History of Micro Irrigation in Landscape/Turf
The basic concept of dispensing less water in the right place is not new. Farmers centuries ago developed a method of irrigating trees in a desert environment with a minimum amount of water. They used porous clay pots, which they filled with water and buried near the trees in the ground. The water slowly seeped through the walls of the pots, irrigating the area around the trees.
Since that ancient time, many methods have been experimented with, including clay pipes, perforated pipes, plastics and polyethylene tubing.
Following World War II, plastics technology took off rapidly and drip irrigation became economically practical.
However, the greatest advancement in drip or micro irrigation came from Symcha Blass, a retired British Water Agency employee who immigrated to Israel. Inspired by a dripping faucet that he saw near a thriving tree, he applied his knowledge of micro tubing to drip. This essentially became the first efficient drip method.
Called the Blass System, water was transported and released through longer and larger tubing by using water to slow the velocity inside a plastic emitter. He went on to develop a molded coupling, which later developed into a two-piece inline dripper.
Blass did his work at a kibbutz in Israel and formed the basis of a company called Netafim. Today, most all of Israel’s irrigation is drip.
Here in our country, by the late 1960s and early ’70s, micro irrigation had developed very rapidly in agriculture. Large acreages of citrus, grapes, strawberries and tomatoes were tempting targets for this new technology. Each month, a new emission device would appear on the market, promising superior results. Some delivered, most did not.
Most of the companies involved in micro irrigation at that time were totally focused on agriculture. These companies weren’t the established sprinkler firms, but mostly start-up companies. The tree and vine crops were chased by firms such as Drip-eze, Eternamatic, Roberts, Spot, Global, Agrifim, Perma Rain, Micro-jet (now known as Maxijet), Bowsmith and Spears. Row crops used Anjax Bi-Wall, Chapin Twin-Wall and DuPont Viaflow.
Two major plastic resin manufacturers, Dow and DuPont, saw micro irrigation as an opportunity to increase the volume of their compounds. Unfortunately, it was too early in the development of the market and much too entrepreneurial, so they quickly exited.
Some unusual markets did develop in the landscape/turf segment for several of the agriculture companies, such as the case of Perma Rain, which began selling its E-2 (Flag emitter) into Arizona, where it remained the product of choice well into the ’90s.
Each of the agricultural micro irrigation companies sold some products into the landscape/turf market, but no one focused on this area until Sam Tobey came along. Tobey, a Los Angeles aerospace engineer, acquired the remains of a struggling drip company called Salco. Salco’s claim to fame was that it used flexible, black poly vinyl chloride (PVC) hose instead of polyethylene plastic. This allowed for exceptional flexibility and pressure strength, but cost a good deal more to produce. Tobey sensed that the landscape/turf market would pay a higher price for the product, since the quantities on any one job were small.
Salco was the only company doing this. Tobey essentially had the market to himself throughout the 1970s and into the early ’80s, with occasional competition from the agriculture firms.
In 1982, Howard “Fred” Smiley moved Pepco, a failing polyethylene extrusion company, from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Fresno, California, specifically to market micro irrigation through distribution to the landscape/turf contractors. While the market was still small for micro in the ’80s, Pepco became the dominant brand.
In the late ’80s, two things happened that would bring us to where we are now:
•The major landscape/turf manufacturers recognized that micro irrigation was a real business.
•Companies began to produce products designed for the landscape/turf market.
Rain Bird and Toro both entered the drip field through private label arrangements with existing firms. Rain Bird contracted with Bowsmith, while Toro aligned with Netafim. Each company would go on to develop their own proprietary micro products, as did other manufacturers. Netafim, once the Toro program ended, actively pursued the landscape/turf market and is today one of the segment leaders.
With this influx, instead of worked-over agricultural products, new innovations have been introduced for landscape/turf. Olson’s EH-12 pioneered the way for multiple outlets in a single unit, which more closely mirrored the way sprinkler heads had been installed. Herbicides, such as Treflan, were incorporated into emitters and hose under the name “Root Guard,” which prevented root intrusion, came on the market. Porous pipe, made from recycled tires, found a home in residential landscapes.
Virtually all manufacturers of controllers have modified their products to handle the longer run times of micro irrigation. Valve companies created low-flow/low-pressure valves capable of handling micro applications. Even the color of micro irrigation components changed to make them less visible in the landscape.
Nationwide, drip and low-flow sprays are now an accepted part of landscape/turf irrigation systems installed by contractors. The future of the technology looks good as it has a positive “vibe,” as water shortages become more prevalent and the need to conserve is here. Many water purveyors and governments allow only micro irrigation to be used on trees, shrubs, ground covers and flowers. It is amazing that just four decades have passed since the first drip was installed in residential and commercial landscapes. Agriculture showed the way, but landscape/turf now stands on its own.