What’s one sign that you might have a drainage problem? “In April, when you’re playing baseball…if a player hits a ball into the outfield, you know you have a problem when you see the ball floating!” jokes Rich Roncone, vice president of Rich’s Sports Fields, an athletic fields construction and maintenance company in Lancaster, New York. Unfortunately, he says, it often takes until problems get this bad before he’s contacted to come in and fix a field’s drainage.

Worse, there’s nothing immediate that can be done in situations where a poorly drained field is saturated in the spring, other than creating an even bigger mess. “We’ll come out to look at the field, evaluate it and note where the problems are,” explains Roncone. “From there, we’ll wait until the summer when it’s dry to fix the problems.”

Another good time to take stock of field drainage issues is following a rain event. “I love to go look at fields right after a rain – that’s the best time to look at drainage problems,” says Steve Bush, owner of Bush Turf, a sports field design, construction and renovation firm based in Milan, Illinois. Though Bush says it’s sometimes possible to pinpoint problem areas even when most other areas are dry. “If there’s a chronic problem, where the field is constantly holding water, a lot of times it’s muddy and squishy and the turf eventually dies because it doesn’t have any oxygen,” he adds.

As with Roncone, his experience is that field managers often wait too long to tackle drainage problems. “Usually the only times people want to spend money are when they are losing money or they’re losing games,” says Bush.

Highs and lows

In addition to the eyesight test, when diagnosing drainage problems Bush also uses laser and GPS measurements to survey the field and formally establish high and low spots. “Probably the most common problem I see related to drainage is improper grading,” says Bush. “That’s really the biggest problem that most people have: Their fields don’t shed water because they’re uneven.”

Many times, field managers are convinced that they need to install subsurface drainage systems in order to solve drainage problems, states Bush. “But if their field is still uneven, and there’s a ridge between two drain lines, and the water can’t get there, then it’s pointless. If they can get the field graded correctly, it may solve most of their problems and they won’t need to put in additional drainage.” What’s more, Bush says he will rarely install a drainage system unless he can also convince the client to grade the field properly. “And if there’s a drainage problem that’s caused by an uneven field, it’s usually not the safest field, either, because there are probably hills and valleys that need to be graded anyhow,” he adds.

The severity of the grade problem that’s causing poor drainage will determine what method is used to correct the issue, says Bush: “A lot of times, if it’s just minor, you can start a topdressing routine to slowly fill in the low areas and even the field out, and get the water to where it will migrate across the field. That’s the lowest cost method and it’s simple.”

In more severe cases, it’s often necessary to use a Koro Field Top Maker or other machinery to strip off the grass completely to regrade everything. “Then, if you do want to spend the money, install some drainage when the field is stripped and you have everything graded right,” advises Bush.

Even when the grading is correct, and the subsurface construction was done properly, drainage problems can occur, says Bush. “We work a lot on professional fields. They’re sand-based and graded right, but a lot of times they will form a black layer,” he notes. This organic layer can prevent water from making it through to the sand. “If you pull cores or take a profile, you’ll see this black – sometimes anaerobic – layer,” states Bush. He recently was on a consultation at a sand-based college field that was experiencing drainage problems, and the turf manager there thought that the drain lines were likely plugged. “But we took a few soil profiles and were able to tell him, ‘No, your drains aren’t plugged; your turf is plugged.’ The sand was beautiful and the drains were fine, the water just wasn’t getting there.”

If that’s the cause of drainage problems, Bush says the course of action is either “really aggressive aerification and topdressing to try to dilute and break up that layer, or you have to strip off the grass and get rid of the black layer and all that organic material and then put a nice, clean sod back on.” Aerification – especially core aerification with sand topdressing – can help to prevent the problem from developing in the first place. “But sometimes, especially with high use, you begin to develop that layer no matter how much maintenance you do,” says Bush. “Fields that get a lot of compaction will sometimes develop a black layer no matter how you take care of it.”

Aerifying and topdressing with sand can not only help prevent a black layer from forming, but can help to directly alleviate other drainage issues, as well. “If you can aerify and get pore space in the soil, and fill those holes with sand, you’re creating a place for that water to go,” he explains. Continually aerifying and topdressing with sand is an effective way to improve the drainage on even a native soil field, or any field, Bush emphasizes. “You can definitely improve the drainage characteristics of a field just by doing that.”

