Irrigation: Fighting the Drought

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Updated Feb 15, 2013

Drought is a complex natural hazard. Brought on by a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period, usually a season or more, it is typically aggravated by summertime climatic factors such as high temperature, high winds and low relative humidity. The Federal Emergency Management Agency conservatively estimates drought costs the United States $6 billion to $8 billion annually. According to the EPA, 30 percent of the water used by the average American household is devoted to outdoor water use. It estimates more than 50 percent of landscape water goes to waste through evaporation or runoff caused by overwatering – up to 1.5 billion gallons every day across the country.

Turning the tide while turning a profit
Timothy Malooly has worked in the irrigation industry for 26 years and is president of two Minnesota-based irrigation firms: Water in Motion, an irrigation design, consulting and technology company, and Irrigation By Design, an irrigation installation and service company. In 2008, Malooly was the first irrigation professional to receive the EPA’s WaterSense Partner of the Year Award. WaterSense is a public-private partnership program which recognizes professional certification programs aimed at verifying professional proficiency in water-efficient irrigation design, performance audits, installation and maintenance.

Malooley says though sales of conventional irrigation services are sluggish in the current economy, his green irrigation designs and installations are performing well. He is finding even thrifty clients can be sold on the cost-saving measures of smart irrigation. Malooly goes beyond simply installing weather-based irrigation controllers. His businesses cover design and installation of low-volume/micro-drip irrigation systems, green roofs, cistern- and lake-based rainwater harvesting, large-scale irrigation systems for master-planned communities and stormwater management systems.

One of Malooley’s residential projects involved designing and installing a cistern-based irrigation system for a model sustainable home in Minnetonka, Minnesota, which was sponsored by the Live Green, Live Smart Institute. The remodeled 1948 home received the first platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Malooley designed the 28,000 square feet of irrigated area by first computing the project’s rainwater collection capabilities in contrast with the anticipated water requirements of new and existing plants. Two 2,500-gallon tanks were placed in a 15-foot trench and connected for an overall capacity of 5,000 gallons of stored rainwater. Most of the project’s irrigation stations were installed using landscape dripline under mulch.

Trees are irrigated with deep root watering products that eliminate surface runoff. Two small turf areas called for highly efficient rotary pop-up nozzles. Soil moisture sensors suspend watering when optimum soil moisture levels are achieved, and a weather-based controller manages this water-wise system, which Malooly estimates to be 70-percent more efficient than a conventional irrigation system. Higher installation costs will be offset by savings on the client’s water bill.

The big picture
In addition to strict irrigation schedules, utilities in many U.S. cities are slapping water gluttons with “drought surcharges” or “emergency rates.” The Southwest Florida Water Management District is targeting single-family households using more than 15,000 gallons a month, because they assume high meter readings indicate a household is overwatering a lawn.

Some water suppliers have implemented tiered rates that encourage conservation. Manatee County (Florida) Utilities customers pay $1.69 per 1,000 gallons. After the meter hits 6,000 gallons a month, the rate goes up to $2.11. The rate continues to climb with consumption, reaching $7.53 when a customer exceeds 20,000 gallons per month. Average customer usage is down from 135 gallons each day to about 100 gallons.

The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) notes interest in planning for drought has increased at all levels. In 1980, only three states (New York, South Dakota and Colorado) had drought plans. Today, most states recognize the tremendous economic, social and environmental costs of drought and either have a plan or are in the process of developing a plan.

While NDMC maps indicate droughts continue in large portions of Texas, Oklahoma and Southern California, some drought-stricken areas received relief from spring rains. The Southeast, which had been experiencing a record drought, is seeing reservoirs and underground aquifers filling to near capacity. In a reversal of fortunes, weather has gone from historically dry to historically wet during the rainiest May on record for the South Florida Water Management District. The 16-county district recorded just over 9 inches of rain – more than double the average – replenishing resources drained dangerously low by a two-year drought. History has taught us that droughts are cyclical, so even in most areas where drought status is officially cancelled local governments are proceeding with water restrictions that are only going to get tighter.

Necessity is the mother of invention
Benjamin Raines, marketing specialist, DIG Corporation, notes recent droughts have inspired better irrigation products and practices he believes are here to stay. “Whether or not the contractor likes and uses drip irrigation they better get used to it; because of the multiple droughts and water shortages it will soon be forced,” he says. He admits many clients have been inspired by recent droughts to revamp their irrigation systems, but the flat economy makes it difficult for them to part with their hard-earned dollars.

“Along with water restrictions, the cost of water is going to be greatly increased if it hasn’t been already in your area,” Raines says. “Being proactive by educating and offering your clients valid solutions to these predicaments can easily be translated to profit.

Installing drip irrigation in all non-turf areas is a great place to start.” Raines estimates drip irrigation (aka low volume/micro irrigation) typically saves up to 60 percent of water costs compared with conventional sprinkler systems. Many other benefits are associated with drip irrigation, including eliminating overspray and run-off, less weed growth, and healthier plants due to the slow delivery of water. “In addition, water restriction laws are typically bypassed when drip irrigation is used, allowing customers to irrigate even on non-watering days. This opens up a great opportunity to increase sales.”

Getting educated
The Irrigation Association (IA), a backer of the EPA WaterSense
Program, is an international, nonprofit organization representing professionals who channel their expertise toward a common goal – efficient irrigation. The IA is an invaluable resource for landscapers wanting to break into irrigation services or just remain current on practices and products. The IA celebrates Smart Irrigation Month during July to raise awareness of the benefits of smart irrigation practices as a convenient way to protect a landscape investment. Their research has shown most homeowners and landscapers tend to waste water through inefficient habits. In addition to promoting alternative water sources such as collecting greywater and rainwater, the IA educates contractors on designing and installing smart irrigation systems.

Robert Pfeil, an IA certified landscape irrigation auditor, and manager of training services for Rain Bird Services Corporation agrees overwatering is too common. Pfeil says Rain Bird’s irrigation courses have been well-attended lately, with intelligent water management and drip installation and maintenance classes being the most popular. “We have a lot of landscape architects and public agency people from universities and parks coming into our classes lately,” he says. “There are more initiatives to try to conserve water and people want to do it correctly. If it’s done right, it isn’t that hard, and it’s a significant time saver for maintenance.”

“The Toro WaterSmart Symposium is a leader in promoting proper water management,” says Brian Vinchesi, president of Irrigation Consulting and chairman of the IA’s Smart Water Application Technology (SWAT) Initiative. “New technologies and alternative water sources should always be investigated. In order to have efficient irrigation systems, they need to be regularly serviced and updated. “The industry is under a lot of scrutiny right now as we work to identify more ways to reduce water use and implement new technologies.”

Pfeil encourages the practice of preventive maintenance to keep any irrigation system operating efficiently. He suggests proper flushing on a regular basis, installing and cleaning a quality filtration system, and he recommends installing common Schrader valves at the beginning and end of a system for easy regular pressure checks.

Charlotte-based GreenWave Associates owners John Sullivan and Wes Maxwell are both IA Certified Irrigation Contractors and EPA WaterSense Partners. Sullivan and Maxwell say they are committed to providing smart water management solutions by partnering with landscape architects and contractors, builders, and public and private property managers to design and service all types of irrigation systems.

“A direct result of water conservation can equate to a substantial dollar savings for the end user, as well as highlighting an individual or company as environmentally conscious.” Maxwell says.

“Between recent drought conditions and population growth, management of our water supply is more crucial than ever,” Sullivan continues. “Add to that the cost of water and the environmental impact, smart water management should be an essential component of any business’ or homeowner’s budget.”

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