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Water Conservation: Get Serious, Get Smart

ELIZABETH LEXAU | Landscape

THERE’S NEVER BEEN A BETTER time to develop your water conservation IQ. The word is out: water is recognized as a limited resource everywhere—even in areas not yet hit hard by shortages.

In response, government agencies and consumers alike are demanding a more efficient use of water, especially when it comes to landscape irrigation. In a few short years, water-efficient landscaping has evolved from one of those “Gee, what a nice thing to do” concepts into a set of “Do it, or else” requirements.

With today’s enhanced irrigation technologies and the popularity of low-water use landscapes, it’s easier than ever to meet this demand. However, not all contractors are taking advantage of this market or educating themselves on the new technologies. This gives contractors who’ve already jumped on the bandwagon a big head-start.

“You have to be water conscious right now,” says Erik Vaisey, president, Vaisey Irrigation, Inc., Marshfield, Massachusetts. “One of my goals is to help educate my customer on these issues.” His company has been actively promoting efficient irrigation for years.

Vaisey, an EPA WaterSense Partner and a Certified Irrigation Contractor through the Irrigation Association, says he’s sometimes frustrated by those who practice irrigation without an adequate level of training. This can hurt conservation efforts, he says, when customers shop based on price alone.

“I’m often bidding against people who don’t really understand irrigation,” he says. “I prefer that customers do a little research before selecting a contractor. The more they know, the easier my job is.”

With the booming consumer interest in all things green, Vaisey’s experience in sustainable irrigation is paying off. He says programs like WaterSense help by keeping him up-to-date on efficient technologies while giving his customers a recognizable symbol of his expertise. “It’s another way to let people know that I care about conservation.”01_1.jpg

Strategic landscape planning

Landscape professionals with enlightened irrigation techniques take several approaches when creating water-efficient landscapes. The design of the landscape itself and the choice of plant materials have a major impact. The use of alternative water sources like rainwater harvesting can increase the amount of water available for irrigation. Finally, a well-designed irrigation system and innovative water-conserving products help squeeze more out of any available water.

In many places, the diminishing water supply has greatly altered the perception of what an “acceptable” landscape is. Native plantings, Xeriscapes, and other gardens that were formerly considered “alternative” are now becoming a common sight in average American properties.

“We’re seeing fewer stretches of green lawn and more areas with walkable ground covers and lowwater use plantings,” says Ivy Munion, principal, ISC Group, Inc., a Livermore, California irrigation consulting firm. “These plantings still give you that green look but with much less water.”

More people are reserving turf for use in the recreational areas of their property. Low water-use turf varieties are also gaining in popularity.

“Turf growers are being very proactive in offering products that are pleasing to the end user yet reduce overall maintenance, mowing and water,” says Munion.

New stricter water-use legislation, such as the updated California Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, is making more people accountable for reducing waste . For example, both landscape designers and irrigation maintenance contractors are playing a bigger role in staying within water allowances.

“The lands cape contractor has to be aware of how much water he has available on the site, then design a plant palette to meet those requirements,” says Dave Pagano, president of d.d. Pagano, Inc., Orange, California. “Once a landscape is designed and installed properly, it’s up to the maintenance contractor to schedule it in such a way that it stays below the water allowance. So they also need to understand the design, plant palette and other factors.”

Grouping plants with similar moisture requirements in the same zone, paying attention to differences in microclimate and contouring the land to better collect water where it’s needed are other ways landscape and irrigation specialists are designing conservation-minded landscapes.

Smart technologies

Today’s efficient irrigation equipment can help professionals make their water go farther no matter where it comes from.

Pagano has seen a lot of changes in technology since designing his first irrigation system in 1957. His company now offers design and consulting services for large-scale projects like colleges, schools, residential communities and resorts. Projects for the Walt Disney Corporation have taken him all over the world.

“I’ve seen this industry grow and watched the technologies change,” he says. “It’s been really exciting, especially now. A nozzle, for example, used to be just a piece of brass with some holes punched in. Now manufacturers can actually use sophisticated computers to design a nozzle that breaks up water more efficiently.” Here are just a few of the technological tools available for conserving water:

02_1.jpgRain sensors

Rain sensors are one of the most basic and inexpensive ways to make an irrigation system more efficient. By simply preventing the system from running during or immediately after it rains, they can save a tremendous amount of water.

“I include a rain sensor with every installation,” says Vaisey. “We’ve all seen sprinklers running in the rain. This is a huge waste. A rain sensor allows you to take advantage of what nature offers before using what the town provides.”

Soil moisture sensors

Vaisey is also a big proponent of soil moisture sensors. Sensors buried in the soil are wired to the controller. They “decide” whether or not to run the program based on actual moisture content in the soil.

“These are very easy to install and are so economical ,” says Munion. “They can have a very fast payback, depending on how often the customer waters in the first place.”

