Artificial grass appearing in residential landscaping in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and San Diego may leave homeowners wondering if synthetic turf is best for a new lawn.
Artificial field turf, commonly called Astroturf much as tissues are called Kleenex, moved off the sports field and into backyards for a variety of reasons: watering restrictions, maintenance costs, playfield durability, and backyard putting greens. Improved field turf products offer acceptable aesthetics, but does the choice of fake grass make sense financially?
Artificial turf installation costs significantly more than grass, even when a homeowner or contractor selects more expensive sod rather than grass seed. The difference in initial prices will vary depending on the synthetic turf product and grass sod or seed variety, but artificial turf manufacturers acknowledge their products initially cost substantially more than even pricey sod.
In a December 2005 analysis for San Francisco Parks and Recreation by Lamar Morrison, artificial field turf installation cost roughly three times more than sod grass for a commercial application. The study results may not scale for a residential application, but all the reviewed cost comparisons on artificial turf manufacturer websites start with an presumed higher install cost and use assumptions of turf maintenance savings and increased playability to show cost effectiveness.
Morrison points out that artificial natural turf installation prices depend on soil preparation. Native soil installations cost less, but compacted soils result in poor lawn health and drainage issues. Amendment with sand or organic matter increases vitality and durability, but costs more.
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Maintenance costs for grass lawns cover watering, mowing, aeration, fertilizer, and weed treatment applications. While artificial grass does not require regular watering, it does need washing off and professional raking to maintain appearance and functionality.
Morrison’s analysis determined that grass lawns cost seven times more than synthetic lawn for annual maintenance. In a residential application, this difference will depend on whether homeowners hire out lawn maintenance or do the work themselves. In areas with high water rates or those with watering restrictions, synthetic grass turf is a viable option.
Field turf lasts 10-15 years, but needs an overhaul of fill material after about 6-8 years. Lamar reports fees of about 1/2 initial installation cost. Natural grass also needs rehabilitation every ten years. Costs can be as minor as an inexpensive aeration, weed treatment, overseeding, and amendment with products like Organimax or Turf Nurture. Natural turf revitalization should cost no more than a few hundred dollars.
Much of natural grass’s maintenance cost relates to watering. Efficient water use requires sprinkler installation, yearly turn on and shut off, and inevitable repairs. An Environmental Protection Agency irrigation study points out annualized lawn costs are cut by between 1/2 to 1/3 by selecting subsurface drip irrigation coupled with a water sensor that skips watering days after sufficient rain.
While synthetic grass turf management does not require regular watering, water management still factors into artificial grass lawn costs. Personal communication with a city engineer revealed that additional storm water runoff resulting from use of plastic grass requires often costly engineering and disposal solutions. Natural grass turf soaks up much of the rainwater from a heavy storm. With artificial turf, this excess water becomes runoff.
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In commercial applications, artificial turf brings increased revenue from reduced facility downtime. Maintenance and playability in adverse weather can restrict availability of natural field turf venues. Increased rental revenue in sports applications often offsets higher artificial turf costs.
With a residential application, playability is less of an issue in cost recuperation. Poor soils, wet climate, and durability may affect natural grass playability and aesthetics, but there is no revenue increase to help recoup costs. Residential use of synthetic grass is most viable in regions with high water rates, watering restrictions, long wet seasons, or with climate and/or soil inhospitable to grass seed.