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Up to Speed: Stories from the wash pad

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I have been conducting research at the Hancock Turfgrass Research Center (HTRC)  at Michigan State University for the past 25 years. This spring, I was pleasantly surprised when I rinsed off a rotary fertilizer spreader on the wash pad and discovered that, despite the chill in the air, the water flowing from the hose was bathwater warm.

The water cleaned the fertilizer spreader more efficiently than at any time in my memory, providing an enjoyable equipment washing experience. I recalled past frustrations of using a flathead screwdriver to remove caked-on fertilizer from the spreader’s thrower, but the warm water made such labor unnecessary.

After washing the spreader, I asked Mark Collins, HTRC manager, why the wash pad had warm water. Mark explained that after a solar panel had been installed to heat water in the maintenance building, the facility wasn’t using enough hot water to keep the system working properly. Given that conundrum, Mark decided to connect the solar-heated water to the outdoor wash pad, which solved the problem. The warm water removes grass stains from bedknives and washes off dirt and grease with little effort. That said, some muscle power is still required to remove all the clippings from the reel blades.

This experience led me to call Tim Hiers, CGCS, director of agronomy at The Club at Mediterra in Naples, Fla. In 1975, as a turfgrass student at Lake City Community College, Tim had toured Bill Wagner’s maintenance building at Tequesta Country Club in Jupiter, Fla. Bill had retired from the Navy before becoming a superintendent, and Tim was impressed with the cleanliness of his facility. You could eat off the floor. 

When Tim was the superintendent at The Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, from 2000 to 2015, he drew inspiration from Wagner’s pristine maintenance facility and worked with his equipment manager, Mike Koopman, to mastermind what many may consider the most anal-retentive cleaning process of any maintenance facility on the planet. Their equipment washing process is as follows:

  1. Blow off debris with an air blower.
  2. Use a low-psi pressure washer/steam cleaner to effectively remove grime. (The low psi minimizes the possibility of forcing water into bearings and/or chipping paint; the temperature of the steam cleaner is not so hot as to remove the paint.)
  3. Allow equipment to sit for five minutes to air-dry.
  4. If the mower reels are not clean, scrub them with a large toothbrush (Mike oversees this).
  5. Spray the equipment with a blend of liquid wax and potable water.
  6. Air-blow the equipment again and allow it to dry.
  7. Spray the equipment with an atomized mist of WD-40 at 15 psi.
  8. Park the equipment in a designated area in the garage where ceiling fans will remove excess moisture.

This process made Old Collier’s equipment look as if it were in a showroom rather than a functional golf course maintenance garage. In other words, you could eat off the floor.

For the past two years, Todd Draffen has been the director of agronomy at Old Collier, and he has maintained the cleaning regimen that Tim initiated. He reports that it takes 15 to 20 minutes to clean a walk-behind mower and 45 minutes to clean a triplex. Is it worth it?

Although extreme cleaning is an investment in time and product, it’s along the lines of the marketing slogan for FRAM automotive filters: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” Positive outcomes of the cleaning process include a much higher rate of return on leased equipment; reduced mechanical maintenance (given that salt water and humidity in Florida can corrode mower parts); increased safety and better care taken when using equipment; and overall club pride.

Several years ago, an intern at Old Collier mistakenly pulled the fire alarm, thinking he was turning off the lights. The fire department responded to the false alarm, but the fire marshal waived the customary $350 fine because the facility was immaculate. Perhaps the lesson is: Keeping it clean can save some green.


Thomas A. Nikolai, Ph.D., the “Doctor of Green Speed,” is the turfgrass academic specialist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and a frequent GCSAA educator.