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by Dave Allan

Do we, as turfgrass managers, need to use computers? Can we survive without them? Although we have been managing turfgrass areas for many years without them and can continue to do so if we so choose, they are merely another form of management tool to help us make decisions and make our jobs easier, much the same as we use soil probes, irrometers, infrared temperature guns, and pH meters today.

The turfgrass industry is comprised of five main areas: golf courses, parks, sports fields (i.e. soccer, baseball, football), specialty surfaces (i.e. tennis, lawn bowling), and landscape design and construction.

Golf courses use computers daily for irrigation scheduling, recording weather data, posting job schedules, record keeping, and equipment maintenance records. Superintendents may also use them for e-mail, correspondence, Internet research, budget tracking, and even board meeting presentations. In the parks area, you will see them used for keeping tree inventories, irrigation scheduling, record keeping, camper registration, and equipment maintenance records. Sports fields and specialty surfaces will use computers for turf maintenance schedules, irrigation scheduling, and possibly for digitized maps and drainage plans. Landscape designers and contractors will use them for customer estimates, invoicing, statements, computer-assisted drafting and design, and computer aided surveying.

So now that you have decided to purchase a computer system, where do you go from here? What's needed? How big a system will you need? And what kind of peripherals will you need? Computer hardware has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and will continue to do so. Processors or CPU's have gotten faster and more efficient. The climb has been 8088, 286, 386, 486, Pentium, Pentium MMX, Pentium II. Processor speed has also climbed from 20 MHz to 400 MHz (some companies today are already experimenting with 1000 MHz machines). There was a time when 4 MB of RAM memory was all you would ever need. Nowadays, it is not unusual to have 16 MB, 32 MB, or even 64 MB of RAM in the system. The reason that computer owner's are upgrading their RAM is to handle the newer software that demands it and also the pricing on RAM is the lowest it has ever been. It was not that long ago when each 1 MB of RAM would cost about $50. Now you can buy a 32 MB RAM chip for under $100. Hard drives have increased in storage capacity from a mere 20 MB (20 million characters of information) to 18 GB (18 billion characters of information) and once again, price on some of the larger size hard drives (i.e. 3.5 GB, 4.3 GB) is not that unreasonable. Monitors at one time were 14" monochrome, but we live in an age of color, not black and white. Thus, the standard today is 14" SVGA, full color, and high resolution. Screen size has increased so that you can get 15", 17", 19", 21" and so on. 15" SVGA monitors are very competitively priced in today's market. The 512K video card was the norm for a while, but 1MB, 2MB, 4MB, and 3D accelerated cards have taken over the market. The quality of the graphics in the new software and even on the internet have convinced many computer users that they should spend a little extra in this area. I would tend to agree. Most systems today come standard with CD-ROM, sound card, speakers and a voice/fax/data modem as well. The CD-ROM is needed because most software comes on CD now instead of the conventional floppy diskettes. And with the increasing popularity of multimedia software and the Internet, a sound card and modem are essential. Modem speeds have increased from 9600 bps (bits per second) to 56,000 bps but even at that, conventional phone lines only have the ability to transmit about 45,000 bps. Fiber optics and cable modems are much faster if you have access to them.

A base system today consists of a Pentium 166 with 16MB RAM, 2.1 GB hard drive, 16X CD-ROM, 1MB video card, 16-bit sound card, 1.44 MB floppy drive, mouse, keyboard and a 14" SVGA monitor. Prices for this system are about $1400. As you increase the capacity and speed of the system prices can extend into the $4000 - $5000 range.

Peripherals include such things as printers, scanners and storage devices. Dot-matrix printers have been taken over by ink-jet and laser printers that have dropped in price over the last 3 years. Hand-held scanners were a marvelous tool when first introduced and now you can get sheet-feed and flatbed scanners for under $200. Need more storage? Then add a tape backup, zip drive, jazz drive or writeable CD-ROM to your system. They will give you the ability to store large amounts of data on a single tape, disk or CD. Storage capacities vary from 1.44 MB on a conventional floppy disk to 100 MB on a zip drive to 840 MB on tape backup. The next mass storage device will be the DVD which is already on the market but not quite economical enough yet for purchase. These CD's will be able to hold a tremendous amount of data including large multimedia files, movies and so forth.

Software applications that we commonly use in our industry commonly include word processing, spreadsheets, databases, accounting, presentation, computer-assisted drawing, irrigation scheduling, and grounds management. Word processing software is used for correspondence, reports, and staff letters of achievement, discipline, and evaluation, just to name a few examples. Spreadsheet software can be used for records, budgets, depreciation schedules, fertility calculations, and disease forecasting to name a few. The following diagrams demonstrate these uses:

Database software can keep track of records, inventory, and survey results quite nicely. Accounting software can help with budgets, payroll, receivables, payables, inventory and job costing. Presentation software can provide you with smooth, polished looking presentations for board meetings, conferences, and staff training. Computer assisted drafting packages can very effectively help you design and draft landscape plans, irrigation plans, site plans, and planting plans.

Most of the irrigation companies now are providing irrigation scheduling software to complement their irrigation lines. If the computer is tied into a weather station, this irrigation software can and will control the timing and quantity of water that is applied to your turf. Other companies specialize in grounds management software that is specially designed for our industry to look after budget tracking, personnel records, equipment maintenance records, chemical application records, weather records, and even provide Internet access. The Internet is an unlimited and constantly growing source of information. It can be used for research, weather data, employment searches, among other things. The Internet can link you up with weather offices, turf associations, universities and colleges, suppliers, and software information, to just name a few.

So what can possibly go wrong? Well, machine failure is always possible when you are dealing with electronic components. The hard disk drive could crash, an electrical surge could damage your motherboard, video card, or CPU, and you could get a computer virus, a small program that attaches itself to existing files, that can cause files to be erased or altered without your approval. The best line of defense against all such problems is to protect your data. The programs themselves can usually be reinstalled on the system. However, data files that you have spent several hours working on, should be copied to floppy disk, tape backup, zip drive, or some form of storage device so that you always have a second copy of the those files. Surge suppressors should be a part of any computer purchase and antivirus software is a must in today's computer environment, especially if you intend to download files from the Internet.

In summary, computers are a management tool that can make your job easier and allow you to do things that you didn't do before. Data retrieval is quick and can date back several years. Information gained through the Internet is expanding and easily accessible. System pricing is as low as it has ever been. If you are unsure about using a computer, training courses are offered at many venues at various times of the year.Dave Allan is an instructor in the Turfgrass Management Program at Fairview College, Fairview, AB. This presentation was given at the 1998 WCTA 35th Annual Conference and Show in Victoria Conference Center, Victoria, BC.

Dave Allan is an instructor in the Turfgrass Management Program at Fairview College, Fairview, AB. This presentation was given at the 1998 WCTA 35th Annual Conference and Show in Victoria Conference Center, Victoria, BC.

Turf Line News February/March 1999

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