In a region of the world where rainfall is the subject of prayer and water more precious than crude oil, Israel became known for agricultural miracles, as drip irrigation let the desert bloom. In the early days of that nation, targeted drip irrigation was a way for farmers to dole out just enough water to the plants and crops that needed it.
Sixty years later, right here in North America, the landscaping environment has gone ‘green’. Not merely for the color of grass and shrubs, but for a burgeoning movement that seems to bring a new story every day about diminishing water reserves in the aquifers, effluent water recycling, rainwater harvesting, soaring utility bills, and irrigation restrictions due to drought.
America is not the bone-dry Middle East, but water is finally being seen here as the precious and limited commodity it is. Our population continues to grow, but the amount of water available still remains constant.
In this new green environment, low-volume irrigation has found its footing—or at least, its tubing. The national move toward drip makes sense. Whether the terrain is residential or commercial, drip or lowflow is a proven water-saver. With low-flow and drip, water is delivered in quantities measured in fractions of gallons-per-hour (gph), instead of gallons-per-minute (gpm).
There are advantages to installing low-volume irrigation, too. Low-volume—or low flow—irrigation is unlikely to be banned during a drought, because of the minimum quantities of water delivered by low-pressure emitters, low-volume spitters, and bubblers.
Low-volume irrigation promotes healthy plant growth, because a precise amount of water can be delivered to a plant in a targeted way, via emitters, bubblers, and sprays. Water can be steered to the trees, plants, and shrubs that need it and away from those that don’t, which reduces the chances of harmful diseases and fungi taking hold on stems or trunks.
There are more benefits. Targeted low-volume products protect hardscapes from water exposure and water damage. In addition, drip systems are relatively cheap to install.
Granted, drip is not right for every irrigation situation. However, the question remains: with low-volume irrigation being ideal in so many installations, why isn’t every landscape contractor and irrigation installer a low-flow specialist?
Geography is a piece of the puzzle.
Landscape and irrigation contractors in the dry Southwest are far more likely to have moved toward these low-flow products than those in the more humid Southeast or rainy Midwest, says Nolan Duma, a salesperson at Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Sierra Irrigation Systems.
“Most everyone around here uses drip,” Duma says. “It’s widely accepted because it makes so much sense. Even municipalities are moving toward it.”
In more waterlogged parts of the country, though, when landscape contractors think ‘irrigation,’ they don’t think ‘drip.’ “It’s an oversight that reduces a contractor’s profit,” says Craig Pisarkiwicz, who does outside sales for the St. Louis, Missouri, irrigation supply firm MPR.
Pisarkiwicz has been involved with low-volume irrigation since 1980, when his father brought drip technology to a plastic plumbing supply company that he owned. That firm was acquired by MPR in 1998; Pisarkiwicz has handled their low-flow irrigation sales ever since.
Pisarkiwicz believes that even in temperate, north-of-the-Mason- Dixon-line areas—those places where customers only think about watering between July 4th and Labor Day, and most irrigation is aimed at keeping expanses of lawns green—contractors who understand the practical and cost-saving benefits of low-flow systems will come to employ them as part of their irrigation arsenal.
Much of the difficulty is with what Pisarkiwicz calls “cultural resistance.” That is, landscape professionals who comfortably swing the hammer of conventional sprinkler heads and underground piping installations with a computerized central controller just aren’t willing to venture into another irrigation technology.
“There is willingness to leave profit on the table if it means learning a new set of skills that is outside their comfort zone,” he says. Contractors feel comfortable with the old technology, even if it’s not the most efficient or most cost-effective for a particular landscape. They consider low-volume installation more difficult, when actually it’s just different.
“What I’m saying,” Pisarkiwicz concludes, “is that psychological blocks, more than good reasoning, are getting in the way.”
Kevin Rantin, senior product manager for drip irrigation at Rain Bird, agrees with Pisarkiwicz’s assessment. “One of the biggest psychological blocks that landscape contractors and irrigation professionals have is that they just aren’t sure about how to estimate and bid jobs where low-flow irrigation is a component,” Rantin believes. “With conventional irrigation, they have the wisdom that comes with experience. What’s funny is that the estimating curve for low-volume is easy to ascend.”
Rantin says that his company is doing everything it can to demystify low-volume technology and give
landscape professionals quick and easy wisdom in the classroom that might normally come with experience in the field.
“We run our Rain Bird Academy all over the country,” Rantin explains, “where contractors can come and spend a full day, or even more, learning about drip and low-flow irrigation. We teach them everything there is to know, from how to install drip systems, to the differences in tubing, to tips on how to estimate and bid jobs.”
“We’ve already got a number of online tools to help the contractor,” Rantin says. “We have installation videos that show them how to set things up, as well as show them how to do a conversion from spray to drip. We have a drip line calculator to help calculate how much drip line will be needed for a particular project. We can help determine flow rates. We’re constantly looking for new online tools.”
