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Selecting a Playground Surfacing System
By: Jeromy Morningstar

Given the cost of synthetic playground surfacing, combined with tight budgets, many buyers are asking themselves one key question: How can we get the maximum performance from our playground surface for the longest period of time?

Typically, when we think of prolonging the functional life of anything, whether it's automobiles or playgrounds, the first thing that comes to mind is maintenance. In the traditional sense, the concept of maintenance revolves around what one can do after the point of purchase to ensure that a product continues to function the way it was intended.

Although this traditional view of maintenance has merit, one can also view maintenance as a prior-to-purchase item. After all, when looking up maintenance in the thesaurus, you will find words like preserve, protect, and safeguard.

The key difference here is that post-purchase maintenance involves time and resources, while looking at maintenance as a prior-to-purchase item can often cost nothing and pay much higher dividends.

With that in mind, let's take a look at some key elements within the evaluation process that can preserve, protect, and safeguard the performance of your playground surfacing system.

Playground surfacing is available in many different flavors. Within the synthetic category of products alone, there are tile systems, poured in place systems, turf systems, and many variant forms of these main categories.

Evaluating the advantages and limitations of each system can be daunting and can often result in decision-makers becoming lost in the cursory elements of each system, such as color, pattern, and design. Although these characteristics certainly have a role in the decision-making process, there is one key element that all surfacing systems have in common.

At their very core, each system has been engineered with unique impact-absorbing properties designed to protect children from life-threatening head injuries. If the objective of your evaluation process is to ensure that your playground surfacing remains compliant and provides consistent long-term safety, the following considerations should form an integral part of the process.

Compliance With Safety Standards

The primary function of playground surfacing is to protect children from life-threatening head injuries in the event of a fall. ASTM F1292 is the safety standard that applies to the impact-absorbing properties of a playground surface. In very general terms, a device similar in function to a crash test dummy is dropped onto the safety surface and sends key measurements to a computer upon impact.

The two key measurements are referred to as HIC (Head Injury Criteria) and GMAX, both relating to the ability of the surfacing system to absorb the impact of a fall. ASTM F1292 states that a surface must impart no more than 1000 HIC and 200 Gmax upon impact with the test instrument. These two critical thresholds reflect the point at which the likelihood of a life-threatening injury begins to exceed zero percent.

A safety compliant surface must perform below these thresholds at the height designed for the playground equipment for its entire service life. All manufacturers should submit a certified copy of the surface system's test reports conducted by a third party laboratory. Test reports should indicate the test height and performance levels of each surfacing product being considered.

Is Complying With the Standard Enough?

Consider that the ASTM F1292 safety standard has been designed to prevent life-threatening and debilitating head injuries only.

To illustrate this concept in real-life terms, consider that a blow to the head from a professional boxer would, on average, produce a force of 52 g's. An occupant thrown through the windshield of a vehicle travelling 25 mph would produce an average force of 100 g's. Amazingly, the current guideline for playground surfacing requires that the surface be rated under 200 g's.

Now consider that the performance characteristics of all playground surfacing will diminish over time. Impact-absorbing properties will decline due to aging, UV degradation, contamination with sand and dirt, as well as temperature fluctuations. If any portion of a playground surface exceeds the maximum allowable limit of 1000 HIC or 200 Gmax at any point during its service life, the playground must be fenced off until the surface can be brought into compliance either through extensive refurbishment or replacement.

In light of these factors, it makes considerable sense to select surfacing systems that perform well below the maximum limits of 1000 HIC and 200 Gmax. Specifying lower performance ratings not only ensures a much safer surface initially, but it also ensures that the system's performance will remain under the critical head injury threshold for its entire service life. A thorough evaluation will reveal products currently on the market that are providing HIC and Gmax levels far below the maximum threshold at very competitive pricing.

Manufacturer Warranties

In addition to building in a margin of safety, it is important to look carefully at the warranty offered by the manufacturer. Impact test reports provided by the manufacturer are based on laboratory conditions that do not necessarily take into consideration certain factors that may be unique to your site.

To ensure performance over the long term, look for warranties that exceed the industry standard of 5 years. Several manufacturers of different types of synthetic surfacing are beginning to offer warranties of 10 years or more. Any product warranty must include a provision guaranteeing that the surface will remain compliant to the safety standard throughout the warranty period.

Verify Your Surface's Performance Characteristics

As Ronald Regan famously said, "Trust but verify." Although certified ASTM F1292 test reports should be the first step in evaluating a product, these reports should not be considered the authoritative final word in relation to the performance of your installed system.

The ASTM F1292 safety standard recognizes that a host of variables can affect the final performance characteristics of an installed surface. In extreme cases, the installed surface may have no similarities at all to the laboratory test reports, which could have been completed years prior.

For this reason, ASTM F1292 has included provisions for field testing. The same equipment used to evaluate surface performance in the laboratory can be used on site to test the surface after installation. In the absence of post-installation testing, there is no way to verify that the installed surface is performing to expectations. 

Imagine spending thousands of dollars on a new safety surface and having no concrete proof that the surface complies with safety standards. For this reason, many purchasing contracts require post-installation testing as a critical deliverable within the contract. In response to this growing trend, some manufacturers are beginning to provide post-installation testing as part of their offering.

Placing too much emphasis on the wrong product can de-emphasize the core performance characteristics of any surfacing system, which is to provide consistent long-term safety performance. Rather than focusing on specific products or products features, a well-designed evaluation should be performance-driven.

There is no perfect playground surfacing solution. Setting high standards for safety performance and evaluating all surfacing products that are able to achieve only the highest levels of performance will ultimately result in a smarter purchase that requires less maintenance while serving the long-term needs of its users.

Jeromy Morningstar is the marketing manager for SofSurfaces, which designs and manufactures unique, interlocking playground safety surfacing systems, www.sofsurfaces.com.

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