The latest irrigation technology helps golf course superintendents save water, time and money.
Many golf courses have had to change some of their maintenance operations on the fly in recent months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Already having to adjust to new protocols, superintendents certainly don’t need to spend time trying to tame a temperamental irrigation system as well.
At two properties that completed golf course renovations last year that included the installation of a new two-wire irrigation system, the latest technology has helped their superintendents alleviate irrigation worries—and maximize water conservation while improving efficiency.
In With the New, vs. Fixing the OldHobe Sound (Fla.) Golf Club installed a new $1.2 million, two-wire irrigation system and pump station as part of a golf course renovation project, which modernized the 18-hole layout and made it more environmentally friendly. The renovation project, led by golf course architect Tom Fazio II, started on April 1, 2019 and was completed by July 20 of that year. The golf course reopened for members on October 30, 2019.
While the property kept the same routing for the course, Hobe Sound regrassed the 30-year-old turf with TifEagle on the greens and TifTuf Bermudagrass on the rest of the course. TifEagle is known for its speed, consistency, and playability on greens, and the hybrid TifTuf is more drought-tolerant than its Bermudagrass predecessors.
“The game of golf has changed a lot in 30 years,” says Golf Course Superintendent Clinton Tingen, who was hired in 2018 to oversee the golf course construction project.
Irrigation systems have changed in three decades as well. Hobe Sound’s previous system, which had undergone minor upgrades on the green surrounds in 2003-04, was the original hydraulic system that had been installed in 1989. Water tubes ran all over the golf course to each individual head, reports Tingen, and poor coverage left the golf course with a number of wet and dry spots.
The maintenance crew was dedicating manhours daily to repairing heads, so installing a new irrigation system was ultimately more cost-beneficial than constantly repairing the old system, Tingen says.
As part of the project, the property also sleeved the wet well and the intake from the pumphouse, replaced the pumps and operating system, and installed high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes, which are smaller in diameter than the previous pipes, on the main and lateral lines.
Saved by a Settlement
Rochester (Minn.) Golf & Country Club also replaced its irrigation system as part of a $6.4 million makeover of its 18-hole golf course. The project, led by golf course architect Tom Doak, began in the late summer of 2018, and the golf course reopened in the spring of 2019 with a new two-row irrigation system that has easily accessible sprinkler heads.
The property, which celebrated its centennial in 2016, first opened as a nine-hole course on 100 acres acquired from Mayo Clinic doctors E.S. Judd and D.C. Balfour. The renowned A.W. Tillinghast reworked the Rochester layout in 1926-27.
The renovation project was financed by a sizable settlement with DuPont after the company’s weed killer, Imprelis, killed more than 1,000 of Rochester’s distinctive pine trees about five years earlier.
The property’s old irrigation system was a hydraulic system with a single row down the fairways and around the greens. The system also had a common wire, as well as a wire for each individual head.
Golf Course Superintendent JT Hauser, who started working at Rochester in May 2020 after being at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club for four years, says the old system, which suffered frequent breaks, was completely outdated and long overdue for replacement.
As part of the renovation project, Rochester also put in a new pump house, a 1.5-acre irrigation pond, and a new drainage system that feeds all of the water from the golf course into the irrigation pond. “It goes hand-in-hand with our irrigation system,” Hauser says of the drainage system.
The drainage system has alleviated water issues caused by development that has occurred near the golf course through the years. In addition, parts of eight holes rest on an impervious shale formation, and the drainage system redirects the chronic accumulations of standing water on those fairways and greens to the irrigation pond.
A sensor in the pump house activates the recharge system when the pond falls to a low level, and recycling water by way of the pond allows the property to reduce its groundwater usage.
Before the renovation project, the property pumped 10 million gallons of water from a well annually. Now, Hauser says, “We’re capturing and reusing all of our drainage water, and getting about 1 million gallons of water from the well.”
In addition, he reports, “It will take us about 10 years to use the amount of water we were using in one year.”
Mitigating the need to tap into the city’s water supply, the reuse system also ensures that the course has a reliable water source, even if conservation restrictions are in place.
Rochester added Wi-Fi throughout the golf course as well, which allows staff members to run the irrigation system from their smartphones or tablets, instead of having to use radios.
“We can water the majority of the golf course from mobile apps,” says Hauser. “It’s a lot quicker and more user-friendly. From a labor perspective, it’s more efficient.”
Where benefits are concerned, efficiency is a good trait for an irrigation system to have. At Hobe Sound, which is situated on a sandy site, the two-wire irrigation system provides greater individual head control. “Each golf course has its own micro-environment,” Tingen says. “Individual head control gets rid of wet areas.”
In addition, with the installation of the new system, the number of sprinkler heads at Hobe Sound has increased from 800 to 1,148. “The distribution and efficiency are so much better,” says Tingen. “It makes for a lot different product.”
