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Irrigation Innovation on Southern Utah University’s Campus By Beth Fillerup

Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah, requires a lot of water to care for its campus. On its 75 acres of mostly NCAA playing fields, 4 man-hours of labor were required every day just to maintain the secondary irrigation system’s filtering system. 

Tiger Funk, the university’s assistant vice president for facilities management, says the constant clearing of filters for the secondary watering system, which is tied into Cedar City’s secondary irrigation water system line, was taking a toll. “We had to check the filters every 8 hours, which, over a season, adds up.” And it wasn’t just the frequency—because the irrigation and filter components were housed underground for aesthetic reasons, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration required two employees to be present every time a filter needed to be cleaned. “It was just getting to be too much,” Mr. Funk admitted. “Our teams are required to have recovery gear in place, use a spotter, and test the air every time they enter the vaults.” Man-hours were adding up. 

The university wanted a change. In order to save overtime and money, they hired Watson Engineering of Cedar City, Utah, to help find a solution. The objective? A system that required once-a-day service instead of the exhausting three-times-a-day service the system then required. 

Mr. Funk had heard about a new filter that showed great promise for use with secondary water systems containing a lot of debris. It turns out that NCAA fields are not only susceptible to debris, but that they are finicky about the total dissolved solids and hardness of the water that is used to water them, too. Tim Watson, principal of Watson Engineering, asked the right questions to help the university choose the filtering system. “There was a lot of research to be done, but Watson helped us find a solution,” says Mr. Funk. “The new system takes out most of the debris for us, which saves us a lot of time, and ultimately money.” 

A second benefit? This system works seamlessly with the campus’s smart irrigation system. Just because the campus is large and uses a lot of water doesn’t mean it is wasteful. “We live in a desert and water conservation is a big deal. This system . . . looks at wind speed, relative humidity, and inches of rain in the last 30 days. We use a lot of water, but this system allows us to be as efficient as possible. We use a lot less [water] than we would otherwise.” 

Watson Engineering managed all the civil engineering and helped coordinate the project with Cedar City. The university budgeted $75,000 in 2017 to invest in the new system, and once the solution was engineered, Mr. Funk and his men got to work. The new filters took about 80 days to install, but the outcome has been life changing for the maintenance workers. 

When Mr. Funk recently visited with the groundskeeping team to ask whether their objectives had been met, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The staff is now able to sleep through the night, as midnight trips to campus for two have been eliminated. Safety has increased because the new above-ground system virtually eliminates vault entries— and there’s no price that can be put on that. 

Mr. Funk sees this system as a solution that could be adopted by others. “A lot of people could benefit from this innovation,” he says, “even if it’s not this specific filter. Large campuses, businesses, school districts, parks, and even homeowners—anyone or anywhere that uses secondary water for their irrigation needs. I don’t think [it’s a] unique situation at all. So many grounds crews are out at night because that’s when watering is required, and if there’s maintenance involved for secondary irrigation, this could save companies a lot of headaches.” 

Beth Fillerup is a marketing consulting at Marketlink. She can be reached at beth@marketlinkaec.com.