Outdoors But Not Out of Bounds

Nov. 22, 2011

According to EPA, of an estimated 29 billion gallons of water used daily by US households, 30%—nearly 9 billion gallons—is devoted to outdoor water use. In dry climates, that usage can reach as high as 70%. As such, irrigation is one of the biggest water use concerns for many municipalities. Landscape architects’ designs are now placing as much importance on water efficiency as aesthetics.

Jonathan Mueller, president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), says water management and conservation “have really come to the forefront as a critical issue for both design professionals and contractors alike. It is now an important aspect of project planning instead of an afterthought.”

Mueller says municipalities are “finally getting on board in response to their accelerating demand for water. While we’re not at 100% coverage, municipalities and other forms of local government are instituting programs that vary from voluntary measures tied to rates based on consumption, to out-and-out restrictions on volume and times of use.”

Mueller notes many partnerships are taking place between municipalities and landscape architects and/or contractors in terms of rebate programs or working on city-owned properties or large commercial interests.

“Some cities out there are leading in a big way because of the rising costs of providing domestic water to their rate payers,” he says. “Domestic irrigation use represents significant consumption and an opportunity for significant savings through better management and more efficient application on not only private landscapes, but the myriad of public landscapes as well.”

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of efficient irrigation technologies.

ASLA members are noting significant progress in water-saving irrigation products in the marketplace, with master control systems being the norm, says Mueller.

“Use of weather stations, soil sensors, and flow regulators have all added greater precision to the application of water,” he says. “Drip irrigation is more widespread in its use. Higher efficiency heads for smaller spaces with residential and commercial applications are now widely used, which give substantial reductions in irrigation-based consumption.”

Continuing various education programs is a “must”, says Mueller.

“In America, we’ve always seen consumption as a right. These education programs are changing that,” he adds.

While landscape architects have always provided leadership in the area of water efficiency in the design phase of a landscape, “with the advent of LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design], and now the Sustainable Sites Initiative, there is more of an integrated approach on the table earlier in the process with clients,” points out Mueller.

Viable alternatives include water harvesting, capture, and reuse of graywater and/or use of treated sewage effluent.

“Landscapes based on less thirsty and regional native plant palettes are emerging in creative ways never seen before,” says Mueller.

But sometimes that can be a tough sell, as many government officials prefer “tidy and clipped” community landscapes, he notes.

The industry is seeing better sourcing for native plants.

“Landscape contractors also are better educated as to new products and applications,” says Mueller. “They are also able to make money with less effort and intensity of labor and equipment.”

Smart Irrigation Month is an initiative created by the Irrigation Association (IA)—a membership organization for irrigation companies and professionals—to promote efficient watering practices, water-use efficiency and technologically advanced irrigation products to business partners, customers, and water end users. It was established to increase the public’s awareness of water efficiency during summer’s peak demand.

IA’s Smart Irrigation Month Committee launched an online toolkit for water providers to help them promote irrigation efficiency. The free kit—made for water providers by water providers—is available at www.irrigation.org/sim/waterproviders and offers tips and articles designed to be distributed to customers, as well as sample press releases and logos for promoting Smart Irrigation Month.

The toolkit includes:

  • A sample proclamation for local governments declaring July as Smart Irrigation Month
  • Sample press releases to inform local media that July is Smart Irrigation Month and pre-recorded public service announcements to play on local radio stations
  • Statement stuffers with simple watering tips
  • Social media guidelines and tips ready for use on Facebook and Twitter
  • A coloring book and puzzle book for distribution at schools and community events
  • Smart Irrigation Month logo artwork for marketing efforts and educational articles for use in newsletters or on the Web
  • A case study on partnering with local irrigation experts

A Model Partnership
One example promoted by the IA as a model of partnership between municipalities and irrigation professionals is in Carmel, IN. There, both entities have teamed up to promote efficient water use and green best practices. It began three years ago when a coalition of irrigation experts–including six contractors, a designer, and two distributors–met with water department officials to discuss how best to educate residents about saving water and money.

Since July 2008, Carmel has used Smart Irrigation Month as a platform to encourage homeowners to install and maintain effective, efficient irrigation systems. To date, nearly 30% of Carmel’s residences have irrigation systems, with the number growing. John Duffy, director of Water and Sewage Utilities, says that through these efforts, the city can reduce its peak water consumption without imposing restrictions.

Carmel has used tools developed by the Irrigation Association to reach out to residents. The city’s utilities department developed a feature segment for Connecting With Carmel, a local cable network show that focuses on state-of-the-art irrigation systems used in city roundabouts and road medians. The city also has distributed free rain gauges with an IA-developed insert on how much water is too much at a community event.

