Now's a good time for center pivot maintenance

AMARILLO – Spring planting is just around the corner, so for producers with irrigation systems, now is a good time to do some safety maintenance on their pivot systems, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist.

In the spring, producers are busy making seed selections and prepping fields, but they also need to remember how important it is to maintain center pivots, said Dr. Kevin Heflin, AgriLife Extension agronomy program specialist, Amarillo.

Annual center pivot maintenance can enhance the efficiency of the irrigation applications as well as the safety of the system, Heflin said. While modern center pivots are safe and essential tools for agriculture production, every year there are accidents and tragedies surrounding these irrigation systems, primarily on the electrical side.

Estimates are there are more than 7,500 center pivot irrigation systems in the Texas High Plains alone, Heflin said. After working with and monitoring many systems over the years, he wants people to know there are some simple things to look for in a safety and maintenance check that can save lives and time once the irrigation season gets underway.

“Some of these systems are older, so it is important to make sure to maintain them and look for potential problem areas,” he said.

Five things to monitor that Heflin discussed are:

– General maintenance issues. Tires, lug nuts, truss rods and brackets, and gear motors are all things that need visual inspections.

“For example, a loose bracket can cause an entire center pivot to fall; a bad tire in the middle of watering can shut down the whole system.”

– Storm damage from wind and lightning.

“Vibrations from strong winds can loosen and fatigue metals. Also, lightning can damage the electrical components, so look for singe marks on electrical panels or a blown transformer on the power pole. Lightning strikes can also damage fuse boxes and cause the metal components to energize and become deadly.”

– Rodent damage in and around electrical boxes.

“Just look for chewed wires that will need to be replaced before the system can be operational. If rats or field mice can find a way into an electrical box, they will often chew the coating off the wires. This could lead to a system malfunction and increase the risk of electrical shock.”

– Improper grounding.

“Make sure the center pivot itself is grounded and the electrical box and transformers are grounded. Safety is primary. The cost of a grounding rod and wire is about $20, pretty cheap to ensure everyone’s safety. We make sure we put them at the pivot control panel and the electrical disconnect boxes. The power company will provide grounding for the transformers supplying the three-phase power.”

– Vandalism, such as the stripping of copper wire from these systems.

“It’s better to go ahead and do the visual and conscious inspection now than to wait until it is time to turn the system on and find the issues.”

Heflin said producers should also ensure electrical boxes are relatively clean and fuses/breakers are properly sized for the voltage and amps being used. He also said it might be good to have a certified electrician inspect the terminal lugs in the electrical boxes to ensure they are tight and making good contact with the wires.

“Also, if you have repairs made to the center pivot or well, go back in and inspect the work,” Heflin said. “We’ve found buried conduit line that was damaged by a contractor and taped up with black tape and reburied without our knowledge. This type of carelessness can lead to an electrical failure, or even worse, a loss of life.”

These routine maintenance and safety inspections do not have to be overly burdensome, he said, and they are worth the time and effort now to prevent breakdowns and tragedies down the road.


Integrating center pivot irrigation control technologies goal of Texas A&M study

By: Kay Ledbetter, AgriLife Today

BUSHLAND – New center pivot irrigation technologies are only beneficial if they are being used, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research engineer in Amarillo.

Thomas Marek is leading a team from Texas A&M AgriLife and Texas A&M University to ensure the latest advancements in agricultural irrigation management can be readily integrated for applications in the field.

The team is working to design a system utilizing off-the-shelf sensors and components to create a cost-effective and independent platform that will allow producers to realize benefits of irrigation technologies by integrating and automating information and decision support tools.

Their objectives include establishing:

* A wireless sensor network with anomaly detection.

* An irrigation system controller using real-time and forecast data, integration of data from multiple sensor inputs and unmanned aerial systems, models and safety.

* A user-friendly interface.

The multifaceted project integrates in-field data from multiple sensors and uses machine learning techniques plus crop models to automate irrigation scheduling decisions, Marek said.

Additional faculty members on the project include Dr. Dana Porter, AgriLife Extension engineer, Lubbock; and Dr. Jiang Hu, Texas A&M professor of electrical and computer engineering, College Station, along with three team members in his department, Dr. Justin Sun, Yanxiang Yang and Hongxin Kong.

An accompanying soil water sensor installation and placement study with the project involves Dr. Kevin Heflin, AgriLife Extension program specialist, Amarillo; and Dr. Gary Marek, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service research agricultural engineer, Bushland.

“There are some great advanced irrigation technologies available, but they are complex, underutilized, difficult to use and not well integrated in existing control systems, therefore their benefits are not being fully realized,” Porter said.

She said the cooperative and complementary efforts in several research studies at the Bushland research facilities shared by AgriLife Research and USDA-ARS should help change that.

“We had a water seed grant to work on automated, integrated advanced control of a center pivot irrigation system,” Marek said. “We teamed up with Texas A&M’s electrical and computer engineering researchers and worked extensively with them to develop some advanced automation capabilities.”

He said they have already shown significant improvements over commercially available systems by developing a technology suite that includes:

– Improved center pivot irrigation positioning and speed control.

– Improved variable rate irrigation control with real-time updates using in-field near-real-time data plus predictive crop water-use capabilities.

– A soil-moisture in-field sensor placement method to optimize wireless sensor nodes to balance cost with necessary data reliability.

“In our case, advanced automation includes automated communication of data from soil water sensors to the pivot controller,” Marek said.

“We are using a processing model that looks at recent field data and the status today, plus a machine learning process to integrate data and decisions with an automated controller,” he said. “Together this tells the user and the system what to do and when. The system is also unique in that it logs all of what it does, and all of this happens at the pivot.”

Utilizing tools such as real-time soil moisture monitoring, near-real-time and short-term predictive crop evapotranspiration or crop water use, quantitative precipitation forecasting and an artificial intelligence algorithm, he said they are able to automate the “when, where and how much” decisions of crop irrigation.

Development was conducted whereby the platform-independent control system could be retrofitted into existing center pivot irrigation systems. The project team has several patents pending as a result of the work, Marek said, adding this is one of the best research teams he’s worked with in his irrigation career.

Funding and in-kind support for the project was provided by a Texas A&M University System Water Seed Grant, AgriLife Research, AgriLife Extension, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, and the USDA-ARS Ogallala Aquifer Program.