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One of the most important parts of any golf course maintenance operation is also one of the least visible – the irrigation system. Sure, we might see a few sprinklers running during our round, but there is a massive amount of technology and infrastructure we don’t see that allows those sprinklers to pop up and deliver water exactly where it’s needed. Golf course irrigation systems are designed and built to exacting specifications with miles of underground pipe, hundreds of valves and thousands of sprinklers. They are operated by sophisticated computer systems and are often connected to a network of sensors that provide data on air temperature, soil temperature, soil moisture, soil salinity and more. Irrigation systems also require careful observation and continual maintenance to ensure they are functioning properly. Let’s learn more about how it all works.

Sprinklers are the most visible part of any golf course irrigation system and they play a key role in successful water management. Different sprinklers are used for different locations and many allow the maintenance team to easily adjust the coverage area. Sprinkler nozzles can also be changed or adjusted to throw water different distances or in different amounts. Most sprinklers also have an internal valve that allows them to be turned on and off individually. Golf course sprinklers can cost hundreds of dollars each and they require constant observation and maintenance. If a sprinkler gets knocked out of alignment even slightly, playability issues can develop quickly. Needless to say, keeping hundreds or thousands of sprinklers in good working order is no easy task.

Data collection is also an increasingly important part of modern golf course irrigation systems. Golf courses have used on-site weather stations for many years to monitor critical information like air temperature, humidity, wind speed and rainfall on the property. Recently, more and more courses have added sensor technology to their irrigation arsenal. Portable moisture meters allow the maintenance staff to check soil moisture anywhere on the course. Some versions also allow that data to be mapped with GPS so that watering can be easily targeted to where it is needed most. Some courses also have sensors buried around the course that provide continuous data back to the central irrigation computer where the information can be analyzed and factored into watering decisions. Soil temperature, moisture and salinity are some of the key measurements provided by underground sensors.

The central computer might be the most impressive part of a modern irrigation system. It contains all the key information about the system’s components and performs complex calculations to deliver a certain amount of water, in a certain amount of time, as efficiently as possible. The central computer also receives data from sensors and the weather station for the user to review when making watering decisions. Irrigation programs can be specified down to the run time of each individual sprinkler. The user can also create programs for specific scenarios, like watering in a fertilizer application or watering dry spots around trees. Basically, almost anything is possible with a modern irrigation control system.

Even with all this technology at their fingertips, today’s superintendents must still rely heavily on experience and “feel” when it comes to making watering decisions. All the technology and capabilities of a modern irrigation system certainly make watering easier and more efficient than ever before, but it’s the experience and keen eyes of the maintenance team that really make sure water gets where it needs to go.