Friday, November 13, 2009

Surfacing Products Wear Out Quickly, Fail Safety Tests & The "Low-Bidder"

There’s this unfortunate "low bidder" mentality in the playground equipment and surfacing industry. Far too often, manufacturers cut corners and don’t deliver quality, lasting products, especially surfacing materials.

Simply put, many surfacing companies do not use the highest quality polyurethanes in rubber-based materials. So for example, the result is that the top layer of an EPDM surface, which is supposed to be 3/8 of an inch in thickness, ends up at 1/4-inch after only about a year. This will downgrade the surface’s ability to cut down the force of impact if a child falls, an obvious safety concern.

Similar corner-cutting also goes on with construction contractors who lay playground foundations and equipment footings, which aren’t poured according to specification requirements with a minimal amount of concrete. This results in unstable playground equipment after not much time in use.

SBR tiles are another extremely noticeable example of the “low bidder” phenomenon. SBR tiles are manufactured from shredded rubber tires, called “tire buffings” or the “retreats” of truck tires. Buffings are mixed with polyurethane, then placed in a mold and compressed into different shapes.

The polyurethane can be pigmented red, blue or green and act as a coating over the black SBR tiles. This colorful surface is usually short-lived, however, because foot traffic wears the colored polyurethane on SBR recycled tire shred, exposing the tile’s black surface. What happens six months to a year later is a blackened red, green or blue surface, especially on heavy wear zones near slides, swings and other playground equipment.

In addition to the color fading to black, there’s the shrinking over time that creates large gaps and traps dirt, glass, and debris, with the added problem of the surface becoming subject to vandalism. Vandals can easily rip shrunken tiles from the ground and remove a portion of the playground surface.

The most dangerous aspect of poorly made SBR and other rubber tiles is that over time, these tiles won’t meet the ASTM International fall test rating standard after they have been installed more than a year. This may be rubber or polyurethane hardening issues due to sun exposure or extreme cold, and/or the manufacturer may meet too closely to the minimum ASTM-1292 fall height and impact attenuation rating.

Cutting it so close to the minimum fails to leave enough of a cushion to account for wear and tear. So after a year the surface tile will no longer meet the standard development organization’s minimum a year later. This means it will less effectively break a child’s fall.

All this shoddy product manufacturing stems from companies trying to be too competitive and "low bid" their products to undercut the competition.

Florida-based EPDM tile manufacturer Impact Rubber Surfacing Incorporated notes on their website,, “It has come to our attention that there is a new company in our area selling a painted rubber product for a little less per square foot than our EPDM surfacing. Before you buy this inferior and toxic product, you should know a few things about the differences between the EPDM product we install and the painted product they sell.”

The webpage, ominously headed “Buyer Beware,” goes on to compare its EPDM surfacing with SBR recycled tire products. This is a good example of the hyper-competitive state toward which the industry is taking a negative turn.

The site does aptly advise, however, to “know exactly what you're getting before you spend your hard earned money on an imitation product. Ask the company you're dealing with to provide you with their ASTM test results.”

Let’s Play Recreation, Inc. provides a great look at quality rubber tile. The company’s “Safe Guard Fun Tiles are pressure-molded and processed from 100% recycled rubber and urethane binder.” These tiles “can reduce impact from falls of up to twelve feet, and because they’re made from recycled material, they have little impact on the environment.”

This blog’s posting from August 11 provides a solid list of criteria for rubber surface shoppers to consider:

1. Company length of service 15-20 years

2. IPEMA certified (Int. Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association)

3. Factory-direct installation

4. ASTM 1292-04 (Impact Attenuation)

5. ASTM F-1951 (Wheel Chair Accessibility)

6. GSA-approved (General Services Administration)

7. ASTM E-108 (Fire: Pass a Class A)

8. Combined staff experience of 82 years

9. Computerized inventory & state of the art field equipment

10. Certified playground equipment/surfacing inspectors (CPSI) on staff

11. Broad product choices

12. References: min. 50

13. State-licensed for general & specialty product flooring

14. General liability, workers’ comp. & auto insurance of min. $2,000,000 -
      $5,000,000 in coverage

15. Bonding of at least $750,000

16. Extensive literature & specifications to minimize the approval process

17. 5-Year warranty

18. Dun & Bradstreet scoring

19. Active industry & community Involvement

20. Head Start Body Start physical activity consultant on staff

A sound solution here would be to properly qualify and accredit manufacturing companies according to the above criteria. “Low bidders” should know that it is not always strictly about the overhead cost and selling price, but many important elements that characterize a quality, desirable playground product.