There is a principle in turfgrass science that describes an inverse relationship between complexity and stability in the system. In other words, turfgrasses maintained at a relatively high level of management (e.g., a sand-based professional field) can crash quicker and more easily than a stand maintained at a relatively low level of management (e.g., a home lawn). The high complexity field with a high input level has the potential to produce a higher quality turf, and almost all of them do, but it is also a less stable system.
The modern high-end sports field manager knows things can go south in a hurry, and you need to always be there checking on things, even weekends (whatever those are) and holidays. There’s no way around it. How many days do you go in just to check on things? Maybe there is some non-sport event tonight, but someone should be there to make sure they are following the established rules. It’s a rare weekend off, but we have young seedlings all over, or maybe recently installed sod with record heat and drought. Better go make sure the irrigation went off well last night. Maybe we put the vented solar covers on the field for the weekend, but it’s much sunnier and warmer than forecasted. Is too much heat building up under the covers? What are the soil temperatures? Better go check.
One way to lighten the ball and chain and get a few days off is to become more of a remote sports field manager. By taking advantage of newer technologies we can more efficiently use scarce resources and produce a higher quality turf. More days off are just a pleasant side effect. Today there are fairly inexpensive ways to get remote access to your critical systems and monitor several real-time environmental conditions in your turf. Systems like soil heat, forced air suction systems and especially irrigation really need to have remote access capabilities. Their use is almost totally dependent on the weather. Maybe you’ve noticed that the forecasters can sometimes be wrong.
First, you need to get the controls of the system on your work computer. Most systems have software for this. You’ll need a wire, radio or telephone connection between the system controls and your work computer. Now you can use something like pcAnywhere or VPN (virtual private network) to get from your home computer to your critical systems. A laptop means access from anywhere you take it, as long as you have a Web connection. More and more systems are offering apps, allowing access using a smartphone or tablet.
So now you can control your critical systems remotely, but you need eyes on the field, in the air and in the soil. Now virtually any kind of monitoring sensor you can imagine is available, including leaf wetness, and soil temperature, moisture and salt levels.
There are sensors to monitor soil oxygen and CO2 levels, and sensors to monitor the amount, intensity and quality of light that various parts of the field receive each day. Most of these products work wirelessly, and many have Web-hosting services that allow you to get the information from any device with Internet access. Decent weather stations have come down in price and are fairly easy to install. The better ones have software to display not only current conditions, but also provide history. Another technology that has lowered in price is remote cameras. The better ones have good definition, maybe a close-in light to check for snow totals or something like that, and zoom and pan capabilities.
Did the wind blow all night at the stadium while I slept? Maybe I undershot the irrigation last night. Or maybe the covers blew off. How much rain did we get down at the stadium last night, and when exactly did it fall? There is a commercial video shoot on the field tonight. A simple event, but I want to make sure they are following the rules, and I don’t want to push the overtime up further by staffing it. Did that critical irrigation cycle go off last night? Is the soil drying down for the big game like I want it to? Are we going into wilt? What are my soil temperatures? Are we at good temps to pop that seed we planted? Should I crank up the soil heat, or call the crew in and pull the covers out? Whoa, it’s much hotter than forecasted. Maybe I should add in a syringe cycle on the irrigation program before I go play golf today. These are just a few scenarios that can bring us in when we might get a rare day off. Remote access to controls and sensors can reduce these trips to the field. More importantly, we become better sports field managers when we are at work by making treatment decisions based on objective data rather than subjective hunches. For example, you will almost certainly adjust your irrigation practices once you install soil moisture sensors.
While there are up-front costs to these technologies and capabilities, they can save you a lot of money and time through improved efficiencies. Payback comes fairly quickly and is easy to demonstrate when it comes time to justify. Some can be subsidized, at least partially, by incentives offered by utility providers. We once invested $30,000 in upgrading our irrigation controllers on our stadium landscape, adding remote access. We received $60,000 in rebates over three years from our water supplier through their efficiency incentive program for commercial users.
Remote monitoring and control will continue to grow as valuable tools for the modern sports field manager. The benefits can be significant. A few days or nights off when you would otherwise go check on things can also be significant, especially during the long grinds so common to our craft. Still, nothing can completely replace looking at, touching, inspecting and smelling the turf. I sometimes think I can hear it.