Time capsule

Columns - Irrigation Issues

I wrote this column 10 years ago about future technology in irrigation, but it was never published. It is amazing how much of it is now common practice. So imagine what will happen in the next decade... — BV

June 7, 2016

It’s early morning in the fall of 2015 and you’re standing on the ninth green of your golf course watching your irrigation system complete its nightly watering cycle. Feeling a little melancholy, you pause in your thoughts to reflect on the differences between your irrigation system of today and a short 10 years ago, back in 2005.

First, you think about how much less water you are using by irrigating more efficiently. Between new technologies, better control and government regulation you are watering slightly less turf — due to adding some naturalized areas — than a decade ago with about 25 percent less water. Not only is the water available to you less, but also its quality has degraded so that you have to be more precise with your applications, filter the water and provide a number of different treatment scenarios, including pH adjustment and the increased use of wetting agents.

As you watch the last group of sprinklers operating, you know that the sprinklers are each covering a smaller area to provide you with precise control. The 60-foot sprinkler spacing is much less than your old course of 1980s vintage, which had sprinkler spacing over 80 feet. The smaller spacing has given you the ability to be very specific with the amount of water you are putting down in its area, with the added benefit of operating at 20-psi lower pressure. A side benefit is the lighter precipitation rate, again allowing you more finite control of the sprinklers application. All of these features have helped you to reduce the amount of water the golf course uses, providing environmental and public relation advantages.

It is obvious by watching them that the sprinklers have an improved ability to water uniformly and a consistent rotation speed. No need to overwater to get the dry spots or pull out the hoses every afternoon to syringe the fairways anymore. The versatility of this new generation of sprinklers is interesting. They are all individually controlled, no more groups of two to four operating at the same time. You chose to wire the sprinklers back to a field controller individually, but surprisingly you were given the option of communicating with the sprinklers and even the few electric valves you have directly from your laptop computer wirelessly to each sprinkler. Maybe on your next system you’ll do that, but at this point in your life, you wanted a little redundancy.

The sprinkler’s ability to have the same sprinkler as a full circle or part circle was a great help in your recent renovation project. You also particularly like the feature of being able to add a small back nozzle to the part circles so that it waters 20 to 40 feet behind it, to cover small turf areas without throwing an additional 20 to 40 feet into the woods, wasting water. In windy areas, you have been able to adjust the sprinklers’ arc to a lower trajectory so they do not have to fight the wind as much and provide better coverage, especially on the ninth and 18th greens. You have a couple of other areas that you need to change the trajectory on and need to remember to talk to your irrigation technician about them.

He was just telling you the other day his favorite thing about these sprinklers is the ability to service everything from the top, so rarely does he have to do any digging. Not that you are having a lot of problems with the sprinklers, but the screen, wire connection, pressure regulator and solenoid can all be accessed with the removal of a couple of screws. Your technician was also commenting a feature of the sprinkler that most people are unaware of is the ability to set either the right or left stop, as neither is fixed. He said it sure makes setting the part circle easier as he does not have to worry about lining up the fixed side.

During the design of the new system, you decided to water some of the golf course with sub-surface drip irrigation instead of sprinklers. Many of the renovated bunkers have almost vertical grass faces, so you installed sub-surface drip under the turf to keep them watered. It works well, but you need to filter and pressure regulate the sub-surface drip zones. You are also trying the drip on a couple of relatively small tees that do not get a lot of air movement. So far they seem to be holding up well.

Not only have the sprinklers improved your ability to manage the water and turf, but the new technologies incorporated into your system have given you the ultimate in control, communication and feedback.

No matter where you are, you can check up with the system through a simple Internet connection. Once logged on, you can monitor the pump station operation, irrigation system operation and check on the various soil moisture, rain fall and temperature sensors installed throughout the golf course. The communication is all wireless and seamless. You recently ordered a Blackberry PDA device which allows even greater access to the system on an immediate basis, as well as increased interaction with your GPS based map and GIS system.

Through your Internet access as well as your future wireless PDA, you can look at the on-site weather station for current conditions or log on to any of several neighboring weather stations. You can also check the status of the pump system: what pumps are running, flow, pressure, alarms, and any injection and treatments you provide to the water. You can even turn your transfer pump from the river to the irrigation pond on or off and look at the amount transferring over the last 24 hours.

The new system does not just use water more efficiently and provide you with a great deal of feedback, but it also has reduced the irrigation maintenance significantly. The new sprinklers are much less maintenance intensive, but other parts of the system are also better. The pipe and fittings never seem to break anymore, unless of course when the crew hits something with the backhoe while adding drainage.

The slower velocities in the pipe, VFD drives at the pump station and better fittings are the reason for this. You have no glue in your system. The fittings are all gasketed, a combination of ductile iron and PVC. The threaded parts of the system are Schedule 80. Your designer required ACME threads wherever possible and the quick couplers are installed on brass swing joints so they do not twist off.

The wire connections are waterproof and everything buried is accessible through a valve box, which is color coded to let the crew know what is in the box. The wire is also color coded so the crew knows what the controller station is watering.

The GPS base map in the central computer tied together with the GIS inventory system allows you to catalogue and inventory all maintenance on the golf course. The map is useful in irrigation system operation, taking care of dry spots or adjusting my program in the field. You also use the map to identify maintenance locations for the crew and use it to develop work orders. With the GIS, you keep track of preventive care of trees, and log all irrigation and drainage repairs. You have just started logging spot pesticide and herbicide application areas too so you have a record of what needs to get treated first when the signs of an outbreak are apparent. You see using the GIS aspects of the new system more and more in the next decade.

You also use the Internet connection and wireless connections to receive feedback from the irrigation system and the many sensors spread around the course. The sensors are “smart” in that they do not to ask what’s going on; they automatically download information into the system and depending on what parameters you may have set they contact you through your cell phone. For example, if the soil temperature on your No. 8 green reaches a certain temperature, it lets you know so you can decide if it needs to be cooled down. It also works automatically, shutting down the irrigation system when the wind speed is too high or when the soil moisture level reaches a certain level. Sometimes, the system is so automatic you wonder why you need to be around so much.

However, that thought only lasts a minute or two, as you know that all of this technology is just a tool to help you make the right decision when it comes to using water. The new system has helped you save significant amounts of water and to improve the quality of water that is being applied. Bottom line, saving water these days is what it is all about. GCI

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 bvinchesi@irrigationconsulting.com or 978-433-8972 or followed on twitter @bvinchesi.