Aug. 1 2006 12:00 AM

Helmut Winkelhake has been in the green industry since the 1970s. The founder of Horticare in Ross, California, he prides himself on his efficient use of water in landscapes, but several years ago, he encountered a site which had particularly challenging irrigation problems.

The elaborate eight-acre residence in Tiburon, California, is located on a hillside flanking San Francisco Bay. Slopes throughout the property presented a variety of microclimates to contend with.

The property had an antiquated irrigation system prone to leaks, with rotors that had attacked the trees on the site, scarring their trunks. A prevailing wind blasted in from the bay, and frequent power outages erased carefully adjusted irrigation schedules, returning the system to its default programming. There were no records as to the presence and placement of underground irrigation pipe, wire, and cable. All in all, the site required vast amounts of maintenance and scheduling time.

Winkelhake began to address these issues by first concentrating on the particular problem areas and identifying areas of high water usage. He started to look for an appropriate irrigation control system and his research led him to ultimately settle on a Baseline system. Baseline, which uses soil moisture sensors to schedule irrigation, was to be his chief water management tool. It was a pretty straight-forward decision, said Winkelhake. Baseline was more helpful as far as customizing the site, and the cost-ratio of features is excellent.

Their two-wire system maintains all basic controller scheduling capabilities, plus moisture sensor capabilities, and reduces the complex tangles of wire used on sites with numerous valves. It schedules irrigation by measuring the amount of moisture present in the soil, allowing for variables such as soil type, runoff from higher properties, or different climatic zonesexactly the capabilities needed on a site with as many slopes and high winds as this one had.

Id been looking for this for the longest time, Winkelhake said. This system has so many options, like the ability to water a portion of your landscape once a month instead of on a standard seven- or 14-day schedule. Tree zones, such as this site has, dont have to be watered that often. I needed a controller that could program beyond the standard.

A Baseline system has 12 separate programs to control water windows. The system resets every night, eliminating the problems previously caused by power outages. The sensors collect soil temperature data, which can be used to determine the placement of organic fertilizers. Adjustments and maintenance can be done from your PC or remote control, or any phone can be used as a remote control.

This meant that Winkelhake could work on the site not only from home, but also from anywhere he had a cellular connection. These offsite management features saved Winkelhake time and money in labor and maintenance costs.

Youre also afforded a lot of opportunity to modify or upgrade a system beyond the initial installation, said Winkelhake. Right now, were expanding the rose garden. Baseline gives us the opportunity to add more valves or separate zones to meet new requirements set forth by the client.

Interested in testing every capability of the system, Winkelhake was especially impressed with the measurement practices that would allow him to assess irrigation efficiency, increase water savings, and ultimately reduce the use of costly city water for his client. As a site manager, you can really manipulate the software by applying creative management techniques to squeeze even more water savings out of the system, he said. On this property, the system paid for itself in just two years.

Winkelhakes activities resulted in a significant decrease in water usage and a dramatic decrease in the overall cost of maintaining the two water meters on the property. He reports that annual water usage for the site dropped 43% from two million gallons in 2003 to 850,000 gallons in 2004, for an annual savings of approximately $25,000.

With the cost of labor and time alone, the investment pays off, Winkelhake said. In more ways than one: this picturesque San Francisco landscape has never looked better.