What surprises many people tasked with procuring synthetic turf is how many decisions they need to make. It is worth spending a bit time gaining some background knowledge early on in the process. This can help you to make better informed decisions about the ideal surface and to ensure you get what you want when you do finally invest.
Code-specific or multi-use?
It is essential to know which sporting codes will be using the new surface. This influences the type and range of products available to you.
Covering all the bases is an expensive exercise, as it means building to the most demanding criteria - that of rugby.
Not only are rugby fields generally bigger, but they have strict requirements around player safety margins and the integrity of the product. If the field is to be used for rugby at any time in the future, it must be designed to meet IRB criteria, even if its primary (or initial) use may be football.
This means building to rugby's Regulation 22 requirements and maybe installing multiple pitch markings.
Does it need certification?
FIFA or IRB certification is an important step in the process and confirms the field was built to specification. It is mandatory for a field that is to be used for rugby.
If you are installing a small area for football or rugby use, full certification may not be necessary, but field tests with specialist equipment can give you some reassurance that the surface is fit for use and meets the key criteria.
FIFA 1 or 2 Star?
When it comes to football installation and certification, you will will need to choose between FIFA 1 Star or FIFA 2 Star. The distinction between the two is pretty simple. If field use is going to be limited to a few hours per week, then opt for FIFA 2 Star. If you want a surface that can be used intensively for 40+ hours per week (weekday training, maybe extra use under floodlights, weekend competitions and use by the wider community), then opt for FIFA 1 Star as testing includes additional durability testing.
However, to maximise surface quality and durability, it is recommended to install fields that are certified to FIFA 2 Star standard and have also demonstrated extended durability in an independent Lisport test (such as 80,000-100,000+ cycles). That way, the field is installed to FIFA 2 Star (giving better playing surface characteristics), has a high durability yarn that is suitable for intensive use and the certification can revert back to 1 Star in future, saving ongoing re-test costs.
Will it need re-testing?
IRB certification is required at the time of installation and every two years thereafter. FIFA 2 Star fields need to be tested after installation and every year after that. FIFA 1 Star fields must be tested at installation and every four years. If FIFA 2 Star fields are not re-tested, they revert back to FIFA 1 Star fields. If FIFA testing is not carried out at all, FIFA Star ratings are lost.
Carrying out interim tests between the certification tests ensures the surface remains safe and fit for use at all times; although this adds costs, it provides reassurance to users and stakeholders.
Anyone from a school or council or community organisation should prioritise:
1. Player safety throughout the lifespan of the asset
2. Durability of the product to ensure it can tolerate a wide range of different uses
Maximising player safety
We consider that a 3G turf should always be installed with a shockpad, unless site-specific criteria dictate otherwise (i.e. potential flooding or settlement). Although it is a high initial expense, and there are proprietary systems that claim not to require it, the shockpad is a long-term investment that almost guarantees that key FIFA and IRB field tests will be passed over the lifespan of the turf. There is also anecdotal evidence that turf fields with shockpads last longer than equivalent fields without one, although hard data is limited.
FIFA 1 Star fields are specifically designed to withstand a greater number of wear cycles, as tested on a specialist machine (a Lisport). FIFA 1 Star products are tested to 20,200 cycles; FIFA 2 Star products are tested to 5,200.
The IRB lab tests generally default to FIFA 1 Star criteria. However, it should be recognised that 20,200 cycles is a minimum and many turf manufacturers are taking the initiative to develop products that can tolerate up to 150,000 cycles! For fields in high-use situations, also seek evidence that the product has been independently tested to survive extended wear testing.
Getting full utilisation
There are a number of ways to maximise the use of the field:
1. Consider installing floodlights. This can be the only way to achieve evening training in winter, but there may be opposition in densely populated, residential areas
2. Consider permanent rugby and football markings in contrasting colours. This removes a large cost and time element when changing between codes and allows multi-code training on the same day/evening. (note that FIFA 2 Star fields cannot have dual markings)
3. Select a turf product that allows a range of footwear types on it. Many manufacturers forbid the use of flat-soled shoes on the turf (including sneakers), so liaise with your preferred supplier to make sure that the yarn is tough enough to withstand their use and, in doing so, you won't void the warranty. If flat soled shoes cannot be used, suitable signage and careful policing of footwear type shall be required
Design, on-going costs and longevity
There are several other related issues which need deliberation during the planning phase:
1. Fence heights need to be carefully considered to stop balls from exiting the field, particularly if there are safety issues (i.e. a nearby road, watercourse, etc.). Note that higher fences may require a building consent
2. Consider whether the fence rails and lightpoles need to be painted - this might look good to start with, but may increase maintenance costs. Galvanised finishes are perfectly acceptable
3. Consider whether to add black oxide to any new footpaths to reduce glare. If the footpaths also act as vehicle access routes, ensure they are reinforced
4. Consider the access routes taken by players onto the field, to prevent players having to walk over natural grass and soil-based areas
5. Consider whether the existing traffic routes and available car parking is sufficient. The new fields may generate more traffic, especially at peak times. Parking spaces may also be an issue for the consenting authority, so be prepared
6. Consider whether you want to recycle water (perhaps for irrigating any nearby natural turf fields). Depending on your location, you may have to allow for water storage as a consent condition
7. Make sure there are enough access gates onto the fields, plus gates directly behind the goals to allow for ball retrieval
Procuring a synthetic turf surface is not just about the turf itself. There is a wide range of factors to consider, and the final design approach must be practical. Before procuring synthetic turf, do your research, speak to users and stakeholders and develop a comprehensive list of your use requirements. If required, seek independent advice. You can then confidently make decisions based on what best suits your purpose.
Dr Marke Jennings-Temple, Principal Consultant, Renovate Turf Consultants & Safe-Play, New Zealand