In previous generations, a landscape architect or an irrigation contractor might have whipped up a quick drawing and penciled in notes on a grid to show the location of lawns, beds and trees. This simple document served as their working plan to make sure all of the plants on the property got watered properly. The process remains essentially the same today, but computerization and “smart” irrigation components give contractors better tools to water more precisely.

There’s no turning back when it comes to becoming a professional irrigator. You must keep learning as irrigation technology advances to meet society’s demands for water-conserving landscapes. Advances in irrigation technology in the landscape industry include computer programs to aid in the design of landscapes and irrigation systems, precision sprinklers and rotors, sensors (rain, soil, freeze), new drip/micro products and “smart” controllers. These innovations can significantly reduce water usage on properties compared to systems installed even a decade ago.

You must embrace this technology because pressure on conserving and protecting the quality of our fresh water resources grows: It’s a one-way street. Compounding the urgency to become better irrigators, the demand for water (and, concurrently, the need for conservation) is greatest in regions of the country that are developing and growing the fastest. Texas and the U.S. Southwest immediately come to mind.

The eastern U.S. has its share of water scarcity issues, too. Remember the three-year-long drought that gripped north Georgia and much of the Carolinas almost a decade ago? That drought resulted in severe restrictions on landscape irrigation that caused more than $1 billion in losses to the green industry in the U.S. Southeast.

The message to anyone relying upon irrigation to keep your clients’ properties green and healthy is clear: You have to become as proficient as possible in using water on the landscapes that you install and maintain. You must do this to maintain healthy turfgrass and ornamentals, but also for economic reasons as the price of treated water rises from year to year.

The goal: watering without waste

“It’s about efficiency. It’s about getting the proper amount of water to each irrigation zone and to each planting with as little waste as possible,” says Tom Horn, CIC, CIA, owner, All-n-One Outdoor Solutions, Jefferson City, Missouri. “Having the right water pressure is job one. Then we must make sure irrigation zones are laid out with the proper number of heads for the available pressure.”

Critical to designing, installing and maintaining a water-efficient system is gaining a practical understanding of each property’s topography, microclimates, application rates, type of turfgrass and the composition of its soil. He advises contractors to share this information with their clients. Educated clients are more cooperative clients.

“Educating the client about the landscape irrigation system is almost as important as a good initial design,” Horn points out.

Jeremy Mansell, senior technical trainer for Rain Bird, says his company’s goal is to provide every tool the professional contractor needs to make environmentally sound landscape decisions. “We believe in the cycle and soak principal, which recognizes that each microclimate and each irrigation zone might have different evaporation rates and application rates. Runoff and erosion are conditions of overwatering a lawn,” he says.

Mansell explains that the cycle and soak principal works best when water is applied in cycles to allow the water to soak deep into the soil before applying more water. For example, applying an inch of water in a continuous stream might cause pooling and runoff, but breaking the distribution into three separate cycles of 1/3 inch each will allow all the water to be used more efficiently.

Some irrigation manufacturers, like Rain Bird, offer a full line of valves, sprinklers and controllers, each addressing typical water loss and related problems like overspray, evaporation and erosion. The pressure valve controls the sprinklers in each zone to ensure the proper water pressure is reaching the sprinkler heads. The automatic controllers then can be set to deliver the optimum amount of water at the optimum amount of time between each cycle, saving as much as 30 percent of water usage.

Another irrigation manufacturer, Hunter Industries, offers MP Rotators, cycle and soak sprinklers that deliver multiple streams of water at a steady rate. The product’s slower application rate allows water to soak into the soil and achieve an even distribution throughout the area being irrigated as opposed to running several cycles.

Simulating Mother Nature’s gentle rain

“Simulating light, effective rainfall with proper scheduling for deep-root watering is the best way to water most plants and turfgrasses,” says Chris Roesink, Hunter Industries, specification manager, Southern California. “The adjustable edges of the MP Rotator allow it to conform to any landscape. The MT Rotator can save homeowners an additional 30 percent of water above typical rotator heads.”

Broadly speaking, sprinklers are of two varieties: spray heads, which are used in smaller, fragmented, hard-to-reach areas, and rotors, which use less water and are used in larger areas but require more water pressure. The nozzles themselves also come in a variety of styles such as stream spray, strip pattern or short radius to deliver the required amount of water under normal conditions.

Risers allow the sprinklers’ pop-up height to start at 4 inches and scale to 12 inches. Risers, sprinklers and rotors come in a variety of sizes and shapes and can accommodate almost any topography and design.

Roesink says another way to avoid overspray, which adds to runoff, is by installing a drip irrigation sub-surface directly into the root zone, especially in flowerbeds. New technologies, such as Hunter’s Eco-Mat and PLD-ESD are perfect for new installs as they whisk water away from the emitter and allow it to distribute more evenly than conventional in-line drips. Proper scheduling of drip irrigation is equally as important to water management as using the correct spray heads.

Patrick H. Crais, CEO Blue Watchdog Conservation, Inc. and CEO Blue Pandas, Cardiff By The Sea, California, and past chairman of the California Landscape Contractors Association Water Management Task Force, says California regulations for installing landscape irrigation systems are the toughest in the country. The state has been under water restrictions with no end in sight.

“I agree proper irrigation starts with the comprehensive grid plan and the proper water pressure,” Crais says. “But controllers are becoming more sophisticated and important to saving water. We like the Hunter Pro-C for residential irrigation. It will easily accommodate Hunter’s Solar Sync, an EPA WaterSense labeled smart device, which calculates evapotranspiration rates and adjusts Hunter controllers daily based on local weather conditions.”

Soil sensors and climate-based controllers also tell the system when not to water the landscape, making real-time adjustments for rainfall amounts.

“No matter the make and model of smart controller, it’s only as smart as the person putting the information into it. Gone are the days of just setting an irrigation controller up with a generic program and walking away,” adds Joe Boff, territory manager of Wolf Creek Company in Columbus, Ohio.

“You can design a system to eliminate overspray, but it is always best to follow through to make sure the end user knows why it was designed the way it was and how the product is intended to be used,” he adds.

“Smart” systems require smart irrigators

“With proper irrigation design and the advanced technologies, such as smart controllers, we can eliminate 80 percent of runoff and waste, but what we as professionals need to address is the proper ongoing maintenance of the system,” Horn says. “I like the Rain Bird ESP controller. It is highly efficient but needs to be checked periodically to ensure the controller meets seasonal variations. Whether it is sprinkler heads, risers, valve boxes, the entire system needs to be checked at least once a year. Not just a five-minute walk through to see if the water is making it to the spray heads, but checking each sprinkler for damage, proper angle and coverage. Improperly maintained systems can use 30 to 40 percent more water.”

Crais says his company, Blue Watchdog, doesn’t install 4-inch risers any longer because zero-turn mowers making sharp turns keep knocking them askew. Because they are taller and easier to see, his company uses only 6-inch and taller risers in layout design.

Of course, irrigation professionals should consider watering in the early morning, keeping streams and sprays low so that wind doesn’t carry the spray, and adjusting to seasonal conditions. Regulators, check valves and timers are most effective resources for not overwatering a property with a severe slope.

Layout of irrigation systems has crossed the realm of science into an art form. The need to conserve water is growing and thankfully so is irrigation product innovation. Customers with obsolete sprinkler systems would be best advised to consider updating to smart controllers and more efficient sprinklers or rotors, at a minimum. It will benefit the health of their lawns and flowerbeds and save them money.