‘I give it ten years before water costs as much as gas costs now,” said Patrick as he looked up from his morning Internet browse. “Maybe we should think about ripping out the grass in back, putting in some drought-tolerant landscaping.”
“Easy for you to say,” I replied. “I’m the one who needs to be able to send the kids out to play in the yard. ‘Oh, and watch out for the cactus!’ I don’t think so.” But I saw his point. It takes a lot of water to keep grass green. In fact, according to Chris Payne at Omega Turf (619-841-4010; omegaturf.com), “The typical lawn will eat 50 gallons of water per square foot per year. For the average household with a lawn, maybe half the water they use is for the lawn.” Payne, of course, had an alternative to offer, one that would maybe make everyone happy: synthetic grass.
“It started as Astroturf, back in the late ’60s” explained Payne. “It became very prevalent on sports fields in the ’70s. It was very short — maybe a quarter-inch tall — and not very realistic looking.” But that was then. “We’re now in the fourth generation of synthetic turf; the form it’s in now has been around for about seven years. On athletic fields, the blades are one and a half to two inches long. To give it structure — to keep the blades standing up — and to make it playable for tackling, there’s fill in between the blades. We call it ‘crumb rubber’ — it’s car tires ground up into little bits like breadcrumbs. If you saw the Colts game against the Chargers, and you saw someone drag their toe, you might have noticed a little rooster tail flying up behind them. That wasn’t dirt — it was crumb rubber.”
For a while, installers were using the same stuff on residential applications, but “there were some limitations to that. The crumb rubber would travel around, get in your shoes. And the grass still looked plastic and shiny.” But these days, grass is looking greener. “The shine and color have been getting better, and by increasing the density of the blades, we’ve eliminated the need for crumb rubber. The blades are made from polyethylene, and then there’s a shorter nylon fiber down low to help give structure. We are at the point now where a cut piece of synthetic tossed down on a lawn blends right in. The blade lengths vary, but they’re around one and three-quarter inches long. If it were much longer, it would mat down; shorter, and it wouldn’t look realistic. You want your neighbor to say, ‘Wow, nice lawn,’ not ‘Wow, nice fake lawn.’”
Installation begins with tearing out your old lawn, down past the root layer, “about four inches. We do that mostly by hand. Then we spray Roundup. If I find nutgrass, I use a product called Sledgehammer, which is specifically made for nutgrass. Then we put down four inches of class-two road base. Most companies use decomposed granite, but granite is more variable, and I find the road base to be more stable. It compacts very nicely when we use the vibrating plate tamper to tamp it into place. We can even shape in little hills if you want them. Next comes a 30-year weed block, which is a commercial cloth — very heavy and very reliable. Finally, we put down the synthetic grass. It comes in 15-foot-wide rolls, so there are points where you have to do seams, and that’s where experience matters. If it’s done well, you won’t notice the seams. The grass is attached by five-inch stakes that we drive into the road base. It’s compacted more tightly than dirt, so the stakes hold really well.” To allow drainage, the turf is perforated. “Water goes right through. And that’s another advantage that road base has over decomposed granite — it’s very porous, and will hold a few inches of rain as it percolates it into the ground.”
Omega’s lawns don’t fade from exposure to UV radiation, said Payne, and “most factories will give an eight-year warranty on their product. There are four major factories in Georgia, and they’re all within 20 miles of each other. They make almost all of the artificial turf sold in America. There’s some that comes out of China, but it’s not of the same quality. One day, it will be, but not right now. Our focus is to get the most realistic grass available, grass with a high face-weight and density. We differentiate ourselves from other companies by giving you an eight-year warranty on the installation as well. Most companies, it’s just two years. But I think that, depending on use, you can get between 10 and 20 years out of a synthetic lawn.”
Cost for installed turf can vary greatly, cautioned Payne — “anywhere from $7 to $18 a square foot. At the high end, those guys have a lot of commercials to pay for. On the low end, you have to cut corners somewhere — maybe they put down only one inch of decomposed granite, or maybe they use turf made in China. We shoot for the highest quality at a fair price — it floats around $10 to $11 a square foot, installed. As the installation gets bigger, the price goes down a bit.”
Finally, Payne noted that some water districts are offering rebates to customers who currently water their lawns if they decide to switch over to synthetic turf. “The Padre Dam and Helix districts are offering $1 a square foot, up to 1000 square feet.” For details, check with your district.