As threats to the planet’s natural resources take an increasingly more prominent position in the court of public opinion, the golf industry has responded by doubling its efforts to conserve water and preserve a region’s overall water quality. Inefficient, cumbersome, frequently broken irrigation systems are regularly being replaced by a new generation of advanced, interconnected systems that provide greater efficiency, lower costs and the up-to-the-minute status of every single component on the entire property.

Rain Bird’s Integrated Control (IC) System.

Modern systems generally consist of a computer-based central command center and a series of interconnected field controllers spread around the course. The controllers are often referred to as satellites, but they are metal boxes that are affixed to concrete pads, not spaceships orbiting overhead.

One-way systems can communicate to the satellites from the central command, while two-way systems enable the sprinklers to communicate back to the central computer, providing real-time information and warning of malfunctions.

There are thousands of courses with outdated and inefficient irrigation systems. In order to remain relevant and reduce their expenses, those courses will need to upgrade to modern-day irrigation technologies. Companies that make the right investment will enjoy great rewards in the form of lower long-term costs, tremendous water savings and the improved playability of their courses.

But choosing an enterprise-level irrigation management system is not an easy decision. Costs vary according to a number of factors – geographic location, size of the course and weather conditions among them – but generally speaking, courses can expect to pay between $1 million and $2 million for a comprehensive solution, so getting it right the first time is critical to long-time profitability.

Suppliers have taken different approaches to irrigation management, so superintendents have options as they consider their individual course’s needs.

The Toro Co., Minneapolis

When Toro developed its irrigation strategy, one of the primary areas of emphasis was longevity, according to Tory Perren, Toro’s senior marketing manager. “Typical irrigation installs last from 20 to 25 years,” he said, “so the goal is to balance innovation with durability.”

Toro’s Infinity sprinklers are a good example of that. They were designed to be upgraded from the top down, with additional space left at the top to make future upgrades faster, easier and cheaper. Both the Infinity sprinklers and the Turf Guard in-ground moisture sensors are connected to the Lynx Control center, which coordinates all of the systems and data to optimize the overall watering strategy.

When combined with mobile apps to monitor the course and weather conditions, and the company’s 24/7 NSN Customer Service Network to provide support and training, it creates what Toro refers to as the “Internet of Turf.”

Toro Lynx Central Control System

“Integrated irrigation systems and sensors are a force multiplier for superintendents,” Perren said. “The ultimate benefit is lower operating costs, increased mobility, flexibility and better data for real-time decision-making. This can benefit the course through more rounds played and insurance policies for the significant turf investment.”

In their own words: As superintendent at Old Chatham Golf Course in Durham, North Carolina, Brian Powell is proud to follow in the footsteps of his father – but he’s very thankful that technology has eliminated many of the problems his father faced with irrigation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Powell’s father, Bobby, had no central irrigation control, so he literally had to travel around the course to turn on individual mechanical valves. Each valve controlled six or more heads, so there was no individual control, and they weren’t terribly accurate in the amount of water they distributed, either. “It was inefficient, extremely time-consuming and not very dependable,” he said.

But that changed after implementing a central irrigation system from Toro in 2010. Making adjustments used to take an hour each day, but now he does it in the office in about five minutes. “Our advanced system also enables you to make very detailed adjustments to the watering plan, and you know those adjustments will work exactly as you intended,” he said. “In the past you wouldn’t spend much time on the details because your effort would be wasted by a system that can’t carry out the work exactly as you intended.”

Toro Turf Guard in-ground moisture sensors

One of Powell’s favorite advancements was made possible through Toro’s new irrigation heads, which allow for a lower scheduling coefficient. For example, if all turf in a 10-foot by 10-foot zone needs to get a minimum of 0.1 inch of water, the system will keep watering until all areas get the minimum amount, so some areas get more. But how much more, and which area got that extra water? Older irrigation heads had a scheduling coefficient of 1.5, meaning all areas within that zone got the minimum amount of water, but certain areas got 50 percent more than the minimum. Toro’s new heads can manage a scheduling coefficient of 1.2, which can equate to millions of gallons of water saved each year, not to mention lower energy consumption and a more playable course with fewer overly wet areas.

