Foot Fault

Of the many challenges facing today's sports turf manager, none are greater than those of irrigation and drainage. The direct impacts of improper installation of either of these elements can wreak havoc on the playing surface. Your ability to manage high-traffic turf while keeping in mind the implications of irrigation and drainage issues are key to successful overall turf management.


The first step to this success is analyzing existing conditions. Sylvania Pacesetter Park is a multi-use facility comprised of 135 acres in Sylvania, Ohio. When I took over management of this facility 11 years ago, I reviewed all existing records. This included the original architect's master plan, the as-built renderings and pertinent contractor and in-house construction documents. I contracted for a topographical study of the facility. Armed with this data, my staff and I began investigating the existing installations.

The facility had been constructed over its 15 years of existence on native soil areas. No modified root zones were installed. Because there are six distinct areas with four different soil profile variations within the site (see “Pacesetter Park Soil Profile,” page 14), it was important to adapt the management and maintenance program to fit the needs of each one.

The facility was originally designed with swales off of the open acreage areas for movement of surface water with an internal drainage system installed for the soccer areas. The baseball and softball fields were set up separately for both surface and internal drainage. The internal drainage had been installed with pipes at a 4-foot depth, much too deep for timely percolation through the heavy clay soil. Each area's internal drainage system was channeled into a main trunk line that exited into a drainage ditch at the back of the facility. Prior lack of proper ditch maintenance resulted in water retention throughout this system whenever heavy moisture occurred.

The topography study revealed that the grades varied greatly from specifications. The large open areas had not been laser graded and this caused a number of undulations that resulted in numerous isolated retention areas.

Additionally, the initial master plan had not considered the need for facility improvements, such as black top walk paths, trees and open air shelters that directly impact the drainage schemes.

Dealing with the ramifications of these construction issues become significant factors in drainage and irrigation management. Correcting the surface undulations requires long-term, ongoing modification. Because of cost factors, we have made the existing internal drainage systems as functional as possible and have adapted our management programs to work with what we have.

The original hydraulic irrigation system also presented significant challenges, but a combination of technological upgrades and physical adaptations have allowed us to develop a highly functional system.

The traffic through the facility includes not only local recreational and travel leagues, but also regional, state and national tournaments. In 2002, it drew 250,000 people. In 2003, the number was just under 225,000. The baseball and softball fields are in constant demand. There are 25 fields in use for other sports during both the spring and fall seasons. The majority of these fields are set up for soccer, but fields for lacrosse, flag football, and tackle football also are placed as needed. Frequently, major tournaments for two or more sports are scheduled on a single weekend.

Both irrigation and drainage contribute to how much compaction will occur during field use. The wetter the field, the greater the degree of compaction caused during use. Too much irrigation or insufficient drainage creates the same overly wet conditions.


The two key elements in irrigation are moisture management and system timing. With a high-traffic facility, maintaining drier soil moisture levels prior to events can allow play through many wet-weather conditions with minimal damage. You can use a combination of factors to determine when and how much to irrigate. Monitor existing soil moisture, generally through visual assessment and examination of soil samples pulled with a golf cup cutter. We use our satellite-based weather tracking system for input on the evapotranspiration rate and to follow the forecasted rainfall for the days of our upcoming events. Also, review the amount of play scheduled. Look for windows of opportunity for irrigation that will provide the least exposure to compaction issues.

It is hard to define how dry is too dry. It is a recognition factor that comes from knowing the facility and the turf. There have been times when I have come close to stressing the turf because I am counting on a rain event during the weekend. But, in those cases, I recognize the need for that little boost of water and schedule a late evening or very early morning short irrigation cycle to get the turf through.

Timing is challenging. It is hard to have a system run during prime watering periods when fields are being used, especially with extensive acreage and the hours required to cycle a large system. Our upgraded irrigation system ties into a satellite network and, though it can be preprogrammed at the main controller, I generally only activate it via my hand-held controller when I see the right conditions occurring. We now can run the entire system in a six-hour window (depending on station timing). But this all has to be defined specifically for each area because of the multiple soil profiles. We plan for deep, infrequent irrigation to force the turf roots to grow deep in search of water.

Early morning is the best time to irrigate, possibly adding a syringe cycle during those days when the humidity and evapotranspiration rate is high. Early morning timing also reduces wind issues if your facility is fairly open. Late evening irrigation increases the probability of exposure for turf disease. If we must irrigate overnight to fit in all needed cycles, we prefer to start at midnight and end by 6 a.m. since we start our maintenance work by 7 a.m. The major factor we consider in determining irrigation timing and duration is the field use schedule.

