Feature Article - October 2019
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Grounds for Improvement

New Efficiencies Drive Better Maintenance Practices

By Rick Dandes

The Right Tools

Ren Wilkes, marketing manager for a Moline, Ill.-based manufacturer of agricultural and lawncare equipment, offered some additional advice on specific pieces of equipment.

Depending on the grass, use either a reel lawn mower or a rotary mower. "If you are taking care of a soccer field in the south, you are going to want a good reel mower in order to cut three or four times a week to keep the playing surface where you want it. Up north you will probably use a rotary mower because of the different types of grasses. Many times, when you are cutting a soccer field or a football field, you will use a rotary mower."

Some of the other equipment that people don't think about are field rakes for baseball diamonds, which can also be used to push material around when you are taking care of baseball, soccer and football fields.

McNeal uses large 15-foot mowers, 12-foot mowers, zero-turn mowers and 72-inch mowers. "More recently, to align parks with the mayor's initiative, we have purchased propane zero-turn mowers as an alternative fuel source," she said. "We have been using battery-operated trimmers and backpack blowers. We've done some field testing with staff to figure out what kind of brands work the best, what they like and don't like about them so that when we are making purchases we get what our operators really like."

McNeal is continuing to evaluate the use of propane. "We have six in our fleet, which doesn't sound like a lot. In Denver, there is a push for using alternative sources for all types of equipment, including vehicles.

"We have a few electrical vehicles, but they don't have the oomph, the power needed to do snow removal," she said. "Some of the other pieces of equipment we look for have multiple uses. The versatility of equipment is something we look for to make a piece of equipment more valuable year-round. We look for pieces of equipment that allow us to use plows and sweepers and other attachments that can help us get our jobs done."

Wilkes suggested that parks consider getting a multipurpose utility vehicle that can haul people and material around. "Really, that is probably one of the most-used pieces of equipment for a sports field or a park," Wilkes said. "Tractors and aerators are useful too, but it really depends on how the field or the park is doing its own maintenance. You can add in a sprayer for fertilizer applications. Those are the basics: I would say a good reel mower, a field rake, a utility vehicle and a tractor are probably a good starter package for any type of sports maintenance facility."

For synthetic sports surfaces, find a sweeper, a machine that can vacuum up some of the rubber that accumulates. There is even a sprayer for disinfectants that can be useful, he said. "You will probably need a good blower to maintain the cleanliness of the surface."

New Technology

Besides the basics in maintenance and management, there are a number of technology-based tools now available to better maintain athletic fields, Bergdoll explained.

"Soil moisture meters are great for managing soil moisture to assist with irrigation needs and also determining when a field may be too wet to use," Bergdoll said. "By taking readings and collecting data, you can determine the optimum soil conditions for not only growing grass but also playability. With hard numbers, it takes guessing and 'gut' feelings out of the equation."

Also, he noted, several field managers are now required to regularly measure field hardness for player safety. Several sports governing bodies have set thresholds for safe surface hardness. This data can also help with determining maintenance practices, such as aerification timing.

In Denver, McNeal has been using new technologies as well. "Our water conservation team is using drones and our software package to take our stress, heat indicating pictures," she said. "We are using that to help our field staff with irrigation practices. Water out here is a commodity, so every drop counts, every drop matters, and it costs quite a bit, so with these new technologies we are getting good data on where in our athletic fields the 'wear' spots are due to traffic or need of further irrigation. This allows us to adjust our programming. We take multiple readings throughout the growing season to hopefully show that we have improved and not gotten worse."

Get Smart

Equipment is getting smarter all the time, Wilkes said. "I think that over the past 10 years, technological advances to mowers have given the operator more control over the quality of the work. There is an economic aspect too. If you look at the electric reel mowers, your fuel saving is a technological advance. The hybrid technologies have come a long way too. And the controls that the operator has and technicians have to maintain the equipment, and the speed of mowing all goes into how well your fields are cared for."

Wilkes said "we are right on the doorstep of using robotics. There are some test units out in the field that move toward autonomous technologies. The possibilities are fantastic, especially for sports fields and the times you can mow. You can set a mower out there with one person overseeing several fields and cutting grass at 2 in the morning. You'll see technology coming in at a rapid pace over the next few years." RM