Irrigation evolution at Blue Valley School District
Summers are typically hot
and dry in the Midwest, so regardless of what type of grass you’re trying to grow
you will need irrigation. The ability to precisely control irrigation is
essential today. Coming to Blue Valley (KS) Schools in 1996, I realized the
sports field irrigation left quite a bit to be desired. Only two of the three
high schools and two of the five middle schools had automated irrigation; to
make things more confusing, each school had a different brand and model of
controller. The schools that did not have irrigation used water reels, which
are effective but labor intensive and slower.
In 1997 we converted all
existing irrigation controllers to one brand and model for simplification. We
also started plans to install our own irrigation in-house. My experience from
the golf industry gave me the know-how to pretty much start from scratch. Blue
Valley owned no specialized equipment for irrigation construction so we relied
upon rentals, starting off with a slow, walk-behind trencher (I don’t like
trench installs!). We graduated quickly to a ride-on machine, but still it was
trenching, just faster.
At this point all the
installs were into existing fields, so trenching was even less desirable. My
experience had been with 40-60 horsepower vibratory plows, so in 1998 we bought
our first Ditch Witch 6510 with a backhoe on the front and steerable vibratory
plow on the back. The 6510 was fairly worn out but we spent the next 10 years
installing miles and miles of pipe and wire with it.
Our goal became to install
irrigation for every athletic field in the district. Some sites had a water
source, others had a 2-inch dedicated meter installed. Support from
administration came easily after we showed we could irrigate a football field
for around $6K. Also with the 6510, three people could install the system in
around a week. During those early years we spent time in the summer installing
systems and bringing life to dormant turf.
This early period also
overlapped with our bermudagrass conversion. For sprigging purposes an
automated irrigation system can’t be beat versus above ground aluminum gasketed
pipe and manual valves. Two things drove the design of our systems: supply
pressure/volume and the size of our machine. The 6510 and later RT75 are fairly
large machines to be operating within the confinements of a track, long jump
runways and fences, so these factors drove our design and install methods.
In 1997 we also started
discussing central irrigation controls. Even though we only had five schools
with irrigation, it was challenging to adjust controllers often enough. So
basically we were either under-watering or over-watering. My experiences with
Toro VT3/VT4, Network 8000 and Rain Bird Maxi 5golf showed me just how
effective central control is. The commercial version is called Maxicom and
that’s what we settled on and started installing in 1998. From 1998 until 2003
we relied upon dialup connections often with an analog bag phone and modem in
the controller pedestal. The central controls allow us to use ET replacement
watering and control without having to leave the office. The weather station is
located at the district office and provides the ET for Maxicom. By 2004 we had
all communication converted to operate on the Ethernet. This was obviously much
faster and cheaper to operate. We were fortunate enough to piggyback onto a
district-wide Ethernet installation that connected all the schools.
The actual physical
installation of the pipes, valves and rotors once again took a page out of my
golf background. On existing grass fields we dig a hole either by hand or with
backhoe wherever we want a rotor or valve. Then using a King Grip and the
vibratory plow we pull the pipe from hole to hole. Generally all the main lines
are 2½-inch class 200 pipe. We first pull all the pipe passing through all the
valve location holes, stopping at the end of the run. Then we go back and cut
the pipe to allow for a “T” to be installed and push the glue joint together
from the next valve location down the line using a custom made push tool. About
740 feet is the typical mainline around our football fields. This can be
installed with T’s by mid-day.
Then we change the King Grip
over to 2 inches. All laterals are 2-inch pipe that we pull from the valve to
the last rotor. A little overkill for the last rotor or two on a zone, but the
ease and speed of installation out weigh the cost of the using the larger pipe.
By the middle of day two, all zones were done and we put the wire-pulling blade
on and install all the conductors. We don’t use two wire valves, so we pull
individual wires all the way back to the controller. Day three wraps up the
back filling and the system is ready to flush and test.
In 2014 were doing the
irrigation on five new fields being built at a high school. We met all of our
performance objectives but a contractor did not, so we were given a field with
almost no installation window between the grading company and sod installer. To
overcome this we decided to install the entire soccer field system in one day
using multiple crew members and operators to keep the machines working. Not
sustainable but was a fun experience!
Installing our own systems
and using standardized valves and rotors also allows the irrigation tech to
carry the minimal variety of fittings and parts, because when he starts digging
a repair he knows what size pipe he will find, what brand swing joint he will
encounter, etc. This reduces trips to the supplier, storage, and wasted time.
In 2008 a new Ditch Witch
RT75 and a John Deere 110 backhoe were purchased, retiring the 6510. Currently
25 of our 34 schools have irrigated fields or soft play areas. All of them are
centrally controlled. Eighty-two acres of athletic fields and another 22 acres
of elementary school fields are irrigated.
It’s been a very gratifying
part of my career bringing irrigated life to fields for our students and
student-athletes. Knowing that these systems will be working long after I’ve
retired is satisfying. I never dreamed when I was 22 years old “learning” how
to pull pipe around golf greens and tees that I would later use that passion to
irrigate an entire school district athletic program.
John R. Peterman, CSFM, is
senior grounds supervisor, facilities and operations, Blue Valley (KS) Schools.