Given the confluence of tightening budgets and more prevalent water restrictions across the country, municipalities and sports turf managers now have increasing access to systems that determine when to water and exactly how much.
And a salesman of one of these products is a former athlete quite familiar with sports turf.
Accustomed to performing at a high level on the football field, Kevin Butler has taken on a different perspective with turf in recent years.
After playing pro football and winning a Super Bowl as the placekicker with the Chicago Bears and college football at the University of Georgia, Butler says his network of connections gave him a lot of different opportunities. Keeping that in mind, seven years ago Butler joined a company that manufactures sensors that measure and record moisture levels and water use in a variety of landscape environments.
Butler, a Duluth, Georgia, resident and vice president of sales for the eastern region for UgMo Technologies (http://UgMo.com), says finding a business in which you have pleasure is a blessing, and one that shows measurable results while helping the environment is a bonus. It’s how Butler spends his time outside of watching his son, Drew, who punts for the Arizona Cardinals. Butler also serves as an analyst for the University of Georgia Bulldog Radio Network. He played for the Chicago Bears from 1985 to 1995, but saw a host of his records fall last season to Robbie Gould, including the franchise record for field goals (243).
Working with UgMo Technologies, a King of Prussia, Pennsylvania-based business, Butler has clients that range from the cities of Duluth and Roswell in Georgia, to McDonald’s, Zaxby’s, RaceTrac and, recently, the Cobb County (Georgia) parks and recreation department. The UgMo system not only saves thousands of dollars, it conserves water, according to the company.
Early adopters of the UgMo system in 2009 included golf destinations like Merion (near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Desert Mountain (near Scottsdale, Arizona) and Card Sound Golf Club (Key Largo, Florida). UgMo has since installed sensors at facilities across the sports landscape, including those for the Miami Dolphins, University of Georgia, Georgia Tech Uni, Emory University, Florida International University and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“We can work with counties and school districts and put money back to where it should be going, not down the street,” Butler says. “The parks and rec department can certainly do a lot more with that money toward healthier fields and better conditions from the ground.”
After Roswell installed the UgMO system, from September 2014 to December 2015, the city saved 64 percent in water and $110,089 compared with the previous year, Butler says. Duluth spent some of its Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money on its installation, he adds.
“Water’s never going to get cheaper,” Butler says. “To be able to have some control over the usage is a light that goes off. If you don’t like it, we’ll pull it out at no cost, and you can go back and spend. We will save you that amount. We will show you the efficiencies.”
UgMo’s competitors are the large investments municipalities have made in evapotranspiration (ET) systems.
“At the end of the day, all ET systems are doing is trying to take all these variables above ground and say that’s what’s happening in your grass, and do what I’m doing every 10 minutes,” Butler says. “It’s not as efficient, and it’s just a calculated guess. And there’s no guarantee that this turf right here is going to be the same as that turf down there that’s in a shaded area. So, when you generalize it, that’s when you start to get the trouble spots.”
The network of wireless sensors is buried underground across an area that’s irrigated. Those sensors collect data based on the root system, sunlight and moisture requirements. The sensors monitor 24 hours a day and, every 10 minutes, send information to a centralized location that communicates what’s needed in that area.
The sensors help to distinguish one area of a yard or field that might receive more sun, or have grass versus flowers.
“If you can create a profile that is addressing each zone individually instead of collectively,” Butler says, “that’s where you’re going to see the efficiencies pop up.”
Pairing information with recent weather in a given area, a property’s sensor system might communicate the need for three minutes of irrigation one night, five minutes the next or none after a recent rain event.
UgMo is just seven years old, but research and development took about three years to develop the sensors, and, like cellphones, they regularly see advancements in technology that make the devices smaller and more efficient.
“It is just the consistency of not overwatering and under-watering,” Butler says. “Obviously, the turf health has improved greatly, and the conditions of the field. The hard field is dangerous to athletes, so, if you can get that proper moisture level, then you’re going to have a safer field.” With these sensors, there’s a lot less wear and tear, according to Butler – and less mud at the goalmouth of a soccer field, for example, because there’s less overwatering.
“You’re trying to keep the rest of the field profile where it should be, and that area doesn’t need it,” Butler says. “We’re only hitting the areas that actually need that water. Once we hit that ceiling, we let it go back down.”
At times, multiple sensors are needed for a given zone in an area to record accurate data for turf, shrubs or flowers. Otherwise, a juniper is overwatered to keep flowers alive.
In recent months, UgMo has partnered with Atlanta-based Russell Landscaping, which serves customers across the Southeast, to introduce the UgMo product to clients in order to add value without adding labor, Butler says.
“Working hand in hand with the landscape companies, they know the grass and the soil as well as anybody,” Butler says. “They know where their trouble spots are, and the sensors help manage those 24/7 so he’s not sending guys out to check on this, check on that.”
Some parks and recreation departments are often on a “search and destroy” mission, Butler says, because they have nothing telling them where an issue might be 20 miles away.
Soil-sensing technology has long been available at golf courses and athletics fields, but only recently entered the landscaping industry. Russell Chief Operations Officer Hugh Cooper says he notices a difference in manpower using the sensors. Previously, if it rained, Cooper says, they’d have to send employees out to turn off 100 controllers.
Without a sensor, irrigation is tailored by a controller and a timer. For management, it saves time spent by employees. For customers, it saves water.
“This reads the exact needs of the turf, the plants, the flowers, and only waters when needed,” Cooper says. “You never waste a bit of water. No guessing involved. … Without a system like this, our management is reactive; with this, it allows you to be proactive.”