We’ve just finished an irrigation renovation at Anthem Country Club in Las Vegas. The lowest point on this Hale Irwin/Keith Foster routing sits at 2,600 feet above sea level. The high points, the 15th and 16th holes, climb to nearly 3,000 feet. That right there was the issue — the water pressure on those holes was never great. After 23 years, the club’s patchwork irrigation system was flat out failing. The turf conditions on those high holes were the proof.
The Anthem CC job has been one for the ages. Nine holes are finished and there are still nine more to go, but everything that could have out there happened did happen. It took nearly four years (and two club management teams) to gather the institutional will to even undertake the job — and foot the bill. Working in the desert is really tough, mostly on account of something called caliche, a naturally occurring calcium carbonate that binds to other materials like concrete. Trenching and laying pipe in this stuff is a nightmare. And perhaps most traumatic of all, our irrigation designer, Bob Bryant — a legend in the golf business for his knowledge and ingenuity — passed away two months into construction.
But god bless him, Bob’s design at Anthem was indeed the stuff of legend. Superintendent James Symons chose to go with The IC System from Rain Bird. Heritage Links, my company, installed it. About three months after Bob passed away, the pandemic hit — but that didn’t stop the nine “high zone” holes at Anthem CC from reopening in May 2020. The low zone holes could be undertaken as soon as 2021.
Most of the superintendents I speak with have a love/hate relationship with their irrigation systems. Everyone loves a new system, but older models elicit from superintendents a range of descriptions that swing back and forth from “in crisis” to “pending repair” to “currently patching.” In this world, “stable” is a superlative. Most issues are to do with system integrity, meaning leaks. But when we’re talking leaks, we’re really talking the same issue that dominated events at Anthem CC: pressure.
So, let’s talk briefly about piping, because the piping you’re currently deploying — especially if it’s more than 20 years old, the point when we see the most leaks and failures — may be affecting your pressure and volume. What’s more, when it comes to addressing those piping issues, technology has recently advanced in some pretty game-changing ways.
Rain Bird and Toro heads require 60-70 PSI just to pop open and run. If your site features substantial elevation change, and you’re having trouble achieving that sort of PSI in a uniform way, the assumption is the system has lost its integrity somewhere.
But it may be something else — something sinister and invisible called friction loss. When water is pushed through piping, there is friction created as the water rubs against the internal pipe circumference. That friction, in turn, creates pressure loss. The faster the water passes through the piping, the more friction loss results. The smaller the pipe diameter, the more the issue of friction loss is compounded.
The easy fix for bad pressure and leaks is a new irrigation system. But if you’ve got a pretty good handle on system integrity, you may be looking at an older irrigation system with 3- to 4-inch pipe, which is basically just sapping your pressure capability. Strategic replacement of old, narrow piping is a lot cheaper than an entirely new system, of course. If you’re new to your property and you haven’t conducted a thorough inventory of all your pipe, that’s Step 1.
Symons and Bryant were determined not to mess around with any friction loss issues. Out at Anthem, they went with 16-inch pipe down to nothing smaller than 6 inches on the new system (the old system which dated to the late 1990s, ranged from 14 inches down to 3).
And here’s where the new technology comes in: At Anthem CC, the superintendent, irrigation designer and contractor also agreed to go ahead and install flexible high-density polyethylene (HDPE) piping, not the old, more rigid and standard PVC piping.
HDPE has been around for a while, but not many superintendents fully appreciate just what this stuff can do. If you put PVC in the ground, for example, every time you make an adjustment directionally, you have to case it in concrete. That’s called a thrust block. With HDPE piping, there are no thrust blocks — and you can curve this stuff to the point where you don’t even need fittings most of the time. No thrust blocks and way fewer fittings mean less chance of leaking down the road.
Unless you’re doing some drainage work and put a backhoe through it…
When we discuss “pressure,” we’re also talking about volume. Overseeding requires exactly that sort of volume. But in Florida, for example, there isn’t much elevation to deal with. In the desert, where you overseed and deal with a lot of elevation change, pressure/volume really matter. Accordingly, a booster pump from Watertronics was ultimately included in Bryant’s design for Anthem CC, to guarantee pressures at those highest elevations.
Las Vegas truly is a perfect storm of factors when it comes to maintaining, repairing or renovating/replacing irrigation systems. Next time you run into a superintendent working that part of the country, buy him a beer. Water is scarce in the desert, which means it’s expensive. It also means systems commonly run 24/7, which tends to wear out components faster. Water quality is no bargain either, which further compromises those components. The soil is terrible for growing grass and even worse for trenching, thanks to the caliche.
Bear all this in mind the next time you’re exasperated by your own aging irrigation system. Then go out and get a definitive handle on your piping situation. Nothing will help you better understand your system’s pressure, volume and integrity. Then count your blessings that you’re not trying to manage all those issues in Greater Las Vegas.
Tim Hubbard is vice president of irrigation services at Heritage Links, the Houston-based course construction firm that handles dozens of irrigation-specific renovations each year.