Irrigation rides a wave of post-pandemic success

Australia’s property managers are thirsty for the ‘latest and greatest’ irrigation infrastructure – pictured is a new installation at Caulfield Racecourse, Victoria.
(Image courtesy Think Water Melbourne.)

Having weathered the storm of COVID-19, the irrigation sector – like so many other outdoor management sectors – is back in full swing. JOHN POWER investigates how the irrigation sector has adapted to our new post-pandemic world.

Despite headwinds of pandemic-induced supply chain shortages during the pandemic, combined with subsequent high interest rates, mounting cost-of-living pressures, and localised adverse weather conditions, Australia’scommercial irrigation industry is busier than ever.

But has the sector changed since the term ‘COVID-19’ entered our vocabulary in early 2020? 

“Definitely,” says Peter Dalgleish, Designer, from the specialist irrigation company Think Water Melbourne (www.thinkwater.com.au).

Caulfield Racecourse features several kilometres of new irrigation pipework.
(Image courtesy Think Water Melbourne.)

“Nevertheless, if you look at the commercial side of the industry, like work done for councils, we’ve never been busier. We’ve fully recovered. For example, a new track is being built at Caulfield Racecourse [Victoria] inside the old one; we’ve got a lot of work there and we’ve been doing quite a bit of other racecourse work. There has been a lot of that kind of work to tender on.”

The sector’s renaissance still shows some COVID-19 legacies, Peter admits, including selective material shortages in the supply chain – most notably in plastic piping – but lingering supply problems are translating into modest project delays rather than reduced workloads.

“Supply shortages of pipe, PVC and polypipe have meant we’ve had to flex a bit, and flex with other designers and talk about alternative solutions. But I wouldn’t say it’s a huge issue. Some shortages exist, and they can pose some problems, though we always seem to find a way to get what we want. I suppose it affects the way jobs are constructed; you might not be able to get the pipe you need for a certain job, so you’ll move on to another job (we might have 10-15 projects going at a time) and do it differently and then comeback to the first job.”

CULTURE SHIFT

When examining the irrigation sector post-COVID-19, it might be argued that a ‘culture shift’ is of greater significance than any ongoing materials shortages.

According to Peter, the irrigation market, characterised by a positive approach to premium efficiencies, is especially eager at the moment to embrace new products and systems. “They [customers] are definitely going with the ‘latest and greatest’ – everybody is keen to move on in this industry. They’re certainly embracing new technology.”

This rush to invest in new technology rather than refurbish or upgrade existing irrigation systems may be surprising, particularly in light of rising interest rates and the discretionary spending associated with many outdoor facilities. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the market’s desire for enhanced irrigation efficiency and the benefits of targeted specialisation has easily overcome any nervousness about possibleeconomic downturns.

So, what kinds of technologies are coming to the fore? 

GREATER EFFICIENCIES

Pumping equipment at Warrnambool Golf Club is designed to minimise energy consumption.
(Image courtesy Think Water Melbourne.)

“It’s all about water saving and getting the correct amount of water at the right time,” Peter explains. Systems that include weather monitoring, as well as flow sensors linked to fault-finding alerts for leaks or broken pipes, are becoming mainstream, he notes. 

“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, and the main technical innovations I’ve seen relate to control systems, sensor systems, and weather stations designed to measure specific-site microclimates, solar radiation, evapotranspiration, wind, and soil types. And, of course, remote control capabilities – being able to know, if you’re, say, a golf course superintendent overseas, exactly what’s going on at your course.”

Peter says another noteworthy feature of the adoption of these kinds of technologies is the smaller scale of many customer bases: “Whereas once it would have been just golf courses, racecourses, and large agricultural jobs using this technology, now places like schools are going down the same path. Even the residential sector is getting into Wi-Fi controllers.”

Irrigating a large area like Warrnambool Golf Club efficiently requires expert irrigation layout design, as well as premium fittings. (Image courtesy Think Water Melbourne.)

Another noteworthy point relating to efficiency concerns energy consumption: the irrigation market is now just as mindful of kilowatts as kilolitres, thanks mainly to a trend towards on-site renewable energy systems such as solar power. Renewable energy systems punish wasteful practices, so facility managers are keen to reduce the energy consumption of irrigation pump units. Pump efficiency, according to Peter, is achieved in two ways, i.e., (1) by adopting new-generation pumps featuring the latest lightweight and well-designed mechanisation, and (2) by refining the design of irrigation pipe layouts to minimise water friction and volume, thereby reducing pump workloads. A fresh appreciation of the value of optimal irrigation design, in particular, is a powerful reason for customers to opt for new layouts and equipment instead of relying on upgrades to existing installations, which might not have been laid out with energy conservation in mind.

“There are a lot of solar-powered pumping systems coming out, but they do tend to be expensive,” Peter cautions.

Indeed, product innovation has not suffered at all in the wake of COVID-19; on the contrary, Peter believes that elevated specialisation has led to larger product inventories than ever before to accommodate project-specific needs.

“There is a much greater selection of materials and products now, particularly sprinklers,” he says. “I was going through a Hunter catalogue today, and it’s twice as thick as it was 10 years ago, so you can get something that’s much more precise for the need and location. Whereas you might have had something once that was 95% suitable for the application, now you can get something that’s 98% suitable.”

AUTOMATION

Before the onset of COVID-19, there was a lot of industry chatter about the prospect of increased automation within the irrigation sector, alongside tighter integration with other programmable devices such as electric mowers.

According to Peter, he is unaware of any significant shifts towards high levels of automation for the time being. Rather, smart technologies and remote control systems remain irrigation-specific, targeted squarely at information gathering and operational efficiency. 

The days of sensor-linked sprinklers ‘talking’ to self-propelled mowers, for example, to automatically trigger activation based on ideal sequences and schedules of operation may be some time off… but we can speculate that such activities will be possible soon enough. 

Facilities like Cranbourne Racetrack rely on expansive water coverage with minimal waste. (Image courtesy Think Water Melbourne.)

Automation, many industry observers believe, goes hand in glove with electrification. As more and more outdoor power equipment and irrigation devices become electrically powered, so their shared power sources will permit shared management platforms. Once operational management is shared and centralised, the path is set for ‘intelligent’ integration of systems and devices; sprinklers might be switched on or off not only according to soil moisture readings and weather forecasts, but also in response to whether or not there are people in a given area (like a golf course fairway, for instance). Or a mower might have the ‘sense’ to tend to a green automatically before its regular scheduled run in order to complete its work prior toan automated watering regime. Similarly, a solar pump might be programmed to automatically replenish designated storage tanks or reservoirs at times of peak solar gain, and then, once capacities were reached, divert excess energy towards recharging batteries for outdoor power equipment.

Such innovations may belong to the future, but the good news is that the irrigation sector’s strong post-COVID-19 recovery means it is in a very healthy state to embrace change as it arises.