Smart Irrigation Month

By MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS-VILLANO

July is a great month, isn't it? School’s out, and so is the sun. It’s a time for barbecues, road trips, and lying on the beach.

It’s also a good time to talk about the importance of saving water. It’s the hottest month of the year, and when the most water flows out onto landscapes. That’s why the Irrigation Association (IA), whose mission it is to promote efficient irrigation, chose July as Smart Irrigation Month.

The big deal is this: experts are predicting a much drier future for our planet. There will be more droughts, and plenty of them. At the same time, the world’s population will keep growing, and the Earth’s aquifers will keep getting depleted. What’s needed is a permanent drought consciousness, if you will.

Contractors have a vital role to play in this effort. We can use the many methods at our disposal that allow us to distribute water wisely, with less waste, and educate our clients as to why we’re doing it.

Smart controllers, rain and moisture sensors

There are still a lot of conventional time-based controllers out there watering landscapes the oldfashioned way. No matter whether it’s sunny or pouring down rain, these controllers will turn sprinklers on at the appointed hour, and run for as long as they’re set for.

Smart irrigation controllers, by contrast, use ET (evapotranspiration) and weather information to create schedules, based on data downloaded from the Internet, or from an onsite weather station. Other models use a combination of ET and historical weather data for the zip code they’re in. Most allow input from soil moisture and rain sensors.

Smart controllers helped Gary Mallory, owner of Heads Up Landscape Contractors, LLC, in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, vastly reduce the water consumption at a master-planned HOA community in Albuquerque.

This development had about 150 conventional, time-based controllers. “Whenever it rained, it’d take up to nine hours for someone to go to each one of those controllers and manually shut them off,” he said.

Once he replaced the old controllers with smart ones, the community’s water usage went down substantially. And it no longer takes nine hours to stop the system from irrigating in the rain. Now, he can turn off all the sprinklers on that property, and on other, similarlyequipped ones he manages, just by using his phone or laptop.

“The other nice thing about these newer controllers is that many of them are web-based,” said irrigation consultant Geoff Graber, CID, CLIA, a licensed Texas landscape irrigator, and the owner of Graber & Associates, LLC, in Chesterfield, Michigan.

“A contractor can log in and get realtime data. And some models allow you to download flow information.”

Rotating nozzles and highefficiency sprinklers

Rotating nozzles that irrigate via multiple streams of water are terrific devices. They allow you to keep landscapes and turf green, while at the same time, use much less water.

“They’re absolutely amazing,” said Steve Hall, CLIA, CIC, FWSAP (Florida Water Star-Accredited Professional), vice president at Stahlman-England in Naples, Florida. “I just love these things. They have low precipitation rates, and they fight the wind better than sprays do.”

“Rotating nozzles distribute water evenly, with a slow application rate, and a precipitation rate around 0.4 inches per hour,” said Kelsey Jacquard, CID, CLIA, product manager for MP Rotators and Sprays at Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California.

“This allows water to gently soak into soil. It results in 30 percent less water usage as compared to traditional spray nozzles, which have precipitation rates of about 1.6 inches per hour.”

Spray nozzles should not be thrown under the bus, however. High-efficiency spray nozzles with adjustable arcs have been on the market for a long time, and many communities offer rebates to homeowners who have them installed. Rotating nozzles often qualify for such rebates as well.

Pressure regulation and flow monitors

When Graber is asked to help design efficient irrigation systems, the first thing he specifies are pressureregulating sprinkler heads, bodies and valves. These eliminate the problem of wasteful misting, among other things. “Pressure-regulating components are usually the easiest and cheapest way to reduce water consumption,” he said.

Mallory strongly believes in flow monitors. “If there’s a mainline leak, a broken head, or a stuck valve, a flow monitor will detect that and shut everything thing down, because it ‘learns’ what the normal flow should be. It’ll protect your client from catastrophic losses, such as from a mainline leaking for 12 hours straight and wasting an incredible amount of water.”

Drip and low-volume irrigation

The terms ‘drip irrigation’ and ‘low-volume irrigation’ are often used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same. Drip irrigation is a form of low-volume irrigation, but not all low-volume irrigation is drip.

Any tubing-based point-source irrigation component or system putting out 0.4 to 30 gph is considered to be low-volume. Both drip and lowvolume irrigation are usually reserved for landscape beds, but subsurface drip is sometimes used under turf.

