To coin a phrase used widely in the world of marketing and advertising, artificial sports turf offers a clear 'Unique Selling Point', or USP; that is, the capacity to support levels of use far greater than its natural grass counterpart could hope to provide.
The potential benefits of this - maximised revenue, year-round availability, prolonged surface life, to name a few - are increasingly attractive in today's economic climate, where mounting overheads and a squeeze on our disposable income may threaten the financial practicality of sports facilities.
However, increased usage is not necessarily a given; regular and thorough care and attention is required throughout the life of an artificial pitch to achieve this, and for the benefits to be realised. A poorly-maintained pitch will soon experience inadequate drainage, reduced performance levels and increased pile wear, leaving the carpet at risk of failure. Whilst the consequences of this might not be immediately apparent, the arrival of each autumn and winter brings with it weather conditions that can impact greatly upon a vulnerable pitch.
If maintained correctly, an artificial pitch should be playable in most weathers, but it is a common mistake to assume that such surfaces are 'all-weather', as grounds teams will no doubt have discovered when heavy snowfall hits the UK.
The last thing that owners and operators of an artificial pitch want to be confronted with is a compulsory closure brought about by flooding and standing water, or else by failed seams or hazardous silt deposits creating health and safety issues that cannot be risked. After all, a considerable investment has been made on the understanding that the returns would be equally high; from a financial perspective, prolonged downtime can be disastrous. Enforced cancellations in winter soon create a downward spiral of lost revenue, from which it can be hard to recover.
Beyond this, failing to properly maintain an artificial pitch in the long term will result in even greater disruption - and cost. And, with artificial turf, a product chosen specifically by schools, leisure centres and sports clubs for its versatility, endurance and resilience, it makes no financial or commercial sense to ignore the maintenance responsibilities that facilitate these considerable advantages.
And so to autumn and winter - heavy rainfall, wintry winds, persistent frosts and icy temperatures are all contributory factors that can affect both the performance criteria and drainage capabilities of an artificial pitch that has not been adequately maintained.
Frost and Frozen Pitches
During winter, artificial pitches retain a large moisture content and, inevitably, this moisture will freeze, causing the surface to become hard and often unsafe to play on. It is not uncommon for the surface to remain frozen, even when surrounding natural grass areas have thawed, due to the low core temperature of the artificial turf and the insulating effect that the infill and carpet creates. Reduced daylight hours during the winter months can also result in shaded areas remaining 'frosted over' all day, impacting, in turn, upon the ability to thoroughly sweep or brush the pitch.
Trials have shown that an even spread of vacuum-dried salt across the surface can help prevent the carpet from freezing, as it will dissolve, leaving no impurities in the surface. However, the benefits are very varied in different weather conditions, and the salt should be used to help prevent freezing rather than used as a defrosting agent. The results and longevity of this substance can vary from site to site and in differing weather conditions, so the success of using such a product cannot always be guaranteed.
Rock salt and grit should be avoided at all costs as these could lead to contamination of the surface.
It is estimated that an initial treatment of approximately one tonne of salt for a full-size surface, or 125kgs for a five-a-side kick-about facility, will provide sufficient protection during a few days of cold weather, although this will depend on the intensity of any rainfall, frosts and snow that may occur over the period and its overall impact on the facility in question.
The effects of frost and freezing conditions can also impact on the condition of the synthetic carpet itself. Autumn and winter sees an increase in the number of calls for repairs to artificial pitches. The first sign of frost and any weakness in the seams of a surface are exposed as the water expands and, in effect, 'blows' open the joints. Structural failures or weaknesses should be identified and repaired as soon as possible to reduce the risk of injury, and avoid more costly remedial work in the future.
Snow, although not a frequent or prolonged weather condition, nevertheless creates chaos and disruption to the continued use of artificial pitches. In most cases, it is unlikely that much can be done to remove snow from the playing surface in the short-term, especially without a suitable area to store large piles of snow. If you do consider clearing snow from your surface, it is vital that this is done when the snow first falls. If allowed to thaw and re-freeze, it will be almost impossible to remove the ice without damaging the surface, as it will stick to the carpet.
