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February 2010 Playground Equipment
By: Eric Torrey

Researching play equipment options and reviewing manufacturers' websites can be overwhelming with all the information that is presented. Even so, it is the responsibility of the playground committee to review all this information in order to make an informed purchase recommendation/decision. This can be a daunting task, and comparing all the options can lead to serious confusion.

To make it easier, select a few factors the committee considers to be important, and use these for an initial review of playground vendors and the equipment they offer. This review will narrow down prospective vendors, who can then be looked at more closely.

What are some important factors to consider when comparing play equipment vendors?
It is fairly safe to assume every reputable vendor of playground equipment will offer products that meet applicable CPSC and ASTM standards and ADA accessibility guidelines. Most of these vendors are also IPEMA certified. And, they all have similar warranties. So, these factors, while they are important, they don't provide enough differentiation to help in making worthwhile comparisons.

Every playground purchaser will have a unique viewpoint as to what factors are important and why. So, first, decisions must be made as to which factors the playground committee will want to consider and why.

When comparing similar-looking play structures from different vendors, why does the price vary so much?
Actually, if the structures are similar, there is very little difference in catalog list price even when comparing metal structures to those made of HDPE plastic. If the vendor's offered price is drastically reduced, it is usually due to legitimate discounts. However, if no discount is mentioned, yet the price is still much lower (or higher), it is wise to carefully review the vendor's proposal and make sure that you are comparing like structures. Even though structures may look similar in photos or 3-D representations, there may be significant differences.

The percentage of recycled content in most playground structures is high, so wouldn't this be one of those factors not worth using to compare vendors?
When reviewing each vendor's literature, it is interesting to note that some use the word "recycled" and some use the phrase "post-consumer, recycled" when describing what they are made of. This is an important difference for those purchasers who are serious about "green" issues. (Read literature carefully, there is a difference between recycled and recyclable.)

Post-consumer, recycled material is defined as "a material or finished product that has served its intended use and has been diverted or recovered from waste destined for disposal." An example of this would be milk jugs (made of HDPE plastic) that are recycled and made into playground structures.

The Steel Recycling Institute estimates that, on average, current steel production incorporates 25% to 30% recycled steel. Some manufacturers of metal playground equipment claim higher percentages of recycled content. These claims may be based on the use of pre-consumer materials, and other items such as "rework, regrind, or scrap generated within a process and capable of being reclaimed within the same process that generated it." While reuse of this material is good business practice, and reduces waste, it's somewhat misleading to include this material when promoting recycled content. This view is supported by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which only allows one-half of pre-consumer material in the calculation of recycled content for the determination of LEED points, and excludes rework, regrind, or scrap completely

Other than recycled content, are there other environmental factors worth considering for the sake of vendor comparison?
Phthalates a known carcinogen, developmental toxicant, and reproductive toxicant are used in the production of flexible PVC, which is used to coat metal stairs, decks, ramps, and bridges of many playground structures.

Phthalates are not banned from use in the manufacturing of playground equipment in the U.S. as they are in ECU member countries. While the CPSC did ban phthalates being used in toys for children, the law specifically excludes playgrounds, due to the fact that a playground does not fit within the definition of "toy." Until the U.S. passes a law to eliminate the use of this chemical in the manufacture of playground equipment, some vendors continue to use flexible PVC.

Other vendors have recently removed phthalates from the playground products or are offering a non-PVC option. And there are a number of playground equipment vendors with products that are phthalate-free, and always have been, since these vendors do not use metal stairs, decks, ramps, or bridges.

What other factors might be important to review?
Each playground committee will have unique requirements for their playground. Maintenance may be an issue or ease of replacing damaged parts. If your church is near the coast, it may be important to research rust-proof options. A playground design that can be implemented in phases may be important if your congregation is growing, or if it will be necessary to build each phase as additional funding comes available.

By reviewing each vendor's products and comparing them to the list of important factors the committee has chosen will enable the committee to choose the playground equipment that best meets the needs of the church. It may seem like a lot of effort, but it will be worth it. And, whichever vendor you choose, the most important factor of all is the fun and happiness the playground equipment will bring to the children of your church for many years to come.

Eric Torrey is director of marketing for Safeplay Systems, www.safeplaysystems.com.

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