By Emmet Pierce
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. June 28, 2009
See the original article on Union Tribune Website:
Moises Tapia (far left), Sam Reel (center) and Wes Darby installed artificial grass. Synthetic turf has grown in popularity among consumers who want to reduce water use. (Eduardo Contreras / Union-Tribune) -
In their eagerness to conserve water and escape the drudgery of yardwork, many California homeowners are replacing their H20-guzzling lawns with artificial turf.
Despite worries about its high lead content, more and more consumers are willing to try artificial turf. Although it remains a small part of the overall market for U.S. lawns, the industry says it has grown by an estimated 20 percent annually for the past five years.
One recent convert is David Lang of Alpine, a retired water employee for the city of San Diego. He and his wife Rosie believe the plastic grass they installed in front of their home will save them time and money as it helps the environment. They also find it to be much more attractive than their old natural lawn.
“I was spending an hour out there every week mowing and trimming and it never really looked very good,” Lang said. “Plus you are putting fungicides and insecticides on the ground, which isn't environmentally good. I am selling my lawn mower and all my lawn tools or giving them away.”
David and Rosie Lang of Alpine recently replaced a hard-to-maintain natural lawn with an artificial one. David, a retired city water employee, plans to get rid of his lawn mower. (Peggy Peattie / Union-Tribune)
The product specifications he reviewed convinced him there was no danger from lead. Commonly used fibers for artificial turf are polyethylene and polypropylene, along with formulations of nylon. The most common infill material used with the turf is granulated tire rubber, but alternatives include sand made of granulated quartz.
Local water districts have come to view artificial grass as a tool in the drive to cut water use, said Mayda Portillo, senior water resources specialist for the San Diego County Water Authority. A single square foot of grass can absorb about 46 gallons of irrigation water each year, she said.
Some utility officials have estimated that up to 70 percent of an average residential water bill goes to outdoor uses, and the bulk of that water is used on lawns.
The state, which is in its third year of drought, declared a water emergency in February. Water agencies in San Diego County, which frequently offer small rebates for consumers who replace grass with artificial turf, are stepping up conservation efforts. Marty Eberhardt, executive director of the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College, has mixed feelings about faux grass. The purpose of her garden is to show people how to save water by using dought-tolerant landscaping.
“Yes, artificial turf does save water,” she said. “I think it's right for some circumstances and some individuals. There are drawbacks. It's more expensive than mulch and perennials and shrubs. Artificial turf is quite hot, particularly in the inland areas.”
Those who decide to try synthetic grass have numerous local companies to choose from. Annie Costa, executive director of the Association of Synthetic Grass Installers trade group, said the typical cost for installation is $9 to $12 per square foot. A typical product warranty is eight years.
Part of the reason the industry is growing rapidly is it's easy to get into the business, said Joshua Nunn, spokesman for Easy Turf of Escondido. He estimates that there are about 80 synthetic grass installers in Southern California. Wes Darby, co-owner of Home Turf in San Diego, said the crowded field has created a buyer-beware situation.
“A lot of consumers have been victimized by the small guy working out of his truck,” said Darby. “They come and go. When they are gone, their phone number is disconnected.”
About half of Darby's customers have used water agency credits, which vary from 30 cents to a dollar per square foot. Recently, many agencies have run out of cash for incentive programs, but Darby expects them to resume.
When he and his crew put in a lawn, they typically excavate four inches of earth, then lay a foundation of crushed rock and decomposed granite over a permeable fabric. The artificial grass is rolled out and fit together like carpet. Infill material is spread into the turf to weigh it down. The result is a permeable covering that is similar in texture to real grass. Pet waste can be scooped up or rinsed away.
While the region's ongoing water shortage underscores the need for consumers to find less thirsty substitutes for sod, a vigorous debate is taking place over the lead content of man-made lawns. Critics say there could be an increased risk to public health.
Separate lawsuits filed last fall by the state Attorney General's Office and the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland would require turf manufacturers to inform consumers about high lead content.
The suits allege that unacceptably high levels of lead have been found in synthetic turf, including indoor and outdoor grass purchased from retail stores, dealers and online marketers. Settlement negotiations are under way, but no trial dates have been set. Plaintiffs are urging the companies to reformulate their products to eliminate any risks from lead.
The city of Los Angeles and Solano County have joined the attorney general's complaint. The legal battle, which involves several companies, “is ultimately going to establish a standard in California that the entire industry will have to recognize and comply with,” said Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council in Atlanta.
Darren Brandt, a spokesman for FieldTurf, one of the defendants in the attorney general's lawsuit, said hundreds of studies have suggested that artificial turf is safe. While the product has been called to question in a number of states, it always has been vindicated, he added.
Although the turf industry is quickly moving toward materials and pigment with much lower lead content, an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of artificial lawns sold before 2008 may contain more lead than the Environmental Protection Agency finds acceptable in soil, Costa said.
The state Attorney General's Office says that exposure to even small amounts of lead has been shown to permanently reduce mental capacity.
“Anytime you deal with lead in products that come into contact with consumers it is of concern,” said Scott Gerber, spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office. “We are hopeful that we can bring this issue to a swift resolution in a way that will protect the health and safety of Californians.”
Despite the environmental concerns, artificial turf has gotten the attention of the the natural sod industry, said Danielle Marman, director of marketing for West Coast Turf, one the state's largest suppliers of natural lawns.