In my final article for this series on Synthetics, Construction and Maintenance, I wanted to discuss some topics surrounding the maintenance of synthetic and artificial surfaces. I have personally been involved with synthetic and artificial maintenance for at least twenty-five years across a wide range of sports, ranging from tennis, hockey, winter sports and athletics; in the private club and independent schools sector in particular.
A lot of my experience and recommendations these days is based on practice and observations made in the field during my consultancy work. I have always held the opinion that a qualified, competent groundsman should, and will, know how to manage a surface to optimise performance and condition over an extended period of time. However, it is fair to say that my observations in the field don't always support this.
For some reason, there seems to be a slight mental block when it comes to maintaining synthetic and artificial surfaces to the extent that, on occasions, I see weed growing on margins and headlands far in excess of anything that would be acceptable in a natural turf environment.
Presenting the facility in optimum condition not only maximises quality but potentially increases income in that aesthetics are an important part of the production and preparation of modern sports surfaces. I know I have no need to tell anybody about this when presenting natural turf, and the standards achieved and progress made over the last couple of decades in this area is unbelievable and recognises the skills set that the modern grounds manager has. Sometimes, however, the same philosophies are not applied to synthetic and all weather areas. This is particularly the case with seasonal facilities such as cricket nets.
I don't want to over emphasise this point, but it is important to recognise that maintenance of a site should include the entire site, including these aforementioned areas which can actually be very expensive to construct in the first instance.
Objectives of Maintenance
When developing a maintenance strategy for artificial surfaces, it is really important to understand your objectives. Sometimes, maintenance can constitute what might ordinarily be known as housekeeping and this can include litter picking and general tidying of the surface, moving furniture etc.
Ordinarily, maintenance will also include some sort of operation on the surface. With a good understanding of the surface type, and any governing body and warranty requirements, a maintenance plan can be put together to include frequencies, type of operation, machinery type and a record log of the operation having been executed by a trained member of staff. I know this is not always easy with time constraints placed on groundstaff, but sometimes a formal record will have to be kept and it can be useful from a safety perspective as well.
When each identified objective is considered, and the market investigated for equipment etc. - including talks to suppliers and manufacturers, a plan of action can be put together. The weather can play an important part in timings of operations and, occasonally, frequencies and this too should be considered as part of the overall plan.
When maintaining a new area, you start to get an appreciation of good design principles and, hopefully with a sound design, you will have already considered and installed appropriate access paths, detox area, access gates and maintenance storage. An existing facility may well share storage and such like with the wider plant and equipment on site, but this can be developed as time goes on.
As already mentioned, some people like onsite performance evaluations and testing to understand the outcomes of maintenance. This is no bad thing as it can guide you in terms of frequencies and specific tasks over time. This all develops a sound knowledge base from which to work, but it needs to be cost effective.
As well as aesthetics, it goes without saying that maintenance has a direct impact on surface quality and user safety and, as a result, user performance. This is why maintenance should be planned rather than randomly undertaken. Make sure, as a manager, you walk around and across the site on a regular basis to understand any temporary defects that may become apparent and chat to staff regarding maintenance outcomes to pre-empt any issues that may arise. It is worth bearing in mind that maintenance may not just involve the surface; it could relate to infrastructure, fencing, floodlighting etc. as well. Principally though, this article focuses on surface maintenance.
Sometimes, maintenance contracts need to be entered into whereby an external contractor will advise and recommend operations, including frequencies and costs, to optimise a surface condition utilising specialist equipment. It is not unusual in the synthetics market, particularly when dealing with polymeric type track surfaces for athletics where expensive specialist equipment is needed, but is not commercially viable to purchase as it is used relatively infrequently. Good contractors can also help you with maintenance records for insurance purposes etc.
It is important to stress that I believe there is a direct correlation between the quality and intensity of maintenance and the lifespan of a surface before significant replenishment or replacement is necessary.
I see examples of good maintenance all the time where synthetic grass installations are extended in terms of lifecycle by intensive well prepared, well defined maintenance programmes and this can be well beyond the theoretical lifespan of the particular product or surface. Not only does this help from an income generation perspective, but can help the client with cost planning and remedial costs etc.
So called sinking funds are now a pre-requisite of most of the funding authorities, whereby an agreement is in place to put aside monies for replacement over a given period of time. If this period can be exceeded through sound maintenance, then the sinking fund can gain greater momentum over a longer period of time and, potentially, offer more opportunities when it does come to refurbishment. Many manufacturers will align a warranty or guarantee to a predetermined recorded maintenance programme. This is particularly the case with synthetic grass manufacturers nowadays and much of this recording work is done online.
As discussed further in this article, there is a general consensus that a correlation between usage and maintenance intensity should be predetermined. It is also worthwhile considering your user demographics so that a full understanding of the likely damage and remedial works needed can be planned in advance. Simply put, a well-designed engineered and maintained surface will last longer and require less input when it comes to refurbishment. This surely has to be a cost effective way in the long term of planning and maintaining sports facilities.
Governing Body Guidance
Over recent years, governing bodies of sport have got a lot better at funding and publishing maintenance, research and information on specific surface types. I would always advise that you check out the governing body websites on a fairly regular basis to ensure that you are in tune with the latest maintenance information available.
Similarly, industry governing bodies, technical publications such as this and the Sport and Play Construction Association can also offer not just guidance documentation but up to date information on maintenance equipment available. The traditional governing bodies of sport, such as Sport England, will also publish periodically authoritative guidance on maintenance as well as a range of other topics directly relevant to and impacted by maintenance itself.
