It all started around 2013. Smart Outdoor Solutions, a Garland, Texas-based company that develops water management strategies was hired by a homeowners’ association in McKinney, Texas, to inspect the irrigation systems on the property.
The 500-acre Stonebridge Ranch Community Association is one of the largest HOAs in Texas and features some of the perks you’d expect from a development of that size, including parks, trails, picnic areas, tennis courts, pools and playgrounds. Just keeping up with the daily watering involved some 260 water meters.
The timing was perfect for SOS. Northern Texas had gone through a couple of drought periods in recent years, 2006 and 2011, so many residents were aware of the importance of reducing water usage. The area is also one of the fastest growing in the country, and the more people, the more water that is needed. Water utilities in McKinney were doing all they could to keep up with demand and were raising rates by the double digits almost yearly for about five years in a row, with the hikes averaging about 11 percent each year.
The HOA was beginning the process of changing from using one landscape maintenance contractor for everything to splitting its landscape contracts into groups with two separate contracts. At that point, SOS was hired as a neutral third party to do inspections on some irrigation systems on the property.
“They have a lot of sprinkler systems,” says Amanda Griffin, president of SOS, of Stonebridge Ranch. “They hired us to do a ‘state of the systems.’ We inspected a sample of their controllers and told them the issues we found with the systems. They turned those reports into the LMCs (landscape maintenance contractors), who did the repairs. Then we turned around and inspected them again.”
Griffin describes the first phase of the inspections as an educational opportunity for the HOA board. “We shared with them issues we were seeing over and over, kind of recurring themes. They just really felt like the data supported more inspections.
“At the same time after that first year, we began to talk to them about doing a small pilot program to try out some improvements in technology,” continues Griffin. “Most of the sprinkler systems there were approaching 15-20 years old, and a lot has changed in sprinkler technology in that time.”
Most of what SOS was finding in its inspections was what Griffin describes as “very typical issues on irrigation systems of that age and vintage.” A sprinkler head that was below grade or in disrepair, for example. Or in some cases the landscape had changed but the sprinklers hadn’t been updated before flowers were replaced with new shrubs. Most of the issues were high pressure related, where water was creating clouds and misting. “Half the water was getting lost in the wind,” says Griffin.
In 2015, the HOA board allowed SOS to try out some new technology on the community’s ten highest water-use meters. That was the first phase. SOS retrofitted these ten meters with newer smart controllers and with flow meters and pressure regulation.
The retrofitted controllers allowed more access to the watering schedules and more programming capabilities.
“The results that first year were great. We saved about 54 percent more water with those meters,” Griffin says.
It had been a wetter-than-usual season, however, that first year. Just to make sure that wasn’t the only reason for the dramatic savings, Griffin took every water bill generated by the 260-plus meters and crunched the data. She determined that the ten upgraded meters averaged 30 percent higher savings than the overall savings for the year.
That was enough to convince the HOA board to allow ten more meters to be upgraded. After that was done, the savings amounted to a 53 percent total savings, and that was during a year with more normal precipitation levels.
“We were able to repeat the savings the second year, so after that they said, ‘Let’s expand this even further,’” Griffin says.
SOS then retrofitted the HOA’s next 20 highest-usage meters. That project was approved later in the year and wasn’t complete until the fall, but even then, the savings exceeded expectations.
Jon Dell’Antonia, president of the Stonebridge Ranch Community Association’s board of directors, says he was initially skeptical about the projected firstyear savings and worried that the water reduction would put stress on the turf and vegetation. But he is now a believer.
“Not only was there zero loss of landscape, our property looks so good that you wouldn’t believe we’re saving water,” he says. “Beyond the aesthetics of our property, recouping over 50 percent on our water costs means that our residents have already recovered their initial investment in less than two years.”
After that first year, SOS also retrofitted some rotors with pressure-regulated models and took pre-flow and post-flow measurements. This resulted in another 30 percent savings.
“Going back to the basics of irrigation, pressure regulation really works,” says Griffin. “A lot of these cities’ mainline pressures are really high and go up even higher during the summer trying to meet capacity with everyone watering their yards and filling their pools — all those great summer activities.”
Going all in
In 2018, the Stonebridge Ranch Community Association decided to go all in and approved a property-wide conversion. “We are pressure-regulating and retrofitting the controllers attached to every water-use meter left in Stonebridge that we haven’t already retrofit,” Griffin says. This amounts to about 250 additional meters.
Griffin estimates the HOA will realize another 34 percent water savings after retrofitting the remaining meters. She adds, with the top 10 percent of the previously retrofitted meters already saving about 54 percent, combined with the 34 percent savings gained from the remaining 250 meters, “we’re looking to save them 40 to 50 percent on their overall water use than they’d have seen if they’d not done anything.”
Phase II began in January 2018 and is expected to be fully implemented by the end of April to allow a full spring and summer usage comparison. “We’re inspecting every system, retrofitting the controllers and pressure-regulating the main line. Then, we’ll continue monitoring those systems over the course of the summer.
“If anything looks out of whack, we’ll send a technician to the site to do an inspection and actively manage the irrigation schedules in conjunction with the landscape maintenance contractors,” Griffin says.
The potential savings in utility costs from Phase II is expected to be in the $3 million to $5 million range over the next ten years. Since 2015, the community has saved an estimated 24 million gallons of water.
Building a bridge
And how are the landscape maintenance contractors embracing the new water systems? According to Griffin, it has been a collaborative effort.
“It has been really important for us to build a bridge with the landscape maintenance contractors,” says Griffin. “We didn’t want to come in and seem like the ‘water czars,’ like we were going to come in and crack the whip on everyone,” she jokes.
She says she has heard the horror stories about other companies that promised a lot of water savings, who’s solution was to just turn the water off when their systems started getting close to the capacity they’d promised. But when everything is dying, it’s the landscaper who looks bad. The irrigation company may have achieved its number, but at what cost to the property?
Instead, SOS uses a “plants and water together” strategy, calling it a “water up” approach instead of “landscape down.”
Griffin says SOS tries to be a resource for the two landscape companies that service the HOA: BrightView and Precision Landscape Management.
“It has been really critical for us to be involved with the landscape maintenance contractors on a regular basis,” she says. “The two landscaping companies have been really accommodating and welcoming and seem to really embrace our help.”
Griffin says SOS does not take the place of the landscape maintenance contractors but reports any problems to the two companies. Then, their workers perform the needed repairs. “We are purely focused on water savings and on how we can make the HOA look good and save money in the process.”
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.