May 18 2011 12:00 AM

Just as the human heart pumps blood through the circulatory system to keep a body healthy, the irrigation pump sends life-sustaining water throughout the sprinkler system to keep the turf and plants healthy. And just as the primary cause of poor health in humans is abnormal blood pressure, the primary cause of poor performance in an irrigation system is also improper pressure. It’s little wonder then, that many in the industry consider the heart of an irrigation system to be the pump station.

“The typical irrigation system application is changing right before our eyes,” says Rick Heidvogel, landscape marketing manager, Watertronics, Harland, Wisconsin. “Fifteen or twenty years ago, we would design the pump station around the irrigation system. Today, irrigation systems are designed around the pump station.”

Pump, (or pumping) stations are used on commercial sites to boost the water pressure so that there is enough oomph in the system to operate the spray heads, nozzles and rotors. Pump stations are especially needed where there are several projects connected to the same water source, all demanding water pressure to function.

“During heavy demand times, when everyone waters their lawns at the same time, especially golf courses and large residential communities, the pressure can go way down,” says Ray Leonard, owner of Naples Electric Motor Works in Naples, Florida. “The pump station takes that low incoming pressure and brings it up to a usable pressure so everyone is happy.”

“It used to be that some contractors would take various pieces of a pump station and put it together themselves because it was less expensive,” says Ivy Munion, owner of ISC Group, Livermore, California. “The problem was that while each part might have been UL-approved, the entire unit as a whole wasn’t, nor was it under any kind of warranty, so servicing it was nearly impossible.”

Seeing a need for an all-in-one unit, irrigation pump station manufacturers have now taken all of the components, including the assembly box, and put it in one unit that’s UL approved from beginning to end.

A typical pump station consists of a pump, a motor, piping, butterfly valves, gauges, control panel, and flow switches. It’s usually custom designed and assembled in a factory to exact specifications, and then shipped to the site as a complete package.

“Whether you’re selecting a pump station to replace an existing one, or a new install, choosing the right device is critical,” says Daryl Green, owner of Green Product Sales in Costa Mesa, California. “While there are pump stations designed to fit just about any irrigation system, you can’t randomly select one and think it will do the job, or buy some parts and put it together yourself. In fact, there are so many variables involved in today’s pump station configurations, an entire industry has emerged that is totally dedicated to the manufacture, installation, service and support of pump stations. With all the recent changes in technology, the days of one person doing it all a r e l o n g gone.”

“The way our industry works is that the contractor bids the entire job, then they come to us for the pump station with the specs and we build it for them,” says Leonard. “We’ve been manufacturing pump stations for more than two decades and have pretty much standardized them for municipalities, but for other commercial applications the stations are custom designed per job.”

Another advantage to these allin-one units is the ease in which problems can be solved, like an unexpected change in the power supply.

“In the past, if we ordered a station that was designed for a certain power unit, and when it arrived on the site the contractor discovered that it wasn’t the right size, we had to return the entire pump station and wait for a replacement. Now, you can simply order just the correct power piece and replace it in the field, which is a huge savings in shipping costs and labor,” Munion said.

The additional benefit to a packaged station is that it gives the contractor peace of mind that each component is under the same warranty from one manufacturer. If anything goes wrong, there is only one phone number to call. This also creates a solid relationship between the pump station manufacturer and the water manager, so that they will be well informed when something new comes on the scene, which is now happening at a much more frequent pace.

Green, who has been in the irrigation pump station business for more than a decade, says that although the basic concept in pumps and motors hasn’t really changed, he has seen trends in energy and water conservation make a huge impact on his industry.

“Variable Frequency Drive (VFD) controls are becoming much more popular,” Green says. “Five years ago we didn’t see any VFDs;

now I’m seeing them going into systems on an average of about one a week.”

A variable frequency drive is an electronic controller that adjusts the speed of an electric motor by modulating the power being delivered. The VFD provides continuous control, matching motor speed to the specific demands of the work being performed. This solves the problem of erratic irrigation. If the pump station is delivering less pressure than needed, some areas may not get enough water. Water managers may irrigate longer, trying to get water to those affected areas. If the pump station is delivering more pressure than needed, then there’s the risk of over water ing.