Outdoor Demand Management
Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE), says her organization is launching a website to help consumers make appropriate choices to reduce their water consumption. While indoor water use has become well-managed through the increasing use of more efficient plumbing fixtures and appliances, that effort needs to be applied outdoors, where water usage is greater, Dickinson says.

The advent of new automatic irrigation systems is an opportunity to manage irrigation demand as long as the systems are set correctly, Dickinson points out. Throughout the US, landscape professionals are beating the drum of water efficiency through irrigation.

Judy Benson, founder of Clear Water PSI in Longwood, FL, and EPA’s 2010 Irrigation Partner, partnered with WaterSense to educate others about outdoor water efficiency through the use of efficient systems and techniques. Benson, an IA certified trainer who specializes in older irrigation system renovations, has helped central Florida residents and businesses save thousands of gallons of water.

Benson started her company with the idea of making existing irrigation systems–which she believed were inadequately designed–more efficient. Through her company, she offers a range of services, including landscape and irrigation evaluations and audits; CAD irrigation system and renovation designs, Florida-friendly landscaping, and irrigation; water and turf management; system installations; renovations and design upgrades; walk-through inspections and repairs; and sales of high-efficiency and water-conserving products.

A Rain Bird wireless rain sensor

Clear Water PSI educates property owners about the moisture sensor technology, conducts site visits, completes full assessments of the landscape irrigation, generates reports and photo documentation, completes the installation, and conducts property owner education on how the unit functions.

A former salesperson for water handling equipment, Benson says a typical mature irrigation system can have a Distribution Uniformity (a measure of how evenly irrigation is applied to a landscape) of between 25% and 40%. Her company redesigns and implements improvements to provide efficiencies of 50% to 75%. She also uses remote technology on some larger systems, enabling clients to become proactive with water consumption while preventing yard damage from malfunctioning equipment.

Improvements enable property owners to reduce irrigation run times due to increased application rates with enhanced uniformity, thereby reducing overall water consumption while sustaining the landscape, says Benson. Additional benefits include runoff reduction, improved turf conditions, and enhanced fertilization absorption, she adds.

Clear Water PSI offers its clients the latest irrigation technology available with soil moisture sensors and ET/weather-based controllers that reduce water use by 50 to 80%. Noting a need for more education in the irrigation industry that would simplify its complicated and misunderstood aspects, Benson created a working display of the newest, most efficient irrigation technologies as a tool for trade events and to show clients how to properly operate their equipment.

In her central Florida community, Benson draws from the WaterSense website and partner tools to ensure her staff has credible knowledge about outdoor water efficiency. She has participated in various WaterSense promotions, such as Fix a Leak Week. She also speaks of incentivizing the use of WaterSense irrigation partners with the local soil and water conservation board, county commissioners, local municipalities, water purveyors, and water management districts.

For the residential sector, Benson does consulting work with local purveyors in improving irrigation efficiency based on contracts put out for bid by the purveyors or the government. Florida is running out of groundwater supplies, Benson points out.

“We’re using a lot of water for irrigation and our consumption of water, and our withdrawal from the aquifer is larger than our return into the aquifer, so we’re out of balance with our water supply,” she says. “Most of that is due to irrigation.”

Regulators and area water purveyors have told Benson her efforts are partially responsible for regional water conservation changes. Benson says while Florida is one of the top states that utilizes reclaimed water as an alternative water source, many irrigation systems in central Florida use well water and municipal water, and utilities are not big proponents of utilizing wells.

“They would rather have the service connection for their customers remain on their meter source, so there is a bit of discussion going on about how wells may be curtailed,” she says. “Currently there is a rule out there that if reclaimed is available on a residential or commercial property, a water well cannot be installed. I’m a proponent of that. We want that reclaimed water utilized.”

Benson says some utilities have requested if there is any type of service line on a property, that no well can be installed.

“My belief, as an irrigator, is you use the least quality of water available to irrigate your lawn, whether it be a shallow well, reclaimed, a stormwater pond, or something of that nature,” she says. “I am a firm believer in protecting our drinking water sources, so I’m not solely in agreement with this.

“It’s all-inclusive what we do as an industry–whether we’re landscapers putting in new plants, irrigators trying to provide sustainability for those plants, or a homebuilder changing the lay of the land and creating these new developments,” adds Benson. “There’s an all-inclusive plant, soil, and water relationship, and we’re working towards making better choices in Florida.”

As an irrigation specialist, Benson works closely with water restrictions that are often instituted in Florida. She works closely with the St. John’s Water Management District, water purveyors, and the regulators–all of whom are required to curtail the overuse of the water supplies.

“The only way that can truly be managed and enforced has been to restrict it by days, but that’s not best for the landscape,” says Benson. “In Florida, we have some variances that are soon to come into play as some local government, and water purveyors are doing assessments of smart irrigations.”

