A thorough knowledge base, sound communication and the right expertise will lay the groundwork for a successful irrigation system renovation.
The economic recession has forced some clubs to cancel or postpone irrigation renovation projects, and caused others to spread theirs out in phases. But there’s still a need at many clubs to upgrade or renovate old systems—especially when these systems, many of which are at least 20 years old, aren’t helping superintendents provide the course conditions that members have come to want and expect.
SUMMING IT UP
• The economy is putting pressure on clubs and courses to delay needed renovations of deteriorating irrigation systems—but demands for top playing conditions that depend on efficient systems aren’t relenting.
With a price tag of at least $1 million, an irrigation renovation project is a big deal that, in addition to the GM and other department managers, may involve owners, Boards, committees, members, consultants and contractors. To pull everything together smoothly, a detailed knowledge base, proper planning, and clear, effective communication are imperative. And at the heart of it all is the golf course superintendent.
One significant upside to pursuing an irrigation renovation during an economic decline is that the prices to key commodities, such as pipe and wire, have dropped considerably. Savings of as much as $150,000 to $200,000 on PVC pipe and wire, which can amount to 20 percent of the total cost of a system, can now be realized, irrigation consultants report.
Also, in private settings it can be (relatively) easier to get members to approve an irrigation renovation than a greens or bunker renovation, because it’s more of a reliability or deterioration issue, not an aesthetic one. In some cases, superintendents need to spend as much as $75,000 a year to keep an irrigation system running, and inefficiencies can ratchet up that cost at an alarming rate.
Irrigation systems have also come a long way in recent decades, making the upgrading of a system that is 20 years old today much less of a giant leap than was the case a generation ago. For many courses east of the Mississippi, the typical pattern has been to install a single-row system during the ’60s, upgrade to a double-row system in the ’70s, and then update the controls. From 1990 to now, as water usage and conservation has come to the fore, the trend has been to involve course architects to find ways to minimize areas needing irrigation.
|Throughout the course of its $2.8 million irrigation renovation, Inverness managed to never shut down entirely. The contractor worked Monday through Thursday, shutting down one hole at a time.|
Putting Down Tracks
There’s really no right or wrong way to renovate an irrigation system. But no matter what the approach, a superintendent needs to track and keep a detailed baseline of information for the irrigation consultant to consult.
As soon as Golf Course Superintendent Steve Anderson arrived at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, in 2006, he started documenting, with pictures as well as data, everything related to maintaining the irrigation system. As an historical picture took shape, Anderson found he was spending $12,000 a year just for parts and repairs. He then made it a point to keep the club’s Greens Committee apprised, on a monthly basis, of all that was involved with keeping the system operational.
Inverness’ main line in its old system was 50 years old, and the lateral piping was 26 years old. The system had numerous leaks, failing parts and bad satellites, says Anderson, who works with a $1.2 million maintenance budget.
|The new irrigation system at Inverness was financed by an ongoing capital dues fee that’s paid quarterly by members.|
“With the information I collected, I was able to show that there was a very real risk of being down for several days with no water,” he says.
With the NCAA Championships (May 2009) and the U.S. Senior Open (July 2011) looming as upcoming major events at Inverness, the club realized it could no longer expect Anderson to continue to bandage the system, and gave him the go-ahead to start the process of a thorough overhaul.
That led to a $2.8 million irrigation renovation, including a relocated pump house, that was completed last year. The project was financed by an ongoing capital dues fee that’s paid quarterly by members. Anderson oversaw all aspects, including addressing water-quality issues and making sure the contractor that was hired got the right product underground.
The price tag was affected by the need to provide tournament conditions through wall-to-wall coverage and controls for 3,000 individual heads. Inverness also needed two main lines—one for well water, which is high in salt content, and another for fresh water. The well water is used everywhere except for the greens, because of the high salts.
Completing the project in phases was discussed to help spread out the cost, but it was decided to do it all at once and limit mobilization fees. Many times it can end up being more expensive to do an irrigation renovation in phases, Anderson notes.
