Feature Article - February 2010
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Breaking Ground

Making the Most of Your Sports Fields

By Kelli Anderson

Field Goal

And when it comes to best practices, efficient, effective results are the name of the game. Gone are the days when most can afford the costly blanket methods of irrigation and the application of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. A more targeted (read: smarter, not harder) approach is possible today thanks to an upswing in technological advances over the past 10 years.

With water ranking high in today's conservation-minded world, advances in irrigation systems and strategies mean that sports fields can still look their best at a fraction of the cost. GPS systems, initially used in the agricultural industry to identify areas of crops most in need of nutrients and water, are now being used along with a host of other options—rain sensors, computerized smart control systems and irrigation controllers or clocks to name a few—to help better manage recreational spaces as well.

For the Minnesota Twins' newest groundskeeper overseeing the construction of the Target Field baseball stadium in Minneapolis, water conservation and cost savings was definitely part of the game plan. Reclaimed water from two enormous underground cisterns will be used to wash down stadium seats, to water the warning track and ultimately, if proven safe, to irrigate the outfield as well.

"Cost savings for water is everywhere," said Larry DiVito, groundskeeper for the Twins. "I'm a big proponent of having an irrigation clock set at 'zero.' It takes time to reset every day but the worst thing is to set it for a week and forget about it. It wastes water. I program it after assessing the weather, and it allows me to decide how much water to put on the field."

For those dealing with larger complexes and multiple fields, however, a hands-on approach becomes impractical. Setting and resetting clocks by hand can be time-consuming, costly and ineffective. Rain sensors, however, are one tool that can save time and money.

"One of the biggest problems is irrigation—you've got to be on top of things," said Jerry Nelson, grounds manager for 18 years with Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn. "You can't let the ground get too wet. It not only costs more, it's just not good for the turf. I'm seeing a lot of people getting rain sensors. We've had them 15 years, and it's paid for itself many times in a hurry."

Going more high-tech still, newer smart control systems with centralized computer controls can automate just about every aspect of the irrigation process over a wide-ranging area, taking much of the guesswork and manual labor out of the equation. Recognizing their uber-effectiveness, states like California are about to mandate shifts to smart control systems. With the passing of California Bill 1881, other states are sure to look to their lead as droughts and diminishing water supplies become more and more problematic around the country.

For the public works department in Novato, Calif., the cost-effectiveness of a smart control system made its selection for their area a no-brainer. "We have so little water and try to manage it as best we can," said Bill Johnson, parks maintenance supervisor for the city's public works department. "Most systems don't put down the right amount of water—they use much more than they need. I like our system because it takes a lot of the guesswork out for our guys on five major sites. It calls in every day and plugs in the amount of water based on all the factors."

The Novato Water District, convinced of the smart system's value savings in their long-range budget, purchased the system for the city. For many turning to this higher-tech irrigation alternative, the savings in labor costs and a reduction of 30 percent water usage per year pays for a system within two years.