When North Central College in Naperville installed its first sports field made of artificial turf 10 years ago, it was a bit of a "gamble," said Athletic Director James Miller.
Back then, he said, regular-old grass was still the standard -- and officials could only hope the new stuff would live up to its reputation as long-lasting and safe. Fortunately, the coach said, it did.
"We've never even thought of going back to regular grass," Miller said. "We're using it (artificial turf) nonstop."
North Central is just one of several suburban school and park districts trading in the headaches of organic home fields for plush, man-made turf used year-round.
Since April, at least four suburban high schools -- Hersey, Mundelein, Warren Township and Wheeling -- have moved ahead with plans to install artificial turf. And similar projects are being pursued or are in the works at Geneva High School, South Elgin High School and Naperville's Nike Sports Complex, among other locations. In Lake County, four schools already have them.
Across the area, school and parks officials say it's tough to resist the opportunity to cut maintenance costs and boost usage with the crumbled rubber- and limestone-supported fields, which can cost $500,000 or more.
For a landlocked facility such as Wheeling High School, artificial turf can mean the difference between a lonely stadium and a stadium used by students all year, regardless of weather and wear, said Stephen May, assistant principal for student activities.
"Ours was just very underused," he said. "Our girls soccer team would use it for practice in the spring then stay off it in the summer. We only used it for football and soccer games in the fall: no practices, no PE, nothing. Then you spend all that time keeping it up over the summer."
In Naperville, the park district began installing its first artificial turf in May, a move project manager Michael Piszynski expects to not only save on watering and upkeep but to ramp up youth sports for the next 10 to 12 years.
Piszynski said the district spent about $420,000 for grading and installation of the field, which is slated to open in July. But he expects the benefits to offset the sticker shock.
"The big hurdle for most people to get over really is the initial cost for installation," he said. "It costs a lot more to install than a seeded or sodded field. But we don't have to let it rest from season to season, when we re-establish the grass, mow it, fertilize it and treat it with pesticides. It really extends the programming potential."
Barrington High School Athletic Director Mike Obsuszt, who has had an artificial field for three years, agrees.
"We're absolutely thrilled," he said. "This could be the worst athletic weather we've had in my memory -- think about all the rain we've had this year -- but our teams are still out there."
According to the Synthetic Turf Council trade organization, more than 5,500 synthetic fields are in use across North America. Most systems are filled in with man-made grass blades and a soil consisting of sand or granulated tire rubber, also known as crumb rubber. The result is a uniform surface that looks and feels like grass, users said.
Although critics have questioned whether the fields can result in increased injuries, or environmental consequences, experts said there's little proof to back up those concerns.
Dr. Brian Babka, a traveling sports medicine physician for the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team, said players probably would always prefer professionally maintained grass. But athletes at cash-strapped high schools and park districts that can't afford to keep their fields in "pristine" condition might be just as safe on the fake stuff, he said.
"Everything we see in terms of actual data and my own anecdotal data, it's probably no different from real grass," said Babka, a member of Central DuPage Physician Group. "In some cases, you could probably argue it's better."
Babka said it's true that artificial fields can reach temperatures far hotter than grass, but he's never seen an injury as a result of it and doesn't consider it major risk factor.
Todd Marvel, who manages the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's used tire program, said officials continue to monitor the use of materials in artificial fields to ensure safety. But so far, he said, rubber in synthetic turf appears to be "environmentally safe and sound."
He added that turf can help conserve water and keep some of the 13 to 14 million old tires in Illinois out of landfills.
"These are not experimental uses," Marvel said. "These are applications that have been used for years and studied for years, and will continue to be studied for years."