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Hitting Its Stride: Low-Volume Irrigation

ELIZABETH LEXAU | Drip Irrigation - Low Flow

Drip irrigation systems apply water at low pressure and low volume directly to or near the root zone of plants. Because water is applied slowly, less is lost to runoff and evaporation. Customers can enjoy their green and healthy landscapes while avoiding water bill sticker shock. Drip systems are also flexible and can be easily adapted to accommodate changes in the landscape.

Drip isn’t right for every application, but when it’s a good fit and knowledgeable contractors explain its benefits, it can be an easy sell.

Despite its growing popularity, there is still a great deal of room for growth in the low-volume irrigation market. Contractors who are well-versed in designing, installing, and marketing drip systems have many opportunities ahead, even in an economy where new construction has fizzled.

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Low-volume options

Low-volume systems come in many flavors.

Drippers or drip emitters deliver water directly to plants at ground level through a wide assortment of devices that the installer inserts into flexible poly tubing. Emitters can be chosen to fit the individual moisture requirements of different plant species.

In-line drip tubing or dripperline is flexible tubing that already includes built-in emitters spaced at regular intervals. In-line drip tubing is used to saturate an entire area or row of plants.

Bubblers deliver small streams of water in umbrella patterns or half circles. These are useful for larger plants, containers, shrubs and trees.

Microsprays apply large droplets, fine streams or sprays of water a few inches above the ground in a variety of patterns to accommodate variously shaped planting beds. Also available are pop-up microsprays that retract to ground level when not in use.

Drip irrigation tubing is typically installed above ground or buried under mulch. However, some products are also suitable for subsurface installations, including turf applications. Here, dripperline is buried underground and used to saturate an entire area. Designers integrate factors such as soil type, slope, application rate and spacing into their systems to achieve even saturation.

Spreading the word

Drip irrigation has been a household word on the West Coast and arid regions of the U.S. for a number of years. But in places like the Midwest, where water shortages have been less pressing, the technology has been slower to catch on. That’s all changing now.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth in drip in our area,” says Steve Bielski, owner of Clearwater Irrigation, Chanhassen, Minnesota. “In the past, many families didn’t even know that drip was available. Contractors weren’t using it because they didn’t know anything about it or how to install it.”

In a few short years, all that has changed. “Our distributors have done a nice job of educating contractors,” says Bielski. “Now, the market dictates that you have to offer drip, and most irrigation professionals in our area work with it. It’s the most efficient way to water.”

Phil LeBlanc, sales and marketing manager for Antelco, Longwood, Florida, says this trend is reflected throughout the country. “It’s gone from most contractors not knowing about it or avoiding it to most offering it. I’ve been involved with drip irrigation for thirty years and the biggest push has been in the last ten years.”

There are diverse reasons for this. “On the West Coast, it used to be that the cost of water was the driving force,” says LeBlanc. “Now it’s the shortage of water. Conservation awareness is also a lot stronger at the consumer level. Many homeowners are being introduced to drip in the retail sector. They see it in stores and inquire about adding it to an existing system.”

Consumer interest in sustainable solutions is a big factor. “Whether it’s a homeowner or a municipality, consumers want to do the right thing,” says Todd Polderman, product manager, valves and micro-irrigation, at Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California.

“They want to have the most efficient system possible and they’re looking to things like drip irrigation, weather-based controllers and efficient sprinklers.”

The shortage of clean water has led many municipalities to promote the use of drip through restrictions on conventional overhead watering and incentives for low-volume alternatives. This is spurring more contractors to jump on board.

“Texas comes to mind,” says Samir Shah, marketing manager, Rain Bird landscape drip division. “In 2009, Texas came out with new rules and regulations that mandated low-volume and drip irrigation in many situations. Previously, many people there hadn’t embraced drip irrigation as much. Now, suddenly everyone is scrambling to do it.”

Acceptance hasn’t come without some reluctance. “ We've been selling this product for more than thirty years and it’s always been a struggle to encourage people to use it in the landscape, ” says Susan Thayer, president of Maxijet, Dundee, Florida. “They were so used to high-volume products; they didn’t have enough of a reason to switch. Now, with so many states having extreme droughts, things have changed. For some, change is not comfortable but it’s one of those things that will have to happen.”

As a former irrigation contractor herself, Thayer knows firsthand what low-volume irrigation can do for both customers and irrigation professionals. “Once they start using it, they realize that they could have been using this years ago and making more profit. It’s less expensive and so much more efficient. Homeowners are happy with it because they aren’t drowning their plants. Whether you’re using microsprays, drippers or inline drip tube, it puts out water at a rate plants can absorb. This helps prevent a lot of fungus and diseases.”

