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.

Equipment Advances in Options, Performance

As grounds managers seek to do more with less, ongoing innovations in grounds equipment are assisting them in this effort. "One thing that we do see is that with budget levels not increasing for parks departments and other entities, they are looking to get more out of the equipment that they have," Yakes said. "And so versatility is a big factor in how equipment gets employed and in purchase decisions."

To make the right purchase decision, Yakes recommends that departments start by looking at the various grounds maintenance tasks that need to be accomplished during the year. "Then break those down into buckets of how much you can achieve with a single machine with various attachments versus different machines," Yakes said. Consolidating these purchases into fewer, more multipurpose machines can help stretch budgets while providing additional functionality.

Yakes highly recommends that departments consult with a local distributor to discuss these needs and how they might be met through different equipment options within a certain budget. He also recommends asking the distributor about their facilities and whether they have the knowledge base and parts locally to handle the service needs of the equipment. "Just make sure that you have that complete picture in mind so you don't solely make a decision on that initial investment number," Yakes said.

As grounds managers seek products for different applications, they're also benefiting from an increased variety of options in engines and fueling. Among them is a hybrid mower that Yakes's company produces that reduces fuel use by an estimated 20 percent.

The University of Texas is taking advantage of these growing options by increasing its adoption of both propane mowers and of electric products. According to Burns, the shift to propane has occurred on all of the larger mowers on the main campus. "We feel like it's been really helpful," Burns said. "We've got a propane station on our campus, so it's easy to fill up. So it has reduced emissions, and we haven't proven this yet, but it's supposed to have longer engine life because the fuel burns cleaner."

The Propane Education & Research Council estimates that propane-fueled mowers cost about 30 percent less to operate than gasoline mowers, and generate up to 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions. Other potential advantages are the elimination of fuel spillage and the reduced chance of fuel theft. Potential cons can be a higher upfront cost, the need for ready access to a tank exchange or stock of tanks, and the possibility that a propane mower might be harder to service since they're not as widely used as gasoline mowers.

Burns noted that the university is also trying to use quieter equipment whenever possible. This is a particular focus for the equipment used on the grounds of the medical center that will be debuting on campus next summer. "We may have a large mower that's not electric," Burns said. "But we're going to try to use all electric equipment for the smaller equipment, so we'll have some sound reduction and less exhaust around the hospital and medical facilities."

The university also tries to buy blowers that are rated best for sound reduction as part of an overall noise-reduction effort. "Blowers are always everyone's number one hated equipment," Burns said. "We get more complaints about blowers than anything else … We have to be responsible users so that we don't lose that privilege."

Yakes is also seeing increasing adoption of electric utility vehicles by universities and municipalities that are looking to reduce emissions, particularly for applications requiring less power or range. "If you have an all-electric, it's not as efficient with really heavy power needs. That's where diesel or gasoline engines do a better job. So it's a little more of the lighter duties," Yakes said.

Sports Field Maintenance Offers Challenges, Opportunities

When it comes to sports turf, grounds managers nationwide are facing the same two key issues. "Overuse and lack of resources are the two biggest challenges currently," said Allen Johnson, fields manager for the Green Bay Packers and president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), who sees these same concerns across all the different sectors of the STMA's membership.

The problem has only gotten worse as a growing variety of sports become popular and compete for use of the same fields. To deal with this issue, more managers are turning to synthetic turf fields, an approach that Johnson sees as appropriate in situations where space restrictions are acute and fields face extreme use. But in other cases, he sees the problem as initiating with the lack of care taken in installing the initial grass field.

This often happens when a new school is built and the area around it is used for sports fields, according to Johnson. An area around it is cleared, grass seed is put down, and it gets mowed and declared a sports field. But because the native soil holds water, the field experiences issues.

"They think it's a failure of a natural grass field, but they never really gave a good natural grass field a chance," Johnson said. "They used native soil and it didn't drain. It's more of a drainage issue. So they put in a synthetic field with good drainage, and that's how they solve it. But they never gave a good natural grass field with good drainage a chance."