Not only does that help the course financially, it makes Powell feel better about his work. “I’m a steward of the environment, so I feel like it’s my responsibility to talk about ways we can do better as an industry,” he said. “Using an advanced irrigation system is one way we can do that.”

Pilot CC, Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California

Hunter’s irrigation solution is called Pilot CC and it features a computerized central control system that automatically creates hydraulically and electrically efficient irrigation schedules based on the individual course’s needs. Superintendents can see the entire course in one view, and they simply point and click to set up the watering plan.

The view is arranged according to how the superintendent likes to manage his course with sprinklers grouped into manageable areas such as greens, tees, fairways, then those groupings are broken down by where they are on the course (hole 1, hole 2, hole 3). Once he decides how much water to put down in these groups, he simply sets the time he wants watering to start and the computer does the rest. The control center has information on how the buried water pipe is interconnected, the capabilities of the pump station, and all relevant electrical capacities, so it can quickly produce a detailed listing for every sprinkler in the golf course and what time it needs to turn on, in the shortest time possible and with minimal stress on the system components.

The Command Center can be customized around the way the superintendent envisions watering his course and presents the interface accordingly.

“The superintendents can think more about how water is managed on the course as a whole, rather than getting too caught up in the details of individual sprinkler management,” said Randall Mills, Hunter’s product manager for golf controllers.

Pilot offers two types of water management: flow-optimized and field controller program (FCP). When flow is optimized, electrical and hydraulic demand are managed to ensure the watering window is as short as possible. With an FCP, users have total control over when, where and how long the sprinklers run. The system also offers evapotranspiration (ET)-based scheduling, either through a weather station or manual entry.

In their own words: When Travis Crosby became superintendent of Brunswick, Georgia-based Heritage Oaks Golf Club in 2014, one of the first things on his to-do list was have a talk with the owner about the need for a modern irrigation system.

“This was especially important because he likes to keep his course lush, so I would need to water it more than a super on another course might,” he said. “I knew I would need an advanced, central irrigation system.”

After doing his research, Crosby chose Hunter’s Pilot CC system and has never looked back. “I used to scout a hole on the course and come back to the control box to program each individual station, over and over throughout the day,” he said. “Now I drive the entire course, take notes on the conditions at each hole, and then go back to the office and program everything at once, in a matter of minutes.”

The programs for each region of the course are set up in Pilot CC’s central command center and then sent out to individual boxes, which control individual sprinklers. At any point throughout the day, from the comfort of his office, Crosby can gather information from across the entire course to get an overview of how everything is working.

“In the past, I’d have to just assume everything was working properly, but I never really knew,” he said. “I used to show up in the morning and try to guess whether things happened as they were supposed to by looking at the soil and taking probes. Now I can just look at my computer and know exactly which sprinklers turned on, what time they turned on and how long they were running.”

One of the biggest advantages to using the Pilot CC system is that the efficiency gains aren’t limited to irrigation. Obviously, the ability to deliver the exact amount of water needed in all areas of the course saves water and energy, but it also frees Crosby up to spend more time on his other tasks. “All of that time I used to spend programming at individual boxes, I can now spend on checking for insects and weeds, and doing the other things that provide a better golfing experience. Having such an efficient and easy-to-use system delivers benefits that extend well beyond irrigation.”

Integrated Control System, Rain Bird Corp., Azusa, California

The bulk of the Rain Bird’s Integrated Control (IC) System is underground, eliminating the need for satellite decoder boxes that are frequently the most common fail point in an irrigation system and can detract from a course’s aesthetic appeal.

