Smart Irrigation for Sports Fields

Hunter smart irrigation

For insight into smart irrigation for sports field applications, SportsField Management (sister publication to Landscape Business) recently interviewed Michael Temple, CID, CIC, CLWM, CLIA, CGIA, LEED AP, technical program director, Irrigation Association. The following appeared in the September issue of SportsField Management magazine:

SportsField Management (SFM): What types of smart irrigation components should sports field managers consider for their applications?

Temple: The smart irrigation components that should be considered are for the control system. This includes weather-based controllers, soil moisture sensors and flow meters. The combination of these components gives the manager the most control of how much water is applied and allows them to apply the water when it is needed. The weather-based controller automatically adjusts the amount of water applied, and the soil moisture sensor allows the water to be applied exactly when it is needed. The flow meter plays an important role in monitoring the water usage and aiding in management decisions. It also allows for automatic leak detection, isolation and reporting; but just as important is the reporting of missed irrigation. This allows for immediate steps to be taken to ensure the turf gets the water it needs before there are any visible signs of stress.

SFM: Aside from smart irrigation technology, what advice do you have regarding sports field management practices that can reduce the amount of water required while still providing a safe athletic surface?

Temple: The soil is the structure that everything is built on. If it is not healthy, the field will not perform no matter what you do. The soil needs to have the correct pH, texture and organic content, and not be overly compacted so the turfgrass can thrive. When the soil is right, all the inputs (water, fertilizer, pesticides) can be reduced.

SFM: What do you recommend with regard to irrigation audits?

Temple: Irrigation audits are a critical measuring tool. They tell you how uniformly and how fast the irrigation system is applying water. These are both critical to calculating the necessary runtime for the irrigation system. On top of that, audits can help to identify coverage issues so they can be corrected. I recommend auditing every field before you make any changes. Once initial problems have been identified and corrected, audit the field again. This gives you good before and after data to track improvements. Audits can then be performed annually or every three to five years to track how the irrigation is performing and identify issues before they become a problem.

SFM: What advice do you have regarding water-related programs, initiatives and educational opportunities that might be available to our readers?

Temple: We should always be learning. That is what will allow you to perform your job better and keep you at the top of your field. There is a plethora of educational opportunities available online now that were not there a few years ago. Check with your professional associations and see what they have to offer. In addition to education, your professional associations are involved in advocacy for your industry and becoming a member helps make sure you have a voice at the table when codes and policies that affect your profession are discussed and created.

SFM: What recommendations do you have regarding proper irrigation scheduling for sports fields?

Temple: Scheduling irrigation on sports fields can be very complicated.  Not only do you have to schedule based on the field water requirements, irrigation performance, soils and plant root zone depth, you have to consider the field usage and maintenance requirements. If the field has lights, it could be in use until late at night, and maintenance may have to start early the next morning, leaving little time to irrigate. All of these factors are pieces of the scheduling puzzle, and they will vary from field to field. Therefore, knowing as much about your field and irrigation system as possible is critical. The irrigation system performance has a big impact on the irrigation schedule. A system with low distribution uniformity (how evenly water is applied to the field) will have to run much longer to provide adequate water to the entire field than a system with a high uniformity. This makes it harder to work irrigation into narrow watering windows.

SFM: For those who are using smart irrigation technologies and/or practicing proper water conservation on the athletic fields (and the other grounds they manage), how should they go about sharing that information with their superiors, the public, and other sports field managers to help spread the message regarding the benefits of smart irrigation?


Temple: With the WiFi-connected and Cloud-based control systems that are available today, there is a wealth of information collected and waiting to be used. Irrigation water use information is at your fingertips. If your system has a flow meter on it, you have real data. If you do not have a flow meter, you can run each irrigation zone for 10 minutes and record the water meter reading before and after running the zone. Divide the total gallons used by 10 and you know the flow rate of your zone. Most smart controllers allow you to program each zone’s flow rate. By doing this, you have relatively accurate water use data. Couple this with the ability to have weather data and zone-level operation frequency and time, and you can demonstrate how effective you are a managing water compared to a standard controller operating for set times on set days. The main key is the availability of data with smart irrigation. Data drives everything these days, and irrigation is no exception. This data is your main tool in being a better water manager and communicating your results to others.

[Editor’s note: Photo provided by Hunter Industries.]

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