To determine irrigation needs, he uses weather-station data to calculate the evapotranspiration rate on a daily basis. The rate is generally ¼- to 1/3-inch a day, but Tingen says the computer “does the math” for him.
“We’re not watering greens that don’t need to be watered. Individual head control prevents over-and under-watering,” he states. “Water distribution is vital to playability every day.”
By definition, efficiency is a time-saver as well. “We can water the golf course in a four-hour window at night,” says Tingen. “We’re not watering first thing in the morning and running into golfers.”
And while Hobe Sound has a permit to use 24 million gallons of water per month, he notes, the property rarely comes close to using that much water.
Water usage is not an issue in the Midwest, notes Hauser, but he also appreciates the efficiency the new irrigation system brings to his course maintenance operation.
“We can water the surface we want to water, and we don’t have to water as often,” he says. “You can push the turf. You can dry it our further.”
On any given night during a long spell with no rain, Hauser says, he will use 100,000 to 400,000 gallons of water.
“I try to keep the golf course on the drier side, so it can handle rain,” he explains.
During the hot summer months, the Rochester grounds crew has been running the irrigation system three or four nights a week. Earlier in the year, however, the maintenance staff watered the golf course one or two nights a week. “I like to deep-water on Sundays, to try to get through the rest of the week,” Hauser adds.
He tries to avoid using the irrigation system on the greens, which consist of a mix of bentgrass and poa annua. “We do a lot of hand-watering of greens because it’s more precise and more accurate,” he explains.
At Rochester G&CC, where the grounds crew does most of its watering at night, the new irrigation system pumps 1,500 gallons of water per minute. This capacity is more than double that of the previous system, which ran 650 gallons per minute.
“We can water the same amount of area in half the time now,” says Hauser.
In addition to helping the Rochester maintenance staff save time, the system offers financial benefits as well. “We spend less time making repairs and manually hand-watering,” says Hauser. “From a labor perspective, we’re probably saving $50,000 a year at least. And when we add in the cost of parts, we’re probably saving closer to $75,000.”
Pipeline to Success
Efficiency is not the only benefit of the new two-wire irrigation systems that Hobe Sound and Rochester G&CC installed.
The fused HDPE pipes used for the entire system, reports Tingen, don’t have the leaks and bends or elbows that PVC pipes have. “The water pressure is the same at the pump station as it is one-and-a-half miles away,” he adds.
Strong, flexible, and lightweight, HDPE pipe has non-toxic, corrosion- and chemical-resistant qualities that make it environmentally sustainable and durable. “The breaks that I typically see now are where the head is connected to the HDPE,” says Hauser, whose new system also has HDPE pipes. “With conventional systems, you can have breaks in the middle of the pipes.”
Because HDPE pipes are stronger than PCV pipes, Hauser adds, they are not as vulnerable to breaks when the maintenance staff blows out the pipes in the winter. In addition, he says, it is harder to get all of the water out of PVC pipes.
The reliability of the new irrigation system gives Tingen peace of mind.
“I know it’s going to work every night,” he says. “If there’s a problem, then an alarm goes to my cell phone.”
The design of the individual heads makes them user-friendly, he adds, and they are easier to work on if a head gets stuck or a screen needs to be cleaned. “We can work on the heads from above without digging a hole and disturbing the turf around the greens,” he explains.
Initially, Tingen was concerned about lightning strikes, but Mother Nature has convinced him that lightning won’t be an issue. “We have had a couple of direct hits, but the surge protector device did its job,” he says.
Fewer Wires, More Heads
Another benefit of Rochester G&CC’s new irrigation system is that only two wires go through the entire system, Hauser says. And with two rows down the fairways, the property can water the fairways and the rough. The previous irrigation system had single heads on the greens that watered the putting surfaces and the rough at the same time—whether the staff wanted to water them simultaneously or not.
Hauser also says it is easier to add heads to a two-wire system. “You can add an irrigation head wherever you want as long as you have proper flow,” he explains. “You can tie it into the closest head, and it doesn’t have to go all the way back to the satellite box.”
While irrigation for greens, tees, and fairways at Rochester is now “optimal,” Hauser notes, the club will still be adding heads. “It will be convenient to add heads in the rough, which is the only area where I now want to add them,” he says.
Hauser also appreciates the labor savings that now result from the new system’s easy access to the internal components of the heads, so crew members do not have to dig underground to troubleshoot or to make repairs. The heads also provide trajectory adjustments of the main nozzle, and make it easy to fine-tune radius and spray heights, so crew members can provide the exact amount of water needed exactly where it’s needed. By maximizing distribution uniformity to eliminate wet and dry spots, the heads help improve turf quality and playing conditions while also reducing water use.
The heads also are designed for future upgrades as new technologies become available. “With better technology,” notes Hauser, “the watering is more accurate.”
