Ignorance shouldn’t be an excuse for wasting water. Yet irrigation systems (particularly those complicated-looking controllers) often baffle homeowners.
“It’s the same people who had ‘12:00’ flashing forever on their VCR,” said expert Richard Restuccia, a “water management evangelist.” “It’s not lack of ability to figure it out; it’s lack of motivation.”
Now, we’re motivated. “Water cops” are watching – and handing out tickets. And such water-waste violations can be expensive. After an initial warning, fines in Sacramento start at $50 (for a second offense) and quickly escalate to $1,000 for four or more offenses.
When the city of Sacramento decided to crack down on water wasters in late March, inspectors handed out more than 350 citations in less than two days.
Many homeowners pleaded ignorance – not of Sacramento’s 20 to 30 percent mandatory cutbacks and “no water days,” but of how to adjust their sprinklers’ control box.
“It all comes down to education,” said Restuccia, director of water management solutions for landscape maintenance giant Valley Crest Landscapes Co. “The most important part of your irrigation system is the controller. Even the traditional ones are no more complicated to set than your alarm clock.”
Like that old blinking VCR, the controller scares many homeowners.
“It’s a big stumbling block,” said landscape and water efficiency expert Julie Saare-Edmonds of the state’s Department of Water Resources. “Some customers don’t know what it is or where it is – especially in rental properties or if they moved into a new home. The sprinklers just magically come on.”
Yet the controller is the brains of your irrigation system.
“You can have the best plants for a low-water landscape and the best irrigation system in the world, but if your controller is set up wrong, you’re going to waste water,” said Saare-Edmonds.
Mauricio Troche has seen countless examples throughout California.
“It’s a problem from the git-go,” said Troche, director of sales and marketing for drip- and micro-irrigation expert Netafim USA. “The controller is usually in the garage, out of sight and out of mind. Usually, the landscaper sets up the controller for new sod or grass seed when it was planted, and it runs for new turf grass – three times a day every day for 10 minutes each time. That’s supposed to be for the first three weeks while the grass is getting established. But nobody ever changes that. In the industry, we call it ‘set it and forget it.’ ”
Most water agencies now provide free water audits, Troche noted. Part of that audit is a hands-on tutorial on how to operate the controller.
Get a copy of your controller manual and read it, say the experts. Those manuals are available from the manufacturers online. Several companies such as Rain Bird, Toro and Hunter also have how-to videos online, showing step-by-step controller adjustments and other tips.
Once you know where it is and how to adjust it, make the controller work for you. Landscape irrigation accounts for an estimated 60 percent of household water use in Sacramento.
“With a little adjustment, you should be able to easily save 20 percent,” said Restuccia.
Restuccia suggests turning the run time down for each station one minute at a time. Let the system run for a week or two at that new setting.
“Then, watch your turf (or other plants),” he said. “If it still looks good and healthy, take another minute off. You keep dialing it back a minute at a time until the turf looks stressed (and yellow). Then, add one minute to each run time. That should be the perfect balance.”
As part of its drought rules, Sacramento cut back on water days from three to two. Again, the controller becomes the culprit when people are caught watering on wrong days.
To avoid overwatering on an allowed day, “you need to adjust your controller for multiple start times on ... one day.” Restuccia said. “Water; let it soak in for a hour. Then, water again. ...
“Most people will up their run time to 60 minutes and waste a lot of water,” he added. “There’s not enough water police out there to catch everybody.”
Use old-fashioned observation to see how long the water takes to soak in.
Added Saare-Edmonds, “Water can only soak in so much. After that saturation point, it’s all wasted.”
How much water do plants really need? That’s probably the most common question asked during this current drought, say the experts, but also the most complicated.
“It all depends on plant type, if its location is in the sun or shade, what type of soil you have, if the property is sloped,” Saare-Edmonds said.
That’s why it’s important to group plants with similar water needs.
“Trees growing in a lawn are another issue,” she said. “They’re getting some water from the lawn (sprinklers), but they really need their own separate irrigation, less often but deeper.”
Most water rules exempt drip irrigation. For example, Sacramento limits over-head irrigation (sprinklers) and hand-watering to two days a week. Residents with odd-numbered addresses may water Tuesdays and Saturdays; evens on Wednesdays and Sundays. Drip systems may be run any day.
“Drip systems need to be scheduled very differently,” Saare-Edmonds said. “Sprinkler (run) times are measured in gallons per minute (GPM); drip systems run gallons per hour (GPH).”
Converting a sprinkler-based system to drip is easier than you may think. Even turf can be put on drip with grid systems installed under the sod.
Most important, drip systems put water where it’s needed: at the roots.
“Instead of losing 35 to 40 percent (of water) to drift or evaporation, a drip system is 90 to 95 percent efficient,” Troche said.
“Irrigation technology is getting better and better,” Saare-Edmonds said. “There are a lot more options out there.” Among those options are “smart” controllers. These take a lot of the guesswork out of deciding when to water.
“They’re a little bit of money – usually around $500 – but they adjust water use on a daily basis, taking solar radiation, temperature, humidity and other factors into account,” Restuccia said.
Other tools can be added to existing systems. Soil monitors (around $200) measure ground moisture and relay that information to the controller. Weather stations or rain sensors ($200 and up) shut off irrigation when it’s not needed.
“I don’t see many customers with rain sensors, but they’re a good tool,” Restuccia said.
These sensors help the controller do its job.
“It all comes back to the controller,” Saare-Edmonds said. “It’s the brain of your system. Use it.”