A beautiful green lawn in every season, with no watering, no mowing, no fertilizing, no bugs -- this has been the promise of the artificial turf industry for the last 40 years. While historically considered inferior to natural grass, advances in product quality and an increasing emphasis on water conservation have made artificial turf an option that deserves serious consideration in many landscape applications.
A new era
Synthetic turf has historically been associated with sports facilities. First introduced as AstroTurf in the new Houston Astrodome in 1965, artificial turf quickly gained a bad reputation among both players and fans. The "plastic grass" was criticized as a hard, injury producing and unattractive surface. Despite these misgivings, the undisputed practicality of artificial turf led to a steady increase in its use throughout the nation.
In the last decade, new manufacturing and installation techniques have led to dramatic improvements in artificial turf quality. Several companies produce "next-generation" products that are almost indistinguishable from well-maintained grass and have proven at least as safe as natural turf in regard to sports injuries. Modern synthetic turf is typically made of polyethylene fibers lubricated with silicone and sewn into a rubberized plastic mat. Most products are infilled with a layer of sand and/or rubber granules that help to keep the fibers upright and provide cushioning. The infill must be replenished periodically in a process similar to fertilizing a lawn. The average life expectancy of an artificial turf installation is 10 to 15 years, with most companies offering a seven- or eight-year warranty.
With today's budget constraints, many school districts, city and county parks departments and other organizations are choosing synthetic fields for their significant cost savings over turf. Rick Engineering Co.'s Landscape Architecture Division recently designed an artificial turf installation for five baseball fields in the Sweetwater Little League complex. With regular maintenance consisting only of occasional brushing or vacuuming, clients can experience savings of up to $60,000 per year over turf grass for a typical football-size field. In addition to low maintenance costs, artificial turf is environmentally friendly, conserving water and eliminating large quantities of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer. Most products are made of recycled materials, with the infill granules typically made from recycled tires. Another major advantage for sports fields is their increased availability for use. An artificial surface can be used 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with none of the downtime for regrowth and maintenance required by natural turf.
The same advantages that make artificial turf attractive for sports fields and other large-scale landscaping also hold true for homeowners. Artificial grass can replace natural grass in almost any residential application. It can also be installed in areas where grass is difficult or impossible to grow, such as low light or extreme heat locations. Water savings for the homeowner are substantial; it is estimated that 80 percent of residential water is used to irrigate lawns.
Although the water and maintenance cost savings of artificial turf are significant, it does have some drawbacks:
-Heat gain -- Artificial turf is hot! The surface temperature of artificial fields is significantly higher than for grass fields or even asphalt. One study in Utah showed a maximum artificial turf temperature of 200 degrees on a 98-degree day. These high surface temperatures increase the risk of skin injury and can even cause blisters through shoes. To compensate for the high surface temperatures, artificial turf must actually be irrigated in many applications.
-High initial cost and replacement -- The initial cost of artificial turf is much higher than establishing grass. The sub-base and drainage must be carefully engineered to ensure proper performance, and any necessary irrigation will drive up the cost significantly. Also, while ongoing maintenance can renew grass indefinitely, synthetic turf does eventually wear out and have to be replaced.
-Public acceptance -- Although the use of artificial turf is increasing as the public becomes aware of the quality of modern products, it is still not universally accepted. Perhaps due to its early poor reputation, many municipalities and homeowners' associations specifically prohibit artificial turf. Some homeowners have the misconception that artificial lawns lower property values, while others are just philosophically opposed to "artificial" elements in the landscape. And even though the modern synthetic products are very good at mimicking the look of natural turf, a discerning eye can always tell the difference at close range -- sometimes things can look too perfect.
Clearly, the decision to use artificial turf is not a simple one. Synthetic turf offers significant advantages in low water use, low maintenance costs and constant availability for use. It has disadvantages of higher initial costs, heat gain and poor acceptance among some people. A qualified landscape design professional can help you decide if synthetic turf is appropriate for your application.
Taylor is employed in the Landscape Architecture Division of Rick Engineering Co.