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Fake grass business is growing greener

Low maintenance and upkeep costs are making artificial lawns a more attractive prospect for homeowners.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: A stubborn drought is leaving a lot of people here in the West between a rock garden and a hard place. What's the alternative when it comes to taking care of a water-hungry lawn?

Officials across the region have been experimenting with ways to reduce water demand and some local governments are offering incentives to homeowners to cut the grass -- completely.

That, coupled with growing awareness about conserving water, has been a boon for businesses that offer alternatives to traditional lawns.

As Lenora Chu reports from Los Angeles, they aren't limited to planting cactuses.


Lenora Chu: When Denise Maynard and her husband Steve moved into their new home in El Segundo, California, they decided to redo the landscaping. He wanted a putting green. She wanted a low maintenance yard.

When they started shopping for options, they kept coming back to the same solution: a synthetic lawn.

Denise Maynard: We liked what we saw. In fact, we liked it so much we ended up putting it in the backyard and the front yard.

They installed 3,500 square feet of artificial grass with a 300 square-foot putting green by the pool. They also got a lawn able to withstand abuse from their two dogs -- no more brown and yellow patches that often mar the grass of dog owners. Their lawn stays green all the time.

Maynard: I've heard through a friend of a friend that one of our neighbors actually was very upset when we put the synthetic lawn in because it made her grass look so bad.

But out-greening the Joneses is not cheap. Duane Ruth of SynLawn, the country's largest maker of artificial grass, installed the Maynards' lawn.

Duane Ruth: For the front and back lawn with a putting green, it was about $30-35,000.

That's $7-12 a square foot for a standard polyethylene and nylon blend that from 10 feet away looks like the real thing. It costs about four times as much as planting natural grass. Despite the price tag, Ruth says business is booming.

Ruth: Three years ago, we were probably installing two jobs a day. Now we're probably installing 10 jobs a day and sometimes more.

Why? First, there's the feel-good aspect of not having to use precious water on your lawn, especially in drought-stricken parts of the country. Then there's the convenience factor -- no mowing.

Annie Costa is with the Association of Synthetic Grass Installers.

Annie Costa: As people switch to low maintenance products they're saving time, they're saving money, they're saving water.

Costa says since 2000, the industry has grown nationwide by at least 30 percent a year.

But synthetic grass does face a few hurdles. First of all, water is still relatively cheap, even in the West, so even though the average natural lawn drinks about 10 swimming pools full of water a year, there's little incentive to switch.

Then there's the challenge of busting those myths about fake grass. That's where marketing consultant Hamilton Wallace comes in. He helps an Arizona synthetic grass company with its outreach strategy.

Hamilton Wallace: If you say "artificial grass" to a lot of people, the picture that they have in their mind is old indoor-outdoor carpet; It's real thin, it's ugly and it's just not a really high quality product at all.

So as a marketer, part of his job is putting potential customers in touch with satisfied ones.

Wallace: Allowing their prospects to see and hear other people who had their same concerns talk about the process that they went through.

And when they hear that the average fake lawn pays for itself in four years, many get over the sticker shock.

Back in Southern California, homeowner Charles Walsh watches workers hammer sheets of fake grass into a base of crushed rock. Walsh is a busy family man with a couple of dogs, a baby girl and another one on the way.

As workers fluff up his lawn with a power broom, a smile creeps across his face. On weekends, he'll be relaxing at the beach, not revving up a lawnmower.

Charles Walsh: Never owned one, never want to. Never have to pay another gardener or anything. It's great.

And that, he says, he can take to the bank.

In Los Angeles, I'm Lenora Chu for Marketplace.

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Geez Duane you should try spellcheck. All your infomercial posts for SYNLawn on the internet have typos. And you should pull back on the HARD SELL too!!

