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Low-Volume Irrigation Comes Into Its Own

ELIZABETH LEXAU | Irrigation

Also referred to as “drip irrigation” or “micro-irrigation,” low-volume irrigation is a method of delivering water slowly, at low pressure, close to the root zone of plants. It uses flexible tubing and a wide array of emission devices, including drip emitters, in-line emitter tubing, microsprays, bubblers and more, to create customized installations designed to meet the varying moisture needs of plants.

This technology has been gaining widespread favor among property owners, contractors, and municipalities as a way to maintain green and healthy plants using very little water. In fact, when communities enact restrictions that limit when, where, and how people can water their landscapes, it’s not uncommon for them to include exemptions specifically for low-volume irrigation.

The efficiency of low-volume irrigation is multifaceted. For starters, as the name implies, these products dispense much less water to begin with. Flow is typically measured in gallons per hour versus gallons per minute. Because water is delivered at or near ground level, very little is lost to evaporation, wind and runoff. Systems can be tailored to deliver optimal amounts of water to desired plants without watering undesired plants nearby.

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This results in faster growth, healthier plants and fewer pests. It’s no wonder low-volume irrigation is getting a lot of attention these days. “Drip and low-volume irrigation is a fast growing segment of the irrigation equipment market,” says James Podein, marketing manager for Rain Bird Corporation, Glendora, California. “When you understand some of the driving forces in the market, it becomes clear why it’s growing in popularity and will continue to grow.” Consumers know about low-volume irrigation. They want it and they want contractors who can deliver it.

“Today’s contractor is missing the boat if he doesn’t offer his customer low-volume irrigation options,” says Phil LeBlanc, sales and new business manager for Antelco, Longwood, Florida. “The consumer is well versed in water conservation issues and wants to participate and be an active partner in conserving this natural resource. To compete in today’s marketplace, you have to know low-volume irrigation.”

Water-conscious consumers

Public awareness of water as a limited, valuable resource is one of the most powerful forces driving demand for low-volume irrigation. “Concerns about water shortages and droughts have accelerated the sales growth of low-volume irrigation products,” says Stuart Spaulding, customer service manager for DIG Corporation, Vista, California. “The restrictions imposed by municipalities are designed to conserve water and prevent water shortages from occurring, especially during drought periods.”

This gives low-volume irrigation an edge. “With water restrictions becoming more prevalent, drip irrigation becomes more appealing, since it bypasses most restrictions,” says Ben Raines, marketing manager for DIG Corporation.

These restrictions are somewhat of a canary in a coal mine. In some areas, like the Southwest, water conservation has been a major focus for many years, but when we see these restrictions showing up in places like the Midwest and the Great Lakes states, as they are now, it becomes obvious that things are changing.

7.jpgEven in the absence of regulations, though, it’s no secret that conservation issues motivate many consumer decisions today. Consumers want to do the green thing and this is one reason they’re asking for drip.

“Demand in our area has developed around the Xeriscaping trend in the Colorado Front Range,” says Mike Winchell of Mill Creek Designs, Dumont, Colorado. “Drip is a perfect solution for watering a large Xeriscape yard.” Conservation isn’t the only thing motivating consumers. “Another driving force is the price of water,” says Podein. “In almost all areas of the United States, water prices are increasing significantly, and that trend is forecasted to continue.”

LeBlanc agrees. “What is driving this increased cost is energy related to pumping, water pressure, and moving the water from place to place. Anytime the end-user can use less water and still get the same or better results, he is interested.”

Learning low-volume

This increased demand is leading contractors in all parts of the country to pump up their knowledge of low-volume techniques. “Either cities are mandating it or contractors are recognizing on their own that they have to use more efficient methods,” says Travis Komara, president of Salco Products, Fontana, California. “Many contractors have opted to go to school and learn before they are forced to do so.”

For many irrigation professionals, developing expertise in low-volume irrigation is simply the right thing to do. “I lean toward conservation, I always have,” says Gregg Catanese, owner of G. Catanese Landscape Services, Saratoga, California. “I came into landscaping with an environmental mindset. I try to practice irrigation that conserves water rather than wasting it. Water is a precious commodity and becoming more so all the time.”

The design flexibility of drip irrigation makes it attractive to consumers and contractors alike. The flexible tubing and the variety of emission devices make it easy to design systems that fit irregularly shaped or narrow planting beds. It’s ideally suited for container plantings and can also be used with fertigation to apply nutrients and other water soluble products directly through the irrigation system.