Short-term Fixes

With standing water in isolated areas on an athletic field, consider these quick fixes to make the surface playable:

  1. A field “sponge” or “puddle pillow” can soak up an impressive amount of water in a short time. Create a plywood pathway for the wheelbarrow or utility vehicle used to remove the saturated sponge to avoid rutting the field surface.
  2. Small pumps also do a great job of removing water quickly without disrupting the field surface. You can channel the water to a spot away from the field by using a hose or form a brigade of players with 5-gallon buckets to carry it to the dumping site.
  3. If the area of puddling is in the turf, use some of the soil profile material to fill the depression temporarily. When time allows, lift that section of sod to fill in the material to the correct level and replace the sod.
  4. To finish off the quick fix in that spot, or for larger areas of lightly wet skinned material, apply calcined or vitrified clay, allow it to absorb the remaining moisture, and then rework the surface to level the area and match that section of the surface to the rest.
  5. If conditions allow equipment access on the turf, core aeration, or a combination of core aeration and deep-tine aeration, along with sand topdressing will help open some channels to move water from the field surface and improve percolation to some degree.

Digging in

Even when subsurface drainage is required, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire field needs to be torn up. Trenchers can be used to install drain tiles in specific areas without disturbing the rest of the field. “We’re not talking about putting lines 2 feet down; we’re talking about surface drainage,” explains Roncone. “We’ll go anywhere between 12 and 16 inches deep on the trenches and the lines are anywhere from 15 to 20 feet apart. We’ll take the surface water and move that to a collector pipe, which will take it out.” The trenches are typically 5 inches wide (Rich’s Sports Fields uses a Wizz Wheel trencher).

Roncone prefers to use Multi-Flow drainage systems. “I really like those,” he says. “And we invented a tool to keep the drainage in the center, and then we have backfill with about 2.5 inches of grit sand on both sides of the drain pipe, so that the surface water filters into those trenches and then into the pipes and out it goes,” he adds.

Every site is different and needs to be evaluated individually to determine the best design for a drainage system, says Roncone, which involves taking transit and GPS readings to find the low point and determine the best way to move the water.

“It’s pretty site-specific,” agrees Bush, regarding the process of designing and placing athletic field drainage systems. On most fields he uses a herringbone pattern, installed with the help of a Shelton Supertrencher. It, like most trenchers used for athletic field drainage applications, not only trenches but captures the spoils, which are conveyed into a cart or wagon running alongside the machine. “That way you haul off that soil and backfill the trench with sand,” Bush says. “We like to install 2-inch drain tile with a sand-filled trench that comes to the surface.” Roughly 10 or 12 inches of sand above the drain tile acts as a place for the water to get into the tile using both gravity and capillary action.

One common mistake Bush sees is putting drain lines under the skinned areas of baseball infields. “It’s not supposed to be permeable anyway. People think that putting drainage there will help, but it usually doesn’t,” he explains. The water never even gets through the impermeable clay. “If you grade your infield properly, the water should shed off and then you can capture it with a drain tile in the grass,” says Bush.

Even when subsurface drainage is required, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire field needs to be torn up. Trenchers can be used to install drain tiles in specific areas without disturbing the rest of the field.

Construction causes

Many times, drainage problems originate during the original field construction process. For example, when it comes to ballfields, “most of the drainage problems we see are on the outfields,” says Roncone. “When a new field is built, everyone concentrates on the infields. At the initial construction phase, they really don’t care how the outfields look. A lot of the money goes to the infield.” As a result, he says, outfields are often seen as a place to save money when it comes to materials and subsurface construction, and that can lead to drainage problems down the road.

Another problem that can occur during construction and lead to drainage problems later on has to do with the loss of topsoil during construction. Sometimes, when the field is stripped, “a lot of the topsoil disappears,” says Roncone. Then the project will get backfilled with mostly clay and a small amount of topsoil is added on top. To avoid this scenario, he recommends requiring that the contractor screen the topsoil on-site to ensure that all of it remains and can be returned to the field.

Roncone says that sometimes the bidding process for the construction of a new sports field results in contactors being selected that have experience in building roads, for example, but not athletic fields. In those cases, he recommends that the field manager or owner hire an athletic field consultant. That person can ensure that the correct construction methods and materials (and the correct amount of materials) are used. And make sure that no shortcuts are taken. “You don’t need to pay the consultant to be there eight hours a day,” he says, but having that expertise as a check and balance with the contractor can be invaluable in terms of how the field performs for years to come.