In a contract with Toho Water Authority in Florida, Clear Water PSI installed more than 50 Rain Bird soil moisture sensors. Preliminary results showed an average 50% savings on water consumption for the homes where the sensors were installed. The program has increased awareness among property owners.

While Benson notes an increase in discussion about water efficient irrigation, she says there is still some who are “not really keen on the idea of just shutting off their irrigation.” Members of the public will tell her they’ve reduced their water consumption, but their water bills continue to increase.

“I talk to them about looking at their consumption and not the base rate or other factors that may affect their bill and they do see results in consumption,” she says. “With utilities focusing on alternate water sources, our future water resources, and current infrastructure repairs, this is quite the balancing act for them. These are all expenses that have to be dealt with in some manner.

“I am a firm believer that we can find a reasonable medium where we’re not overtaxing our water resources, but we’re not completely eliminating the use of them for irrigation.”

Benson says she would like to see communications increase between landscape industry service providers and water purveyors, and to some degree, a preferred list of authorized or certified contractors, although she acknowledges the may be some legalities preventing that.

“The last time I checked on the WaterSense website, I saw a lot of rebates for plumbing fixtures and indoor-type water use, but little to no rebates for outdoors. We’re still challenged in that aspect, and I have not been able to find a reasonable explanation much less a solution for this,” she says.

“I’ve been hoping that EPA partners in the irrigation sector would be utilized on a higher level, but even with certification and recognition by WaterSense, we, at the contractors’ level, are not seeing recognizable implementation,” says Benson.

The Earth Smart Yard
Elsewhere in Florida, Teresa Watkins of Orlando, a horticulture expert, is engaged in extensive water conservancy efforts through landscape irrigation. She works with city, county, public, and private water suppliers on Florida-friendly water conservation and stormwater pollution education efforts. She also has worked with individual clients, private nurseries, commercial retail garden centers, and homeowner associations. Watkins advises builders and developers on new community development and landscape design.

She also provides water conservation and sustainable landscaping direction on the national US Green Building Council (USGBC)–LEED Technical Advisory Group. Watkins, a winner of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Florida Water Education Association’s 2007 Public Education Award, works with Florida homeowners on designing, creating and maintaining “Earth smart” yards.

Watkins hosts a call-in gardening radio show, “In Your Backyard” on central Florida’s WLBE 790 AM.

In 2001, Watkins designed the landscaping of the first home in Florida to be certified as a “green home” by the Florida Green Build Council for its energy and environmental efficiencies. In 1999, Watkins became an agent for three counties on behalf of a water conservation program, Florida Yards and Neighborhoods. The state’s environmental protection department funded it for two years; after that, various municipal entities had to fund it themselves.

Watkins decided it would be more efficient to work through the utilities rather than certifying one yard at a time. She started doing workshops, educating about 100 people at a time on water conservation practices with the goal that they would implement them at their own residences.

In a decade, more than 20,000 people went through her program. Her work evolved into an environmental landscaping consulting business for builders, municipalities, and water management districts.

“We’re seeing dwindling water supplies in the different areas and seeing more development in the South,” she says. “People are moving out of the northern states and into the states that have more economic sustainability and fewer taxes, and are looking to retire. Those states are the ones seeing the water issues because of their growing population.”

ESP-SMT Smart Control System

Watkins says while water efficiency through irrigation is believed to be a bigger concern in states that have a dwindling water supply, it has essentially become on the radar throughout the US.

“When I was in Massachusetts last year, in Martha’s Vineyard, they had water restrictions. North Carolina has water restrictions. Of course, Arizona, California, and the West–they’ve been dealing with it for decades, as well as South Florida,” she says.

Because of the recession, Watkins says she doubts municipalities will be
offering rebates for outdoor water systems anytime soon.

“Governments are trying to hold on to their employees, let alone offer rebate programs,” she says.

Also, people’s belief systems about water shortages are tied into weather patterns, Watkins points out.

“Over the last two to three years, the water issue has gotten delicate because we had adequate rain up until last year. It fluctuates with the rain amount,” she says. “When we don’t have rain, it’s a big issue. When we have rain, nobody cares about the water.

“That’s the hard part,” she adds. “Instead of taking the attitude of making use of it when we get it to retain it and store it so that, in the lean years, we still have enough water supply, we haven’t gotten to that point.”

The issue may be in the forefront again this year as many regions throughout the United States have experienced extreme drought situations.

To make matters more challenging, people don’t like the word “restrictions”, as in “water restrictions”, Watkins points out.

“Watering twice a week is more than plenty,” she says. “If your lawn cannot go one week without water, you have a spoiled lawn. People don’t understand this and panic because they can’t water until the next Wednesday, and that’s only three days away and their lawn starts to look like it’s turning blue after two days of no watering.

