All Washed Up

          Only a fantasy a few years ago, recent advencements
          in irrigation technology have pushed contractors to
          become advocates for water conservation.

by: Stefanie Toth / Contributing Editor

Thirty years ago, the landscape industry was only interested in getting everything wet, says Brad Smith, horticulture professor at University of Texas, San Marcos. Water prices were low and conservation was the furthest thing from most people's minds. Sprinkler heads were free to spray onto sidewalks and irrigation maintenance was an unheard of practice. But within the last decade, an emphasis for water conservation brought on by drought conditions and technology advancements such as water-efficient nozzle heads and pressure regulators have caused landscape contractors to become more conscious about water practices.

As clients realize how precious water resources are, water-saving technology and new certification programs, have primed contractors to sell irrigation services to new clients and maintain lush, water smart landscapes. "It's like the dinosaurs," Smith says of the evolution taking place in the industry. "If you don't adapt, you eventually will perish."

AGENTS OF CHANGE. Although the number of landscape professionals practicing smart water methods has increased, more than 50 percent of commercial and residential irrigation water use is wasted due to evaporation, wind, improper system design or overwatering, according to the EPA's WaterSense. But, new technologies have come onthe market to prevent this water loss from occurring.

Water-efficient sprinkler systems along with ET controllers, rain sensors, drip irrigation and moisture sensors provide incremental savings, says Warren Gorowitz, water management products sales manager for Ewing Irrigation, Phoenix. These devices can be simple or complex, from rain sensors that override sprinkler clocks when precipitation is detected to ET controllers that gather and use reports from local weather stations to calculate run times automatically.

Systems can be used alone or in concert with each others to save hundreds of gallons of water per property. "Every irrigation system should be completely customized to the unique needs of the site," Gorowitz says.

Water conservation efforts go beyond designing and installing water-efficient irrigation systems. Contractors must educate clients on the importance of properly maintaining those systems and then create a relationship that provides that service, Smith says. "We all have to strive to be knowledgeable professionals," he says. "If we do this, the industry as a whole benefits through recognition of our expertise and ability to effectively enhance water conservation while still providing landscape irrigation systems."

Overwatering from improper installation and maintenance of irrigation systems is a problem plaguing landscapes.

For example, common mistakes include placing sensors under building eaves where rain doesn't fall and installing crooked heads that spray onto sidewalks, says Larry Garrett, owner of Garrett Designs in Jacksonville, Fla. Lack of oversight during installation combined with lack of knowledge about irrigation mechanics are just some of reasons overwatering occurrs, but proper education can reduce instances of improper installation. Smith says. "Exceeding manufacturer's recommendations on equipment causes poor performance," Smith says. "The contractor has to be self-policing on so much of his own work, especially in the residential market."

OUTSIDE HELP. Various organizations and programs have been created to aid contractors with smart water practices. Programs such as WaterSense, which was created in 2006 through the EPA, ensure customers are getting professional system design, installation and performance. "We can insure people that contractors that have completed that program are some of the best contractors that are committed to water efficiency," says Allison Hogge, an EPA environmental protection specialist. "They have the education and training and they are reliable."

Becoming WaterSense certified is a simple process, she adds. Contractors need to take an exam that tests their professional knowledge about water irrigation efficiency. Once they pass this examination, a paper is signed that says the contractor pledges to promote water efficiency. The partnership with WaterSense provides a landscape professional with free marketing tools and continued education throughout the year. In addition, WaterSense is free, she says. More than 500 irrigation partners have become WaterSense certified as of July 2008, with a rate of about 25 to 50 per month.

A NEW BEGINNING. Updating irrigation systems to run efficiently is critical, says Dale Hansen, commercial sales director, Signature Control Systems, Irvine, Calif.

First, the contractor must complete an audit to determine how much water is being wasted. Next, he assess what can be adjusted and what needs to be replaced. For example, replacing a cracked nozzle will significantly reduce wasted water. Average water savings varies reginally between 25 and 50 percent, he says. "It depends on how you're using it today and how much you're willing to cut back and how much rainfall you get," Hansen says.

Retrofitting conventional systems over to drip systems is a viable option for clients trying to reduce their utility bills. Depending on how outdated the existing system is, retrofitting can save from 25 to 75 percent of a customer's water costs, says Stuart Spaulding, customer service manager for DIG Corp., Vista, Calif. "They're looking for a system that is trouble-free, easy to install and doesn't generate a lot of callbacks," he says.

A system requires frequent maintenance checks and adjustments to distribute water properly. This requires a contractor be adept at product troubleshooting, says Brent Mechum, industry development director for the Irrigation Association(IA). "A lot of times you have a different person doing the maintenance than designed and/or installed the system," he says.

The material and labor costs of investing in new, water-efficient technology can vary from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars. Contractors must educate clients that going cheap on their irrigation system only will end up being more expensive in the long run is an important step to conserving water, says Jim McCutcheon, owner of HighGrove Partners, HighGrove Partners, Austell, Ga.

McCutcheon created a series of programs, KnowWater, in response to a complete outdoor watering ban in Atlanta last fall that caused the landscape industry in that area to lose billions of dollars. The KnowWater programs assist customers in implementing cost-effective methods of maintaining irrigation systems. When a customer wants to update an existing system, McCutcheon and his employees evaluate the costs and return possibilities in nine different ways and present it to the client. Once a decision from the customer is reached, a presentation based on the final costs and return on renovating the system is the final step. It's all system specific and based on how much a customer could potentially save, he says.

"As soon as it becomes important to the customers, it's important to the contractors," McCutcheon says. LL

Article as appeared in Lawn & Landscape Magazine, September 2008, page 84 - 92.

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