Irrigation or Irritation

Catch can test 2As a turf and landscape manager, golf superintendent or grounds manager, you should be thrilled with the onset of the new year. The cool temperatures and a spattering of rain help you score points as the higher-ups comment on how good the turf looks.

But alas, perhaps Santa did not bring you that new irrigation system that you wished for. Scrooge comes in the form of whomever it is that controls the purse strings that insist your irrigation system is just fine and you can manage it for another irrigation season.

Your arch enemy, the irrigation system, put up a fierce battle. This annual battle left physical scars on your turf and mental scars on you. These battles are fierce and occur every summer. You've begun to feel that the irrigation system is an enemy whose presence, although necessary is one from which the term "necessary evil," was originated. 

As battle commander, I order you to approach this next season with some basic irrigation maintenance techniques at the ready. Ones that, although learned and well rehearsed in "Irrigation 101," have not been put into practice for quite some time. Listen up, soldiers, and listen well. Get back to the basics of irrigation maintenance and save your turf. Best yet, save yourselves and your job!

In my travels, I see a lot of irrigation systems. Although most of my work involves golf courses, many of these simple concepts pertain to anyone who manages a landscape or large turf area. As for most irrigation, some are centrally controlled and some are not. It doesn't really matter. Too often I see that seasoned experts have forgotten to get down and dirty with their irrigation system. It's only built of sprinklers, pipes, wires, and valves, right? How tough can it be to win a war against your irrigation system?

Think about it in compartmental terms. By this, I mean if you have a golf course, you have 18 different holes. Focus on one hole at a time. If you have 25 commercial landscape accounts, focus on checking two sites per week. As the irrigation manager or ultimate one responsible, you only have to know two things to succeed in batte - you must know and understand what you need and you must identify the difference between resolving a problem versus fixing a symptom.


#1 - You need time!
When I'm training a new irrigation person, the first thing that I tell them is don't be in a rush to "fix something." In the case of a severe dry area on a fairway, take your time. Flag all of the sprinklers to get a visual on the layout. I often hear "but I have to go fix the mainline leak or check my guys." the irrigator ends up running all over the golf course "putting out fires" and never really takes the time necessary to troubleshoot and solve problems. 
Solving a problem can take 10 minutes or three hours. Take the time to study the problem because most often, the problem will worsen and not go away. This relates to need #2. The boss needs to commit the time necessary for the irrigation personnnel. 
#2 - You need a personal commitment to completing the task at hand.
Oftentimes I work with irrigators who tell me that they don't have time to complete a task that involves troubleshooting and repair because their boss has them performing other duties. You need to define the roles of the irrigators and not expect them to multi-task. If you make them accountable for their time and provide them with measurable objectives, then and only then will you be able to determine if they are achieving your joint goals.
For example, on a golf course, tell them you want them to check and adjust every sprinkler on hole's 1, 2, and 3 this week. In a landscape scenario, tell them to visually look at and test each control valve and all the sprinklers at a specific commercial account. in both cases, follow-up with the irrigator to ensure the work was completed. 
#3 - You need at least one good/great irrigation person who really cares. 
You can usually find this person on your staff. He or she wants the job but needs to be eased into it and provided with proper training. Just like a manager, the job description of the irrigator is a mile long, Don't expect them to be experts at pipe and wire repair, since these skills will eventually develop with hands-on experience.
Foremost they need to be problem identifiers and thinkers. They need to really care about their job and not be afraid to learn something new. An irrigator that truly cares about the landscape and enjoys who he works for is always open to learning and job growth. If you make a mistake in your decision, reassign that person immediately and try again.
#4 - You need a decent irrigation system to start with.
Let's face it., if you are working with an irrigation system that is outdated, inferior or just worn down, every irrigation season is a battle to the end. In this case document each expenditure and all the time spent hand watering, adjusting clocks and repairing the system. It shows you're a professional and helps you present a case for upgrading the irrigation system. 
#5 - You need manufacturer, irrigation consultant and/or distributor support. 
We all know that there are not many big "players" in the irrigation business. Presuming you have a decent, well-designed system with the product of a reputable manufacturer, support is available. Use your support! Pick up the phone and call your local distributor or the company who designed the irrigation system. Find out who can help you with figuring out why you may have problems. You may discover that your particular product had a known defect or bug and there is a free "fix or upgrade" provided by the manufacturer. 
Most of the distributors and manufacturers that I've delt with are intent on providing excellent customer support. They have sales representatives who have years of irrigation experience and appreciate the opportunity to help the customer solve a problem. Don't ever forget that their reputation depends on your complete satisfaction with the product and support!
I find that most irrigators are excellent at what they do. They know a hot/dry spot and are quick to get out the hose to take care of business. Or in the case of a cut station wire, they double up a nearby valve just to make sure the sprinklers come on. Imagine what this does to your hydraulic pressure or ability to control the system. How often do you see a guy pointing a sprinkler at a dry area or holding his foot over the stream of water to aim it at a certain spot?
All of these efforts are fixing the symptonms of a problem but not addressing the problem itself. In most cases there are some basic maintenance items that need to be checked. 
Check the obvious first:
  • Gate valves - are they closed or only partially open?
  • Control valves - functioning properly with correct pressure setting
  • Sprinklers not rotating, or just broken
  • Trees or branches blocking the stream of water
  • Clogged or worn nozzles / clogged filters at base of assembly
  • Record the pressures at the valves or conduct 24-hour recording
  • Head spacing (It may differ from hole to hole)
  • Pump station or water source - might have a pump beginning to fail
  • Heads turned off - at the clock or at the head on a valve-in-head system
  • Not enough run time at the clock or central
  • Compare the field inventory to the central 
  • Step back and look for a pattern or consistency in the problem

Irrigation maintenance is simplistic and should'nt be allowed to keep you worried all summer long. Set your sights on identifying your worst trouble areas and focus your troubleshooting efforts on those areas. Arm you irrigator with the necessary tools like a 24 hour pressure recorder and pitot tube with a pressure gauge. Give them some measurable goals.

If you need help, then call in a consultant or one that can help solve your prolems and train your irrigator. Good luck and prepare for battle.

Criag F. Zellers - Golf Irrigation Consultants
415-342-1030 or send us and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.