Smart irrigation helps save an important resource

There is only one word to describe the spring and summer of 2009 in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states: wet.

Yet, with all that rain, Rich Bradley of Superscape Landscape and Irrigation Management in East Falmouth, Mass., says that he still passes by landscaping with sprinklers running, pouring more water into the saturated ground.

A center side strip nozzle is used to water this landscape bed for accurate coverage.

On the other hand, he says, the smart irrigation that his company is using has hardly come on at all this year.

“Smart irrigation conserves so much water,” Bradley says. “It allows the water to be used to its best potential rather than wasting it.”

Conserving water is strictly legislated in Massachusetts. Even though there is plenty of water, especially after a wet spring and summer, many communities in the commonwealth draw their water from rivers and streams, and the waters are receding. The Department of Environmental Protection is already limiting water use to 65 gallons per day per capita, and there is proposed legislation that will restrict that water use even more.

Water used for landscaping and other outdoor use is taking the brunt of this restriction. As water use in Massachusetts comes under even tougher scrutiny, Bradley says using smart controllers for irrigation makes a lot of sense.

He has been using smart irrigation technology for the past five years. He uses a variety of different types of systems. For example, he has a number of Weathermatic controllers to measure precipitation and evaporation, but he also uses soil sensors. The type of system used isn’t as important as using it properly.

“Setting up a bad system isn’t going to be efficient,” he says.

When setting up landscape irrigation, Bradley needs to take into consideration the amount of water already used on the property, and set up the controllers as best he can to keep the property within the legal usage limits. It’s not easy, he says. “With house meters, you have to guess what the water usage is.”

It’s a fine line that Bradley and others in the industry have to straddle to make sure Massachusetts turf stays healthy. “New England soil won’t hold water if you only irrigate once or twice a week,” he says. “You need to know the site well—the soil type, the shade, the water evaporation—to ensure the smart meters are working properly.”

As the commonwealth becomes more strict about water use, Bradley says he believes policies are coming that will require not only smart irrigation, but also certification to install irrigation systems. “You know,” he says, “what happens in California eventually gets followed in the East.” Smart irrigation is an idea that makes sense, he says.

Ron Charlton, Aqua Tech-Orange Irrigation in New Hampton, N.Y., agrees. “The whole nation is going to eventually go to smart and drip irrigation to conserve water,” he says.

In the Hudson Valley area that Charlton’s company serves, many customers rely on well water. As a result, it isn’t uncommon for people to overwater their landscaping. Charlton also adds that June 2009 was extremely wet, so people might not be thinking much about water conservation. However, he believes it is important to be forward thinking when it comes to irrigation.

Ron Charlton of Aqua-Tech Orange Irrigation serves the Hudson Valley area in New York. He believes that eventually the whole nation will be using smart irrigation to conserve water.

“This year was the wettest on record, but next year might be a drought,” he says.

Charlton’s company installs Rain Bird irrigation systems, and each installation has a rain sensor on it. “A quarter-inch of rain will shut the system down,” he says.

Irrigation in New York has a lot of variables to consider, Charlton says. The systems are usually turned on in early spring. The irrigation season has cool nights in the spring but very hot summer days. Soil conditions are also unpredictable. One property could have shale, while the one across the street might have clay. Newer developments often have good topsoil taken away to be sold, and what’s left is a poorer quality of soil to work with.

“Irrigation depends on that soil, as well as the turf,” Charlton says. “Water goes right through shale; clay has to be watered twice a day. But, you have to know all that information going into the irrigation project so it can be properly programmed.”

In addition to the smart irrigation system, Charlton also uses drip irrigation that goes right down to the roots of plants. “That way we aren’t wasting any water,” he says.

Encouraging more people to use smart irrigation could be easier if approached the right way. “Everything is ‘going green’ these days,” Charlton says, and more citizens understand the need to be more eco-aware. Using that line of thinking, it should follow that more people are willing to save water to landscape with smart irrigation.

That’s what Matt Bohn sees as driving his customers toward smart irrigation. “People want to reduce consumption,” he says. “They are also looking for LEED credits. Smart irrigation allows them to reduce water use, but also reduce operating expenses and energy.”

Ron Charlton has installed drip irrigation in this landscape bed in a client’s backyard.

Like Superscape Landscape and Irrigation Management, Bohn’s company, Bluewater Irrigation in Annapolis, Md., uses a variety of smart systems on commercial properties and large estates. “We work with some ET [evapotranspiration] controllers, and we use some that are soil-based,” Bohn says. “We customize the irrigation system to fit the needs of individual customers.”

The system is also site-specific. On large expanses of turf, Bohn uses an ET controller that is Internet capable, allowing property managers to monitor irrigation and troubleshoot problems while sitting at their office computer.

Water savings from smart controllers can be upwards of millions of gallons, and with that comes significant savings in water and energy bills. Bohn adds that what you save also depends on what you invest. Systems are expensive, and smaller sites may not see the turnaround in savings as quickly as larger sites. It might then be better to think small.

In Maryland, water is cheap and plentiful right now, Bohn says, but as the population grows, so will with the demand for water. “And you know how it goes,” he says, “the more the demand, the less the supply. Right now in Maryland, there are no specific regulations when it comes to irrigation, anyone can install an irrigation system.” Inexperienced installers or poor systems can lead to the waste of literally tons of water.

Bohn thinks using smart irrigation is a start in the right direction toward water conservation in landscaping, “but smart irrigation is not, and should not be, the whole picture. We need to look at the whole packaging of irrigation: spray heads, drip irrigation, rotors that use less energy. We need to look at rainwater conservation.”

The positive thing is that an increasing number of people want to do what they can to save water. “Unfortunately, right now these systems are price driven,” he says. “Customers want to install them, but they don’t have the funds to do so. As technology improves, the prices will come down, and more people will take advantage of the opportunity to improve landscape irrigation.”

The author is a freelance writer who writes for a variety of trade and B2B publications, covering topics from sustainable living to construction and landscaping/lawn care. She resides in State College, Pa.