Hobe Sound implemented a fertigation system with its new irrigation system, and the staff uses wetting agents through the nightly irrigation process.
At Rochester G&CC, the maintenance staff has not seen much change in its chemical and fertilizer applications because of the new irrigation system. However, Hauser says product usage has been reduced.
“There are certain chemicals and fertilizers that we need to water in, and now we have a system that we’re confident enough to use,” he says. “We can use products how they should be used.”
Of course, water is a necessary component to grow grass. However, to maximize playing conditions, the type of grass on a golf course matters as well.
“We’re using our assets more efficiently,” says Tingen. “Part of that is choosing the right turf for your location.”
In addition to its drought tolerance, the TifTuf at Hobe Sound is easy to maintain, shade-tolerant, disease-resistant, dense, and hearty. Tingen also appreciates the fine texture of the grass, as well as its ability to green up early and maintain its color through the Florida summer and into the fall.
In addition, the grass requires less water—38 percent less than other Bermudagrasses, according to the University of Georgia—and it can handle wear and tear.
“It held up to cart traffic much better than I anticipated in the first season,” Tingen adds. “The [lower] water requirement is just icing on the cake.”
The resumption of play during the pandemic has given the Hobe Sound maintenance staff a good indication of just how much traffic the turf can withstand. The biggest adjustment the grounds crew has had to make because of social-distancing requirements is that only one person is allowed in a golf car.
“With the single-rider carts, we have twice the wear and tear on the golf course,” Tingen states. “We also have to use more ropes and stakes to direct traffic flow to give the turf a break.”
The golf course at Hobe Sound also has a lot of native areas that contain bleached “white sugar” sand, and the property has adjustable heads around those areas to keep out weeds. Prior to the renovation, notes Tingen, the native zones were filled with undesirable plants.
In addition, the property has areas of small, bunch-type grasses such as cord grass, love grass, and muhly grass that provide extra density. Orange and red pine straw in native areas also provide a nice contrast on the golf course.
At Rochester G&CC, which also has a mix of bentgrass and poa annua on the tees and fairways, Hauser maintains cool season grasses. “Water management can be different with the poa, because it doesn’t like hot weather,” he notes.
To water the poa, maintenance staff members syringe the grass. In the fairways that have a lot of poa, they turn on the sprinklers for one or two minutes to cool off the grass.
The rough at Rochester includes Kentucky bluegrass as well as fine fescue in some native areas. “We don’t water the fine fescue because it performs better if you don’t water it,” Hauser explains.
At Hobe Sound, the new turf, along with the pump system and the architect, had already been selected for the course renovation when Tingen came on board. He joined the staff before the contracts had been signed, however, and he was able to draw on past experience to oversee the project.
Tingen, who has been in golf course maintenance for 10 years, had managed a similar renovation at the equestrian course at The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.).
Hobe Sound looked at irrigation systems from two manufacturers, but the Board made its selection based on cost and the system’s suitability for the site.
Before meeting with the Board of Directors, Tingen gathered the facts and presented the pros and cons of each option. He also reached out to other golf course superintendents in the area to see what type of irrigation systems they had. Many superintendents at nearby properties have the same brand of irrigation system that Hobe Sound has, so he can now consult with them about issues if necessary.
His assistant superintendents and maintenance staff members played a role during the renovation process and continue to do so with the upkeep of the new irrigation system. The grounds crew also maintained the grass during the grow-in phase of the project.
“In every phase of the project, more tasks got passed on to us,” says Tingen. “Once they put the sprigs on the ground, they’re ours.”
Staff members went through a certification process to learn how to fuse a pipe joint, and Tingen’s assistants now take online webinar training sessions to maintain the irrigation system.
“It’s a lot easier to diagnose a problem now,” Tingen says. “I grow grass. I’m not exactly a tech-y person.”
With his software program, he can quickly download the irrigation schedule for the night. He runs bi-weekly checks on the entire system from his office, and he can take care of technical issues from a computer. In addition, says Tingen, the irrigation company’s technical people are available 24/7. “The tech support is huge,” he says.
While support from people within the golf industry is important to superintendents, judicious water usage matters to the outside community as well.
“As urban areas continue to expand in a lot of places, the golf course is the biggest green space they may have,” says Tingen. “We want to be good stewards of water because it’s the right thing to do, and everybody is watching.”
The golf course superintendents also believe that a state-of-the-art irrigation system is a sound investment to help them meet those demands.
“It’s expensive to put a new irrigation system in,” says Hauser. “But in the long run, you can water more efficiently, and you can use less water.”
Summing It Up
> With an updated, user-friendly irrigation system, a golf course can reduce water usage, increase efficiency, and pinpoint accuracy.
> State-of-the-art irrigation systems help golf course properties eliminate the need to make constant repairs, saving time as well as parts and labor costs.
> The type of grass on a golf course influences irrigation operations.