I wanted to respond to Mr. Story and I assure you- there was no shouting in my message and there certainly isn't any here! I would hope you would reconsider what you are teaching your studnets- whatever type of students they may be. First, the base material used under artificial grass varies by the area where it is installed- in some places- rock dust is used, in others, calss II road based- in some DG. I would like you to explain to the readers how a 350 sq. ft. front or back yard lawn creates a heat Island and if it does, how that is a problem for the environemnt versus the huge water waste, pollution from mowers, pesticides, chemicals, and mow clippings going to the dump 32 times a year? By the way, synthetic grass is completely consistant with trees and other shade structures that abate the heat idland effect. I would also like you to explain how 10 to 15 years is not a sufficient life cycle for a product that is 100% recyclable to offset the relatively small amount of petroleum products consumed in its manufacture? I would like you to know that in fact, our installations frequently, especially in desert environments, incorporate xeriscape and drought tolerant landscaping designs. WWe incorporate succulents on larger projects and work with some of the most forward think landscape architecture ffirms to incorporate our products into their LEED certified project plans. We actually achieve the goal of converting a water wasting home into a water eficient home by using our product. I think our industry deserves some praise for that, not scorn. It is not at all uncommon for us to replace 4,000 feet of grass with 2,000 feet of synthetic grass and 2,000 feet of drought tolerant plantings and xeriscape. THink how much easier it is to get someone to convert to drought tolerant plantings, once they have converted to synthetic grass. People like artificial grass. They love it. We teach them how to have their grass and save water too. We succeed where as people who advocate xeriscape do not. When I drive around Los Angeles, I do not see many front lawns yet of synthetic grass, but after 30 years of advocating drought tolerant landscaping, I see almost none of that! The reason is, it is too extreme for the vast majority of people- they don't like it. SYnthetic grass helps people take steps in the right direction. You should not fight that. I see your attititude as beig somewhat akin to a person being against heroin needle exchange programs as a way to reduce the spread of deseases like AIDS and Hepatitis because it "encourages drug use." As to the lead chromate issues, synthetic turf does not contain dangerous levels of lead at all. In fact, the way you pose the question- you take the term low levels of lead- out of context. That's the unfortunate thing about "government speak." Very low levels of lead means so low that a 50 pound child would have to eat over 100 pounds of synthetic turf fibers in a single sitting to get exposed to a dangerous level of lead. That's 230- 750 sq. ft! That's an extremely low level- a small fraction of the level considered completely safe by the EPA for common household surfaces like walls, concrete floors, window sills, etc. As to run off and being pourous to water- you are simply mistaken. Artificial grass is quite pourous to water and can permit the passage of 40 gallons per hour per sq. yard. They do not increase run off and if the sub soil can't handle the water, then it woudln't handle it without the artificial grass either- ans since you are anti natural grass as well, then you are sort of short on solutions to this run off probleme you posit. And flash flooding is not a proboem everywhere in the country. WOuld you be suprised to find out that there are over 5 million sq. ft. of residential and commercial installations of artificial grass in Arizona? By the way, yes there is one product category on the SYNLawn web site that requires the use of rubber crumb infill. It's called SYNTipede. It is a product we make that is like those used on football fields and soccer fields. To put it in persepctive, in the last 6 years in southern california, we have installed it 3 times- a total of about 2,000 sq. ft. out of over 6,000 installations and then, it was because the customer had unuasual requirements for it- rules and regs requirig it- in one case, they wanted the cheapest thing we could install. There is no good evidence that the rubber crumbs produce dangerous chemicals, however, thye sure do get hot and get all over the place, so you are right, albeit for the wrong reasons, when it comes to rubber crumbs! In any event, I still applaud you for dedicating yourself to teachig people about being friendly to the earth. And again, there was no intent to have a shouting match. If you knew me personally, you would know that I don't change my views to make a buck. I can't advocate things I don't believe in. And with SYNLawn, I don't have to.

I have regular grass on my lawn. I don't water it or put chemicals on it. I remove dandelions by hand because I don't like the way they look when they are too numerous. I like clover and violets, so I leave them.

We had a draught two years ago. A lot of grass died. It has grown back. True, I do have to mow, but because the grass is not as thick as fertilized lawns, it doesn't take long. I can mulch the clippings as I go or use a reel mower (no gas/oil).

My point is that overall, the easiest, simplest, most environmentally friendly thing is to just let it be. Get used to non-uniform grass.

I find it amusing that rather than find a suitable grass, the idea of 'synthetic' (read, fake) grass would even appeal. I have been labeled a "ten-toed suburban lawn slough" by my family for not taking care of my lawn. The point was driven home one day while on Google Earth that my yard was the only brown one in the neighborhood! So, with a little research and a lot of sweat last summer and early fall, I killed off my lawn, raked it clear of dead grass (and weeds), rototilled it with the help of a local business, "One guy and a tractor", and then seeded it with a "no-mow" grass suitable to northern US and southern Canadian locations, plus added some wildflower and prairie grass decorative 'islands'. It's looking great this year, will fill in fully by end of next summer, and I have not fertilized it or watered it at all. I have had to finally (sigh!) mow in once this past week. Since water is the next precious liquid we'll be fighting over, I figure I'll avoid the whole problem--not water at all and STILL have a green yard. I'm even thinking of going into the business of replacing lawns with 'no-mow' grass. Bet Scott's won't be happy if this trend 'grows.'