“That means they’ve been overwatering all along. They’re creating their own problems. It’s really the homeowner behavior we’re trying to address, not the lawn. There’s nothing wrong with turf; there’s nothing wrong with landscapes–it’s all about how people maintain it.”

Case in point: Overuse of fertilizations lead to the creation for the need for more water in the landscape. Acknowledging that there is technology such as rain and soil sensors that helps cut down on irrigation water use, Watkins says the technology means nothing if it’s improperly maintained. She points out that Florida has a rain sensor statute mandating that anyone who operates an automatic landscape irrigation system must properly install, maintain, and operate technology that inhibits or interrupts operation of the system during periods of sufficient moisture.

“People don’t maintain their systems, their rain sensors, or their soil moisture sensors, so that technology is not going to be the answer,” says Watkins. “The answer is going to be to have a water efficient irrigation system and a landscape that is based on rainfall for their site. That’s going to be the hard part, because landscapers are learning from books that are up to 50 years old, and they’re not plant people. They are just planting what the book tells them to plant, and it should be based solely on the site itself. That can change from development to development in Florida.”

Watkins talks about a time when local counties would send mobile irrigation labs out to do water audits and instruct people what they needed to do to retrofit their irrigations systems to make them more efficient. When one county returned to see how many people followed through, “out of 200 homes, nobody had retrofitted it,” she says.

Watkins believes it’s time for irrigation to come under building codes.

“Then, we’re going to have certified irrigation contractors doing the work properly with a permit just like plumbing, and it’s going to be installed correctly,” she says. “I hate to say we need more regulation, but, to me, it’s like asking somebody if they want a kitchen that has only has 47% electrical efficiency. They want efficient electricity. We need to look at water the same way.”

Putting irrigation system installation under building codes also would provide consumer protections when a builder is putting in an irrigation system.

“Builders don’t know anything about irrigation, so they hire someone who puts in the irrigation system at the lowest price, and they think they’re getting a good one, but they turn around and sell to the homeowner a $2,500 landscape package that only cost the builder $300.

“The homeowner thinks he’s getting an efficient irrigation system and he’s getting crap, so if you ask a homeowner buying a house if they want an inefficient irrigation system or an efficient one, that’s what we have to get to.”

Hector Medrano, Groundskeeping Supervisor at the Texas State Capitol, using an ETwater Smart Controller to conserve water

Watkins contends that municipal officials “need to protect their homeowners so they can provide adequate water supply, and to do that they’re going to have to give them an efficient irrigation system.”

That entails enacting ordinances so efficient irrigation installation is done correctly, she adds.

“That way, the homeowner is protected, the city is protected, and we’re going to have to demand more of the landscaping industry,” she says.

Conservation and Education
Matthew Johnson–who, with Kevin Robinson, owns Asset Landscaping–knows about the importance of landscape irrigation: his business is located in arid Phoenix, AZ. In addition to typical landscape services, Johnson’s award-winning company also provides water conservation education and services, such as irrigation system maintenance and the installation and operation of ET controllers.

The company’s water conservation education and services including involvement in:

  • Annual irrigation field training from HD Supply, Rain Bird, Ewing, Hunter, Horizon, and Toro
  • Smartscape Certification, based on an Arizona class addressing water conservation regarding plants and trees that require very little water, how they should be maintained, doing a xeriscape without overwatering, and utilizing more sustainable landscaping methods with water conservation and desert plantings in mind
  • WaterWise principles on water conservation
  • Turf maintenance instruction by Dr. David Kopec, extension specialist and University of Arizona turf field researcher
  • Aqua Conserve as an authorized installer

Asset Landscaping also works with the Water Business Management and Support Services Department, and the HOA Water Conservation Program of the Salt River Project, an Arizona electricity and water public utility.

Johnson–president-elect of the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association–says one of the first measures his company takes for new clients is to develop a maintenance plan based on a soil sample and an operational irrigation evaluation. The plan includes water conservation services and an optional water deficit program using ET controllers to dial down water use to a balanced approach. Johnson says a landscape can have a water deficit up to 45% and still maintain some green grass.

A Balancing Act
Valerie Silva works for Silva Landscape Design in Santa Rosa. “Here in northern California, we play a balancing act with water distribution that takes into account fish and wildlife, our burgeoning agriculture–mostly viticulture–and the water needs of commercial interests and residents,” she says. “The bottom line is that residential water use–specifically for landscape irrigation–gets squeezed.”

In Santa Rosa, water rates have increased a compounding 9% per year for the last six years, and a tier system, intended to significantly reduce landscape water use, has been implemented.

“This tier system is particularly punitive for those with large lots that are traditionally landscaped,” points out Silva.

Smart irrigation entails a balancing act with water supply and distribution.

