You look out over the No. 15 fairway and frown – it kind of looks similar to the No. 3 tee and maybe the approach on No. 7.

So what could be wrong?

There are several possible causes such as insects, diseases, thatch buildup, compaction, too much shade, fertilizer application issues and others. But one of the commonly overlooked causes is an inefficient irrigation system. Just the thought of that possibility can be ominous and entertaining this as a cause brings with it potentially good and bad outcomes.

The good news is that dealing with an inefficient irrigation system will provide a genuinely needed and responsible opportunity to make improvements to your golfscape. The bad news is that it can be difficult to convince your owner or greens committee that repairs are necessary.

After all, water comes out of the spray heads, doesn’t it?

Do an audit

Checking pressure is an important part of an irrigation audit.


Convincing your decision-makers can be made easier by performing an irrigation audit. When the subject of a thorough investigation of the sprinkler system is broached, decision-makers may ask, “Why should we pay for an irrigation audit?”

When it comes right down to it, there will be costs – either in staff time and specialized equipment to do it in-house, or for a consulting company to perform the audit.

Fortunately, there are several good answers.

First, things break. Irrigation systems are chock-full of moving parts that wear out. This is likely to be easy to relate to for most people, especially, for example, if a greens committee member has recently done a house repair of some sort.

Secondly, human nature being what it is, while realizing the benefits and convenience of automatic irrigation, there is a tendency to “irrigate for the dry spots.” Originally attributed to professor G.L. Horst, the ill-advised practice is to run a sprinkler system until all turf and ornamental areas respond favorably by turning from brown to green. Of course, if the system isn’t operating efficiently, the brown spots that aren’t receiving sufficient supply will eventually turn green, but in so doing, the areas that are receiving the proper amount will receive two or three times as much as they need, resulting in an inefficient waste of water.

Third, because a sprinkler system is intertwined with many other golf course operations – including aeration, fertilization, herbicide application and insecticide/fungicide usage – peak efficiency is required for these to have maximum benefit.

The fourth point is possibly the most important. In light of weather variability and droughts in various parts of the country, there is tremendous cost involved. Investing time and money, in terms of improving water efficiency, just makes good sense.

Broken parts

If a sprinkler system came in a box, like a new entertainment center or backyard playground equipment that “requires some assembly,” the box would be huge and filled with at least 1,000 parts. Think of all of the valves, nozzles, elbows, swing joints, lines and bottles of adhesive that includes. All of these parts have a certain shelf life, and are destined to wear out or break eventually. Some of the common ways sprinkler systems break down over time are as follows:

  • Clogged orifices: Sand and other debris can be deposited into an emitter or head orifice and dramatically distort the spray or drip pattern. Often this flaw isn’t visible until auditing of your irrigation system is done.
  • Risers that don’t rise: Worn out risers often lose the capacity to rise as high as they should be. As a result, they deliver water into the turf canopy rather than above it, resulting in uneven coverage.
  • Leaking pipe connections: Cracks and leaks in piping results in water seeping out into the surrounding soil, causing it to be wetter than normal. The outcome is root rot or overly dark green turf shoots.
  • No-turn heads: When sprinkler heads don’t turn due to wear or low pressure, they deliver a stationary stream of water in one location.
  • Tree root constrictions: Any liquid supply line, whether it’s for brake fluid, human blood or irrigation water, can be constricted. In turf and ornamental beds on the golf course, tree roots can grow and surround water delivery lines and squeeze them to the point where water isn’t delivered evenly.
  • High or low pressure: Driven by pumps, water pressure can often be too high or too low, causing problems of inefficiency. A pitot tube is often used in an audit to check for proper pressure.
  • Geysers: Caused by vandalism, poor installation or old age, nozzles that have fallen off cause water to be applied without any specific direction, wasting extreme amounts of water.
  • Bent risers: Bent risers don’t deliver water at the proper angle, usually resulting in too much on one side and not enough on the other.
  • Incorrectly set head patterns: Heads that spray water into buildings, bathrooms, ball washers, etc., cause delivery disruptions. In some cases, shrub or tree growth is responsible. In most cases, simple adjustments are all that’s required to improve efficiency.

More steps to take

There are several steps involved in achieving better water efficiency; several have been outlined above, namely, becoming aware that inefficiency exists, convincing decision-makers that action should be taken and considering major potential areas for system improvement.

But at the core of striving toward efficiency is a two- or three-step water audit.

Grass-covered irrigation heads can sometimes cause spray pattern distortion.


The process starts by identifying the turf and ornamental beds that are the most concerning and run the pertinent zones for 15 minutes or so. In most cases, parts of three or more zones are contributory to the problematic areas. While each zone is operating, make a quick sketch of the hole layout or lay a sheet of tracing paper over an as-built diagram of the area and write in general notes about system performance. Typical comments would be “2 heads near tee not turning properly,” “leaking heads in fairway at 100 yards out” and “stationary, non-turning head on back of green.” If obvious problems such as stuck heads, spray pattern adjustments and geysers exist, immediately repair or modify/alleviate them.

Irrigation head cleared from obstruction.

The second step is opportunistic; it involves determining how effective the first round of fixes was. Start by setting out collection devices in the irrigation spray pattern of each head by placing one 2 to 3 feet away from a head and another halfway between it and another head. Continue placing catch cans until all turf and ornamental beds are covered.

Like most tools on the golf course, there are sophisticated, expensive devices and others that can do the job with a little more effort, but just as well. In this case, official irrigation auditing devices are available and are probably the best choice if large areas of turf are to be audited. But it has been demonstrated that simple cans (cat food, tuna, water chestnut) work almost as well to deliver important information about irrigation efficiency. Keep in mind, though, that it might be easier to explain an “irrigation collection device” line item on your budget rather than a couple cases of tuna fish, depending on the office manager or bookkeeper at your course. Additionally, tuna fish tends to attract skunks and raccoons and most courses have too many of them during grub season anyway.

The third step is also opportunistic. After the information has been learned about the differences in collected water and previous repairs have been made (changed heads, new lines installed, controllers replaced, etc.), a second catch can audit is desirable. The goal to keep in mind is 80 percent or greater efficiency, or less than a 20 percent differences in catch can data.

Simple catch can devices.

Unintended consequences

Normally, unintended consequences are a bad thing. In this case, side benefits are usually a productive occurrence. When water efficiency is increased, reduced consumption is achieved as well as reduced runoff and eventual surface and groundwater pollution.

With scrutiny on golf courses as it is today, these are not small benefits.

Others benefits include greater capacity to move targeted insecticides past the thatch into the root zone, and avoiding keeping the soil where new seedlings are being established too soggy or dry.

Down the road

No doubt about it, getting your flaws fixed will result in a large improvement in the efficiency of an irrigation system and an equally large decrease in overall water usage.

But you shouldn’t stop there.

Instead, schedule a follow-up audit for three months down the road, or at least the next growing season. At that point, it’s usually possible to implement a 10 percent trim, or reduction in run times for each zone. As such, fine-tuning an irrigation system offers additional opportunities for reduced water costs and the capacity to produce a healthier golfscape.