I never water, fertilize, or poison my "lawn." In the spring it blooms purple from the wild violets and yellow from the dandelions and wild strawberries, and in early summer the strawberries sprinkle it with red dots that the birds enjoy. It's green year-round with these and other "weeds" that my neighbors remove from their yards with poisons and pointless, Sysiphusian labor. (My preferred definition of "weed" is "a wildflower whose enemies have issues.") The putting-green lawn, like the Hummer, is a great symbol of the senseless waste that is our world's pathological consumerism.

I’m not in the habit of engaging in on-line shouting matches, but as Mr. Ruth has chosen to issue a screed against those of us who left comments about his product, I feel obligated to respond. First, synthetic grass has a backing that while porous is of insufficient porosity to handle the brief and heavy downpours that characterize desert rainfall; because it is installed on top of a 2 to 4-inch layer of highly compacted decomposed granite (DG), the rain does not infiltrate the soil but runs off instead.
Next, decomposed granite, the base for this product, is a demonstrated heat sink, which is why I and others who teach people about responsibly lowering their water usage also advise people to shade their granite mulch with low plants or trees. The Scottsdale turf-removal rebate program, for instance, requires 50% plant canopy coverage of former turf areas. I advise my students and clients to use a recycled organic mulch instead of DG, where possible.
Despite Mr. Ruth’s assertions to the contrary, his own web-site recommends using rubber crumbs to infill some varieties of his fake grass. The rubber crumbs are chipped auto tires and have known and verified problems with decomposition and the leaching of toxic chemicals.
Mr. Ruth concedes that this is a petroleum-based product. At a time when we are striving to reduce our frivolous use of oil, that in itself is enough to make this an irresponsible product. Mr. Ruth does not mention that there is a growing controversy about the fact that his fake grass is colored with lead chromate (though this is on the home page of his company site). The fake grass industry is arguing that “the bioavailability of the lead chromate is extremely low.” What level of petroleum off-gassing and available lead is low enough before you want your baby crawling around on this stuff? What is the environmental fate of the petroleum products and lead once this stuff decomposes? According to Mr. Ruth, it has a life-span of only 10 to 15 years. Does it leach into the ground, or do we just send more lead and petroleum to the landfill?
As for Mr. Ruth’s assertion that “they have plenty of trees and other plants remaining that will help remove CO2 from the air,” that is exactly the mind-set that leads us down the path of irresponsible environmental practices. This attitude that “As long as I get my little piece, everyone else can worry about the consequences.” Well, Mr. Ruth, it’s all those little pieces that add up to one big problem.
Mr. Ruth blithely dismisses the idea of a “heat island” and in doing do dismisses not only a good body of sound scientific research, but also the experience of those of us who live in the middle of heat islands. In order to sell his product, Mr. Ruth perpetuates the myth that Xeriscaping is nothing but rocks and cactus. He’s simply wrong, and it is this kind of nonsense that makes it all the harder for those of us teaching people about responsible desert landscaping.
Responsible desert landscaping reduces household water usage by the same or greater amount as Mr. Ruth’s fake grass, while reducing heat and green-waste, reducing carbon consumption and maintenance, and helping to clean the air. And without adding more lead to the environment.
We would make better progress in showing people how to benefit themselves and their communities through environmentally responsible landscaping if we had fewer people like Mr. Ruth trying to talk people into irresponsible – and expensive – shortcuts.

Wow- I can't believe my eyes- ears! It never ceases to amaze me how quickly some people with agendas will jump on their soap box without any real facts or knowledge to back up their statements.

First, synthetic grass is porous as a surface. It does in fact drain, and for those who claimed that grass "absorbs" rainfall- it doesn't- it drinks it and a lot more from sprinlers. That does cause huge amounts of runoff and secondary chemical pollution- not to mention green waste. The base is not supposed to be gravel- it's more like DG and it is no more of a "heat sink" than the common soils found in many desert regions. And I'm not sure what you mean by "unbearably hot" to walk on in summer- you live in Arizona where it frequently reaches 117 in the summer- so anything is unbearably hot to walk on or in. The sports field grasses that people there sell are full of black rubber crumbs- those give off heat- and perhaps that's what you are talking about. You can feel it rising from it. That's not the case with SYNLawn- which has no black rubber and has a green colored backing.

As to it being a petroleum based product- true, however, we go to great leangths to reduce the amount of petroleum products used in our manufacturing- for example, our backing is coated with a product we created that incorporates renewable resources and recycled content in place of petroleum based fillers.

