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Invented in 1965, artificial grass grows up

Braintree dedicated its new $1.235 million fields on Oct. 21. Braintree dedicated its new $1.235 million fields on Oct. 21. (George Rizer for The Boston globe)
By Rich Fahey
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2011
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It was called artificial turf, but there was nothing artificial about the pain when you landed hard on some of the early versions of artificial turf, which was invented in 1965 and first used in the Houston Astrodome in 1966.

The newer versions are more environmentally friendly, safer, drain more quickly, and last longer - a decade or more, depending on proper maintenance and level of use.

“The old synthetic turf was installed on asphalt,’’ said Jim Doherty, project manager for R.A.D. Sports of Rockland, which laid down the FieldTurf at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough and was the general contractor for the new turf field and running track at Marciano Stadium in Brockton. “Now you’re landing on a combination of rubber and sand.’’

The Brockton turf replaced an earlier field laid in 2002, which some jokingly say had been held together in recent years with chewing gum, Scotch tape, and prayers.

Newer fields have fewer seams that can rip apart, and also offer superior drainage systems that ensure decent playing conditions no matter what Mother Nature throws at them.

Mike DiNatale, a co-owner of All-American Sports in Canton, which installed the AstroTurf field at Dedham High, said the firm had to raise the height of the previous playing field and install several drainage features in the course of the project.

“Without help, the field can’t filtrate and drain water quickly enough,’’ said DiNatale. “You need a subsystem to take that water from the field to a different area. A substantial drainage system costs about as much as the turf itself.’’

He said the infrastructure beneath the field is environmentally friendly and durable, with an expected life of 50 to 100 years. New turf fields can eventually be installed on top of the existing base.

“Your field is only as good as what you’re building on top of,’’ said DiNatale.

He said knee and ankle injuries were more common on older fields, and because of the lack of shock absorption they also weren’t very kind to athletes with chronic back pains or shin splints.

“The old turf fields didn’t provide the proper friction characteristics,’’ said DiNatale. “When you tried to get traction on them as you would on grass, there wouldn’t be enough give. The new rubber infill turf allows the foot to move horizontally on the surface without grabbing.’’

Not everyone is enamored with the idea of synthetic turf fields. Newton resident Guive Mirfendereski explored it when the city was considering installing artificial turf at a city school, and he is opposed to them for several reasons.

“In many cases, they are built where there were grass fields, and it’s a loss of open space. If they are built, they should be built in areas that weren’t already open space,’’ he said.

He says the fields tend to become fenced in and more secure, more private spaces instead of public. “In many cases, it’s a case of misplaced priorities,’’ he said. “The projects are politically popular and it’s ‘The next town over has this; why don’t we?’ ’’

He says that the fields become dangerously hot in the summer, and that according to his research athletes suffer more injuries and more severe injuries on the surfaces.

Mirfendereski also said that “crumb rubber’’ - the rubber pellets used in most fields today - should not be used in the fields, replaced by organic material such as sand.

Proponents say maintenance includes regularly aerating fields with a machine that uses spiked brushes to restore its bounce. Fields are also vacuumed and cleaned of debris that can get into the rubber infill pellets, and the infill undergoes deep grooming once a year to prevent the fields from becoming too firm.

“The grooming machine for the fields is part of the package when we install it,’’ said Doherty.

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