In both cases more water is being used than needed.

“VFD pump stations offer multiple pressure settings to address the fluctuating pressures needed for different areas being irrigated,” says Leonard. “With a VFD pump station, you are able to fine-tune a system to give the precise pressure needed. You’ll also see a savings in energy cost, up to 50 percent, with the VFD and extended equipment life of the pumps and motors due to not having to run full throttle all the time.

With variable frequency, there is also less maintenance cost and less stress on the irrigation system itself. This is especially important with a large irrigation system that may contain areas with rotors, micro-sprays, or even drip irrigation as part of the design. You’ll need to have a pumping station that’s smart enough to monitor, slow up and speed down, as the demand varies.

If you think that irrigation controllers are the only “smart” component of an irrigation system, think again. Today’s modern pumping stations need to be smart enough to be able to keep up with the central controller in a variable system, so that it can not only know what’s going on, but adjust itself automatically.

“Until a few years ago, the typical central controller was programmed according to the day of the week and the hour of the day. Today’s controllers are programmed by rain sensors and weather stations with moisture sensors, and will have a wide variety of schedules, all of which will affect the way the pump station works,” Heidbove says.

“For example, you could have one system that has a five-gallon per minute (gpm) drip circuit and a 50 gpm circuit on the same system.

That pump station needs to be smart enough to slow down and consume only the amount of energy that’s required to deliver the 5 gpm, but then be able to speed up and deliver the amount that’s needed to run the 50 gpm circuit as well. If you have a 2-wire system, we could actually put data into that 2-wire system and have that irrigation central control collect some of that information and be able to adjust the irrigation schedule based on what is going on with the pump station.”

Pump station controls, like ‘smart’ controllers, are now also connected to the Internet with web-enabled remote management software so that water managers can monitor their systems offsite. There are apps that will display how much water is being used, how much the water is costing, and the amount of energy consumed. The data can then be shown on a monitor or printed out to show the client, municipality or water district the actual dollar amount that is being saved.

In many cases, the large commercial pump station is designed to interface with the irrigation central system controller. It can be as simple as just sharing a flow sensor signal, or a complex interface that shares all the information and shows what is going on with the system in real time, to show how the pump station plays a role in reducing the amount of water and energy used.

“The integrated pump station software allows the operator to quickly set up specific control values for a wide range of applications,” says Leonard. “The controller then automatically adjusts pump operation as the system variables change, while still maintaining optimum pump performance and protection. The whole idea with this type of interfacing is to make these systems as automated as possible so you don’t need to have a onsite manager constantly monitoring everything.”

Another new trend in commercial applications that has seen an increase in pump station use is rainwater harvesting. With more and more people looking for alternate sources of water, rainwater harvesting is gaining in popularity.

“Where the water is originally coming from has definitely changed as more and more people are looking at rainwater harvesting, because they want to reduce their water bill and use recycled or stormwater for their landscapes,” says Green.

Other water-saving trends that are impacting the pump station industry are the use of water from  sewer treatment plants and lowvolume irrigation systems.

“When you use recycled water, there are particulates that need to be filtered out,” says Leonard. “And in landscapes that use drip irrigation, you need to filter everything at the source because the holes are so tiny, so we include filters in the pump stations that are going to be used in these types of systems.”

While not every situation will require the use of a pump station, with water conservation, low-volume irrigation and rainwater harvesting trends here to stay, there are increasingly new opportunities to explore the world of pump stations.

While pump stations are now marketed and installed in one complete package, after some years of use, the pump itself may malfunction. When this occurs, it’s not necessary to replace the entire pump station, just the pump itself.

However, in the years since the pump station was installed, new technology has given pumps higher efficiency and effectiveness.

Innovations in pump technology include pumps with fixed and variable speeds that are designed to supply water on an intermittent and variable basis, using electric motors controlled from an electric panel. There are also constant-speed units available that are specifically designed for residential and commercial applications. Today’s pumps can handle any job, large or small.

Remember, where there is water, there will always be a need to pump it up!