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How smart irrigation can save you millions

November 8, 2021 -  By
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Photo: CatLane/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: CatLane/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Countless man-hours, a slew of headaches, 140 million gallons of water and $600,000 — that’s what’s been saved by just one of Par 3 Landscape’s commercial clients since it switched to a smart irrigation system in 2016.

Thomas Raden, landscape irrigation manager at the Las Vegas company, says he can’t say enough about the benefits of implementing the technology.

“First and foremost, Par 3 wants to be sustainability driven,” Raden says. “We don’t necessarily want to be cost driven, but in the end, that’s what makes the world go around. We want to ensure that our customers have the best-looking landscape, the healthiest landscape, with the most efficient amount of water.”

Raden, along with Max Moreno, director of water management at Harvest Landscape Enterprises (HLE), and Mark Ballenger, president of Ballenger & Co., describe how far the industry has progressed, the benefits of using smart irrigation and what it takes to get clients on board.

From humble beginnings

With 50 years in the irrigation industry under his belt, Ballenger says he has seen it all: including gate valves that were adjusted manually, finicky weather stations and now, fully automated smart controllers.

Ballenger & Co., based in Pinellas Park, Fla., manages large homeowner associations and started seeing smart irrigation devices about 30 years ago.

“The first smart irrigation devices dealt with very complex weather stations,” Ballenger says. “The programming was somewhat difficult to understand, and the operation was also difficult to understand. Now, the products are more cost effective, more reliable, require less maintenance and are rather easy to use. Smart irrigation is simplistic in what the device is capable of doing with little to no interaction from the user once it’s set up and functioning.”

Ballenger recalls being impressed when a system hooked up at one of his company’s testing facilities sent him an automated text message letting him know that the irrigation system canceled the watering sequence scheduled for the next day because a small amount of rain was predicted for that evening.

“The system is telling you on a daily, weekly or monthly basis how much water you’ve conserved,” Ballenger says. “A lot of the smart controllers also report right to a maintenance firm that says, ‘Hey, we’ve detected on zone 2 that you’ve exceeded the water flow of the parameters we set. It’ll shut the irrigation system off and notify someone.’”

Raden, who has been in the irrigation industry since the late 1980s, also sees the benefits of the controllers that feature predictive analytics to forecast what water use will be in the future.

With more than 500 controllers operating on 55 customers’ sites, Par 3 currently uses Weathermatic Smartlink, Rain Bird IQ 3 & IQ 4, Calsense CS3000 & ET2000e, Weathertrak ET Pro3 & H2O 2 wire, BaseStation 3200, Jain Unity, RainMaster I-Central, Toro Sentinel and Aqua-Management.

“Out here in the desert in Nevada, you could go from one day in the 90s to the next day being 110 and the wind’s blowing hard, and you can’t afford to be trying to catch up on water loss,” Raden says. “Let’s apply what is predicted for the future. You may have a very small deficit or a very small surplus, but at least you are not trying to catch up.”

Before and after 

Aerial images show the impact of installing a smart controller on the turf at one of HLE’s sites.

 

The pros

Max Moreno

Max Moreno

In addition to saving on the obvious — gallons of water and dollars — Moreno says smart irrigation products have been eye-opening for him because they’ve also helped Orange, Calif.-based Harvest Landscape Enterprises save on labor.

“With the labor shortages, having a smart controller helps us route our guys better,” Moreno says. “It takes on the task of adjusting to weather patterns, where in the past, we would send our irrigation techs to adjust to weather.”

The company has implemented HydroPoint WeatherTRAK controllers, Flomec ultrasonic flow meters for measuring flow and sensing irrigation breaks, the CST Pathway for adding master valves and flow sensors when trenching wire isn’t available or applicable and Rain Bird RD 1800 sprayheads with a flow shield to help limit the amount of water when a nozzle breaks off.

Moreno notes that in California, irrigation firms also have to consider the allocations given by certain water agencies.

“When we don’t have smart controllers, we have to be on-site increasing and reducing water,” Moreno says.
Moreno says overall, smart controllers have saved HLE’s clients between 20 and 40 percent on annual water usage, and the company, in turn, has saved close to 50 to 70 percent on man-hours.

While around 50 percent of its clients’ properties use smart controllers currently, Moreno says HLE’s goal is to have 100 percent of its sites on smart controllers by the end of the year.

Moreno adds that using smart irrigation technology is also better for the plant.

“By using smart controllers, we’re also applying only what the plant needs, making for a healthier plant,” Moreno says. “With landscape, 50 percent of the water is normally lost. We try to conserve as much as we can using smart controllers by reducing water runoff, putting in proper schedules and watering only what the plants need.”

What to keep in mind

Raden, Ballenger and Moreno all agree that a smart irrigation controller is worth nothing if it’s installed improperly or if it’s used in conjunction with a “nonsmart” system.

“I would recommend contractors educate themselves and use irrigation designers who specialize in that field,” Ballenger says. “Just changing the controller out doesn’t make the irrigation system smart. You have a smart controller, but it needs to be matched properly with the irrigation system.”
Moreno says HLE makes sure it matches the smart controller with high-efficiency nozzles that create larger water droplets and a uniform spray.

“It’s important to also know the product and the property you’re working with,” Moreno says. “If the property doesn’t match the products, it’s not going to be successful. It’s important to do a site inspection to make sure these products will have the best impact and the best overall water savings.”

Relaying the benefits

Ballenger says he brings up the conservation benefits to clients who are on the fence about implementing the technology.

“It costs money to save money, but if you can get the client on board with conservation and the fact
that over irrigating is worse than under irrigating, we don’t have much problem convincing clients to switch,” Ballenger says.

Raden notes that clients who are hesitant to install a smart controller often have had bad experiences in the past with a contractor not properly setting up the system.

“Some contractors don’t understand how they work and how to set them up,” Raden says. “They turn them on, set them up the best they think, and their landscape starts drying out or it’s flooded, or they have all these problems with the controller, and they just turn it back to standard mode. Then, it just becomes an expensive paperweight. The irrigation industry needs to focus on education all the way down to the boots on the ground.”

A high initial investment, often around $15,000, Moreno says, also deters some clients from wanting to implement a smart irrigation controller. HLE also brings in before and after photos of sites irrigated using smart controllers. The after shots show healthy, lush landscapes, all irrigated with less water.

“What I basically tell them is that there is a return on investment,” Moreno says. “We’re going to reduce labor because we’re not having to send our irrigation tech to find breaks that the controller would find. We’re not having to pull out additional weeds because the controllers are watering to specific plant needs. When I start applying those numbers to man-hours, the return on investment starts to grow and the customer starts to see a large dollar amount. Once they see that, the customers change their mind and want a smart controller.”

Sarah Webb

About the Author:

Sarah Webb is Landscape Management's managing editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at LM, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor. She can be reached at swebb@northcoastmedia.net.

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