The Greener Grass?

Southern Nevada Water Authority
To the casual observer, artificial or synthetic turf is barely distinguishable, by look or touch, from grass.
To the casual observer, artificial or synthetic turf is barely distinguishable, by look or touch, from grass. Turf even sometimes sprouts weeds, much to the consternation of folks seeking a dandelion-free zone from their $100,000 backyard rug.

Once solely used for athletic fields, 20% of artificial grass installations are now residential. In drought-prone areas of the U.S., utility companies even offer homeowners rebate incentives for replacing their traditional lawns with synthetics. Riverside Public Utilities (RPU) in Riverside, California, purports that “The installation of artificial turf at a typical home can conserve approximately 22,000 gallons of water per year. Artificial turf requires no fertilizer, no pesticides, no mowing and reduces urban run-off caused by irrigation.” Jerry Buydos, a senior account manager with RPU, says their incentive program has been popular. Since August 2008, 31 participants have received $22,386 in rebates, according to Buydos. (The incentive is $1 per square foot, up to $1,000.) At $7-12 per square foot, transitioning to artificial turf can be a costly undertaking. “People aren’t necessarily doing their whole yard,” says Buydos. Rather, “they’re replacing grass with water-wise plants supplemented with a little turf as a green area—a play area for kids or pets, or that strip between the street and sidewalk in front of their house for green curb appeal.”

For turf companies, water conservation is a key selling point. SYNLawn, the largest artificial grass company in North America, has positioned itself as an eco-friendly business. But the resources used to create the mostly petroleum-based product and to recycle it at the end of its 8-12 year warranteed “life” must be taken into consideration. Also, the turf must be periodically cleaned of pet residue, rinsed of dust and even watered to keep surface temperatures down on hot days. SYNLawn asserts, “Over the past five years, the amount of synthetic grass sold and installed by the company has conserved 4.7 billion gallons of water and prevented smog emissions equivalent to an automobile driving 1.1 million miles.”

Such claims are worrisome to Stuart Gaffin, an associate research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University. “I am very much opposed to the idea of installing artificial turf, especially for landscaping,” says Gaffin. He estimates that the surfaces are about as dark as black pavement (which absorbs some 95% of incident sunlight) and that the well-documented surface temperatures they achieve in summer support this. One study done at Brigham-Young University found that the surface temperature of the school’s mixed-turf athletic facilities was 37ºF higher than asphalt and a shocking 86.5ºF hotter than natural turf, with an average high of 157ºF. The main reasons for the heat retention are the turf’s dark green pigment and its composition—the polyethylene and nylon blades are stabilized with dark crumb infill, often recycled rubber, combined with a filamentous grass-like structure that also helps trap light. According to Gaffin, “homeowners are installing something akin to parking lots around their residences. In warm climates this will make them very uncomfortable to walk or play on, and will probably negatively impact their home air conditioning requirements.”

And while synthetic turf might conserve water during a drought, it may actually lead to flooding and subsequent soil erosion during heavy rains. SYNLawn does have a product with 20% lower temperatures, utilizing what it calls HeatBlock technology, offers no-infill turf and uses silica sand, rather than rubber, infill. And George Neagle, vice president of sales and marketing, stands by the vision of an irrigation- and herbicide-free faux-asis: “If the turf is installed properly, then we do not have problems with weeds,” he says. SYNLawn notes that the Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that every square foot of natural grass replaced saves 55 gallons of water per year.

Of course, there is a third option. Choosing drought-hearty native grasses, natural fertilizers and manual tools are just a few first steps homeowners can take toward grass that’s truly greener, albeit not the same dazzling shade.