Bielski says one of the driving forces in his market was the fact that more architects began requiring low-volume irrigation for commercial sites. “It’s cost effective to install and this protects the architect’s investment,” he says. “That has a trickle-down effect on the residential market.”

He also says drip provides an easy solution for a common problem.

“One challenge here is that we have so many different environmental zones, even within one family home,” says Bielski. “It will be sunny in the back and shady in the front. Some people want to water everything the same way. People are drowning their plants while starving the turf. It just makes more sense to separate it into turf zones using sprays and rotors on turf, and drip zones using drip irrigation on plant material.”

Quality builds confidence 

The quality and availability of products has also attracted more fans to drip. “It used to have a reputation of not being the most sustainable system,” says Polderman.

“Major manufacturers are now offering full lines of drip irrigation and the level of quality of those offered has improved.”

Bielski has noticed. “It seems that manufacturers are producing more products for drip irrigation and the parts are becoming better and better. The tubing itself is more flexible and consistent. The ability to control the flow of the water has gotten much better. Also the control valves and filtering systems have gotten better. This all leads to longer lasting, more dependable installations.”

Marketing opportunities

Despite the recession, contractors who look can find a number of opportunities in a market where budget minded consumers are looking for cost saving enhancements.

Retrofits have become big business. Retrofit kits make it easy to convert zones in conventional systems to drip. This way, customers can continue to use their overhead sprinkler system on part of their landscape while converting areas like flower beds to drip.

“This makes it easy for contractors to understand and sell,” says Shah. “All you have to do is cap off all but one spray head on a zone. Install a drop-in kit and you can run drip emitters from there. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Contractors are getting more business, while homeowner can save water and money.”

Staying on top of rebate programs in your area and promoting them is one avenue.

Vijaya Gajjala, president of Hortus Design Sustainable Landscapes, Palo Alto, California, gives customers beautiful, environmentally-efficient yards by reducing turf, using low-water use plants and installing drip irrigation. Her modifications help customers earn cash back, too.

“We collaborate with Santa Clara County, which gives rebates to customers for reducing water consumption,” says Gajjala. “We bring county staff to the client’s property and show them how we will reduce water consumption. After the job is done, they inspect it again and the customers get rebates.”

She recommends networking and keeping close tabs on changes in your area. “Attend all the county meetings. Be aware of water ordinances. I go to those so I can come back and tell my customers about these programs.”

Marketing the convenience of drip is another avenue. “One good opportunity for us is offering drip irrigation not only in bedding plants but in flower pots and on decks and patios,” says Bielski. “With this, you don’t have to walk out on the deck at 5:00 in the afternoon and give your petunias a drink of water. It’s all done automatically and it works very well. There’s tremendous room for growth there.”

It’s important to note that drip irrigation isn’t a cure-all. It’s just one component of a water-efficient landscape.

“The trend we see is that micro-irrigation is playing a more prevalent role, but we view it as just one of the tools in the toolbox,” says Polderman. “We’re not fans of throwing the drip blanket over every application. We have other equipment that’s very efficient for other applications.”

With poor design, even a low-volume system can waste a lot of water. Smart controllers, efficient sprinklers, rain and moisture sensors, and the design of the landscape itself all go into the efficiency equation.

“An efficient system is made up of parts and how they all go together,” says LeBlanc.

“That system includes design, installation, quality components and control and maintenance of the system. Efficiency will depend on how drip and the total system are integrated with smart controllers and water management as a whole.”


...professional organizations, distributors, and local extension agencies are all sources of free or lowcost seminars on drip irrigation and other conservationoriented technologies.

He says contractors with a wellrounded approach help ensure that systems operate at maximum efficiency.

“We’re seeing better integration where the installer becomes the maintenance person and also handles the scheduling. There’s also more integration between irrigation and landscaping. Many irrigation contractors are becoming more knowledgeable about plants and their specific needs. This adds to their credibility. There are more opportunities available to the person who can incorporate the big picture and offer the consumer a well-rounded knowledge base.”

In an industry that’s rapidly evolving, continuing education on the best, most efficient tools available is critical. The Irrigation Association and other professional organizations, distributors, and local extension agencies are all sources of free or low-cost seminars on drip irrigation and other conservation-oriented technologies.

Taking the time to educate yourself and your staff on these systems will pay off in the expertise you can provide to customers who are eager to save money and do the right thing.

 
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