The IC System enables two-way communication with the integrated control modules (ICM) that are built into every rotor on the course. Each ICM contains a 486 computer processing chip that simplifies maintenance and eliminates much of the guesswork from the irrigation process. Older, one-way systems can only report that they will attempt to work as programmed; they can’t confirm that all of the necessary components of the system will work as expected. If, for example, a number of the rotors have bad solenoids, the central system can tell them to turn on – but that doesn’t mean they actually will.

Irrigation programs are set up in Pilot CC’s central command center and sent out to individual boxes.

A two-way, directly connected system like Rain Bird’s, on the other hand, actually checks the status of each rotor in real time, and can analyze and report on the status of as many as 1,500 rotors in about 90 seconds, according to Matt Corentin, the company’s advanced technologies sales manager.

“That means, for the first time ever, when a superintendent leaves the course at the end of the day, he knows whether his system is going to run or not,” he says.

Furthermore, the IC System connects the rotor or valve directly to the central system without the need for field controllers or secondary wiring, which reduces the number of potential problem areas. As a result, it uses 90 percent less wire than traditional satellite systems and requires only about half as many splices as a traditional decoder system.

Finally, users can access the central control system’s diagnostic tools through any web-enabled tablet or smartphone. If an ICM on a rotor fails, the system reports the problem and a course technician simply replaces the broken ICM with a new one.

In their own words: In 2012, Old Marsh Golf Club removed its 25-year-old hydraulic irrigation and updated it with a more modern, electric system, according to Tony Nysse, golf course superintendent with Old Marsh Golf Club, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “While this was an upgrade, we really wanted to take our irrigation system to the next level as we prepared for our 2016 full course renovation,” he said.

Performance and aesthetic appeal were two of the primary goals for the system, especially because Old Marsh is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, part of an education and certification program that helps golf courses protect the environment and preserve the natural heritage of the game of golf.

Diagnostic tools take the guesswork out of repairs.

“We go out of our way to ensure that our course blends with nature anywhere we can,” Nysse said. “The beauty of the two-wire system is there isn’t a bulky, unsightly irrigation satellite box sticking out in the landscape or along a marsh line. Old Marsh has hundreds of acres of open marsh, which creates the opportunity for an immense number of lightning strikes in the summer months. Because of the two-wire system, we have 80 percent less wire in the field, along with not having satellite boxes. If we do have a lightning strike, we are able to easily communicate, in 15 to 20 seconds, with each head to find out exactly where the strike was and what solenoid(s) we need to replace.”

Head and nozzle adjustments are simple and easy, providing uniform coverage and prohibiting wasted water on the natural cart paths or into the marsh areas.

“We have also been able to easily add additional irrigation and programs through the IC system when we completed our new clubhouse, and also have our wells connected through the IC, which allows for simple monitoring,” Nysee said.

“Being able to monitor all our irrigation heads, clubhouse areas and well pumps allows for tremendous control while on property or even away from the course. The ease and ability to control the system via iPad or iPhone allow for easy system adjustments and monitoring of the weather station.”

Where do we go from here?

In today’s hectic, fast-moving world, it’s difficult to predict what technology will deliver next. That’s why Rain Bird’s Matt Corentin advises superintendents to focus primarily on an irrigation system’s hardware rather than its software-enabled capabilities. “Forward-thinking companies have a roadmap and are developing new features and capabilities years in advance,” he said. “Having the right hardware in place is critical because software can always be upgraded in the future, but if you have to replace your hardware, it’s going to be an expensive undertaking.”

One area that is rapidly developing is the use of drones, which have become more than a weekend toy for hobbyists. Hunter’s Randall Mills doesn’t foresee drones making daily passes over a course to take pictures, but he does envision a role for them in irrigation management.

“I do foresee services being offered in which drones fly over a course every couple of weeks or once a month to give the superintendent a better sense of how his day-to-day management decisions are impacting turf health,” he says.

Toro’s Perren agrees, adding that “Mobility, connectivity and predictive water management will be the focus in the future – using data, real-time analysis and automation tools to optimize the use of water resources and lower the overall cost to operate courses, while providing playability, aesthetics and golfer experience.”