Communication about the project schedule occupied much of Anderson’s time once the renovation got underway. The course was never shut down entirely, with contractors working Monday through Thursday, closing one hole at a time. Anderson sent out a daily e-mail, with pictures, to the membership, and also coordinated with the pro shop to make sure it was clear which hole would be closed on what day.
“When a hole reopened after if was closed, you couldn’t tell anybody had been working on it,” he says. “We knew the contractor would come through. There were 62 guys on the job at any one time, and we knew he could get 100 guys to finish on time if we were behind.”
Already, Anderson knows he is saving water because of the new system, although he’ll need to have a full year’s data to be able to pinpoint exactly how much of a payback he’s now getting.
The Next Level
Up until a couple years ago, Golf Course Superintendent Todd Pollini was irrigating the course at Bald Peak Colony Club in Melvin Village, N.H., with a dying, 27-year-old system. He dealt with shattered pipe and on more than one occasion, he had to shut down the golf course to fix various irrigation-related problems. Members were told for years by Pollini, consultants and the USGA that to take the club to the next level, it needed a new irrigation system.
Recognizing the importance of good records, Pollini kept a labor flow chart on which one line item tracked the increased maintenance costs of the irrigation system for three consecutive years. He also documented, in detail, the major problems of the system.
With the evidence presented by Pollini in hand, members agreed to a complete irrigation system renovation (sans the pump house), which was paid for through financing and a capital fund. In this case the members weren’t assessed a fee, because of negative feedback a few years earlier after a similar assessment to upgrade the club’s maintenance facility.
Pollini, who has been at Bald Peak for 14 years, worked with a contractor and a consultant who did the initial audit of the course and its system.
“The team we hired laid out deficiencies, which was yet another starting point to help educate members about our course’s irrigation needs,” Pollini says. “It helped everyone gain a little more perspective.”
Pollini didn’t have much input into the initial design of the new system, but he did scale back the project by $200,000 from the consultant’s original plans, drawing on his more intimate knowledge of what the members would want. The savings came through cutting back from 100 percent coverage in the roughs to 75 percent, and in some areas going from triple- to double-row design.
“The consultant didn’t have an ego,” Pollini notes. “He listened well and worked with us to give members what they wanted. Some consultants dictate what they think a club should have. We were lucky to find one who was willing to tailor the system to our needs.”
The renovation started in April 2007 and was finished by June 20. Like Inverness, Bald Peak, which opens for play in mid-May of every year, closed hole by hole during the project. The contractor installed the main lines before the club opened in May, then installed all of the laterals, a hole at a time.
Once the work began, Pollini had the final stamp to approve other needed changes as they arose, such as rerouting the main line a number of feet around rock that was discovered, as well as adding or eliminating heads in other spots.
After the renovation, the system’s efficiency, in terms of coverage, increased from 55 to 60 percent to 90 percent.
“You always end up irrigating more areas after a renovation,” Pollini notes. “But our electrical costs, as well as our watering times and windows, decreased due to run-efficiency.
“I’m an old Yankee,” he adds. “I was just concerned with 100 percent coverage on the greens, tees and fairways, because we’re so seasonal. I made sure the key areas were taken care of. After that, it was all about getting the biggest bang for the buck and having membership walk away happy—that, and staying on budget and on time.”
|Organization, communication and the right people are keys to a successful irrigation renovation.|
Beyond a thorough knowledge base, organization, communication and the right people are keys to a successful irrigation renovation, superintendents who have been through them report.
“You need to get the right contractor and support from the Board and Greens Chairman,” Anderson says. “You need to keep them informed. Make sure you’re on the same page and the schedule is set [ahead of time].”
Realistic communication about expected results is also key, adds Skip Willms, CGCS, at Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Ill., a private club that renovated its irrigation system 10 years ago.
“Many members think if you spend a million dollars on an irrigation renovation, all the irrigation problems will be solved,” Willms notes. “An irrigation system is a tool, and superintendents need to communicate that.”
Bald Peak held a series of town-hall meetings the summer before its irrigation system renovation took place, to explain everything to everyone involved.
Pollini also advises against giving in to the temptations of “bargain” services and materials.
“The lowest price doesn’t give you the best product,” he says. “The money we spent on the irrigation consultant was well worth it, because he had all the needed answers.”