“I like the versatility of low-volume irrigation,” says Catanese. “One of the biggest advantages is that it’s more malleable. You can change and add things over the long haul. But to do this you have to be sure to design in enough capacity to begin with. That way you can expand the system to accommodate growth and changes.”

Low-volume installations are sometimes used in addition to traditional overhead watering on the same property in areas where overhead watering is deemed more appropriate. For example, overhead watering might be used on turf areas and drip irrigation on the planting beds. However, some low-volume products are specifically designed for use in turf applications through sub-surface drip irrigation.

The options for customizing are limitless. Komara points out that today’s generation of irrigation professionals want options like these to create intelligent, uniquely tailored installations. “They say, ‘Give me as much information as possible and let me make the best decision.’ Instead of using a cookie cutter approach to make a system fit an application, they’re actually designing a system around an application. It’s a way to provide a much higher quality installation that’s more water efficient and more profitable as well.”

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Marketing

With more public information available on drip, Winchell has found it easy to market this technology. “When I tell my customers about drip, they do a little research themselves and are sold on the concept. Many people want a simple system to water plants, one that only uses what is necessary and is not wasteful. With drip, we can route water right to the plant base. Most of it is useful to the plant so efficiency is much higher.”

Winchell also sells drip irrigation to consumers who weren’t necessarily planning on an irrigation installation but are looking for a break from hand watering their new plantings.

“We sell many systems with our new landscapes because we show customers how much time they’ll save by having a drip system instead of manually watering plants,” he says. “We offer a longer warranty on plants and trees when a customer hires us to do the drip in correlation with the planting.”

Whether you call it drip, micro, or low-volume, it’s important to remember that it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to smart irrigation technology. Coupling it with other efficient technologies will create lean, streamlined installations.

“I try to combine low-volume irrigation with other kinds of smart watering tools, such as ET-based timers,” says Catanese. “I’ve also been making the shift to sprinkler nozzles that are more efficient at putting down water, such as Hunter’s MP Rotator. Drip is just another arrow in my quiver. I look at myself as a problem solver. It’s another tool I can apply to solving problems.”

There was a time when drip irrigation had mixed success in landscape applications. Drip got its start in agriculture. When it was introduced into the landscape market, there were a few bugs. Since that time, higher quality, easier-to-use components and better education have given drip a long-term record of success.

“Low-volume is hardly new any more,” says LeBlanc. “It has been around for over thirty years and most contractors know what to look out for now.” Komara agrees. “Technology is light-years ahead of where it was then and acceptance has definitely increased. Municipalities in particular, which had once shied away from drip, have really embraced this technology.”

He says negative connotations have diminished as more people investigate low-volume technology on their own. “Like anything else, when a finite resource is diminished, it opens people’s eyes and they start to do more independent research. Success stories are readily available on the internet and other places. The best salespeople for low-volume irrigation tend to be other professionals in the industry who have been successful with it.”

Spreading the word

5.jpgEducation is helping keep the drip success story growing. “State and local irrigation chapters and the Irrigation Association as well as many colleges and universities offer training and certification programs in low-volume irrigation," says LeBlanc. “They have done an excellent job over the years in providing training that has generated a multitude of highly trained and qualified contractors available to design and install low-volume irrigation. The savvy contractor would do well to advertise the fact that their company is low-volume trained and qualified.”

For those new to drip, getting started is fairly simple. The components themselves are relatively inexpensive. Contractors can start small, become familiar with a few brands and emission devices and expand their repertoire from there.

“Go to trade shows, take courses, read installation guides and how-to books, talk to dealers and experienced installers,” says Spaulding. “Then install a practice system or two. There is no substitute for experience.”

Consumer education is also key. “Education on the part of contractors and consumers is very important,” says Catanese, “both on water use in general and on low-volume irrigation. I try not to be arrogant about it. I try to educate but not lecture. I ease it into the conversation.”

His knowledge of drip and other smart irrigation technologies keeps him ahead of the competition and helps identify him as a true irrigation expert—one who’s worth the money. “The way for me to distinguish myself is to stay educated, to stay informed, to understand new trends in more efficient irrigation and to be aware of new concerns about water conservation,” he says. “One of my roles is to help inform and educate my customers. They respect me for that.”

This attitude has kept customers coming back for more for many years. “I have one customer who calls me his irrigation guru,” says Catanese. “I’m the go-to irrigation guy for a lot of my customers and landscaper friends. I have many properties that I’ve kept green and growing through several owners.”

Drip irrigation, micro-irrigation, low-volume irrigation—no matter what you call it, it’s always a part of the vocabulary of an efficient irrigation professional.

 
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