There are a few must-haves for every golf course. Topping the list are great mowers, great equipment mechanics, great soil drainage and, yes, an efficient irrigation system. If you look a little closer at these examples, you’ll notice they are all high-impact, everyday items. While managing them can sometimes be complex and complicated, it’s well worth the time and effort.
Let’s delve into the “why and how” of maximizing irrigation efficiency and take a look at what the future holds.
Why do we need to be more efficient?
There are many reasons and justifications for attempting to maximize the efficiency of an irrigation system. The first is mental or rational – accepting that the need exists – and that can be difficult. We have to factor in cost, pride, mixed emotions and most of all, change. Those things are often difficult to accept.
Many of these situations are best viewed from the outside looking in, which provides a healthy perspective. Looking at the operational status of the irrigation system may put you into a “Doubting Thomas” role, as the consequences are likely to be significant.
Here’s where acceptance comes into play. To the greatest extent possible, it’s usually best to simply realize that some things are probably broken, or at least not up to snuff, and that improvements are needed. Our advice? Just do it. Get over it. Things break and wear out.
The basic human tendency to “irrigate the dry spots” is hard to resist. The severely negative outcome of that approach is that the dry spots will get the water they need, but other areas will get much more water than they require.
Unfortunately, many parts of the country, including southern California, New Mexico and Arizona, are in short-supply situations when it comes to potable water. Others receive plenty of rainfall in certain parts of the year but not much at other times. When a necessary commodity like wheat, oil or labor is in short supply, prices go up. Comparing water prices in various parts of the country makes this painfully obvious.
Superintendents can save big money by reducing the electricity needed to run the pumps and other system components when they are operating efficiently. This includes the controllers, valves and piping, which will need to be replaced less frequently.
The eyes of the environmental movement and political world are on the golf course industry, and we can realize tremendous public relations value by going through positive steps to increase the efficiency of our irrigation systems. When the scrutiny comes, portraying a golf course as an asset to the community is much easier if steps have been taken to reduce the consumption of valuable water resources.
How do we become more efficient?
There are several steps we can take, and the more of them we implement, the better. It starts with a simple visual inspection. Turn on your irrigation system at various times of the day and watch it run. Sometimes pressure will be limited, and wind can alter a spray arc significantly, limiting the system’s capacity to perform at its best.
Have your clipboard in hand and take notes while the system is running. They don’t need to be elaborate at this point, something as simple as a notepad with phrases such as “not enough overlap on No. 5 green” or “tree in the way by No. 9 tee” is sufficient at this point.
Another approach is to use a hole-by-hole diagram or an irrigation-as-built diagram, and draw circles and ovals in red to indicate the areas of concern.
The second part of the process is to measure the actual output of the heads. To do that, purchase or borrow several sets of collection devices and place them in the water application pattern, one near the heads (3 feet away to avoid blowing them over with the pressure) and two halfway in between. Let the system run for 15 to 20 minutes to collect enough water to identify any differences that exist; most audits document differences between 20 milliliters and 80 milliliters.
At this point, obvious flaws will become evident. If you can address them quickly, make the upgrades and run the system again with the changes in place. Take another measurement and document output compared to the first attempt.
During the first and second runs, many flaws can and will show themselves. Some of the more likely problems include:
- Tree roots that restrict the supply lines.
- Heads that are so worn that they no longer turn, delivering too much water in one part of the pattern and none in the other.
- Heads that turn but don’t follow the pre-set pattern.
- Leaking heads and pipe connections, which allow water to seep into the surrounding soil.
- Bent risers that don’t deliver water at the proper angle, resulting in too much on one side and not enough on the other.
- Risers that don’t elevate above the turf, delivering water in the turf canopy rather than above it, resulting in poor coverage.
- Geysers, which occur when the nozzle is completely missing due to a mishap, wasting water and providing inadequate coverage.
- Sand and other debris that clog the emitters and orifices, significantly distorting the spray pattern.
- Excessive or insufficient pressure, which can be checked with a pitot tube. Low pressure tends to result in low water output between the heads, whereas high pressure causes variable pattern distortion.
With all of these possibilities in mind, our recommendation is to fix the biggest problems first. Move heads, replace pumps, adjust runtimes and replace nozzles, heads and piping. That way, you’ll achieve the largest gains more quickly than if you had tackled the smaller, less impactful fixes first.
The key is to document the problems as specifically as possible and quantify how much water and other resources you’re saving. If you can support your fixes and upgrades with tangible documentation, report the savings on the balance sheet you provide to your green committee or board of directors.
For example, if there is a pop-up spray head leaking near the clubhouse, the standard procedure is to repair or replace it. This time, however, document the repair and make an estimate of the amount of water saved by that specific repair. Those add up over time and help justify future purchases.
In addition to repairing documented flaws, consider a slight decrease in runtime for each zone. A recent conversation with an irrigation consultant affirmed this auditing process, and also highlighted the simple but powerful step of reducing the amount of time each zone is operating. The initial target is 10 percent. Adjusting the controller to move to the next zone after 27 minutes rather than 30 minutes likely will provide comparable moistening of the root zone, while giving you the opportunity to tout the adjustment as a 10 percent reduction in water usage. If the sprinklers have rotating heads, document the time each complete rotation takes and reduce your run-time by one complete rotation.
For example, if it takes three minutes for one complete rotation and your current run-time is 15 minutes, decrease your run-time to 12 or even nine minutes. This will guarantee the maximum coverage for each head affected by the adjustment.
It’s important to keep the whole golf course in mind when you seek improvements. Looking at shop usage, locker room usage, landscape usage, and every other type of usage is likely to identify areas of inefficiency. After all, these other locations contain water usage components that break and wear out, too, and are ripe for improvement. If you have leaky drinking fountains, sinks, toilets or urinals, try to document how much water is being wasted. One leaky faucet can potentially waste 300,000 gallons during the course of a season. If you can fix it, you can also document the amount of water saved.
Making changes in the golfscape can improve efficiency as well, such as separating turf areas from ornamentals and using drip equipment where feasible. Most woody ornamentals don’t need as much water as turf, so reducing their water can improve their health in addition to saving resources. Redesigning the course to separate turf from ornamentals can go a long way toward achieving both goals.
In all likelihood, you won’t be able to implement all of the changes you want to make. Do what you can – even if it’s not everything you’d like – because any fix is better than no fix at all. Perhaps the best approach is to start small and try to do a little more each year.
There are no two ways about it: Fixes are almost certainly going to cause a disruption in golf play. Digging up and trenching the fairways is the type of situation that golfers tend to find objectionable, just like when you aerate greens and tees. If feasible, schedule repairs when rounds are at a low point, avoiding tournaments and league play to the greatest extent possible.
Make sure that all staffers are committed to irrigation efficiency. The analogy of “winning the locker room” applies here, in which all players buy into a certain style of play and specific approach to winning. If possible, have each member of the crew adopt an area of the course to monitor. They can take ownership of their specific area and manage it as if it were their own. Post a laminated as-built plan in the break room so each member can quickly document areas that need attention or repairs. Once course setup is completed each morning, you can prioritize and assign irrigation work.
The next steps to take
Once you’ve made significant changes and upgrades, share your story! Tell the green committee, post the repairs and savings on your club’s Facebook page, tweet to other supers, ask the members and/or green committee to tell their county commissioners and tell the water district officials.
Educate them about the amount of water saved, the increased efficacy of pesticides and fertilizers that result from more even water distribution, the reduction in disease pressure and the prevention of water pollution. All of those things provide tangible evidence that you are promoting environmental stewardship, creating a more sustainable landscape through resource-use efficiency and being a proficient turfgrass manager.