Décor: Survival of the smartest

Parts of all but 15 states are experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, published by a consortium of federal agencies and academic organizations. The U.S. General Accounting Office reports 36 states anticipate freshwater shortages in the next 10 years. Water shortages already plague every region of the country, whether because of drought, population increases or poor management, says horticulturist Tom Ash, director of conservation for HydroPoint, maker of WeatherTrak irrigation system controllers. This means many landscapes are subjected to watering restrictions preventing much-needed irrigation – often in areas where plants are suffering most.

To survive the coming water crunch, landscapers and irrigation systems will have to get smart – and many already have. “Smart” controllers that use local weather conditions along with plant and site information to automatically tailor optimal watering schedules have been used for large projects such as golf courses and campuses for the past seven years and are now hot items for the residential market, particularly in areas where water costs are high. In U.S. EPA and other public agency studies, smart controllers reduced water usage 20 percent to 50 percent, depending on prior irrigation efficiency and decreased runoff 70 percent, Ash says. EPA’s WaterSense program, similar to its Energy Star program for appliances and building design, encourages the use of weather-based controllers.

Beginning in 2012, California law will require all irrigation system controllers sold in the state to use smart controllers. The Texas Legislature is close to approving a similar law, and Oregon might follow suite. Ash says water agencies in California, Colorado, Oregon and Nevada are offering rebates of $25 to $60 per station to property owners who buy controllers that have scored well on the Irrigation Association’s Smart Water Application Technologies test. Water agencies also have begun granting exemptions from watering restrictions to those who use smart controllers.

It’s a lead John Marmorato, president of EcoIrrigation in Raleigh, North Carolina, hopes agencies in his state will follow. Because of watering restrictions in Raleigh, only 40 percent of Marmorato’s clients will be able to use their irrigation systems this year. “In the eastern United States, smart controllers have not been as acceptable as in the western part of the country because water hasn’t been as scarce,” he says. But that’s changing. “The controllers are coming to the point where people are going to recognize their value,” Marmorato says.

Customize watering practices in your micro-climates
Weather-based irrigation system controllers are often called ET controllers for “evapotranspiration” – the process by which water is lost through evaporation from soil and transpiration from plants. The controllers take into account weather parameters such as rainfall, solar radiation, wind speed, temperature and humidity, combine it with information about slope, soil, plant and sprinkler type and then decide whether watering is needed and, if so, how much on a given day. Because landscapes are separated into zones based on plant type, some zones may be irrigated while others aren’t. Watering might be broken into two sessions for zones on steep slopes because much of the water would run off if administered at once. “It truly syncs the climate with the plant need and irrigates accordingly,” says Gene Smith, product manager for Hunter Industries.

Smart controllers come in two forms. Some, including WeatherTrak controllers, download data every night from local weather stations. Ash says information from 25,000 to 35,000 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and private weather stations is analyzed daily. “Basically, we’re able to create a microclimate zone for every half square mile,” he says. Toro and Irritrol also make WeatherTrak-enabled products. Other smart controllers, including those Hunter makes, rely on on-site weather stations comprised of sensors that measure climate conditions and are wired to the controllers.

While installation and maintenance isn’t required for systems that take advantage of existing weather stations, property owners have to pay a fee to access data. Subscriptions usually cost $4 per month for residential properties and vary from $7 to $18 per month for commercial sites, Ash says. Marmorato, who began using smart controllers four years ago, says he researched the technology and decided WeatherTrak was the way to go because it eliminated the weather station and its upkeep.

Convincing your customers
Return on investment and the availability of rebates and other incentives for using smart controllers differs across the country, and the ease of persuading property owners to try the technology varies accordingly.

In areas where water costs are high, smart controllers pay for themselves quickly. Ash says achieving 100 percent return on investment typically takes six to 18 months, depending on landscape and controller size and how much watering was taking place beforehand. The smaller the site, the longer it takes for a smart controller to pay for itself, Smith says. But compared to other green initiatives such as low-water-use toilets and high-efficiency light bulbs, Ash says smart irrigation system controllers usually offer the fastest return on investment.

Rebates and other incentives from water agencies can even make the technology free. In areas where agencies offer rebates, typically 50 percent to 100 percent of the cost of the controller is covered, Ash says. One southern California agency provides a rebate of $630 per acre. “It’s really prompting a lot of business for landscape contractors,” Ash says. “They can tell their customers they’ll get money for upgrading their systems.”

Smith says the technology is “win-win,” providing business for landscapers and water savings for property owners.

But in his area, Marmorato says sticker shock is still common. Smart controllers cost 40 percent to 50 percent more than traditional controllers and, because water costs are low and rebates aren’t available, return on investment can be a long way off. “It’s not an easy sale,” he says. But he tries hard, promoting the environmental and plant benefits, water savings and convenience. “People are so busy today that they just don’t have the time to set the controller the way they need to, nor do they understand it most of the time,” he says.

If you work in an area where watering restrictions prevent irrigation, Ash recommends contacting water agencies on behalf of your customers, explaining how smart controllers work and asking for exemptions. He says one of HydroPoint’s customers in Florida recently did this, and water agency officials not only granted an exemption, but visited his property to learn more about the controllers. “You can go from having no business because of the water crisis to creating business,” Ash says.

Landscape irrigation accounts for almost one-third of residential water use, according to EPA, and Ash says landscapes are typically over-watered by 30 to 300 percent – hence the popularity of watering bans.

Because the green industry uses so much water, it has a responsibility to guard this important resource, Marmorato says, adding that smart controllers are a big step in the right direction.

“It’s bringing high tech to the lower-tech world,” Ash says.

Web Resources

  • www.irrigation.org/SWAT/Industry/ia-tested.asp – Performance results for 13 “smart” controllers that have undergone Smart Water Application Technologies
  • http://cati.csufresno.edu/cit – The Center for Irrigation
    Technology, an independent research and testing facility, based at California State University, administers the SWAT test
  • www.epa.gov/watersense – EPA’s WaterSense site, with information about weather- and sensor-based irrigation control technologies
  • www.drought.unl.edu/DM/monitor.html – U.S. Drought Monitor map, updated weekly by agencies and organizations including the National Drought Mitigation Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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