The drip irrigation pioneer Netafim, with American headquarters in Fresno, California, takes a similarly pro-active stance toward educating landscape and irrigation contractors, according to director of marketing Diane Noecker. Netafim’s training takes place at the local level, via their various distributors. Like Rain Bird, Netafim is significantly increasing its online training capabilities, as well. Their website features helpful videos and animations.
Savvy irrigation and landscape contractors are moving to integrate drip technology, even in what would seem to be unlikely regions of the country. For example, steamy, rainy Louisiana is probably the last place that you would expect to find drip irrigation at any place but a university agricultural extension demonstration project. Residential and commercial customers are used to their lawns and gardens getting drenched by rainfall.
But when a landscape contractor like Cindy Jordan, president of Sugar Magnolia Landscaping in Carencro, Louisiana, says that she often suggests that her customers do at least some low-flow irrigation, it’s worth taking notice.
“Even here in Louisiana,” Jordan declares, “we’re going to have spells of weather where it doesn’t rain. Now, I understand that in a place with so much rain, people don’t normally want to spend that much money per zone to install an irrigation system with pop-up sprinkler heads. They figure Mother Nature will take care of the grass. But their annual beds are a lot more vulnerable to a dry spell. That’s why I’ll often suggest that they at least set up a low-volume micro-sprinkler system to cover plants or annual beds.”
Jordan goes on to say that above-ground drip line can be installed less expensively than conventional buried-line spray irrigation, and keep at least some of your plantings alive when a dry spell hits.
Thirteen hundred miles north of Carencro, in the Vermont community of Colchester, the irrigation firm of Aquarius Landscape Sprinkler has also made profitable use of low-flow technology in a state that one associates more with maple syrup and snowy winters than with low humidity and little rainfall.
Ten years ago, drip wasn’t in the company’s vocabulary, according to president Rick Villamil. Today, Villamil estimates that half of his projects involve low-volume irrigation.
“It just makes sense for so many applications. Here in Vermont, where we’re often pumping water uphill from private wells that have an output of four to six gallons per minute, drip is the perfect irrigation delivery system. Low flow saves water, and saves pumping costs.”
Villamil notes that his company has had success as well with drip in green roof applications. “We did a green roof project at the airport in Burlington, Vermont, where conventional sprinkler heads would have been out of the question. There, subsurface drip irrigation was the perfect solution. It would work, I think, with nearly all garage rooftops.”
All those we spoke to agreed that there were certain common objections to the use of low-volume irrigation.
The first common objection comes from the fact that drip emitters are often at soil level, and don’t have the pop-up-and-let-it-fly, can’t-miss-it-unless-you’re-blind visibility of high-pressure sprinkler heads. The objection could come like this: “How do I know it’s even working?” Villamil points out that contractors particularly hear this objection early
in the growing season, before plant life has a chance to come out of dormancy and ‘green up.’ There are two good answers. One is, of course, that you’ll see the targeted plants and shrubs thriving.
However, for those users who insist on visual confirmation, the major drip manufacturers are making ‘tell’ emitters that you can attach to the drip line. These emitters act like miniature water fountains, spraying a thin water plume into the air where it can be seen, while the rest of the water is delivered to its target.
“Customers used to seeing sprinklers find this very reassuring,” Rantin reports, “even when their plant life is doing fine.”
The next common objection has to do with upkeep and durability. Customers and property managers may be used to irrigation systems that require little maintenance—systems where a few dozen high-pressure, pop-up sprinkler heads are responsible for watering thousands of square feet. A broken sprinkler head can be easily replaced, and a computerized central controller can tell you if there’s some larger problem in the system.
The concern about upkeep and durability is also largely psychological, though low volume does require a certain amount of attention to keep filters clean and emitters clear of debris. Overall, though, modern low-flow equipment is highly durable.
In an ongoing, long-term study at Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Extension Service in College Station, Texas, engineers are examining subsurface drip systems from various manufacturers, under punishing conditions. The verdict after four years: no clogging problems, and no drip line degradation when the equipment is installed properly. According to Dr. Guy Fipps, professor and extension agricultural engineer at the AgriLife Extension Service, who’s running the study, all manufacturers’ drip lines and emit- ters have proved equally durable. “Our technical issues have arisen from incorrect installation, poor water pressure control, and mowing by people who didn’t realize there were drip lines under the areas where they ran their tractors,” reports Fipps. “Also, we’ve learned that with clay soils that might dry with clay soils that might dry out and compress, it’s important to run your drip system occasionally, even in winter, to keep the soil moist.”
Landscape contractors and irrigation specialists need to be at the forefront when it comes to the smart use of water. Micro irrigation isn’t the whole answer, but not using it at least some of the time is wrong answer. Add it to your the wrong answer. Add it to your irrigation repertoire for this new growing season, and you’ll both be going ‘green’ and watching your profits grow along with whatever you’re watering.