Snow clearing should only be completed with the appropriate machinery and tools; snow ploughs can be utilised, but the drive unit should be suitable in size for the pitch, and the plough blade should also be made of a suitable material. Rubber-flanged blades will help to protect the synthetic carpet from damage. Alternatively, powered brushes could be used, but first check that the bristles are manufactured to an appropriate specification so as not to damage the surface.
In both cases, operator experience is crucial so as not to remove any infill with the snow. Attempting to take off large amounts of snow from a synthetic surface can affect infill levels in this way and, if left unremedied, infill displacement can weaken the fibres and increase the rate at which the carpet wears, compromising the playing characteristics and foreshortening the life expectancy of the surface.
Standing water and drainage issues
Perhaps the most common issue to be experienced on artificial turf pitches during the autumn and winter months is with standing water, the result of heavy and often continuous downpours that the surface's drainage system simply cannot withstand. In extreme cases, the aftermath of a snowfall can also expose inadequate drainage properties. The reason for this is clear enough; over time, contaminated material - such as leaf and tree debris, dirt, detritus, silt and broken-down carpet fibres - becomes embedded progressively deeper within the carpet infill.
Regular brushing and mechanical removal of this material will help to minimise contamination levels, if administered at appropriate intervals throughout the life of an artificial pitch but, ultimately, whether it is the result of insufficient maintenance practices or simply the age of the synthetic carpet itself, the likelihood is that rainwater will eventually fail to drain away completely.
During periods of heavy rain, you may notice that tide marks or silt areas appear on the surface. This will have been caused by rainwater backing up and flushing out the contaminants from the infill, depositing it onto the surface as it slowly drains away. If left unattended, such material is likely to pose an ongoing health and safety issue for the users of the surface.
At this stage, the granular infill will have to be removed and replaced via a deep-cleaning process. A replenished infill will support and protect the synthetic fibres, restore the correct drainage properties and help to improve overall player experience. The only alternative would be to resurface the pitch - at considerable expense - but, in most cases, this is an avoidable outlay when an extra five years of use can, instead, be secured - and additional revenue generated - by a restorative deep-cleaning process, followed by an appropriate aftercare programme.
Where budgets are more restricted, interim measures can help to aesthetically improve your surface in the short-term, but will not solve the root cause of the problem. Surface issues, such as standing water, are often symptomatic of deeper-seated problems with an artificial pitch, which will only worsen if ignored.
A pitch's fragility is more commonly exposed by the climatic conditions of the autumn and winter period, but can reveal itself at any stage of the pitch's life, particularly if the ongoing upkeep is minimal. To combat this, a programme of routine and specialist maintenance throughout the life of an artificial pitch can help to ensure its longevity and safety, as well as preserving its aesthetics and performance levels.
The basis of any good maintenance regime is preparation and forward planning; establishing a routine to ensure familiarity with the layout and construction of the pitch will allow any minor issues to be identified and addressed before they become major problems. Furthermore, the factors affecting player performance and pitch endurance, such as carpet pile wear, infill distribution and drainage capabilities, are intrinsically linked to the level and quality of maintenance being completed, as well as to the hours of use the pitch receives.
As a rule, for every ten hours of use, one hour should be allocated for maintenance, and the processes and frequencies must be adapted to reflect the condition of the pitch as it ages. Understanding the specific maintenance needs of your artificial pitch will go a long way to helping you generate maximum use, performance and revenue from your sports facility.
So, whilst there are processes designed specifically to combat the effects of a cold, damp climate on the playability of artificial sports pitches - a revival package offered by a specialist company to tackle surface-level aesthetic qualities; PDV salt applications to protect the pitch from the effects of frost - maintenance should not be treated as a once-a-year requirement.
The vast majority of procedures can, and should, be completed all year round, enabling you to provide a consistent playing surface from January through to December. Indeed, if greater emphasis is placed on preventative maintenance whilst weather conditions are more forgiving, you may just find that less corrective work is required when the winter cold creeps in.