Silva says that as a result, education–as it relates to landscape irrigation options and technologies and plant materials–is critical.

“Most folks simply don’t know how to improve their water use efficiency,” she says. “While many landscape contractors, designers, and maintenance providers are becoming educated, there are still many out there who are continuing to make expensive mistakes.”

As an EPA WaterSense Irrigation Partner and a fledgling landscape designer, Silva says she always opts for water-conserving plant materials in her designs, using California natives whenever possible.

“I also make it a point to provide my clients with a water use projection as part of the plan,” she says. “This helps to steer them in the drought-tolerant direction when they are faced with choices for plant material.”

In her work as a chairperson of a homeowner’s association common area landscape committee in her northern California community, Silva has been able to put WaterSense principles and her Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper certification to use where water is in short supply throughout the summer.

“Our landscape committee has always had a focus on water conservation, but with the passage of California’s Water Conservation Landscaping Act, we realized needed to step up our efforts,” she says.

As with many homeowners’ associations, her community’s architectural guidelines contained a landscape easement requiring 15 feet of turf along the street frontage to create a seamless look from property to property.

The new law eliminated these easements.

“Under this new legislation, we soon realized that in addition to the designated common area, we now needed to address the homeowner’s private property landscape, and in order to maintain the beauty and continuity, both areas needed to be addressed simultaneously,” she says.

Silva composed a comprehensive, time-phased landscape project plan for approval by the HOA board of directors, including graphs of the community’s historical water use over the previous 10 years and the projected use after

The community, which adjoined protected habitat and pasture land, had been developed in 1985. Original plans for the development called for a transition between the city and the country, says Silva.

The community includes two natural creeks, a large city street frontage and a common area green belt that runs the length of the 200-acre property. The greenbelt winds its way down the main street, blending with the turf of the individual homeowners. The developer’s landscape designer used large expanses of turf and high-water use plant materials to create a lush, park-like setting. To preserve the neighborhood’s aesthetics while complying with the legislation, the landscape committee worked with the architectural control committee to redraft the architectural guidelines, says Silva. New guidelines provide a list of water-conserving plant materials that are appropriate replacements for the lawn while providing a contiguous look between the properties required by the Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions. In the development’s common area, 10,000 square feet of turf was removed and replaced with a few large native trees and shrubs which need no summer water once established.

“The approach was to maintain lawn only where it was used for recreation or community gatherings,” says Silva. “Where turf remained, the original, poorly-designed irrigation system is being retrofitted and upgraded to smart controllers and Hunter MP Rotator sprinkler heads that provide high water distribution uniformity.”

A 30% annual reduction in landscape water use is expected. Also, the HOA–as well as many of the homeowners–took advantage of the city’s rebate program, which provides rebates for turf removal and irrigation hardware upgrades.

“The city’s cutting-edge promotion of water efficiency, a commitment to help the community find ways to save and offering rebates for their efforts made the project an easy sell to the board of directors and the homeowners,” notes Silva. “Though it was hard work, it was well worth the effort—we’re saving water while maintaining a beautifully landscaped community.”

The Call for Efficiency
Manufacturers are creating products to answer the call for more efficient irrigation systems. Katherine Wing, marketing director for ET Water Systems, says her company sees an increasing awareness among irrigation installers and landscape contractors about the need for water efficient irrigation.

“Installers and maintenance contractors are responding to demands from their clients for cost savings on their water bills,” says Wing. “Especially in markets with increasing water rates and tiered-rates structures, property owners are looking for potential savings. The landscape contractors who are familiar with water efficient technologies like Web-based smart irrigation control are eager to have something new to offer their clients.”

Wing points out that in addition to providing customers with water savings, contractors are attracted to smart irrigation systems that also help them maintain healthy landscapes, improve customer service and experience, automatically identify leaks, generate better information, budget around water consumption, and also provide labor and other savings.

To that end, ET Water Systems delivers technology geared toward those benefits. Such technology includes an integrated set of technology components: Web-based software, wirelessly connected digital controllers, and real-time weather from thousands of stations.

“ET Water Systems recently introduced the HermitCrab, a self-contained weatherproof unit that plugs into a broad range of conventional irrigation controllers, converting them into wirelessly-connected smart controllers that utilize the ET Water Web service,” says Wing. “HermitCrab efficiently and remotely manages landscape irrigation systems by adjusting watering schedules based on weather conditions. Remote monitoring and management from computers and smart phones saves labor and truck rolls, and provides real-time watering reports.”

Wing points out that the most recent ASLA study confirms that the vast majority of new landscape designs incorporate water savings features like water efficient irrigation, drought-tolerant plants, and reduced lawn area. The 2010 survey of ASLA membership revealed an increase in design elements that reduce time and money, with low-maintenance landscapes topping the list (94%), following by drip/water efficient irrigation (85.2%); native/adapted drought tolerant plants (85.2%), and less lawn (73.9%). Rain gardens (60%), xeriscape or dry gardens (58%), and permeable paving (72%) also are becoming an increasing element in new landscape design.

