Synthetic Turf 101
In addition to dramatically reduced watering costs, synthetic turf also requires less traditional maintenance. That’s right—no mowing, edging, aerating or fertilizing. All year long, turf stays vibrant and plush, even in the midst of strict watering restrictions.
For landscaping purposes, synthetic turf is an amenable solution to difficult areas. Parking lot islands, high-traffic public spaces and even backyard spaces that irrigation systems and mowers can’t reach can all be kept attractive with synthetic turf. “Synthetic is particularly beneficial for people who have backyard parties,” says Ivan Couto, CEO of Artificial Grass & Landscaping Inc. (AGL), a manufacturer in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada. “It withstands wear and tear better than natural grass.”
Cynthia Kiktavi, the Southern California representative for AGL, notes how aesthetically pleasing synthetic can be. “It’s beautiful, and it can act and feel like natural grass. To make it look like natural grass, one of the things we do is offer a range of colors to mimic different grass types.” This is true of other manufacturers as well.
Moreover, synthetic turf is durable, having been used on sports playing fields for some time. Many brands come with standard warranties for eight to 10 years and have been tested for fall safety, making synthetic safe for school and park use. Pet use is okay, too. Liquids will drain right through the material, so pets can’t stain or ruin the turf. Dogs also can’t dig through it, and synthetic is easier on their paws. “Synthetic is perhaps the best bet for pets,” according to Chad Cole, marketing director for SYNLawn in Orlando, Florida. “Our antimicrobial fibers help keep bugs and tics away. Pets stay clean and healthy.”
Lastly, but certainly not least, most synthetic turfs are designed to withstand excessive sun. Some manufacturers claim that their products fade at a rate of less than one percent per year. More good news, especially for dry areas, is that almost all brands are fire retardant.
Before you’re sold on the idea of synthetic turf, however, remember that every silver lining has its cloud. Synthetic turf can be more expensive to install and requires occasional maintenance of a different kind. There’s a lot to learn if you’re interested in adding this to your list of services. While there’s no denying that it goes a long way toward keeping the green industry green, let’s also take a look at just a few of the challenges specific to synthetic turf and its unique maintenance.
Synthetic turf is more expensive to install, running as much as $10 or more per square foot. Now compare that to the $1.75 to $2.25 per sq. ft. cost of natural sod. The longterm water and maintenance savings may or may not be offset by this higher initial cost.
Also, synthetic turf can be hotter than natural grass when exposed to sun. Ted Greiner, president of TJBInc. in Hamden, Connecticut, explains that “most synthetic turf is laid over a stone base. In the sun, stone will heat up to as much as 140° to 160°, and the heat will radiate out through the turf. A good infill will help insulate the turf and mitigate some of the heat, but the turf will likely be hotter than grass no matter what.”
When a manufacturer or distributor guarantees zero maintenance, take it with a grain of salt. Some maintenance will always be necessary. Minimal watering is required, mainly to clean the turf, cool it or control the infill, and periodic disinfecting may also be needed. In fact, says Jody Gill, grounds coordinator for the Blue Valley School District in Overland, Kansas, “I wouldn’t really consider synthetic turf low maintenance. We have to do something to our synthetic turf fields at least once a week, sometimes several times a week.”
Depending on the area, maintenance may involve using a stiff bristled brush to brush up matted fibers in high-traffic areas two or three times a year. It should also be hosed off once a month if pets are around, and deodorized with either a commercial product or a mixture of low-grade detergent and water.
Other maintenance can include removing organic surface materials such as leaves with leaf blowers. Weeds, although not likely to pop up, can be sprayed with any weed killing product.
Synthetic turf may be a good alternative to natural grass, but as much as it may look and even feel like grass—it isn’t. Any lawn owner who wants to switch to synthetic turf must understand the pros and cons. Keeping your client or potential client informed as to what they can realistically expect from a successful synthetic installation will go a long way towards keeping them happy.
Choose your turf
Once the decision to install synthetic turf has been made, it’s important to choose the right product. A simple Google search will reveal hundreds of manufacturers and distributors, each claiming to offer the definitive product. Which one is right? Where do you start?
There are a few things to consider when weeding out the fakes. First of all, says Greiner, “You get what you pay for. If it seems too good to be true—it probably is.” This caveat seems to be shared by many in the industry. You may be able to find a great deal on the Internet, but proceed with extreme caution. Cole notes that “Many imported products are susceptible to UV degradation.” Remember that looking at a Photoshop image on the web is a poor substitute for seeing how an entire lawn will look covered in the product.