Drip/micro irrigation

Drip or micro irrigation is a lowvolume approach that slowly delivers water directly to the root zone of plants. Water is emitted either through flexible tubing with regularly spaced holes or through a variety of emitters.

Drip saves water and eliminates runoff. It helps control weeds because water is typically delivered only to desirable plants. It also leads to healthier landscapes, because the system can be tailored to deliver the optimal amount of water needed for each plant.

Vaisey has been installing drip for a number of years. “In planting beds, we try to do as much drip irrigation as possible,” he says. “A lot of the landscapers I work with request it.”

Efficient sprinklers

There has been a great deal of innovation in sprinklers recently. Multi-stream rotating nozzles or mini rotors are one example. These small rotary nozzles fit into a spray head body and deliver water in continuously rotating streams. They apply water uniformly and at a lower rate than a traditional spray head and provide matched precipitation.

“These are great ways to update an old system,” says Munion. “Some older systems were over-watering and had horrible coverage. You can put in mini rotors and have head to head coverage without changing the piping. There are rebate programs that pay for this all up and down California.”

Smart controllers03_2.jpg

Smart controllers are also gaining in popularity among consumers, thanks to rebates, government mandates and education programs like the Irrigation Association’s Smart Water Application Technologies (SWAT) program.

Smart controllers monitor weather and other environmental factors and adjust the watering schedule to fit estimated needs based on current conditions. There are smart controllers for any landscape, from fairly simple budget-friendly residential models to sophisticated systems for large-scale commercial properties.

Munion points out that all of these tools are only as smart as the people pushing the buttons. “Many times the end user sets the controller and that’s it. Even with a smart controller, to get the true savings, you need to first set it and then revisit it. Each site is very specific, and you’re going to have to go back and tweak it for at least a couple of months, then go back and adjust it again as plant material matures.”

Pagano also stresses the importance of maintenance in a water-sustainable,efficient system. “You can have the best design and installation in the world, but if the maintenance contractor is pushing the wrong buttons, you can float the city out to sea.”

Vaisey notes that even basic design and maintenance go a long way toward ensuring an efficient system. “For example, simple adjustment is a big part of it. Make sure the heads are adjusted so water isn’t spraying the sidewalk, hitting the house or throwing ten feet into the street.”

Ensuring matched precipitation is another low-tech, high payoff element of design. “We redid one project yesterday that was poorly designed by someone who seemed to have no concept of irrigation,” he says. “We had to take out fourteen heads. They were using a ridiculous amount of water for the area to be irrigated.”

You don’t have to have a hi-tech system to have an efficient system, he says. “The key is proper design, installation and maintenance. These other things are the next step and will save you even more.”

A healthy harvest04.jpg

Dennis Tober and his son, Chris, of Sustainable Irrigation & Landscaping, Tallahassee, Florida, are taking an active role in educating their community about the importance of water-sustainable landscaping.

“For the last two years, we’ve been running a concentrated education program that includes homeowners, municipalities, regulators, the building community, HOAs and garden groups,” says Dennis Tober. “I’m trying to promote the idea of using rainwater where it lands,” he says. “Instead of letting it run down the street, get it to soak in. Capture what doesn’t soak in and use it later.”

One of Tober’s special interests is rainwater harvesting. An ancient technology for storing water to use in times of drought, rainwater harvesting is quickly gaining new popularity in today’s water-conscious consumer market.

Typical systems include catchment, conveyance, storage and distribution components. Roofs, parking lots, terraces, streets, and other surfaces can all serve as areas to catch runoff. Water is then conveyed through gutters, downspouts or piping to a storage reservoir. These can range from 55-gallon residential rain barrels to large above-ground or underground cisterns. From there, water is pumped and distributed to plants through the irrigation system.

Harvesting rainwater is more than just a way to keep plants green and healthy; it also reduces the amount of polluted runoff entering the stormwater system. It saves on utility bills and helps reduce flooding and erosion problems.

Tober points out that energy conservation is another major benefit. Rainwater harvesting lowers demand on the water supply and saves all the energy it takes to transport and clean municipal water.

Because of these advantages, many communities promote rainwater harvesting through rebates and other incentives. Consumers are eager to take advantage of these incentives and the money-saving and plant-saving benefits of rainwater harvesting. Many are looking for experts who can help.

Tober and his company provide that expertise by designing systems to fit the specific requirements of each property.

“The size of the cistern will depend on a variety of factors, including the size of the roof, the size of the yard, the soil type and whether you’re watering beds or sod, ” says Chris Tober. The company designs and installs new irrigation systems for use with rainwater harvest and also retrofits existing systems.

Professionals like Munion, Vaissey, Pagano, and the Tobers were designing for irrigation efficiency long before there was legislative pressure to do so. Now they are the ones homeowners and commercial enterprises will turn to first for design, installation and maintenance of today’s most efficient irrigation systems.

Are you in their camp? If not, make sure you jump on the bus…before it leaves without you.

 
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