By Amber Reed
Every irrigation professional knows about the increasing importance of water management, and even though the situation affects everyone differently, it still affects everyone. Essential to the survival of every living organism on the planet, water is increasingly the topic of discussion ‑ and sometimes conflict ‑ among people, states and even countries.
According to Mike Baron, Toro’s national manager for water management products, water cost and water availability are the two most significant market factors facing the irrigation industry; therefore, water management should be the industry’s highest priority.
Opportunity for improvement
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day. It is estimated that nationwide, at least 50 percent of residential water use goes to irrigate outdoor landscapes. The EPA also reports that experts believe that at least 50 percent of commercial and residential landscape irrigation water goes to waste due to runoff, poor sprinkler uniformities, improper system design, over-watering, watering in the rain, and evaporation.
Because turfgrass is the single largest irrigated “crop” in the United States, irrigation professionals not only hold the key to healthy landscapes, but also to effective water management practices. Landscapes offer many environmental benefits such as sequestering carbon and reducing carbon dioxide levels while increasing oxygen levels, as well as reducing the need for air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter. Landscapes also prevent erosion, offer fire protection and provide a permeable surface to absorb rainwater for the recharging local groundwater supplies.
Today, irrigation professionals are tasked with reducing landscape water waste without compromising the landscape itself. To do this takes a willingness to get better at the basics, as well as reaching out to embrace new technologies, says Baron, which can save millions of gallons of potable water a year.
To create environmentally sustainable landscapes, professional contractors consider the entire process for both the landscape and the irrigation system: design, installation, maintenance and management. The focus is on using fewer non-renewable resources ‑ using locally available supplies ‑ and reducing the negative impacts on the environment over the life of the landscape. This type of conservation includes selecting native plant materials that require less water, determining the amount of lawn in the landscape based on both functional and aesthetic criteria, reusing existing on-site materials, utilizing organic alternatives to chemical pesticides, composting yard waste, and adopting “Smart” irrigation techniques.
Sustainability for an irrigation systems means achieving the desired landscape results while using no more water than what the plant materials require to thrive.
“An effective irrigation system is one that is custom-designed to the landscape, is well maintained, and operates during the early morning hours only when lawns, plants, shrubs and trees need water,” said Baron.
To design an efficient irrigation system, irrigation professionals need to investigate Smart technology options. Today, Smart technology includes weather-based irrigation controllers, rain sensors, flow sensors, pressure-regulating valves, spray heads with built-in check valves, pressure regulators and valve-in-stem shutoff devices, as well as drip irrigation.
Smart controllers available in today’s market are also referred to as ET-based controllers. These controllers adjust automatically, without manual intervention, based on weather information. The ET stands for evapotranspiration, and is a measurement of how much water evaporates from the ground plus the amount of water that transpires from plant surfaces.
To keep an irrigation system from running during a rainfall, many states now require a rain sensor be installed with every new controller as a conservation method. These sensors can also be installed on existing irrigation systems, and wireless models are available to further simplify installation.
“The most reliable rain sensors use hygroscopic disks that swell during rainfall and trigger an electrical switch that suspends the irrigation cycle,” said Baron. “Once the discs dry out, the electrical switch is released and the controller resumes normal operation.”
Another way to incorporate Smart technology into an irrigation system’s design is to invest in valves with adjustable pressure-regulation devices, as well as using spray and rotor bodies with built-in check valves to prevent low head drainage. Other Smart options include spray and rotor heads with built-in pressure regulators to keep water application consistent among all heads, as well as a valve-in-stem device for spray heads that automatically shuts off the water at the head whenever the spray nozzle is removed for maintenance or damaged by vandalism. Also, to prevent water waste from vandalism, or unauthorized changes to the watering pattern of a rotor, some manufactures have developed a memory feature that automatically returns the sprinkler to its previously set arc.
Increased concern about water conservation has also prompted a greater interest in micro irrigation, said Baron. Micro irrigation is a specialized method of applying precise, smaller amounts of moisture directly to the plants and their root system. Micro, or drip, irrigation systems distribute water slowly and precisely, which greatly reduces water loss from wind or evaporation, as well as minimizes moisture wasted on weeds, unplanted areas and runoff.
Once the system components have been chosen and the design finalized, proper installation is critical. Properly installed irrigation systems decrease water consumption, improve accuracy of water placement, decrease runoff and evaporation, and minimize plant loss during a drought.
“And most importantly for the homeowner, a properly installed irrigation system keeps the landscape healthy and beautiful,” said Baron.
Regular maintenance of an irrigation system ensures that water is distributed evenly on the lawn and does not overspray onto paved areas.
“Landscapes change because they are made of living organisms,” said Baron. “Because an irrigation system is not living, and cannot change on its own, a knowledgeable professional needs to check the system and make adjustments to adapt it to the changing environment.”
Irrigation contractors must help their customers understand the importance of preventive maintenance checks on the systems. This includes conducting a system audit at least twice a year ‑ during setup in the spring and at the end of the season during the winterizing process, if required.
During these audits, all components should also be checked, and worn out or leaky components should be replaced. In particular, nozzle performance and head orientation should be inspected and corrected. If pop-up heights are no longer adequate, or if shrub and flower growth interferes with spray patterns, then corrective action should be taken. In cold climates, using built-in check valves will require a system blow-out for winterization purposes.
For maintenance contractors who retrofit or upgrade irrigation systems, a system audit is a great way to start. By evaluating the system’s performance, problem areas can be identified and solutions recommended such as adding separate drip watering system for trees, shrubs or flowerbeds or installing a rain sensor if it was not part of the original irrigation system.
“Irrigation efficiency is only as good as the weakest part of the process,” said Baron. “The best system is designed well, installed professionally, properly maintained and effectively managed.”
Management of an irrigation system is primarily about scheduling. Irrigation professionals need to know what time of day the landscape should be irrigated, if there are any local restrictions for when landscapes can be watered, how long the irrigation cycle should run, as well as how long the intervals should be between watering cycles.
Managing an irrigation system also involves educating the property owner on the amount of water each different plant material needs, as well as how sprinklers apply water at different rates and how that affects the landscape. Property owners must also understand that when the weather changes, so should the watering schedule. The beauty of a Smart, properly installed controller is that it does this management task for the property owner, precisely and automatically.
Irrigation system management also includes investigating additional ways to conserve water. This may be as simple as identifying areas where runoff is still an issue, and suggesting adjustments to the system. It might also include research into additional ways the landscaping or irrigation system could be enhanced.
Demand for practical solutions
As the price of water goes up, more attention will be focused on respect for the planet’s water resources, as well as the environment. Economics, legislation and having a sense of wanting to “do the right thing” create a perfect storm of opportunity for irrigation professionals.
“Simply put, water is the issue. And, smart water solutions save time, decrease the property owner’s water bill and help the environment all at the same time,” said Baron.
Amber Reed is with Performance Marketing, West Des Moines, Iowa.
Article provided by The Toro Company, Irrigation Division, Riverside, Calif.