If a sport is played outdoors, at some point in time you’ll probably hear stories about sprinklers accidentally firing up in the middle of a game. It’s rarely a serious issue — but it can be the cause of some embarrassment for the venue and field manager. Still, playability can be impacted in some cases. But this field manager’s bad dream is something that can be avoided with a little preparation.

Most of a field manager’s attention in managing irrigation is on water conservation/efficiency and playing surface conditions for the upcoming game. But every turf team’s gameday checklist should include ensuring that a field’s irrigation system doesn’t interrupt play. Typically, an error is either hydraulic or electronic — the best prevention plan disables both of these possibilities.

Since most automated irrigation systems rely on a low-voltage, electronic signal being sent along wires to the irrigation valves, the first and most obvious step is to put your irrigation controller into “Rain,” “Off,” or other operating mode to disable all irrigation programs during field use. Some controllers allow you to build your event schedule window into scheduled “no-water” windows that override any irrigation programs. But this step doesn’t guarantee sprinklers won’t pop unexpectedly. For example, a controller auto-reset to a default irrigation program can occur after a storm-driven power outage if you don’t keep charged backup batteries in them. Remote access controllers, using apps or other software to manage irrigation, can fail or accidentally be directed to change controller status and programs.

I’ve even read stories of an off-site “pocket call” to an irrigation app popping sprinklers up during a soccer game.

One way to prevent these potentially disastrous situations is to install some kind of simple on-off switch on the common, or grounding wire for that controller. With this switch set to “Off” for games, the electrical circuit to the valves is interrupted and any controller or app type of error is prevented from firing valves. For the newer, single-wire systems, the same preventative measures work in the same way.

We’re still not home, though.

The static hydraulic pressure in irrigation mainlines can inadvertently open valves even without an electrical signal from the controller. Something as simple as an old or worn-out valve diaphragm can cause a valve to misfire and irrigation heads to pop on during games. Beyond good valve maintenance, a simple globe or gate valve (which meets local code) should be installed on the field mainline to effectively kill the source of water. This could be an isolation valve on one part of a larger irrigation system, or better yet, one that kills the irrigation for the entire landscape at the facility during use. Normally-closed, electronically-actuated master valves can serve the same purpose, but for games at a stadium or larger ballpark, I like to see manual valves locked and closed. Always open and close master mainline valves slowly so as to prevent a water pressure-hammer that can damage vital irrigation system components. Heck, I’ve even cranked down the flow controls on every valve for games, just to be sure that I couldn’t get a quick pop of the heads from latent line pressure.

Understandably, not all of these measures are practical, or even necessary, at every facility. Some sports, like soccer for example, may need to spritz the playing surface before or even during games for optimal ball skip. So, you have to tailor your prevention plan to your particular facility and needs. Whatever you do, make sure your prevention plans have the green light from facility management and also your local fire department.

Whatever the situation, irrigation systems starting accidentally on the field during games is a preventable embarrassment to the sports turf manager. Taking a few simple steps and developing a plan – communicated to all the key players at the facility – gives the field manager one less thing to worry about and goes a long way in limiting some of the public embarrassments that can act as a drag on our industry’s image.

“I can get us a rainout… Hundred bucks says I can get us a rainout for tomorrow.” – Crash (played by Kevin Costner) in the 1988 film “Bull Durham.”