Do your homework. Call different manufacturers and speak to people in product development or customer service. Better yet, visit distributors if possible and compare prices. Ask for references, supplemental information and samples. When you receive the samples, try to pull out a few blades to see how easily they dislodge. Gill adds that visiting recent and older installations can be a good idea as well. “Talk to people who’ve installed and who maintain synthetic turf,” he recommends. The more information you have about the product, the better. You’ll feel more comfortable during the installation and can reduce the number of customer complaints.
Now let’s zero in on the information that is perhaps most helpful for landscape contractors: the installation process. You probably have the equipment, basic skills, and labor needed to install synthetic turf, so transitioning into this service should be relatively uncomplicated. The initial preparation is similar to installing a patio or other hardscapes.
First, the old turf and materials must be removed. Then, the ground must be compacted and, in some cases, weed/grass controls or some sort of weed barrier should be applied. The crucial part of preparation is creating the one- to three-inch base made of granite or other aggregate material. At this point, any depressions in the area must be filled and leveled. Also, it is advisable to slope the base slightly to avoid water from pooling in certain areas. As any contractor knows, preparation is key, and synthetic turf installation is no different.
Once the ground has been prepared, the synthetic turf can be unrolled. Some manufacturers recommend using specialized equipment to slice the blades into thinner blades to increase the turf’s density. Then the turf is positioned, and excess material will be cut off to make it easier to work with. Next comes the seaming process. This must be done carefully so that the seams are matched and secured properly, creating the appearance of a continuous lawn. Depending on the type of turf and the contractor performing the installation, the seams will be glued, stapled, taped or any combination of the three. However the turf is attached, the seams should be invisible once the infill is added.
The last step (in most cases) is to add the infill. A standard seed drop spreader or several pairs of hands can do this. As a result of the infill, the turf will be stabilized and will look and feel more natural. Some products, however, also call for securing the perimeter of the area with landscaping spikes.
Although installation can be fairly easy to master, your best bet is to find someone to show you the ropes. To be done professionally, installation demands knowledge, which can vary depending on location. Training is provided by many manufacturers eager to initiate contractors. “Good companies will offer training,” says Robert Zielinski, owner of Buckeye Putting Greens, LLC in Springboro, Ohio. Remember that time invested up front will pay huge dividends when your company begins to install synthetic turf and gains a reputation for quality work.
It’s also helpful to know certain aspects of distribution before you bid a project. Jim Lewis of Lewis Landscape Services in Beaverton, Oregon, explains that “most companies only make 15' wide rolls. So if you’re covering a lawn that will require more than one roll but less than two rolls, you’ll end up buying two rolls anyway because you can’t get a smaller one. The problem is that there’s not really a use for the excess. If you don’t factor in the added cost of the extra roll, you can underbid a project and also lose money.”
Instead, Lewis recommends trying to plan areas whose dimensions will use all or most of a 15' roll. “If it’s much bigger, I might recommend other landscaping, such as trees, to keep the area at a size that will be cost effective for both the customer and myself.”
Steve Walker, president of Denver, Colorado-based ProGreen International, echoes this idea, saying, “Large yards don’t have to be completely covered in synthetic turf. You can do a combination of synthetic and landscaping with various drought-tolerant plants. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing deal.”
And before you buy, always check the product’s warranty, cautions Kiktavi. “Ask the distributor, ‘If I buy this product, will you warranty it?’” Should any sections of the turf need to be replaced down the road, you don’t want to run into an expired warranty, or, worse, a company that won’t stand behind its product. Getting ditched by a manufacturer or distributor can spell serious problems for a contractor.
Benefits for landscape contractors
“The idea of an irrigation/lawn business doing synthetic turf may seem sacrilegious,” says Walker, “but it’s actually a great add-on. It won’t take over your other services; instead, it can augment them.” It’s true that installation and maintenance can be performed even in the dead of winter, weather permitting. When other lawn-related business slows, synthetic- turf-related business can keep going, providing additional revenue. This is perhaps one of the best arguments for adding it to your services.
Also, offering synthetic turf as an alternative for environmentally aware lawn owners can put you ahead of the competition. You’ll contribute to water conservation efforts without drastically restructuring your business. What’s more, just because synthetic turf doesn’t need to be mowed or irrigated as frequently doesn’t mean you’re limited to a one-night engagement. A professional installation will encourage repeat business for maintenance or possibly other landscaping projects. That is, if the customer likes what you’ve done with his or her lawn, you might receive another call for additional landscaping services. A $5,000 job could snowball into a $10,000 job or more.
As with any new product or service, there are advantages and challenges to synthetic turf. But as water issues most likely will be an ever-growing concern, why not practice conservation? After all, those who work the land should have the most respect for it. For that reason, and a multitude of others, synthetic turf has the potential to keep our industry thriving. The future of green looks promising.