing the pitch too close to trees.

Pitches should be in open areas with good airflow because moss and algae - the two main problems - are more prevalent where pitches are bound by a wall or situated in shady conditions. Signage at the entrance should state that only clean footwear is allowed on the surface to avoid dirt and debris entering the carpet.

Mumford adds: "No food, no smoking, no drinks bottles, especially glass, because people may put them out of the play area but the football could strike the bottle and broken glass could enter the carpet."

He explains that it is important to avoid training just by the access point area or the goal adjacent to it. Play across the entire surface to prolong the life of the carpet. Rubber crumb carpets tend to consolidate very quickly and managers can think it has worn away and introduce more infill each time.

It is at this stage that Sweepfast often finds it is called in. When it brushes down to the base, it finds a glut of rubber crumb, which it is then necessary to remove.

With sand-filled carpets the problem often experienced is sand migrating to the surface, especially in dry conditions. Here again brushing to redistribute the sand is important to avoid high and low spots that can cause uneven wear.

It is emerging that painting curved lines on areas such as D-rings is proving more satisfactory than inlaid lines. Mumford says: "Seams can tend to fail more quickly on curved rather than straight lines because of the different tensions."

Dedicated research relating to the maintenance of sand-filled artificial surfaces has been carried out by Dr Andrew McLeod at Cranfield University, sponsored by the Institute of Groundsmanship. It was found that if there was a level of contamination by volume of more than 10 per cent, significant problems would occur on the pitch, resulting in drainage failure.

To ascertain the contamination level a sedimentation test can be carried out by removing some sand infill from the bottom of the carpet profile and putting this with a dispersal agent in a test tube. In the tests, 50ml of infill sample was suspended in 100ml of a 1:10 dilution of a solution of Calgon. Agitated for around 15 minutes, it was decanted into a tube 500mm long by 22mm diameter.

Distilled water was then added, up to 50mm from the top, together with 2ml of a non-ionic surfactant to reduce surface tension. This was agitated and left overnight to allow the mineral content to settle at the bottom and the contaminants - leaves, food debris - to settle on top of the sand. The percentage of contamination by volume should be no more than 10 per cent. If the level of contamination is higher, then urgent remedial work will be required.

MAINTAINING SYNTHETIC SPORTS SURFACES

It is a complete myth that artificial surfaces are maintenance free. Two factors have helped to shine a spotlight on this issue - the new technology of third-generation carpets and the sports governing bodies. Testing is now carried out on facilities to ensure they play in the way initially intended.

Debris and contaminants can get trapped within the carpet and prevent the surface from draining. Slippery material built up within the carpet can also interact with a player's foot and cause a possibly risk of injury. In these days of ready litigation, any cause for personal injury claims is something to be avoided at all costs. It could end up being far more costly than an effective, sustained maintenance programme.

Firstand second-generation surfaces are now proving that poor performances are generally due to a lack of specialist maintenance.

Just over four years ago, third-generation pitches were introduced. These have a longer pile and a rubber infill, as opposed to being sand-based or sand-filled. Because of third-generation pitches, football and rugby have enjoyed better playing conditions.

As they sit in a longer pile, rubber crumb surfaces do allow debris and contamination to become easily trapped within the carpet. This material will become wet in bad weather and begin to decay in the carpet unless removed.

A specialist in artificial surfaces, Technical Surfaces, stresses that from its experience a "little and often" maintenance programme is best. It allows councils to keep on top of issues as they arise.

Debris and litter must be removed as often as possible, together with the regular distribution of the carpet's infill. This can be done using relatively low-tech equipment, such as a simple towing unit and drag brush.

More specialist maintenance, including the cleaning and importantly the decompaction of the infill, can either be undertaken by purchasing more specialist equipment or by outsourcing to a company whose business this will be. Such firms will also undertake repairs to the carpets and bases, as well as increasing or decreasing the carpet's infill as and when required.

Too high infill levels mean the surface will become slippery underfoot and the play lines may also be obscured. If infill levels become low, this is likely to increase the rate at which the carpet wears.

It is critical that the managers of the surface understand the warranty and provisions made in the handover documents for the correct maintenance regime. This commitment will have to be fulfilled and documented in order for the warranty to be properly supported.

US SOIL RESEARCH

Across the pond, the US Department of Agriculture is investigating ways to improve soil on degraded land so that it can be used for sports fields.

Researchers are developing sub-soils and topsoils constructed from local by-products to build better and less-costly sports fields on former landfills and other degraded land.

This project is being carried out by the Agricultural Research Service in cooperation with the National Turfgrass Research Initiative.

By using inexpensive local by-products, schools and parks have a better chance of being able to afford soil replacement that has better turfgrass survival rates. The most promising mixture trialled so far includes quarry by-products and composted chicken litter.

SEED SELECTION FOR TURF

Supplying its tried and tested LT6 Sportsturf to local authority-owned sports clubs and schools, Lindum Turf stresses that the correct selection of cultivars is vital.

"Varieties are chosen for their hard-wearing characteristics and ability to make a quick recovery," explains managing director Stephen Fell. "We always choose high-scoring varieties from the Sports Turf Research Institute list."

A combination of hard-wearing ryegrass and smooth-stalked meadow grass is included in the seed mix grown at the company's farm outside York. Although he accepts that some local authorities are choosing the artificial surface option, Fell feels that this is an expensive route to take and certainly not no or low maintenance.

"Above everything, natural turf is sustainable being the 'green lungs' of urban areas and absorbing excess rainfall to replenish the aquifers," he says.

When selecting cultivars for sports, one of the major considerations for reducing maintenance costs is using the most up-to-date varieties, confirms Stephen Denton, grass seed development manager at Rigby Taylor.

Over recent years, grass seed breeders including Top Green have concentrated on characteristics that provide a number of important benefits, he adds.

"High wind-chill tolerance cultivars have made a dramatic difference to sports surfaces," says Denton. "By extending growth patterns both in the spring and autumn, these create a denser sward that is more wear-tolerant. This increases growth at these important times and protects the plant crowns, reducing plant mortality during winter."

Drastic reductions in cutting regimes can be achieved by selecting varieties that have been bred for slower regrowth, he adds. Cuttings can reduce from 16 per annum to as few as six per annum, depending on the sports surface, which saves on fuel and labour costs.

A regular overseeding programme at low rates, such as up to 20 grams per metre three or four times a season, will shows tremendous benefits over just one or two applications. Greater sward density also reduces the need for extensive renovation costs.

Richard Barton, service manager for parks and open spaces with TOR2, agrees with this principle. The joint venture company between Torbay Council and public service outsourcing specialist May Gurney is responsible for delivering a range of front-line services to the residents of Torbay.

"Our football pitches have certainly benefited from more regular overseeding," says Barton. "The mix is varied and in April includes rhizomatous tall fescue. Further overseeding then takes place in June or July and again in November with a mix that is ideal for the colder weather. This helps to keep colour in our pitches all year round and provides good wear and tear properties for a uniform appearance with good grass cover."

Barton adds: "The survival rate of the grass has since improved significantly and the surface now stands up much better to wear. Yes, we are sowing seed more frequently, but we have cut down on the time spent on renovation at the end of every season and considerably reduced top dressing."


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