The nuances of maintenance and the subjectivity that you find on each site can be picked up over time from various site managers and utilised if appropriate in your plans. Each grounds manager will have a slightly different take on maintenance, and each site will have a specific set of requirements that need to be met and dealt with. As with grounds maintenance in general, a full swathe of information should be absorbed and considered accordingly and then implemented by a sound maintenance programme that is well documented and understood by trained and competent staff.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that training courses are available to develop specific practical skills in looking after such surfaces. First port of call here, I would recommend, has to be Pitchcare as their courses are Government recognised.
The 1:10 rule
When taken in isolation that is not considering using demographics etc., the 1:10 rule is a useful principle to follow. It simply means that, for every ten hours use of the surface, one hour's maintenance should be carried out. I appreciate that this does not specify the type of maintenance, but it gives you an idea, at least, on the labour inputs required focusing on maintenance rather than litter picking etc. It is a prerequisite of any surface that litter is picked on a regular basis, particularly after intensive use such as evenings and weekends. There is nothing worse than visiting a facility with overflowing bins and detritus on the surface in general.
The article gives more information on the specific types of maintenance you can carry out, but the 1:10 rule is useful as a general principle to follow.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness
I have yet to come across a sports surface that is not significantly enhanced by routine cleaning and removal of all organic matter and litter. It is a sense of frustration when one comes across litter strewn over a facility by careless users or in, some instances, the lack of provision of waste receptacles.
Organic matter of various guises should be cleaned off the surface as soon as possible. I know this is difficult in the autumn months, but it goes a long way to maintaining quality and reducing further contamination from moss and algal growth.
More stubborn materials, such as chewing gum, will need specialist cleaning to remove and, as such, is best avoided in the first place with appropriate signage discouraging use.
Routine work, including brushing
Most synthetic surfaces, particularly those with infill, benefit from regular brushing as a housekeeping chore, principally to maintain an even depth of sand or rubber. It is accepted, however, that maintenance practice has evolved and it is not unusual for combs or mats to be used instead. The machinery market is awash these days with equipment and it will be important to verify its capacity on site. It is understood that different surfaces will require different maintenance philosophies. What is very important is that any maintenance is planned and appropriate resources put in place.
On occasions, hopefully on a non-routine basis, specialist surface cleaning will be required. Normally, this will revolve around deep cleaning of the surface and, potentially, the employment of maintenance specialists with exacting equipment. Typically, this work will supplement regular maintenance carried out by onsite staff.
Pitch Testing and Monitoring
It has become more and more common for me to receive requests for formal pitch testing and objective pitch monitoring. To be honest, I am not convinced that formal pitch testing is required on such a frequent basis as some would specify, even for insurance purposes. Such testing regimes are part of a wider conversation regarding sports pitch testing in general and the test principles that you could apply to both natural and artificial surfaces.
Also, a common sense approach has to be adopted as formal pitch testing is expensive due to the expertise and specific testing implements required. Ongoing calibration and checking of equipment is an expensive process, which leads to expensive testing regimes that can be justified in professional environments but not quite as easily in school environments.
There are several recognised test houses in the UK and separate quotations should always be sought for formal testing regimes to governing body standards, if required.
We are getting more and more involved in objective pitch monitoring whereby a series of tests will be carried out along with a visual analysis on site and a report prepared, not only to measure pitch performance over time, but also identify any issues and predict replacement dates and lifecycling.
This can prove a cost effective and useful tool to site managers if they want to understand, develop and potentially modify maintenance regimes, user frequencies, satisfying insurance companies and user groups such as directors of sport or external clients and even develop best practice maintenance regimes. I personally feel this will become more commonplace as litigation and performance standards improve and are demanded over time.
The way ahead
Our understanding and sense of importance placed on maintenance of synthetic and all weather areas has improved and increased dramatically over the last ten years or so. I do not see this stopping but, indeed, gathering pace if anything. There will be a greater emphasis placed on objective pitch measurements and prescriptive maintenance to meet these obligations and recommendations.
More and more of the governing bodies are organising themselves to offer and recommend specific design solutions and methodologies for extending pitch life. More recently, this includes the International Hockey Federation that has put together a pitch recognition scheme which is detailed on their website. Some of it will not come to fruition until 2016, but this is just round the corner and is being led, I understand, by a recognised industry professional.
Without doubt, maintenance is fundamentally important in lifecycle plans and surface performance qualities of any surface, regardless of whether it is natural or synthetic. Some specific industry sectors have made funding commitments to synthetic surface installation which I can see running without abatement. The fact is the synthetic and artificial bandwagon is rolling and rolling strong. I believe we should embrace it, seek to understand it and manage it accordingly. I cannot see it going away in my professional career, so there will be work for most, albeit specific niche work associated with particular surface types.
I do hope you have enjoyed these series of articles and it has given you an insight into some of my opinions and experiences gathered over thirty years of working both as a practitioner, educator and consultant. We have the option, at the moment, of more articles on a broad range of subjects in 2016, but I have decided to take a short break so that you don't get too bored of my ramblings. If there is a demand of course, or a specific subject to be discussed, I am sure Pitchcare will be amenable to your ideas.
We have been working on several important and specific contracts over the last twelve months or so, including a commercial groundcare contract in the independent school sector and a 9-hole golf course development with synthetic greens, tees and collars. We have also worked on strategic planning and new developments in planning requirements. So there is much to report on, including some more obscure work that doesn't come around every day. It has been a pleasure writing these articles and I wish you all the best in your grounds related endeavours.
For a more detailed overview of David's career to date, please see issue 59 of Pitchcare magazine.