The problem with the infill controversy is it won’t go away. And in the meantime, many synthetic fields are hitting the end of their life expectancy and need to be replaced.

So what are the options? First, know the facts. The Synthetic Turf Council, or STC, which compiles information on studies regarding synthetic fields, notes, “More than 50 independent and credible studies from groups such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and statewide governmental agencies such as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Department of Health and the California Environmental Protection Agency, have validated the safety of synthetic turf.”

The STC has further noted that no study to date shown elevated health risks associated with synthetic turf or its components, and no research has found any possible link between synthetic turf and cancer.

However, that does not mean there are no drawbacks. According to Adam Coleman of US Greentech, “There are still several unsolved issues with crumb rubber: it retains heat, it smells strongly of rubber when hot, and over time, it can change texture, creating a firmer surface.”

And as a result, the industry has come up with some alternatives. A partial list follows. Some of these products are proprietary, meaning they are copyrighted; others are available on the common market. Information on specific infills can be obtained from manufacturers, builders and design professionals.

  • Green-Coated SBR Crumb Rubber: This infill encapsulates crumb rubber in a combination of polymers, pigments and anti-microbial substances.
  • Coolplay V2: This is an extruded blend of polymers and cork that replaces the top layer of crumb rubber. It is combined with other materials as well.
  • Envirofill: This product uses a rounded quartz core that is coated with a polymer and permanently infused with anti-microbial technology
  • Safeshell: This infill uses a blend of ground shells from English and black walnuts. The shells are treated to remove any residual allergens and rounded to reduce abrasion.
  • Granulated Cork: These are made of a sand ballast topped with 100 percent cork derived from cork trees.
  • Ecomax: This uses an extruded composite of recycled turf and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).
  • Zeofill: This is a 97.6% pure Clinoptilolite zeolite, a product based on volcano ash that became rock that was later dissolved by groundwater. It has seen popular use in dog parks and playgrounds, as well as fields.
  • Nike Grind: Another proprietary product, this is made from the rubber sole of used and recycled running shoes.
  • Organic (Fiber-Based): This is a field that includes infill made out of various combinations of coconut husks, peat and rice husks.
  • TPE: Thermoplastic Elastomer): TPEs are virgin polymer pellets which are typically uniform and resemble the feeling of a crumb rubber field.

Again, these are a few of the alternatives out there. Others are available, and due to the increased demand, plenty more are in development.

The use of alternative infill is growing in popularity. If you’re investigating these infills, it’s essential to do as much research as you can, not just on the product but on its suitability to your installation. Questions you should ask include:

  • How long has this infill been around?
  • Does it comply with industry safety standards?
  • Is it made in a way that has a negative impact on the environment?
  • What is the average cost for a field that uses this infill?
  • How readily available is it? Can it be ordered easily?
  • What contractors in my area are familiar with this infill and able to install it?
  • Do contractors in my area recommend this product? Why or why not?
  • What is the warranty on this product? What is and is not covered? Who will address any problems?
  • What pile height is recommended if this infill is to be used?
  • Does it require a shockpad? (Many fields do, but you should ask since this can affect the total cost.)
  • Where does the infill come from? If it is coming from a great distance, do shipping costs figure into my final installation?
  • Is it being shipped from a country that has effective quality assurance/quality control measures?
  • How much maintenance does a field with this infill need on a daily, weekly, monthly, etc. basis? Is there any kind of maintenance or care that differs from that of other fields?
  • What specific type of equipment (including irrigation methods) will be needed to maintain it?
  • What can I expect from this infill? For example: what can I expect over the first few weeks or months? Will there be migration of infill? Will it pack down over time and become firmer? How long will that take? How often does it need irrigation? Will this field look, feel or smell any different to my athletes?
  • Does it hold heat?
  • Is this product recommended for my geographic area?
  • How well can it handle heavy rains? How about repeated freeze/thaw cycles?
  • Will this product hold up to the type of use I expect it to get? Is there any type of activity that is not recommended or a season in which it should not be used, given my weather?
  • What is the protocol for end-of-life for this product? Can it be reused? Can it be recycled? Can it be composted? How should it be disposed of? Who do I call?

It might sound like a lot of questions, but you’ll want to ask them all; in fact, you’ll probably think of more in the course of your research. After all, you wouldn’t make any other major investment without a lot of forethought.

A few other pointers to keep in mind – you have likely heard them before, but they’re worth repeating.

Many new infills are more expensive than crumb rubber; this is the case with many newer products in almost any market. You’ll want to know, of course, whether a next-generation field is going to fit your budget.

In addition, many of the new infills on the market currently lack long-range performance data. This type of data may be available soon, however, since manufacturers of various infills are interested in providing prospective owners with all available information.

Find out if others in your area, such as athletic directors, field managers or sportsplex administrators have experience with fields with alternative infill. Get their feedback and recommendations. In particular, you’ll want to speak to those whose weather and use conditions are similar to yours so that you have a better idea of what to expect. The information you can get from your colleagues is critical to making informed decisions.

Seek advice from a design professional and/or a professional sports contractor; be sure to find a person with extensive experience in sports fields. The American Sports Builders Association, for example, has a directory of design professionals, as well as a voluntary Certified Field Builder (CFB) program.

So, given the options, is there any recommendation as to the right infill? As always, the right field is what is right to the buyer, the athletes who use it and those who maintain it. And – we might as well admit it – to the public as well, since their concerns need to be taken into account as well.

Note: The American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) is a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books (including the publication, Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual. It also offers its voluntary Certified Field Builder program. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA’s Membership Directory. Info: 866-501-ASBA (2722) or www.sportsbuilders.org

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