June 17 2019 06:00 AM

From a Texas ranch home to a 50-story Chicago high-rise, drip irrigation sustains unique landscapes of all shapes and sizes.

Photo: Hunter Industries


It’s a beautiful summer day, the sun is shining and the sprinklers on a lawn pop up out of the ground, spraying a lush, green lawn with droplets of life-giving water. This is what the majority of people, including contractors, probably picture when they think of irrigation.

Most don’t automatically envision the more silent and stealthy method of watering — drip irrigation. It may not be as satisfying to watch in action on a hot summer’s day, but as many contractors have discovered over the years, drip irrigation is an equally effective way to irrigate landscapes.

Drip irrigation has become an increasingly sought-out option by both property owners and landscapers for its ability to conserve water and precisely irrigate unique shapes in the landscape. This growing market segment shouldn’t be ignored by any irrigation professional.

The basics

How does a drip system save water? Instead of gallons per minute, like a sprinkler system, drip delivers water in terms of gallons per hour. Because it delivers water slowly, directly to the root zones of plants, less of it is lost to evaporation and runoff, so less of it is needed.

A drip irrigation system is composed of valves, filters and pressure regulators and then some sort of water transport like PVC or polyethylene tubing. A number of lateral lines are attached to a single line through headers, and the laterals are then fitted with emitters to disperse water.

Dripline can be purchased with emitters already inserted at regular intervals, or they can be purchased without emitters so you can insert them exactly where you want them to go. Some dripline also includes strips of copper or herbicide to deter root penetration.

A growing market

While drip has been around for decades, Andy Hulcy, founder of Andy’s Sprinkler, Drainage and Lighting, says his company’s use of and promotion of this type of irrigation have increased significantly over the past 10 years. And it’s not surprising. The company operates seven locations in Texas and one in North Carolina — areas often affected by watering restrictions brought on by frequent droughts.

“The demand for drip irrigation goes up dramatically during drought conditions,” Hulcy says. “That’s usually driven by the fact that the watering restrictions make it so that people can hardly keep their landscapes alive.”

He explains that a couple of years ago Texas was in the midst of a long, terrible drought, and draconian watering restrictions meant that residents could only water one day a week, every other week. But people who had drip irrigation systems were allowed to water several more days per week because of these systems’ greater efficiency.

Homes and businesses employing drip systems are often exempt from watering restrictions or may qualify for hefty rebates for installing them. This combination of incentives and potential water savings makes drip an attractive option for many clients.

Texas has been making up for its drought lately, as it’s experienced a wet period over the last couple of years. “When that happens,” Hulcy says, “the demand for drip drops. We don’t get calls for it. But once it gets really hot and dry, then we specifically advertise for installing drip or converting to drip because that’s when people are most interested in it.”

Hulcy says drip systems can definitely conserve water — as long as they’re correctly installed. “Be cause we’re in the repair business, we see a lot of drip that isn’t working for people because it wasn’t installed properly — like having the wrong emitter spacing or gallons per hour for the type of soil condition.”

He says that some contractors are installing drip to be competitive with the cost of sprinklers — and are cutting corners in the process. “If you do it properly, it’s going to be more expensive to do a drip system than it would be to do a spray system. But the idea behind that is the money you’ll save in water over time will offset that upfront cost.”

He finds that clients are often surprised by the cost of a drip system because they assume it just involves running some dripline on top of the ground.

They don’t take into account that, just like any other irrigation system, it still requires buried pipe, valves and electrical components such as an irrigation controller. Added to the cost of the dripline are the filters and pressure regulators drip systems must have.

But despite the greater initial investment required, Hulcy finds that the potential water savings a drip system promises for the future is still a big draw for his clients.

Food for thought

A tasty trend on the rise that is appealing not only to the appetite but to drip irrigation is edible landscapes. These minifarms are more popular than ever. We’re not talking about mere backyard garden plots with a few veggie plants — these are entire landscapes that incorporate edible native plants such as fruit trees along with pollinator habitats, medicinal herbs and water features.

Edible landscapes increase the diversity of insect populations, create habitats for birds and other wildlife and provide ideal conditions for the millions of microbes that make up healthy soil.

It’s not only health-conscious millennials who want them. Add their parents and grandparents to that list of age groups wanting these delicious designs in their backyards. It’s a great way for entire families to embrace a healthier diet and another possible market for you as their irrigation contractor.

As more individuals become enthralled with incorporating edible gardens in their landscapes, knowing how to install drip irrigation systems is a useful skill to have. Drip irrigation takes the work out of keeping these fruits and veggies alive. After all, drip was originally used in agriculture and remains a tried and true way to grow food in one’s own backyard.

Other applications for drip

Drip is primarily used to water flower beds, gardens and planters, and it’s a great solution for irrigating virtually any small or unique areas in landscapes, such as narrow strips, oddly shaped areas, slopes and plantings near retaining walls.

Drip can also be used to provide supplemental irrigation when necessary. To preserve valuable parts of a landscape like shrubs and flowers, Hulcy’s installers will often add drip to flower beds that are already incorporated into spray zones.

Most clients don’t realize it, but drip systems can be used to irrigate lawns. Dripline can be installed on new construction before a lawn is planted or sodded, or it can be trenched into already-established turf.

Hulcy says his company has installed subsurface drip irrigation under some lawns despite encountering difficult soil conditions. “In North Texas, we have really heavy clay soil. The challenge with that is to evenly distribute the water around everything.” He explains that within that heavy clay, there will often be pockets of sand or a different type of fill dirt from when the lot was leveled off during the home’s construction, making the even distribution of water more complicated.