“With the slow economy, there’s less new landscape design activity, but the retrofit market is huge as owners of conventional irrigation systems look for affordable ways to make their existing landscapes less thirsty,” notes Wing.

Case in point: One of the best-selling components of the ET Water Systems product line is the ETwater SmartBox replacement panel, which allows owners to retrofit their conventional controllers to weather-adjusted irrigation control.

“With the lower equipment and installation costs, it makes sense for property owners to install smart controllers before their existing controllers reach the end of life, which accelerates the capture of water savings,” says Wing.

“The beauty of Web-based irrigation control is that it gives landscapers timely information that they can respond to remotely for faster resolution of water-wasting irrigation problems and fewer site visits,” adds Wing.

Landscapers who use ETwater Manager know their smart controllers will take corrective action when abnormal flow conditions exist, and that they’ll get an immediate alert, she says.

“They can reprogram hundreds of controllers in minutes to comply with drought restrictions,” says Wing. “They can get reports that flag stations where there is over- or under-watering, or controllers to identify water-saving opportunities in the landscape.”

The greatest challenge with respect to landscape irrigation is implementing change, Wing says, “even when the benefits are obvious and large. Sometimes the biggest competitor is the status quo, or ‘we’ve always done it this way.’”

David Johnson, director of corporate marketing for the Rain Bird Corporation, says “there is no question that we are seeing increased awareness about the need for water efficient irrigation not only among irrigation installers and landscape contractors, but specifiers as well.

“They understand the growing need to use water intelligently, and the best contractors use it to their advantage,” he says. “By offering water-saving products, good system design, and expert advice on plant selection and watering schedules, they can set themselves apart from their competition and save their customers money. Of course, this is a benefit to the environment as well.”

While landscape irrigation does use a significant amount of water, Johnson says it is important to remember the benefits of an attractive and healthy landscape. He cites research that outlines those benefits, including:

  • Increased real estate values: Home values can rise by up to 14%, and the length of time to sell a property can be cut by six weeks.
  • Lowered home energy costs: Air-conditioning costs can be reduced by as much as 50% when trees and vegetation provide cooling shade. During winter, the impact of cold winds can be significantly reduced when healthy plants act as a buffer.
  • On a block of eight houses, the front lawns have a cooling effect of 70 tons of air conditioning.
  • The net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day.
  • * Trees and surrounding vegetation can lower outdoor temperatures by up to 10 degrees and act as sound barriers to reduce noise pollution.
  • Fire safety: A 100-foot buffer zone that incorporates low-lying ground cover, clustered plants, succulents, and regularly mown grass can prevent brush fires from reaching a home or other structure.
  • Erosion control: Healthy landscapes are less prone to water runoff, helping prevent site and structure damage. A healthy lawn absorbs rainfall six times more effectively than a wheat field and four times better than a hay field.
  • Environmental contributions: Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and return it to the environment as oxygen. Proper landscaping reduces nitrate leaching from the soil into the water supply and reduces surface water runoff, keeping phosphorus and other pollutants out of waterways and preventing septic system overload.

When it comes to landscape design, Johnson says that landscape architects are using techniques such as proper head spacing and matching precipitation rates to create a system that uses the least amount of water.

“Of course then, this design must also be installed properly and the system properly programmed and maintained, or even the best design can waste water,” he says.

Johnson says his company encourages contractors to get into the retrofit business.

“Often, they believe new systems are their best source of business, but retrofits can be lucrative as well,” he says. “With retrofits, you already have a customer that understands the benefits of an automatic irrigation system, but could benefit from upgrading to the newest technologies. Often the cost of these retrofits can be recouped in just a few years through increased water use efficiencies.”

Johnson says one of the first challenges in landscape irrigation when it comes to saving more water is that irrigation contractors, landscape designers, and their customers have to be quicker to embrace new technologies.

“The products to save millions and millions of gallons of water are here today. They just need to be used,” he says. “A second challenge is to remind people that an irrigation system is just that: a system. It is a number of components that all work together. Water savings are only as great as the weakest point in the system. You cannot be assured of saving water unless you follow these rules: Develop a good design, install that design properly, use the latest products, set up the watering parameters correctly, and then maintain the system on an ongoing basis.”

Smart Irrigation Makes WaterSense
Mike Baron, national specification manager for water management products for Toro, notes an increasing awareness of water efficiency among irrigation installers and landscape contractors for a variety of reasons. For one, the state of California has legislated that landscape and irrigation designs meet performance standards that support water efficient irrigation.

