Just like a well-timed joke can cut the tension in an awkward situation, wetting agents can cut the surface tension on liquids, helping them dissipate, penetrate and percolate into the soil.

Wetting agents have been a popular tool for golf course superintendents for years, and now more sports turf managers are putting them to work on the fields they maintain. In some cases the goal is to treat isolated dry spots, helping them take better advantage of water when it’s applied; in others it’s to improve the efficiency of irrigation water, hopefully making it possible to water less often, and sometimes it’s to help move water through the soil profile more effectively, providing better playing conditions.

The bottom line is that it would take a chemistry class to explore all of the different types of wetting agents on the market, and the range of uses for them is just as broad. So we asked sports turf managers to share how they’re utilizing wetting agents on their fields.

Chuck Klafka, parks supervisor with Douglas County Parks and Rec in Colorado, says he “dabbled” with the use of wetting agents in 2012, when a severe drought was hitting the area. “I experimented with them to see if they would help us out in any way,” he explains. “We were looking for anything we could do to save water.”

WHAT WETTING AGENTS DO

  • They cut the surface tension on liquids, helping them dissipate, penetrate and percolate into the soil.
  • They improve the efficiency of irrigation water.
  • They treat isolated dry spots, helping them take better advantage of water when it’s applied.
  • They improve field consistency by eliminating hot spots.

Klafka only used them for a short time and didn’t notice any significant difference. “But they may have helped immensely and we just didn’t realize it,” he adds. “We were on watering restrictions, and the turf made it through the year just fine, so maybe the benefit was there.” Products like wetting agents are difficult to evaluate, he notes: They don’t necessarily make an immediate improvement in the appearance of turf, but may be working out of sight to help maintain the health of the plant.

The last couple of years have brought more rain to Douglas County, so Klafka hasn’t felt the need to continue using wetting agents, but says he would experiment again if drought conditions return.

Casey Griffin, director of field operations at Isotopes Park (home of the AAA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been using wetting agents for the two years he’s been on the job there. In the hot, dry Albuquerque environment, there’s little moisture, and little to help retain moisture when it comes.

Wetting agent-impregnated calcined clay has helped improve the performance of the fully skinned infields at the Sylvania (Ohio) ballfield complex.

“So incorporating wetting agents is important,” says Griffin. In late fall and winter he uses a dry granular (Reservoir, from Helena Chemical Co.) that’s put down with his fertilizer/spreader, and the rest of the year he typically uses a liquid (Soaker Plus, also from Helena) mixed in his spray tank.

“I try to incorporate those at least once or twice a month. We start in March during our windy season to maximize our water use in the soil, and help enhance the roots a little bit,” he notes.

Griffin continues to use the wetting agents regularly until June, when he scales back for two months when the region typically gets more natural precipitation. Then the application frequency ramps up again in the fall and into winter.

“I think a lot of people in this area tend to lose more turf in the winter from root desiccation because they don’t think they need to water,” he explains. “We incorporate wetting agents to keep what moisture we do get in there.”

Griffin says one benefit he has seen with wetting agents is an improvement in the consistency of the field, thanks to the elimination of hot spots. There’s also been a savings in the water used.

“I think that we’ve cut back quite a bit on water; it’s helped us to maximize the water we use,” he says. “I highly recommend wetting agents – at least in our climate they’re very useful. When you’re using irrigation water, it’s kind of toxic. Sometimes it just binds up your nutrients, and you’re just waiting for an acidic rain to come to release everything. When you have wetting agents incorporated, I think it helps to restore the nutrients a little more.”

Griffin says he’s fortunate at the AAA level that his budget allows him to purchase wetting agents without sacrificing in other areas. But even with a smaller budget, he says he’d prioritize them: “I’d make room in the budget for them, because I know how important they are.”

Rusty Walker, athletic field foreman with the City of Grapevine in Texas, has been using wetting agents for the last five years. “I started using them because I was trying to get a little more consistent playing surface moisture-wise. I think they help keep an even moisture in the soil,” he explains.

Walker prefers to keep his fields on the drier side, and depends on natural rain whenever possible. “If I do have to irrigate, the wetting agents help the irrigation water to rewet the soil much easier,” he adds. “It makes my irrigation more efficient.”

Walker isn’t able to say with certainty that wetting agents help him use less water, but he’s confident that the health of the turf is better than it otherwise would be given the amount of water he’s using. “I think they help the turf utilize the water a little bit better, because it may be there a little bit longer,” he notes.

Walker uses a penetrant and a wetting agent, which are applied through his irrigation system, though not through an injection system.

“These are actually giant tablets that I throw down in my wet well,” he explains “The tablets dissolve and the product is distributed out through the system as I irrigate.” (The products – the wetting agent is Retain, and the penetrant is Pervade – are both from Floratine.)

Wetting agents aren’t just for arid climates or just for turf. In Ohio, Facilities and Maintenance Director Brian Hall relies on them to help manage the fully skinned infields at Sylvania Recreation Corp.’s premier complex of eight combination baseball/softball fields.

At the Sylvania (Ohio) ballfield complex, wetting agents have helped get fields back in play quicker after rain events, while also helping to retain moisture in the clay.

“We started using these products two seasons ago. We don’t apply them to our turf on a regular basis, but we utilize them on our infield skins for two different purposes,” he says. “First, they help us reduce game cancellations due to wet field conditions; and, second, to help us retain moisture in our infield skins.”

While these may seem like contradictory goals (moving water through the soil while at the same time retaining it), that’s the beauty of wetting agents, says Hall.

“We’re really concerned about the top probably half-inch of the infield. If we can use that wetting agent to break the surface tension and allow the water to get down into the soil profile, we can get back to play much quicker. And if we can get the water to go down into the clay rather than shed off, the clay is going to hold the moisture. Then you can just manage through your maintenance practices – dragging, rolling, etc. – to get the right amount of moisture.”

“I think [wetting agents] help the turf utilize the water a little bit getter, because it may be there a little bit longer,” says Rusty Walker, athletic field foreman with the City of Grapevine (Texas), of the wetting agent he uses. “It makes my irrigation more efficient.”

Hall uses Game Changer, from EP Minerals, which includes wetting agents impregnated in the calcined clay he he already was using on his fields. Based on the positive results he saw in smaller-scale experiments two years ago, Hall went full bore last year and again was impressed. This year he’s scheduled to make two, 2,000-pound applications of the material onto each of his infields; the first in the spring and the second in mid-June.

He estimates that the wetting agent-infused material costs about 30 percent more than standard calcined clay, but feels the product pays for itself more than two times over in reduced water use and labor (infields need to be wettened often), reduced use of drying agents after rain events, and fewer game cancellations.

“We’ve seen great results not only in moisture retention, but in water infiltration into our skin areas. We can get back to play much quicker,” Hall says. “This product has drastically improved the playability of our fields.”

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BRIAN HALL, CASEY GRIFFIN AND RUSTY WALKER.