Superintendent Magazine - November, 2012


Irrigation Magnified

During a severe drought, superintendents can easily assess the performance of an irrigation system, including sprinklers and nozzles.
By Larry Aylward

About the Techno Revolution Series

Last year, Superintendent magazine began its Techno Revolution series, which focuses on the mechanical and scientific specialization that has occurred and continues to occur in golf course maintenance. The series focuses on the innovation that equipment and product manufacturers have introduced to the industry over the years. The goal of the series is to provide readers with insights of what's working at their peers' golf courses, in addition to sparking creative thinking for future innovation.

- Larry Aylward, Editorial Director
Pat Shaw has been a golf course superintendent for nearly 30 years. He'll remember 2012 as one of the most challenging he has ever had in golf course management.

"It's one of the top three worst years I've ever seen," says Shaw, superintendent of The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. "It has been a long struggle."

The Bull at Pinehurst Farms was smack in the middle of the drought. It was a great year for golfers - and the club's increase in rounds reflect that - but it was a miserable year to maintain turfgrass. With the lack of rain, the club's irrigation system worked overtime. But it couldn't work miracles.

Chad Giebelhaus, superintendent at the Crooked Creek Golf Club in Lincoln, Neb., empathizes with what Shaw went through because he went through it, too.

"I've been here for going on nine years, and I've never seen anything like it," Giebelhaus says.

Nebraska was also hit by severe drought. The relative humidity and dew point was so low throughout the summer that Giebelhaus and his small crew were constantly watering in the battle to stop turfgrass from losing moisture.

When you water that much in such conditions, Shaw and Giebelhaus say a superintendent can get a good idea of how an irrigation system is performing.

"What you find out more than anything is the limitations of irrigation," Shaw says. "I don't care how good of an irrigation system you have, how well it's designed or how well it's installed, you can't put water on a golf course like Mother Nature can. It's nothing against the irrigation manufacturers, it's just the limitations of irrigation."

Pat Shaw says the summer of 2012 was one of the most challenging of his career.

Says Giebelhaus: "We're a lot more efficient in how we apply our water, but at the same time golfers' expectations have gone up. When you get into an extreme situation like this, it doesn't matter what kind of irrigation system you have ... it's just tough to provide [excellent] conditions."

That said, the drought and the performance of their courses' irrigation systems allowed Shaw and Giebelhaus to assess such things as sprinklers and nozzles.

There were times in the summer, after watering for 20 straight days, where Shaw just wanted to change the arc of the water throw. But the only way to do it was to change the nozzles.

"And if you have to physically go through and undo a screw, pull a nozzle out and put a new one in, it can be impractical on a large scale," he says. "It's tedious, time consuming, and we don't tend to do it because we don't have the time and luxury to do it."

Shaw says he wishes there was a nozzle that could be turned or rotated to change its orifice size. It could be called "Dial And Click, he adds. The adjustable nozzle would be especially useful on a putting green to battle isolated dry spot, Shaw notes.

"It would be great if you could tweak a nozzle quickly so that you could concentrate more water much closer to the sprinkler head," he says. "Anytime we can take whatever we have out there - and twist or turn it and reinsert it and move on - that's what would make life a whole lot easier."

Giebelhaus says he never had to rely on irrigation for healthy turf as much as he did this summer. Subsequently, he had never performed an informal irrigation audit.

"I never put an importance on it," he adds. "Until I was forced to do it this year."

Giebelhaus has a small and inexperienced crew; he's the only full-time employee. But Giebelhaus knew it was vital to instruct seasonal employees to analyze how sprinklers and nozzles were performing. So they looked for nozzles that were spraying outside of the heads. What they found was sprinklers and nozzles that were in poor shape because they were old.

It's a safe bet that irrigation manufacturers will continually try to improve sprinkler technology as it relates to irrigating into a prevailing wind.

"There was one nozzle that was so worn out that it was shooting about 10 feet shorter than it should've been," Giebelhaus says.

The crew replaced about 50 nozzles and 70 O-rings on nozzles. Giebelhaus wonders how much water was wasted because of the leaky O-rings.

Giebelhaus would like to see irrigation nozzles that are more durable and last longer. And if parts on an irrigation head do wear out, he would like to see them made more accessible to be able to replace.

"Certain parts will wear out, and I don't want to junk the whole head and replace it if a specific part in general is wearing out," he says.

Both superintendents also say sprinklers can be improved even more to irrigate more efficiently into the wind. Most of the holes on Crooked Creek run north and south, and the wind oftentimes blows from the east and west in the evening. Giebelhaus would like to have sprinkler nozzles that can irrigate through the wind with little drift.

"You don't want real fine water droplets when you're trying to irrigate," he says.

Shaw says sprinklers could also be equipped with different speeds, including a fast speed to throw water into a prevailing wind.

"A multispeed sprinkler head would be unique," he says. "I know there have been a few on the market, but they haven't had the success that we as the end users would like to see."

While they are suggesting what can be improved, Shaw and Giebelhaus are amazed at how much irrigation systems have improved over the years. Shaw remembers the manual systems and having to screw in the quick couplers. He once worked at a course where the irrigation system wasn't "live" and the pumps had to be "fired up" every night to water. Interestingly, Shaw believes courses didn't put down as much water back in those days.

"But the turf wasn't as pretty and green," he adds.

The irrigation manufacturers have kept up with the times well and introduced forward-thinking, Shaw says.

"I think of the original impact sprinklers we used compared to what we have today, and it's like night and day. Today's sprinklers have made life a lot easier," he says.

What Shaw likes about current sprinkler technology is that he doesn't have to do a lot of work on the heads, such as changing a solenoid.

He also likes that new sprinklers don't have to be dug up for service or repair. The internal components can be pulled from a case that's in the ground.

"It's not only the time and effort it takes to dig it up, but then we never get the sprinklers quite as level as they were originally," Shaw says.

Shaw likes that irrigation manufacturers realize that time is money for superintendents.

"The more they go that direction, the better off golf courses will be," he says.

What's impressed Giebelhaus over the years is how versatile an irrigation system can operate, including sprinklers and nozzles, to achieve the right amount of moisture.

"We don't realize what the technology has done for golf courses in general when it comes to turf quality," he adds.

Aylward can be reached at