Drip systems deliver water slowly, right to the root zones of plants, through plastic tubing with embedded emitters, stapled to the ground or buried just beneath. Water delivered in this manner is measured in gallons per hour (gph) rather than gallons per minute (gpm), as with conventional sprinklers, demonstrating just how much less water they use.

Low-volume irrigation components consist of micro sprinklers, micro jets, micro bubblers and drip emitters, often staked above grade. They also distribute water slowly.

If you have a client with landscape beds that are being watered with sprays, suggest converting them to drip or low-volume. It will save them a lot of water, and it’s healthier for the plants.

Water recycling

Rainwater, graywater and reclaimed water are all forms of recycled water, but from different sources, with different governing rules and methods of collection and distribution.

Rainwater harvesting systems range from simple barrels under downspouts to elaborate cistern storage arrangements, where the water can be kept until needed. The stored water can be dispersed through sprinkler systems, but using a drip system is also a very acceptable method.

The city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, passed an ordinance in 2003, requiring rainwater catchment systems on all new commercial and residential development. This, as you can imagine, is a huge boon for contractors who install such systems.

Mallory is one of them. He’s found many creative ways of recycling rainwater. “One of the things we do is build parking-lot planters that are concave rather than convex. Inside each one, we create a replica of a dry riverbed, with low-water-use plants. Then, the planters are placed under downspouts, so the rainwater will run into them to be harvested and used by the plants.”

Graywater systems redirect laundry, shower and bathroom sink water to landscapes. Every state has different laws governing its use. For instance, Arizona allows kitchenthe use of reclaimed water.

“In California, there are two levels of recycled (reclaimed) water, secondary and tertiary,” said Tonianne Pezzetti, an engineering geologist at the state’s Department of Water Resources Recycling and Water Desalination Section.

“The less-treated secondary water can be, and is, used to irrigate agricultural crops, but can’t be used anywhere the general public might come in contact with it, and it must travel through pipes directly from treatment plants; you can’t just go buy a tankerful of it.”

Tertiary reclaimed water is more highly treated, and is used by many golf courses and schools. Though quantities of it can be picked up at fill stations, it’s not practical for use on home landscapes, except at a few newer housing developments where the piping infrastructure has been installed.

Mallory has had some experience with reclaimed water systems. “They’re pretty neat, because you’re using water twice. You use it, it goes down the drain, it gets treated, and then, you reuse it. The ability to use reclaimed water can cut consumption by 50 percent.”

Water auditing

This is the process of determining the distribution uniformity (DU) of an irrigation system. A certified landscape irrigation auditor (CLIA) knows how to do it properly, as it takes some training (available from the IA).

A formal audit by a qualified person can unearth a lot of water-wasting elements. When Graber performs audits, he frequently sees the same things causing low DU numbers. “Most commonly, it’s a lack of maintenance on sprinkler heads,” he said.

It’s not uncommon for him to find nozzles that are ten years old, or even older. As he explained, the plastic inside them eventually wears out from the sheer stress of water going through them year after year. Also, if the water source they’re drawing from is a pond or well, grit or dirt can be pulled up, which further wears down the innards.

“You’re not getting the breakup or distribution you should have,” said Graber. “But the fix is easy. Just get a bag of new water-saving nozzles and screw them onto the sprinkler bodies.”

Education

Smart Irrigation Month is the time to show your customers how efficient irrigation can save them water and dollars. The IA has lots of tips, ideas and downloadable resources to help you, including a logo for your company website, and even a kid’s coloring book.

Timberline Landscaping, Inc., in Colorado Springs, Colorado, uses social media such as Facebook and Twitter to promote Smart Irrigation Month. “This July, we’re teaching our customers about cycle-and-soak, and morning and evening watering,” said marketing manager Stephanie Early.

Hall agrees that contractors need to educate their customers. “They aren’t going to come to us, asking, ‘Do you have pressure-regulating heads? What’s the precipitation rate of these sprinklers? Is this controller smart?’ We’re the ones who have to teach them about these things.”

Let’s make the time to put forth the idea that the green industry leads the charge when it comes to water conservation. To paraphrase the opening of The Six Million Dollar Man, we can do it; we have the technology.