Making Your Case For An Irrigation Renovation

By Kenne James, Senior Marketing Manager, Golf Irrigation International Business, The Toro Company

The life expectancy of a typical irrigation system varies from 10 to 30 years, depending on the geographic location of the course and the demands on the system. Good preventive maintenance can extend a system’s longevity, but sooner or later, your irrigation will need to be renovated or replaced. Then what?

As the course superintendent, you know better than anyone when it’s time for new irrigation. Maybe you’ve been struggling with an outdated system for years, and now you’re finally ready to approach your greens committee about renovating.

However, even though you know first-hand how serious the situation has become, your board members and club officials probably don’t . . . which is actually a compliment to you! If you’ve done a great job of maintaining the course’s aesthetics and playability in spite of a poor irrigation system, other people might not even suspect the problem exists!

“We were really good at repairs, so no one knew how bad things were,” says Terry Bonar, Superintendent at the Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, Ohio. Canterbury’s irrigation system was already 30 years old, and the main lines were even older. The galvanized pipes were deteriorating and there were leaks in the fairways, although Bonar’s staff quickly fixed them before serious damage was caused.

“But when it got to be a repair every week,” Bonar adds, “there was no more denying the problem.”

Demonstrating The Need

If the true condition of an aging or substandard irrigation system isn’t obvious to your greens committee or board members, it’s up to you to make them aware of it. When you provide physical and/or measurable evidence, your club officials will realize that a renovation is in everyone’s best interests.

In the case of Canterbury, superintendent Bonar started taking notes on every leak and repair, and recorded the activity in a logbook. Three years into that process, after dealing with an average of 40 leaks a year, he dug up a piece of the corroded pipe and presented it to the board members, along with his logbooks.

“When they saw the actual holes in the pipe, it really hit home,” Bonar recalls. “Between seeing the number of leaks we’d repaired and the condition of the pipe, they knew it was time to move toward a renovation.”

John Zimmers, superintendent at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, used the same approach with his greens committee. When he was first hired at Oakmont, Zimmers inherited an irrigation system which was over 20 years old.

“After about a year on the job, I noticed that irrigation maintenance costs were exceedingly high,” he explains. “We had major issues with leaks, breaks in the wiring and sprinklers sticking. I knew it was time for a renovation.”Zimmers’ next step was to photographically document his system’s problems to show the committee the extent of the situation. He presented photos of broken pipe, broken wires and other trouble areas.“That convinced them it was time to start planning to renovate,” he says.

Another dramatic way to illustrate the need for renovation is aerial photography. For a relatively small investment, you can obtain impactful overhead photos that clearly show your course from tee to green, and will help you identify specific problem areas.

Whether your system’s shortcomings are obvious (e.g., leaks, broken wires, skyrocketing maintenance costs) or more subtle (such as wet or dry spots caused by lack of individual head control, or increased water costs), documenting and visually reinforcing them will make a very compelling case for a renovation.

Answering Financial Questions

Once you convince your club of the need to renovate, then comes the issue of cost. The expense of a renovation — often more than $1 million — generally creates some concerns, so it helps to prepare effective selling points to use when presenting your case.

One key financial benefit of a new irrigation system will be significant savings in labor and maintenance. In fact, Zimmers says his annual maintenance costs dropped as much as $75,000 since the renovation.

Lower utility bills are also a big plus. New, more efficient irrigation systems use much less water, while a modern pump station may lower electricity usage 30 – 40 % per year. Even the cost of fertilizer can be reduced with a new system that delivers better water placement.

In addition to those important considerations, Zimmers offers an approach which might have even more impact on your board: the inherent “return on investment” philosophy.

The golf course is the club’s number-one asset,” he says. “The best way to protect your investment is to take care of the course.”

There may also be a question of financing. Ideally, a greens committee will have anticipated just such an expenditure and set aside a renovation fund, but most clubs must either assess members or obtain financing. One effective alternative is to finance the project directly through the irrigation manufacturer. That can streamline the process and be another favorable option for your board.

Addressing Logistics

After financial issues, usually the next big question is about members’ ability to play the course during system renovation. To address that concern with your greens committee, it helps to hire a professional irrigation consultant, as superintendents Bonar and Zimmers discovered.

“We hired a consultant at the beginning of our planning, and it was well worth the cost,” says Zimmers.

“He was able to communicate with our board and members in layman’s terms. He explained that the renovation was painless, and that construction could be done one hole at a time.”

“When our board expressed fears over closing the course, our consultant explained to them how the process worked and how little disruption there would be,” adds Bonar. “It really put everyone’s mind at ease.”

Working with an irrigation consultant at the sell-in stage is one helpful step, and it’s also an excellent time to bring in an architect or design consultant as well. While your course is undergoing an irrigation system renovation, it’s often highly efficient to make other changes at the same time. For example, if you’ve been considering alterations to fairways or rebuilding bunkers, a golf-course architect will help you maximize the design strategies and take advantage of construction work under way on a given hole.

Another design aspect to consider with a renovation is how the new irrigation system may affect the course and prompt other changes. It’s very possible that installing more accurate or more powerful sprinklers will cause you to rethink the positions of certain roughs, or necessitate adjustments in other plantings.

In any case, when your consultants and architects make recommendations, be sure that their proposals are supported by the contractor who will actually do the renovation. With that in mind, it helps to hire an expert contractor who specializes in golf course irrigation renovations.

Reaping the Rewards

The process of renovating an irrigation system may take a lot of time, documentation and other legwork, but the end result is well worth the effort.

“A renovation is a major investment, but irrigation is just too important to the course and the club to cut corners,” says Zimmers.

“Our renovation has made a big difference in our club,” Bonar says. “The members have noticed an overall improvement in the course, and it made life easier for me and my staff.”

Renovating an out-of-date system will not only improve your efficiency, provide better-quality turfgrass and enhance aesthetics it can also give your course a competitive advantage. And as golf courses continue to vie for more members and rounds that might be the biggest benefit of all.