I would say that if you can have a moderately petroleum based product that has a life cucyle of 10 to 15 years, and is then recyclable, and it reduces the water consumption by 50 to 60% in the typical home, and at the same time reduces secondary and tertiary pollution of many forms, then you have a pretty impressive product whose benefits far outwiegh the slight negative of being a somewhat petroleum based product.

As to balance- the 500 sq. ft. front lawn we replaced today I'm sure had a whole host of life in it- but I don't think that it was missed much by the elderly couple who were looking to reduce their maintenance costs while having a beautiful front yard and living on a fixed income. Somehow, I don't think it is going to have much of an impact on the ecosystem of the City of Simi Valley. And they have plenty of trees and other plants remaining that will help remove CO2 from the air.

Much of what you are talking about in relation to heat is from sports fields- which are generally filled with black rubber tire crumbs- the landscape grasses from SYNlawn discussed in the story have none.

They are truly advanced and if you haven't seen them, please do so- you won't believe your eyes. They are sold in Lowe's in several states and at SYNLawn stores around the country.

As to the landscaper who talked about dogs, etc- 70-80% of customers who purchase synthetic grass have dogs and pets- and they do not report this problem regularly - now it can be an issue if it is not cleaned properly, or if there is poor drainage, or if it is installed by "installers" who don't know what they are doing.

Installers who don't know what they are doing are prevalent out there. Buyers should be careful to purchase their grass from a manufacturer who aslo installs and warrantees their own products with their name on it- one that offers a warranty backed by the financial resources to honor it.

SYNLawn is utilized in dog facilities and by dog owners all over North America and has been for many years.

As to this "heat Island" claim- all I can say is- can someone please throw away the talking point cue card that contains this silly claim.

Your house will not be hotter because you have synthetic grass. I would like to see see one of these heat island critics visit Phoenix when it is 117 and see if they feel hotter in the xeriscape yard with cactus and red rocks like Mars, or in the yard featuring green syntehtic grass and succulent plantings that are draught tolerant.

Somehow, one has to believe that consumers have got it right- they know they like synthetic grass or they wouldn't be buying it by the millions of sq. ft. a year.

Since the two SYNLawn customers mentioned in the article were interviewed in June, 4 more homeowners in just that one tiny Southern California beach community have purchased significant amounts of synthetic grass for their front and back yards from SYNLawn.

Leanora did her research very well - and the Maynards did as well. To those of you with the negative comments on the reporting, you should try doing a little research yourselves.

Each house we install saves 50% - 60% of the water they used previously. Let's make a deal- while we continue to provide that environmental benefit to the community, you continue to pontificate about the right way to protect the environment. Let's check our mutual progress in 1, 2 and 5 years.

The water company has been askig us to save water for my whole life. We're helping each customer save 5 times more than they ever asked us to save on a yearly basis! That's progress worth writing about!

I am also disappointed in your lack of balance on this story. Not only is it bad for the environment after it is installed (as noted in all of the comments above), it is a product of petrochemicals, and increased demand for those is not good fro our economy or our environment. There should also be safety concerns of "off-gassing" and melting if the home were ever to catch on fire. You really should have looked at the whole product from beginning to end, not just the "middle--we don't have to mow or water" stage.

When it sounds too good to be true, it usually is -- and I credit Marketplace with usually remembering that. This time they slipped one past you. As a landscape consultant with no product to sell, I can tell you that this stuff is a nightmare. It's unwalkably hot during the Summer and the compacted gravel base is a heat sink that raises air temperatures around the home. It does not absorb rainfall, resulting in increased storm run-off into municipal systems, decreased natural watering for surrounding plants, and in the case of one client it caused interior flooding when the water backed up into her home. And while it may not get yellow spots from pet waste, you should smell it on a 110-degree day after the dog has watered it a few times. We have to learn that there is no "green" free lunch. Landscaping with low-water plants is the only way to responsibly eliminate wasteful landscape watering.

I was kind of appalled by this story. I thought how horrible for the environment and global warming. I could be wrong about this, coming from the Northeast and all, but I used to go to Shea Stadium a lot to watch the Mets and that stadium had natural turf, as did Chicago and a few others. I remember whenever the Mets played in a ballpark on fake turf they talked about how much warmer temps were on the field due to the heat radiated from the astroturf. I don't know, in an era where we are supposedly so concerned with conservation and global warming this is incredibly self-centered and irresponsible. I've heard the air out there isn't so great either. So I guess that will be dirtier too.

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