Taking drip to new heights

Thanks to drip irrigation, shrubs and flowers are flourishing atop buildings in our country’s biggest cities. Not only are these rooftop gardens more and more common, urban high-rise residents are beginning to expect them, says Phil Cleland, president of Chicago Specialty Gardens.

It was 20 years ago that Cleland discovered the niche market for creating rooftop oases. Thinking they were fascinating spaces to work with, he pursued these kinds of projects, and they now constitute 70% of his company’s business. “When I first started doing this, it was a really odd sort of thing to have a garden on the top of your apartment house or condo roof. But it’s really come to be more of a trend for the everyday homeowning public,” says Cleland.

Photo: Chicago Specialty Gardens

Cleland’s enthusiasm for these spaces is obvious, conveyed in the way he speaks about their many benefits. “If you have a rooftop garden that’s three stories or 20 stories up, you’re above the noise and above the din. You then have some space to walk around, and you can green it up, light it up, barbeque up there, you can do all sorts of stuff,” says Cleland.

The team at Chicago Specialty Gardens designs and builds elevated landscapes that include outdoor kitchens and eating areas, fire pits, water features and landscaping. The plants in these projects are typically arranged in a series of elevated beds and planters.

Drip irrigation is the most efficient and practical way to sustain these landscapes in the sky, according to Cleland.

Homeowners aren’t the only clients desiring these spaces. Businesses are also installing them so their employees can take their breaks in a more serene environment and escape the busyness of the corporate world. Cleland says there has also been a huge proliferation of bars, restaurants and hotels that are installing rooftop gardens in Chicago.

The growing demand for rooftop greenscapes has opened up a whole new market for drip irrigators. “Generally, it’s much windier the higher up you go, so using spray heads in these areas doesn’t work very well,” says Cleland. “The spray gets blown below or onto adjoining surfaces, like furniture. So, we use drip pretty exclusively for our projects.”

One of the challenges, though, is providing drainage. Cleland explains that his installers use a rooftop deck pedestal system as a base for their projects. The pedestals are deck supports that elevate concrete or wood tiles.

Runoff that flows through the bottom of planters hits the surface of these tiles, finds a joint between them and drops down to the membrane roof, a material that prevents water from pooling and leaking into the building below. The water then exits via the roof ’s existing drain. These pedestal systems also hide irrigation driplines beneath the tiles, so tubing isn’t visible.

Photo: WallyGro

The sky's the limit

It’s not just rooftop gardens that are growing in popularity atop many skyscrapers across the country. Another growing trend is incorporating a living wall or vertical garden in landscapes. One company that manufactures these systems is WallyGro. Based in Kansas City, Missouri, its vertical garden wall product uses a drip irrigation system to water miniature planters placed in rows that make up the vertical wall.

A 1/4-inch supply line runs horizontally through each planter with an emitter delivering water to each container. Adaptable to both interior and exterior spaces, these products are creative and captivating tools landscape designers can use to incorporate plants into unique spaces.

Maintenance

Drip systems are typically easier to repair and maintain than sprinkler systems, Hulcy says. That’s because the dripline and emitters aren’t buried deeply in the ground. Knowing that a drip system needs to be repaired, however, is trickier. A broken sprinkler head gets a homeowner’s or groundkeeper’s attention right away; but with drip, the first indication of a problem is often browning or wilting plants or grass.

That’s where a flow meter comes in. If the amount of water going through the system is lower or higher than normal, it will notify the smart controller, which in turn will send an alert to the caretaker’s smartphone. While flow monitoring technology has been available for a long time, Hulcy says it’s really just begun to take off on the residential side. Where he’d once found installing flow meters to be expensive and labor-intensive, the advent of wireless models has made them more affordable and easier to install.

Irrigation systems in the colder parts of the country need winterization, and drip systems are no exception. Extra care must be taken, though, not to blow them out with too much air pressure, so the emitters don’t pop off the dripline. The backflow device and irrigation controller, if outdoors, should be brought indoors for storage during the cold season.

Even with winterization, driplines can split and emitters can crack over the winter. Spring startups should include an inspection of all components.

The future looks bright

Climate experts are predicting drier days ahead with more frequent and prolonged drought conditions. The resulting watering restrictions put into place by cities, plus the creation of more unique, hard-toirrigate landscape spaces, means more people will be turning to this highly efficient method of irrigation. Whether it’s to provide a water supply for the herb planters surrounding an outdoor kitchen or the greenery scaling a living wall, or if a property owner simply wants to save some bucks on the water bill, drip is a great solution.

Hulcy anticipates that the popularity of drip will only grow, especially with the large numbers of people flocking to major Texas cities like Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston. “The population is growing faster than the water supply can keep up with. All the major cities in Texas are growing exponentially fast, and that’s going to stress the water systems,” says Hulcy. With the amount of irrigation combined with consumer water use, he says, “Something’s got to give, and it’s probably going to be landscapes. Drip is a perfect solution for that.”

There will always be a demand for lush, green lawns irrigated by sprinklers. But times are changing, and it’s important to learn how to use different methods that can meet the growing demand for more efficient and cost-effective ways of watering landscapes. Rather than looking at exploring drip as a total change of direction, see it as merely another tool in your toolbox, something that will only help you and your business in the long run.

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.