He also sees people looking at synthetic fields and natural grass differently. "A synthetic field has a life expectancy, and no one will give a second thought to taking a synthetic field and replacing it when it's time," Johnson said. "But with natural turf, they think it's grass and it should grow back. And if it can't keep up with the wear, they think it's a failure, rather than thinking they can just take that part out and replace it."

In reality, resodding these areas is becoming increasingly commonplace as a way to overcome the usage limits of natural turf. Lambeau Field has very limited use outside of game days, so Johnson doesn't need to resod there. But for his NFL peers who manage the grounds of outdoor stadiums that have heavier event schedules, resodding has become a normal maintenance practice. "When something wears out, it's as common as fertilizing where you just tear out that worn-out sod and you put in new stuff," Johnson said.

While resodding an entire field can prove expensive, Johnson recommends that school districts and other entities consider devoting additional resources to their maintenance budgets to address highly worn areas. "They could easily sod in the middle of a football field midseason or late in the season—it's not that expensive."

To do this successfully, Johnson recommends developing a relationship with a local sod farmer who produces high-quality sod and discussing with them what kind of product you'll need and what your expectations are.

Johnson also has seen a variety of new technologies contribute to the increased success of natural turf in demanding conditions. His peers who resod at midseason, for instance, benefit from improved equipment that can install the new sod more gently and tightly than the large crews with pitchforks that once handled the task.

Equipment that allows for effective fraise mowing—the mechanical removal of almost all of the grass surface while leaving a little bit of plant to regrow—is another increasingly common tactic for improving field quality. "I take all the grass off probably every other year on the practice fields and every year on Lambeau as a way to remove organic matter," Johnson said. "If you let the grass get too thick and too thatchy or an organic layer starts to build up, it can adversely affect the footing."

As concussion awareness increases, testing of fields for hardness is also happening with greater frequency and ubiquity. "The NFL has basically mandated that all the fields be tested for hardness before each game," Johnson said.

This, in turn, has placed a greater focus on proper aeration. "Before, they might aerate for the needs of the grass plant; now it's more to relieve compaction and keep the fields from becoming too hard," Johnson said. Improved aeration equipment that injects high volumes of air into the soil to aerate it and relieve hardness is another innovation contributing to greater success in this area.

While some of these practices may seem impractical budget-wise for school districts and other entities, Johnson recommends that neighboring communities work together to pay for equipment that may seem expensive as a standalone purchase, but that could be easily shared. A Clegg hammer for testing field hardness and aeration equipment are a few examples.

"You see cooperation between small communities that can't afford their own fire department or police department," Johnson said. "Why can't that extend to things like school maintenance? You're not aerating your sports fields every day. Anything that's used maybe twice a month or less could be shared for sure."

Knowledge-Sharing Grows

As president of the STMA, Johnson sees the constant learning and interaction with peers as a benefit of joining a professional organization in the field. "Everybody always tries something different, and you never stop learning," he said. "There are things that park district guys can learn from people working on pro fields, and there are things that we can learn from them."

When it comes to certification, Johnson sees the STMA's Certified Sports Field Manager certification as particularly valuable for managers who are in charge of a lot of different sports fields and need knowledge of different sports. "If that's not your role, then maybe it doesn't make sense," Johnson said. "But if you're in charge of 11 sports fields and you have three or four guys under you that also help you take care of those fields, it might make sense for all of you to get it."

Burns sees the Landscape Management and Operations Accreditation program at the PGMS as currently being geared more for corporate and university grounds managers than for those who work at park districts. Instead, he recommends the Certified Grounds Manager program for grounds managers at parks, and the Certified Grounds Technician program for staff involved in day-to-day grounds maintenance.

Temple additionally recommends the Irrigation Association's programs, which are offered for all levels, from technicians who may occasionally replace a sprinkler to supervisors. "The Irrigation Association is a great resource to help people understand irrigation and to learn the proper ways to design, install and operate these systems to get the most out of them," Temple said.

By acquiring the knowledge to get the most out of these and other technologies, grounds managers are becoming able to produce better-quality fields and grounds that can withstand increased use—all without breaking the budget.



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