When the going gets tough

With a reasonably mild winter now behind us, what are the expectations, weather-wise, for 2015? The answer to this rhetorical question as the pattern of regional rainfall is now difficult to predict, and without a crystal ball is, we just don’t know.

The fully automated irrigation system sitting there, much of it beneath the ground, often unloved and unused for much of the year, cannot just perform at its best without some planning, preparation and maintenance for the forthcoming season.

A typical greens and tees system will consist of a water source and storage reservoir, a pump house and pump station, approximately seven kilometres of mainline pipe work and five kilometres of greens and tees pipework, sixty valve boxes, three hundred plus sprinkler heads, and an electronic control system.

It is therefore time to be thinking about setting up and configuring the irrigation system.

However, I do not want this article to be solely a check list with a series of Do’s and Don’ts, but to explain why correcting some of these potentially minor faults can help dramatically in the management of the sward both ecologically and financially.

Water Sourcing and Storage

If the water source is under licence from the Environmental Agency, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency or local Water Authority ensure that the water meter is read at the start of the season and that the meter is fully functional.

Maintain readings monthly (as a minimum) during the season to ensure the particulars of the licence are not exceeded and as a possible telltale monitor of leakage. A detailed record of water usage will also assist in justification of water needs should the authorities look to restrict supplies during periods of dry weather when it is needed most.

Ensure the water source and storage is free from contamination such as sediment, algae, and weed debris which may have developed during the period since the irrigation system was last used.

Clean out the storage reservoir as required to remove sediment and biofilm and check for signs of leaks or winter damage from weather. Check that all water transfer systems are full operational or if potable water is used the incoming supply is operational and meets with local water authority regulations for backflow prevention or contamination. Check for signage which will comply with current Health and Safety Legislation, Deep Water for example.

Pump House and Pump Station

Check the pump house for security and ensure that it is clean, dry and that all thermostatically controlled heating and more importantly ventilation is operational to reduce any build-up of moisture on electrical and mechanical components. Do not use the pump house as a secondary store room, other than for irrigation spares, the pump station is the heart of your irrigation system without which no water will flow and therefore needs to be treated, maintained and serviced accordingly.

The pump station should be set up, configured and tested for the coming season and employing the services of a specialist irrigation contracting company with a detailed working knowledge of pump stations and their manufacturing is extremely worthwhile.

Irrigation System

Once the pump station is functional then water should be allowed to flow into the pipe work at a slow rate and low pressure. Too often the pump station is allowed to operate immediately at full capacity i.e. flow and operational pressure, and water enters the system too quickly causing water hammer through compressed air which may damage pipe work, valves and sprinkler heads.

Many operators do not realise that air under pressure exerts a force far greater than that of water. This is why fully pressurised irrigation systems, where water under constant pressure remains in the irrigation system throughout the season, are less prone to damage caused by air (water hammer) and why in older non-pressurised irrigation systems, which are only pressurised with water during irrigation operation, the damage caused by compressed air will increase with increased system usage, particularly if the pipe work is old and already leaking.

Once the pipe work is pressurised the system should be assessed for leaks which are most likely to occur around areas where there is a high number of fittings and valves or sprinklers.

Leakage in the system can be detected by a number of ways; increased water usage, drop in pressure, continued or frequent operation at the pump station or at the sprinkler head, and unexplained patches or wet areas on the golf course.

Sprinklers and Valves

All valves whether isolation valves, solenoid valves or manual watering points should be checked for the successful operation of all components and maintenance undertaken where necessary. Valve boxes are notorious sites for overwintering vermin, mice for example can wreak havoc with control cabling, joints and splices.

All sprinkler heads should be checked for trimming round, levelness, pop up, arc setting, nozzle, rotation, operational pressure within manufacturer’s recommendations and none should be too deep in the ground which will affect the water exiting the nozzle.

Each of these individual points can add up to considerable economic savings, by affecting the prescribed delivery and saving of water.

Poorly maintained trimming or depth of the sprinklers will affect the overall distance of throw from the sprinkler head perhaps preventing head to head delivery.

Incorrect nozzles in sprinklers can effect overall coverage and distribution uniformity and incorrect arc settings may cause under irrigated or over irrigated areas of the green or tee with full circle (360 degree) set sprinklers using twice the amount of water as part circle (180 degree) or applying water to areas where it is not required.

Poor pressure at the nozzle can indicate leakage in the pipework, insufficient pipework sizing or incorrect pump system operational pressure and prevent accurate and efficient coverage. Where sprinklers are weeping or damaged these should be replaced or component parts replaced.

Control System

There are many types of control system, however, without doubt the modern trend is towards those of a computerised nature.

At the beginning of the season it is imperative that all electrical stations on the controller, both valve in head sprinklers and solenoids, are operated from the controller and a visual check is performed to ensure these are operating correctly in the field.

This is why a full walkthrough from the first tee to the 18th green is extremely important at the beginning of every season.

Anything less will be leaving what, at the end of the day, is your most expensive maintenance asset potentially vulnerable to catastrophic failure at a time when you may need it most. Where control system failures are identified these should be repaired as a matter of priority.

An irrigation system is without question the most expensive item of maintenance equipment on the golf course.

It therefore deserves the correct amount of time, a minimum one full day for a greens and tees system and longer for a fairway system, and due diligence to be setup and configured correctly at the beginning of each season.

Some may employ the services of a specialist irrigation contracting company to ensure the irrigation system is configured correctly and as part of this procedure to setup an irrigation system for the forthcoming season a full system walk through, electrically and mechanically, is a must.

With most of the irrigation infrastructure out of sight it is often out of mind and therein often lies the problem with many irrigation systems.

Irrigation systems are no different to any item of general golf course machinery and for sure these will be serviced and maintained regularly if not only to protect the capital invested in them.

The irrigation system should be no different particularly with our supplemental irrigation regimes within the UK which often dictate the requirement for the
irrigation system to perform perfectly when soil moisture levels are diminished, to ensure
consistently firm and true surfaces expected by members and player alike.

Many irrigation systems have been installed for a long time, maybe it is time to seek independent
advice and a full comprehensive audit from a specialist designer with no financial ties to any manufacturer.

Yes, it will take considerable time to carry out a full audit, and much of the work will be repetitive and tedious checking all the sprinkler heads and all the valve boxes.

Enlisting the help and support of an apprentice in conjunction with an independent designer may be one way of improving and disseminating knowledge of the irrigation system and educating for the future.