“EPA WaterSense has developed a ‘green homes’ labeling program that requires a certain level of irrigation efficiency,” he says. “California Landscape Contractors Association has developed a performance-based water management certification program—of which Toro is a founding partner—that promotes the use of water budgets and efficient irrigation.”

The Irrigation Association has multiple certification programs that directly promote efficient irrigation practices in landscape irrigation as well as agricultural irrigation, Baron points out.

“The implementation of tiered rates and water allocations by more and more water purveyors is making it expensive for property owners and property managers to inefficiently irrigate their outdoor landscapes,” he says. “Wasting water now costs more than hiring a professional to implement efficient irrigation practices and to install irrigation efficient technology, so this means those that pay the water bills are exerting pressure on those that manage the landscapes.”

Additionally, many water purveyors have been investing in educational activities for more than 10 years, focusing efforts on landscape maintenance contractors, as well as homeowners and others. Toro’s latest technologies with respect to water efficiency through landscape irrigation includes wireless moisture sensors, wireless weather sensors, precision series spray nozzles, precision rotating nozzles, and sub-surface drip irrigation tubing.

Baron notes that landscape contractors are addressing water efficiency through irrigation by reducing the amount of turf grass being planted, using more drought-tolerant plants, adding bioswales to their designs to capture more runoff during a rain, and using more permeable materials in place of hardscape. More landscape contractors are learning water management practices to more appropriately monitor actual water use via water meter readings and comparing it to calculated target or budgeted water use based on plant material, climate, and irrigation system efficiency, Baron says.

“This is called a monthly water budget. This is being driven by more water agencies using tiered water rates and calculated water budgets for larger landscapes,” he says.

Baron says the greatest challenge in landscape irrigation is that “the cost of wasting water is still too low. It’s basic economics. If the price of a product or commodity is held artificially low, what happens? Usage or demand is higher, but those that produce or deliver the product or commodity don’t have an economic incentive to produce more of that product or commodity. So demand goes up, and supply goes down. And you get shortages.”

In too many locations, it is cheaper to waste water on outdoor landscapes than it is to pay a professional to manage the irrigation system to a water budget so as to achieve desirable efficiency, Baron says.

“We have soil moisture sensors that work in conjunction with irrigation controllers and sprinkler system clocks,” says Scott Martin, who heads up the company’s product development in charge of turf and landscape.

The sensors only allow a sprinkler system to water when the landscape needs water, he says.

“Everybody over-waters,” says Martin. “The field capacity of soil is one thing, but when you see it running down driveways and sidewalks is when it’s above field capacity. It’s got more than it will hold.”

The research-grade sensors are placed in the ground at the root level or the level at which the roots are targeted to end up.

“When that soil has enough water, it doesn’t allow the irrigation to take place,” says Martin.

Irrigation and water efficiency is a “huge concern”, says Martin.

“The restrictions are becoming more widespread every day,” he says. “The municipalities are definitely concerned about how much water they have and how much is being used.

“Nationwide, we’re using 300% of what is recommended for the number of acres being irrigated. Nationwide our water use is going up 15% a year. If we put too much water in the soil, it goes right through past the roots and not where it’s being used anyway.”

Martin says his company’s technology is showing savings up 30 to 70%.

Martin is noting more rebates emerging for outdoor water efficiency products in such places as Nevada and Utah. While landscape architects are embracing water efficient technologies, it sometimes is a difficult sell to their clients because it’s an add-on expense, Martin says.

“But it’s so minimal in most cases, it usually pays for itself within the first year or two years at the most,” he says.

For landscape contractors, it reduces maintenance concerns, he adds.

“You set your sprinkler system clock to run at what it would take for the maximum and this only allows it to come on when it actually needs water,” says Martin. “They’re saving time and energy by not having to dedicate another person in a truck to run around and change clocks all summer.”

Education will be critical going forward, Martin says.

“People need to understand their water bills aren’t $30 a month no matter what they do. The water is going up all of the time. It’s a resource we’re running out of. Cities can’t grow without enough water to bring in industry. We can’t build more homes without it. A lot of municipalities are starting to mandate some kind of water conservancy plan for contractors before they can even get permits for developments.”

Green Industry Participants
Tom Childers, senior vice president for John Deere Landscapes, says outdoor water consumption is “at the top of mind for any venerable green industry participant. The awareness and interest has never been greater, and it is growing every day.”

Childers says as a distributor, John Deere Landscapes is exposed to all of the major manufacturers’ latest products and innovations, “and they are amazing in light of where the industry was just five years ago.

“The emphasis seems to be on scheduling technologies that are based on the landscape need—down to the plant and soil level—in its current environment as opposed to the past practices of time or application rates. The result has been much more efficient and effective irrigation,” he adds.

