Feature Article - November 2015
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Innovation, Conservation & Training

The Latest Trends in Grounds Management

By Chris Gelbach

Across the nation, parks departments, universities, school districts and other entities face significant challenges in keeping their grounds maintained properly. Among the most pressing of these are tight budgets, the growing pressure to overuse fields and other grounds, and issues caused by the increasing presence of extreme weather. In response, grounds managers are increasingly relying on equipment innovations, sustainable practices, and increased education and knowledge-sharing to meet these challenges successfully.

Water Issues Reign

As certain regions of the nation face increasing drought conditions, grounds managers have placed a growing focus on water conservation and effective irrigation. "As a society, we're chronic over-waterers," said David Yakes, marketing manager, commercial division, sports fields and grounds, for a leading manufacturer of turf maintenance and irrigation equipment. "We boil it down to the one area of the property that needs the most water when the rest of the area doesn't really need it. To have that differentiation, you need technology to help you be judicious with the water you are supplying to that turf."

According to Michael Temple, owner of Irrigation Innovations, an irrigation design and consulting firm based in Waxhaw, N.C., the growing affordability of irrigation technologies has made their deployment increasingly practical for park districts and other related markets.

"Controller technology, weather sensing and soil moisture sensing has progressed to a point and has dropped enough in cost that there's almost no reason not to take advantage of it," Temple said. In addition to the considerable water savings that can be achieved, preventing overwatering offers other tangible benefits. "The less water you put down, the less chemicals and fertilizers are leached out of the root zone, so your fertilization dollars go farther. By not overwatering, you can also reduce pest and disease problems," Temple said.

According to John Burns, president of the Professional Grounds Management Society and manager of landscape services at the University of Texas at Austin, the water-conservation effort his university has rolled out has reduced annual water use by 66 percent, or more than 200 million gallons a year.

The effort required a considerable investment up front to pay for things like master control valves, flow meters, the computer and controls, and more efficient spray heads. But the high water costs in Austin enabled the University of Texas to quickly recoup the investment.

"We've figured that we're saving $800,000 a year with that reduction in water," Burns said. The results exceeded the university's initial projections. "Our payback was in just about four years. It was projected to pay back in about six years."

Such a rapid payback is unlikely in regions less arid than Central Texas, and the technologies employed may be different based on region. According to Temple, this may include more of a focus on rainfall sensors in areas that get more rainfall to forestall unnecessary irrigation when it rains. In more arid areas, it may mean the use of more soil moisture sensing to allow grounds managers to time their irrigation quantities and frequencies based on what's happening in the root zone.

Temple noted that the tactic of rainwater harvesting for reuse in irrigation remains a relatively expensive endeavor. This makes it a good approach for environmental stewardship in any environment, but something that remains most feasible economically in areas where water rates are high.

Dipping your toes in the landscaping irrigation waters doesn't require the initial outlay that the University of Texas invested. "The beauty of this technology is that it's now so modular and scalable that it's not an all-at-once thing," Temple said. "People can do one site a year or five or 20—whatever their budget allows."

For this reason, Temple recommends that budget-strapped entities, such as park districts, start with a pilot project on a park or an athletic field that they're having issues with. "Then they can hopefully see the benefits, and that will help them move up the line to get funding in place to move on additional sites," Temple said.

Temple recommends working with an independent consultant who has certifications from the Irrigation Association and references that confirm previous successes on projects similar to the one you want to complete. The irrigation consultant can help you assess what your needs are and help you put together a system that will both accommodate your needs today and 5 to 10 years down the road should you expand your landscape irrigation program.

At the University of Texas, Burns believes that sustainable practices outside of irrigation have also contributed to reduced water use at the University of Texas. One example is the use of organic fertilizer. "We feel that that's also helped us reduce water because we're improving our soils and the water-holding capacity in our soils by using organic fertilizers," Burns said.

The university is also working to increase its use of more native plants and prairie grasses in lower-traffic areas that don't require the resiliency of improved grasses, another approach that should ultimately allow further water conservation.