Surfactant power

Photo: Aquatrols
Photo: Aquatrols
Photo: Aquatrols
Photo: Aquatrols

Watering and applying chemicals to turf are only successful if they can reach below the surface of the soil. Surfactants help water better and more evenly penetrate the soil by reducing the surface tension of water. Sometimes referred to as wetting agents or soil surfactants, surfactants are especially useful on water-repellent soils and lawns needing an improved appearance.

This type of compound can help give the turf a more uniform, green color; reduce dry and brown spots; improve the distribution of soil-applied chemicals; and require less water usage going forward.

Eric Griscom, Aquatrols
Eric Griscom, Aquatrols

“Lawn care operators (LCOs) can communicate those benefits to the customer and get a happier, more satisfied customer,” says Eric Griscom, product manager at Aquatrols.

Various areas of soil will accept water differently, preventing the water’s ability to easily travel into the soil, particularly in drought situations and water-repellent soils. This can lead to runoff, erosion, wasted water and dry spots, which affect the turf’s look and health.

“If the water is not moving through the soil profile evenly, everything else you apply will be distributed unevenly as well,” Griscom says.

Surfactants penetrate the surface, carrying water evenly through the thatch layer and into the soil. This compound also helps improve the effectiveness of chemicals — such as soil-applied pesticides or fertilizers — when it’s mixed in.

“(LCOs) might have fewer callbacks or fewer postemergent sprays they need to do, and also happier customers,” Griscom says. “The operators who are using surfactants are using them as a competitive advantage.”

Product use do’s

Kurt Brace, ICL Specialty Fertilizers
Kurt Brace, ICL Specialty Fertilizers

Like with any compound, LCOs should read the product label and follow the water-volume application rates. If it’s a new tank mix, perform a jar test to ensure compatibility. LCOs should also know their water’s pH level, since it can affect the overall tank-mix performance, Griscom says.

More advanced types of surfactants work like a detergent, getting into the soil and then attaching to the wax hydrophobics and wet particles in the soil. It’s especially important to follow the application and mixing instructions for these because they can burn some of the grass if mixed incorrectly, says Kurt Brace, ornamental horticulture manager at ICL Specialty Fertilizers.

Many LCOs mix surfactants with soil-applied pesticides and fertilizers. Since surfactants can increase the efficiency of these chemicals, it’s important to test anything mixed in with them before an application.

Product use don’ts

Not all surfactants provide the same benefits or level of efficiency, so LCOs should be sure to choose a quality product — rather than basing their decision solely on price. “It’s important to know they don’t all work the same,” Griscom says. “Sometimes, you get what you pay for.”

Some herbicides include a type of surfactant, Brace says, so don’t mix in more of the compound if it’s already present. That’s another reason checking labels is a must. Also, don’t forget to adjust the property’s irrigation schedule to reduce the amount of water used once the surfactants are applied. “You can cut water use by 20 percent or more,” Brace says.

Dowdle is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Ala.

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