Drip irrigation: Getting it right, then keeping it right

irrigation-associationIn interviews earlier this week about drip irrigation systems, three different experts struck a surprisingly similar chord – namely, that a drip system will never live up to its promise unless it’s installed properly, maintained regularly and then managed closely.

It’s that last part that apparently falls through the cracks most often, and it surprised me that all three experts raised the point in separate interviews (and without prompting by a specific question).

It was interesting, I thought, because all three – Brian Vinchesi, president of Irrigation Consulting Inc.; Michael Clark, president of Clark Irrigation Design & Consulting Inc.; and Brent Mecham, industry development director with the Irrigation Association – apparently thought it necessary to correct some fundamental misconceptions about drip irrigation systems.

For example, all three noted that drip irrigation is widely believed to be cheaper than traditional sprinklers. And again, all three were quick to say that while that can be true, it’s certainly no slam dunk.

Further, all three pointed to the common perception of drip irrigation as the natural choice for someone who’s trying to save water. Each said water savings are possible but in no way assured.

And while the experts also noted that the choice of drip or conventional sprinklers is best determined by the specific job at hand, their deliberate effort to correct misperceptions about drip irrigation seemed to go further.

Those warnings, I think, were owing to the fact that implementations of drip irrigation systems so frequently fall short of what’s necessary to exploit their strengths.

Even if the installation is precise, any deficits in maintenance will undermine the systems quickly. Moreover, the spacing of emitters, flow rates and other settings – all of which must be calibrated properly to begin with – must evolve as trees, shrubs and other plants in the landscape grow.

In short, drip irrigation has lots of moving parts – figuratively if not literally – and the experts with whom we talked are all too aware that a professional installation, while imperative, won’t get the job done for long.

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