Living with Reality

Reality is often cruel and many times it just sucks, but we must deal with it as part of everyday life. What is real and what we perceive or want to be real are not necessarily the same thing. Usually reality is the harder of the two. The good thing about reality is that it is factual.

So, what does this have to do with irrigation? Well, today I am going to bitch about unrealistic expectations coupled with unrealistic budgets. Expectations are unrealistically high for budgets that are unrealistically low. Why do I bring this up? Lately, I am seeing irrigation system budgets that won’t buy nine holes of new irrigation, let alone 18.

Now the domestic irrigation market is red hot. It’s a contractor’s market. There is more work than there are qualified contractors to install it. Material pricing for the non-hard goods (pipe, wire, fittings, valve boxes) are climbing. Having a hurricane wipe out a large percentage of the resin production for both PVC and HDPE didn’t help matters. As far as the sprinklers valves and controllers (Hunter, Rain Bird and Toro stuff), that pricing isn’t climbing as much as the manufacturers continue to be hugely competitive with each other, keeping those prices artificially low. Bottom line: already expensive irrigation systems are getting more expensive quickly, but the average board or owner – and to a large extent the superintendent – have no idea how expensive.

Many irrigation designers budget based on the number of sprinklers to be installed. In most markets, the designer will know what the installed price per sprinkler is inclusive of pipe, wire, fittings, controls, valve boxes, sprinklers, etc. Therefore, once there is an “approved” sprinkler layout for a 9-, 18-, 27- or 36-hole course, then a relatively accurate budget can be established. Say the design is 1,400 sprinklers at $1,300 each – that’s $1.82 million. You then add on other items, like pump station, pump house, wet well, lightning protection, demolition, electricity and the rock to give you the total project budget.

So here are a few examples of my frustration. A superintendent and designer develop an irrigation plan that meets the requirements of the golf course and the wish list of the maintenance staff, approximately 2,025 sprinklers. Irrigation system costs $2.75 million; total project budget $2.79 million. Budget is provided to the board and they say the project cannot exceed $2 million. So, what happens to make the $2 million budget? First, out goes the new pump station and its associated electrical work and permitting. Accessory items, lightning detection, and water transfer piping, valves and controls – gone. Demolition of the old system is now on the turf maintenance staffs list of to-do’s. This brings the cost down a little, but not near enough to meet the budget. So next out comes sprinklers. In this case, some 681 sprinklers to be eliminated from the wish list. Not a great situation, and it will be noticeable out on the golf course.

You meet the available funding, but the staff does not get what they think they need, so the course will spend $2 million and not meet expectations.

Would they be better off waiting until they can have more funds available in a few years?

A designer sits down with a prospective superintendent client who wants an irrigation system and asks he/she where the club is in the process. Typical response: “Just starting,” “Know we need one,” “Few years out.”

Next question: “Have you provided the board with any cost estimates?” Response: “Yup, told the board about $1.5 million.” Uh oh! That’s not enough for this 18-hole course by about $1 million.

The coverage layout and design for another 18-hole course is $4.2 million. The board would like it to be only $3 million. Superintendent says it cannot be done for that amount. One reason is that 20 to 25 percent of the budget is for rock removal – that number is fixed. Second, a reduced system will not provide the maintenance staff the tools to maintain the golf course the way the board wants. Board replies, “Bid it and see what happens.” A solution, but is it realistic?

The point here is you must prepare your board, city or owner for the large cost of an irrigation system with a number that makes sense right up front as they are tasked with figuring out how to pay for it. The sooner you provide a realistic number, the better so they can plan to raise the available funds and set realistic expectations. Believe me proper budgeting up front saves a world of surprises, negotiating and discomfort down the road for everyone involved in this project.

Brian Vinchesi, the 2015 Irrigation Association Industry Achievement Award winner, is President of Irrigation Consulting, Inc., a golf course irrigation design and consulting firm with offices in Pepperell, Massachusetts and Huntersville, North Carolina that designs golf course irrigation systems throughout the world. He can be reached at or 978-433-8972 or followed on twitter @bvinchesi.

October 2017
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