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.

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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.