Childers notes “impressive” results in tests, cases, and trials with emerging innovations in nozzle and emission technologies.

“We are seeing much more efficient application rates as well as improved uniformity,” he says. “Hunter Industries, Rain Bird, and Toro/Irritrol are particularly noteworthy in this area.”

John Deere Landscapes’ sister company, John Deere Green Tech, “has done a great job with their fully integrated rain water harvesting systems. The demand has been great and is still growing,” notes Childers.

“The commercial segment is looking for ways to demonstrate its concern for, and commitment to, the greater green movement, and rain water harvesting has shown its merit. Innovations are still coming in this area, but now that it is better understood as a solid option, the market is embracing it,” he adds. “The emphasis on citizenship, stewardship, and LEED recognition will only foster this.”

Greater emphasis on “true” sustainability is being designed “up front” by landscape architects, Childers points out.

“We are seeing drought-tolerant and indigenous material get more space, showing water is a front-end part of the design now,” says Childers. “As for retrofits, it is the same practice, but more complicated in working through an existing landscape environment.”

Many contractors are taking advantage of the retrofit opportunity given the slowdown in new construction, he adds.

Landscape maintenance contractors are on board as well, “doing everything from altering cutting heights and fertilization practices to offering complete water management services,” notes Childers.

He points out that large maintenance contract companies are speaking with clients about “getting serious about water management.”

Driving that is the “Three P’s: people, planet, and profits”, notes Childers, adding those areas will be the basis upon which return on investment is measured.

Today’s challenge is rooted in “acknowledging the need for change, and thinking outside the box is not enough on its own,” says Childers.

“The challenge mandates bona fide collaboration and the stakeholders range from water purveyors to homeowners with green industry professionals being right in the middle,” he says.

“Everyone needs to understand the compelling need for more robust solutions, and that the ‘silo effect’ won’t get it done,” adds Childers. “Landscape is a fully integrated, complex system requiring a holistic approach . . . the right plants in the right places, and using only the right amount of water from the right sources—be it condensation, reclaimed water, rain, or other sources.”

Commercial and Municipal Irrigation
Residential landscaping isn’t the only area where water efficiency is being realized through landscape irrigation—so are the commercial and municipal sectors as well. Kenneth Cook is CEO and founder of BlueGreen Synergy, a Texas-based performance-based contracting service. The company’s core line of businesses include BlueGreen Strategies (sustainable sites consulting/design, LID/green infrastructure consulting and design, LEEDv3 project certification for new construction and existing building operation and maintenance, strategic grant-sourcing and funding, and water and nutrient footprint assessment), BlueGreen Site Care (customized programming for sustainable site management and education greening initiatives for cultural landscape practices), and BlueGreen Rain Fund (project capitalization and reinvestment in eco-solutions).

Additional businesses include Acequia (comprehensive performance-based water and irrigation management service and green infrastructure implementation) and Aquador Intelligence (range-based soil moisture management technology).

Clients include architects, engineers, land planners, commercial and residential community developers, commercial real estate investors, government agencies, municipal utility districts, public land agencies, and university and college campuses.

“We’re seeing a larger awareness of real estate owners requesting management of their water,” notes Cook. “I think it’s an environmental impact driving that. We’re seeing a lot more C-level executives with greening concepts with their company starting to get the message pushed all the way down through their ranks into their property management.”

In the markets in which his company operates, Cook’s company is seeing water prices go from the smallest line on the operating budget to commanding a larger level of observation.

“When we look at Texas, for instance, we’re seeing three to five times increases in water over the last three to five years, which really drives those operating costs up,” he says.

At one client company in Dallas, the Billingsley Company, a large real estate developer, BlueGreen Synergy was called in to help the company determine its overall water need. “They go through painstakingly green development standards,” says Cook. “They developed their own water wells. Part of our process of evaluating their overall need is so we see how much water they were using on that site.

“We saw it was in the neighborhood of five to eight times more than necessary, but the plants were still looking like they were dry. Upon further investigation, we found that the water quality wasn’t very good. Part of the process was to improve water quality so we could use non-potable water sources. We were able to find that water quality issue and reduce the impact for them for that well.”

Cook, who comes from a commercial landscape background, says while an entity can utilize smart control technology, methodologies, and best management practices, until there is control of the cultural practices on to the landscapes themselves by the service providers, there is very little impact from the irrigation standpoint.

Those practices include the way and the frequency with which mowing is done and the use of fertilization and chemicals that drives water consumption on those projects.

Also, system leaks and broken heads need to be repaired. “That’s where we see the largest water loss in the commercial landscapes,” says Cook.

Going forward, his company is working on improving technologies that include strategies that not only manage the water, but provide efficiency enhancements such as rainwater harvesting and helping them get off of potable water entirely. 

About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

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