No one wants their clients’ lawns to look brown and scraggly, especially real-estate companies who want to make a good visual impression. It can cut into their bottom line. “Obviously, you lease more and rent more apartments whenever you have green turf instead of splotchy brown turf,” said Jenn Downs, irrigation manager at All Commercial Landscape Service (ACLS) in Fresno, California,.
“Manco-Abbott is a property management company with the largest multi-family apartment complexes in Fresno,” Downs said. “They were trying to meet water restrictions, but the lawns they were servicing were dying along the perimeters of their properties, and in areas with a lot of foot traffic.” ACLS had to help them meet their conservation goals without giving up that lush look in the process.
It was October of 2014, and in California’s Central Valley, the ongoing drought had made water conservation a very hot topic. In January, the Governor had declared a drought state of emergency, and had asked everyone to reduce their water use by 20 percent (it would be another year before water restrictions would become mandatory). ACLS was busy trying to help its clients make their irrigation systems more efficient.
There are a lot of options for making a landscape more efficient in its use of water, but they all carry a price, and the customer isn’t always willing or able to pay that price. ACLS had already installed smart, remote-controlled irrigation systems on the Manco-Abbott properties.
One option the company had was to replace the client’s sprinkler systems with subsurface drip. However, installing a whole new irrigation system would have been too costly.
They could have replaced the turf with drought-tolerant plant material, but that would have sacrificed the lush grass for a more desert aesthetic, which the client didn’t want to do.
Instead, ACLS turned to a solution that farms have been using for decades to make every last drop of water count, namely, soil additives. For about 40 cents per square foot, it could inject into the ground a super-absorbent polymer made of potassium and salt, that would absorb up to 400 times its weight in water.
Polymers have been around for at least 40 years. Back then, and even today, we incorporate polymers into the soil. However, it’s a one-time application done when you made the installation.
Using a machine custom-built for the task, ACLS injected roughly seven pounds of the additive per 1,000 square feet of turf across five acres of property. (The machine is marketed by Aqua Cents Water Management, LLC).
The polymer goes in right below the root zone, and sops up any water that the plants can’t immediately absorb from rain and scheduled irrigation. Once the polymer absorbs the water, it acts as an underground holding tank, that the plants will only find when they get thirsty and start digging deeper.
“We just did the focal areas, around the offices, the swimming pools, the soccer areas, and all along the perimeters, just to keep the visual effect of green turf,” said Downs.
The results were plain to see. When the city of Fresno mandated only two days of watering per week instead of four days, it took a toll on turfgrass. But at the treated areas, the thirsty turf had dug its roots deeper in search of water, becoming stronger in the process, and sipped water from the hidden reserve that ACLS had implanted. Manco-Abbott had green grass without breaking its water budget.
Tom DeLany, CEO of ACLS, began offering the amendment to his other clients; he calls it a win-win situation. “The polymer is biodegradable, and lasts for at least five years, so clients can recoup the cost through water savings,” he said. “Here in Fresno, where water is $1.40 or $1.50 per hundred cubic feet, that’s a bit of a tough sell, but in places where water rates rise above $3 per hundred cubic feet, people really get interested.”
Once the voluntary restrictions became mandatory, the drive to conserve kicked into high gear. When a job brought DeLany to Los Angeles for a day, he was able to pick up 22 residential jobs during his visit. Not a one of them was for less than $1,100, and at great margins. He estimates that, this year, he’s done nearly a million dollars in injection work, and plans to do more.
Downs says that ACLS is planning to use the machine for other amendments as well. “We’re looking into a blend of fertilizers, mycorrhizae and seaweed extract that would help improve the health of the soil,” she said.
The West is now entering its sixth year of continuous drought and now, even historically wet regions like northern Georgia and New England are suffering from drought conditions. Specialized equipment like this can be a great asset to both your clients and your company.
The lesson we learned during this drought is that there are better ways to water landscapes and keep them green, rather than taking out turf and throwing down some gravel. Here is an opportunity to keep the grass and the benefits it provides, while still conserving water.