Our syringing is based on weather conditions, the turf stress level, maintenance to the areas and proximity to field use. We generally use either a 2- to 3-minute-cycle per zone or a 5-minute cycle to just perk up the turf until the next irrigation or rain event.


Properly designed in-ground drainage systems receive the excess water that percolates down through the soil and channel it away from the fields. Since our original internal drainage was inadequate, we identified the major problem areas and installed French drains that tie directly into the main trunk line.

While it is much easier to establish proper grades and leveling prior to turf establishment, you can make drainage improvements at any time. After analyzing the infiltration rates of our various soil profile areas, we began an aggressive program to achieve positive water displacement (surface runoff) where needed.

Crowning, generally with a 1- to 1.25-percent slope, will move surface water, but is only as effective as the consistency of the surface. Identify the low areas and, working with the greatest problems first, systematically raise them to grade, leveling them, and re-sod.

There are many systems to improve the overall drainage picture. One long-term example is sand-slit drainage, which installs a series of deep, parallel sand channels in the field. These draw moisture off the surface and speed percolation down through the sand channels and into the soil profile. A short-term example is the use of wetting agents to break down the surface tension of the water and move it through the soil more quickly.


Pacesetter devotes 31.5 acres to the numerous “Game Only” soccer and other seasonal sport fields that must be laid out. We rotate the fields in each area each spring and fall season. This cuts down on the wear and compaction issues and allows us to isolate wear areas that may need extra care.

We shift fields from one end of an area to another, so that a field that was in the north area would be on the opposite end of the area for the following season. We shift most fields 100 to 200 feet from their previous location. None of the field space is left vacant. The area occupied by Field A in the spring may be occupied in the fall by Field B, which would have a smaller or larger configuration. This results in different field area layout and different playing surface wear patterns. This field rotation also addresses an even bigger problem: spectator traffic patterns. The wear created by the stream of people moving themselves and all their chairs, blankets, coolers and other spectator gear to and from the fields is more extensive than the wear on the playing field areas.

We have 64 acres that are allocated as team practice areas. We don't line out these fields but we do place goals on them. We move the goals every week to spread the wear. Our game fields are restricted to game only use — no practicing.


Aerification relieves compaction. This reduces the hardness factor of the playing surface, encourages root activity and creates openings for the movement of air, nutrients and water into and within the soil profile. With native soil or heavy clay fields, you can never aerify too much.

Soil moisture levels are important to the aerification process. We aim for slightly moist conditions so the units pull a 4- to 6-inch core. If the ground is too wet, aerification will smear, tear and compact the turf, leaving no positive effect from the process.

We schedule aerification fives times a year in four different directions for the entire facility. We do other aerification based on field conditions and the sport. For example, the week after the season begins on our Lacrosse fields, we will aerify weekly after the weekend series of games and retain that scheduling for the majority of the season. In wet seasons, we do additional aerification for the soccer fields or if tournament games are held on the fields. If budgets and labor resources are limited, focus aerification on the most highly used fields, or even on the heaviest wear areas of the fields. If core aerification creates too much surface disruption during seasonal play, use spike or slice aerification instead. Any method that opens up the soil will benefit the fields.

When we do our “wall-to-wall” aerification, we let the cores decompose on the surface to help with thatch reduction and to use in lower spots as topdressing. For the playing season aerification, we use a walk-behind unit and a core pulverizer to break the cores into topdressing material. Our topdressing consists of this recycling of the cores and the use of compost material if needed.


Traffic and compaction are constant challenges in sports turf management. Effective irrigation and drainage management are key to meeting these challenges and providing safe, playable athletic fields.

Boyd R. Montgomery, CSFM*, is facilities and maintenance director for Sylvania Recreation Corporation, Sylvania, Ohio, and treasurer of the Sports Turf Managers Association.

*The CSFM designation acknowledges the individual has attained Certified Sports Field Manager status through the certification program developed and administered by the Sports Turf Managers Association.


There are six distinct areas with four different soil profile variations within Sylvania Pacesetter Park in Sylvania, Ohio. Management and maintenance programs had to be adapted to fit the needs of each one.

  • Area #1 (9.5 acres), Area #2 (12 acres), and Quad #1 (5.5 acres) are made up of 39% sand, 24% silt and 37% clay for a Clay low classification on the USDA Texture Class.

  • The fields of Area #3 (10 acres) consist of 73% sand, 8 % silt and 9% sandy loam.

  • The Quad #2 (5 acres) is 45% sand, 22% silt and 33% clay.

  • The practice area (64 acres) and the various common areas (15 acres) are composed of 35% sand, 25% silt and 40 % clay.

Note: Quad #1 and #2 are ball diamonds. Areas #1, #2 and #3 are soccer and multi-sport fields.

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