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Hybrid base layer and hybrid sports turf – an alternative for community sports facilities?
In many communities and club locations there is only one question to be answered with regard to the optimal surface for an own football pitch: Artificial or natural turf? Opinions are often very similar – from the point of view of a player, natural grass is a more pleasant playing surface although it requires more maintenance work, is dependent on the weather and can only be played on for a comparatively low number of hours per year. This is the main reason in many cases for the decision to install a synthetic turf pitch which provides good playing conditions, is considerably more hard-wearing and can be played on all year round. Artificial turf pitches also have their drawbacks however, the major one being that after 15 years at the latest, a cost-intensive replacement of the turf is required. For some time now, an alternative solution to pure artificial or natural turf pitches has been becoming more popular – a hybrid sports turf pitch.
Hybrid systems for playing fields, which combine the properties of natural and artificial turf, have been available since the 1990s and are used to replace natural turf pitches, above all in major sporting facilities. Whether Wembley-Stadium, Anfield-Road, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford in England, San Siro in Milan or the Amsterdam Arena – pitches where top international football is played, have already been converted some time ago to hybrid sports turf. In Germany, stadiums equipped with this new technology include the Alliance Arena in Munich and the VW Arena in Wolfsburg, the currently top two teams in the German league. It would appear that top teams are increasingly placing their faith in hybrid sports turf – but why? And what are the benefits offered by these systems to community sports facilities?
When discussing hybrid sports turf, it must be differentiated between two conversion varieties: a hybrid base layer and hybrid turf.
A hybrid base layer is a natural grass turf surface layer which has been reinforced with synthetic fibres to gain significantly higher wear resistance and strength. These can be used everywhere where a natural grass pitch is exposed to high wear, in particular grass surfaces which are intended to be driven over, but also for sports fields. The reinforcing systems supplied by the different manufacturers in the market, use products with different characteristics. In some cases these are strongly structured, in others randomly distributed synthetic fibres or even a synthetic fibre "grid" pervading the supporting layer. The material used for these synthetic fibres is often polypropylene, sometimes in combination with elastane or spandex. A conventional natural grass pitch can be planted on top of a hybrid base layer which usually then has higher water permeability and shear resistance. In addition, the growing grass roots intertwine with the synthetic fibres giving the playing surface layer additional strength and preventing the individual grass blades from being pulled out.
In a hybrid sports turf, the base layer is strengthened by reinforcement of the natural turf with synthetic fibres. There are basically two different methods. In one procedure the synthetic fibres are mechanically punched into a finished natural turf pitch using needles. In the other method, an existing mat of synthetic fibres is filled with soil and sand and sown with natural grass seeds which can then grow between the synthetic fibres. The synthetic fibres and material strengthen the base layer while at the same time, becoming intertwined with the grass roots. This provides the pitch with toughness and a solid base, above all in areas of heavy wear where a pure natural grass surface would soon be destroyed.
No "fields in poor condition" for professional sport
The hybrid base layer and hybrid sports turf are both methods for providing a classic natural grass pitch with additional stability, a longer duration of use and improved weather resistance. As already mentioned, a natural grass pitch is the optimal playing surface for many sports such as football or rugby. The discussion concerning the condition of many natural grass pitches is recurring in professional sports, in particular for smaller clubs. This was recently the case for the German football federation cup last-16- game between Arminia Bielefeld and Werder Bremen. An optimal natural grass pitch for professional sport requires a great deal of effort and expensive machinery to keep it in form and even with the best care, poor weather can severely damage a pitch which then has little chance of regeneration given a packed play schedule. In such a case, hybrid systems can provide significant improvement. It is not a coincidence that nearly all major Premier League clubs in rainy England have installed hybrid sports turf in their stadiums. Not only is the result better, the clubs can also achieve savings on time and costs.
Hybrid systems – for amateur sport as well?
The first question about use of hybrid systems in amateur sport is always also the question of duration of use. The maximum annual number of hours of use for a natural grass pitch is 800 hours and normal use is usually much less. A hybrid sports turf pitch can increase the hours of use to up to 1200 hours a year, although this is also well below the duration of use of an artificial turf pitch which can be played on for up to 2400 hours per year. For example, a football pitch in a large community, exposed to use by several teams each day, should be equipped with artificial turf because the wear and tear would be simply too much for a natural turf or hybrid sports turf surface. It should also be noted that a hybrid sports turf pitch is to a great extent, still a natural grass pitch requiring regular care and maintenance work.
When does conversion to a hybrid system become worthwhile? Independent of whether installation of a hybrid base layer or a hybrid sports turf is intended, the desire and prerequisites for a natural turf pitch must exist. A club offering high-class football or rugby can surely increase the attractivity of the pitch and playing quality with such an investment, especially in periods of bad weather. This kind of conversion should also be considered for smaller communities where the sports fields are not subjected to heavy daily wear. Many suppliers of hybrid systems for construction of sports facilities also offer limited conversions which do not apply to the whole pitch and can be a good investment particularly in the penalty box. A conversion using hybrid base layer or hybrid sports turf is often less expensive than the installation of anew synthetic turf pitch, although this also depends on the supplier chosen and if a complete new pitch is to be built or if only a conversion is required. Most of the hybrid systems cost around 300.000 €, although prices range from low to high price versions. Maintenance work and care corresponds more or less to that of an natural grass pitch and most of the systems can withstand intensive maintenance measures such as dethatching or scarifying.
Installation of a hybrid base layer or hybrid sports turf is a very good way to significantly improve the playing hours and resistance of a natural turf pitch. This is also the reason why conversion to a hybrid sports pitch is often promoted in professional sport. A conversion promises among other things, stabilisation of the grass system, improved permeability for water, higher shear-resistance and greater stability during fouls. Compared to a conventional natural grass pitch, a hybrid sports pitch provides a real alternative. For a football pitch subjected to intense use and heavy wear, pure synthetic turf still remains the only possibility to enable intensive use all year round. For many smaller sports clubs and communities however, a hybrid sports turf pitch is a worthwhile alternative to a synthetic turf surface, mainly because a conversion is generally less expensive and no replacement of the complete surface is absolutely necessary after 15 years' use. It remains a prerequisite however, that sensible care and maintenance work can be provided.
Photo: VfL Wolfsburg