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Water Wise 2008: Part 2

September 8, 2008 -  By

By: Ron Hall

Committed to a better future

FOR MORE THAN 75 YEARS, Rain Bird has focused on developing products, services and technologies that irrigate the world’s crops, landscapes and green spaces in the most effective and efficient manner possible. But applying precise amounts of water with little waste is no longer enough. Each of us must use water responsibly. That’s why Rain Bird continues to commit resources to partnerships and educational initiatives that help each of us better understand The Intelligent Use of Water™.

For the people at Rain Bird, The Intelligent Use of Water is not just a slogan—it’s a philosophy that permeates every dimension of our company. Our collaboration with Landscape Management to bring you this Water Wise series is a prime example of how we partner with like-minded organizations and government agencies to encourage responsible water use.

We strive to educate diverse audiences about smart water use through white papers and summits related to global water issues. We’ve also designed classroom curricula to help teachers and students better understand water’s role both economically and ecologically.

Our philosophy

Rain Bird’s deep-rooted commitment to innovative products and technologies is at the very core of The Intelligent Use of Water philosophy. We pioneer new technologies and craft the critical components for truly state-of-the-art systems — giving each customer a fully integrated irrigation solution.

Our 5000 PRS Rotors, for example, offer up to a 45% water savings when compared with other brands of rotors. These rotors combine pressure-regulating technologies and the patented Rain Curtain nozzles to produce larger droplets that reduce airborne evaporation. These independently measured results came from a product performance certification program overseen by the Australian Smart Approved WaterMark board. I encourage you to, and learn about this program that’s considered by many as benchmark for our industry.

Innovative technology

Our Rotary Nozzles use a lower flow rate to provide efficient water distribution and reduce wasteful run-off. Rain Bird’s entire family of controllers is specifically designed to help users easily program customized watering schedules, while our drip products can be integrated into any irrigation system to deliver water directly at plant root zones where it’s needed most.

Water is our world’s most precious resource. We all need to use it wisely. However, no single individual, company or agency can do it alone. As you spend time with the Landscape Management Waterwise series, consider how The Intelligent Use of Water can be applied to your everyday life—at home, at work and within your own community.

A growing ‘Sense’ of cooperation

The U.S. EPA’s WaterSense partnering program offers the Green Industry a path to more efficient irrigation products and services.

The flow of innovation from irrigation suppliers will change the face of landscape irrigation. As these technologies are developed, tested, brought to market and — this is the essential piece to the puzzle — accepted and implemented in an intelligent way on landscapes, they promise significantly more efficient water use.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that this is essential to the long-term vitality of the Green Industry.

light of the incredible pressure being put on our nation’s freshwater resources by population growth and continuing urban development, it’s safe to say these technologies are arriving none too soon. Agencies in practically every corner of the U.S. are straining to meet increasing demands for treated potable water. This is especially true during periods of peak water use. Not coincidentally, this is generally when landscape water use is greatest.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that residential landscape irrigation accounts for between 30% and 70% of potable water use during these periods. This varies, of course, depending upon climatic conditions.

But because the EPA (and local water purveyors) are convinced that as much as half of this water is wasted, agencies and other rule-makers look first to the Green Industry for relief when public water supplies are tight. It’s difficult to argue with their reasoning: When supplies are threatened, because of drought or system malfunction, they’re faced with the unenviable but easy choice of providing water for drinking and sanitation over using water for turfgrass and ornamentals.

It starts with calls for voluntary conservation by the public and industry. If this fails to achieve the desired savings, mandatory landscape irrigation restrictions are implemented. Outside watering may be banned altogether as a last resort.

Predictably, this has damaging — and often disastrous — consequences for living landscapes and for businesses involved with growing, selling, installing and maintaining turfgrass and ornamentals.

But the Green Industry has learned that playing the blame game only worsens these situations.

Encouragingly, government agencies, water purveyors, irrigation manufacturers, retailers and the many segments of the Green Industry are coming together. Sensing the seriousness of the water situation, they’re beginning to cooperate and make consensus-based decisions regarding intelligent water use. This is happening at the regional, state and national levels.

Let’s take a look at what’s happening at the national level, where a relatively new initiative from the U.S. EPA is gaining momentum. It promises to have a profound effect upon landscape irrigation and, by association, the entire Green Industry.

Making ‘Sense’

In 2003, a group of stakeholders came to the EPA to discuss starting a water efficiency program. In June 2006, that program became a reality with the launch of WaterSense, a partnership program sponsored by the EPA. The goal of the program is to increase the adoption of water-efficient products and services by consumers and organizations. This program seeks to increase water efficiency both indoors and outdoors.

WaterSense is employing three strategies as it focuses on landscape irrigation, says EPA official Stephanie Tanner, who spoke at the recent Toro WaterSmart Symposium “Success without Excess III”:

1. improving efficiency of irrigation;

2. increasing the public’s awareness of water-efficient products; and

3. increasing and promoting water-efficient landscape design practices.

“Current activities center on labeling certification programs for irrigation professionals (in partnership with the Irrigation Association), partnering with certified irrigation professionals to advance water-efficient irrigation, and developing technical specifications for irrigation products such as controllers and soil moisture sensors,” Tanner explains.

Tanner, who manages the development of water efficiency and performance specifications under WaterSense, says the program’s current focus is on labeling certification programs for professionals that emphasize water-efficient techniques and technologies.

So far, five programs have earned the WaterSense label, four of them in partnership with the Irrigation Association (IA): Irrigation Designer, Irrigation Contractor, Landscape Irrigation Auditor and Golf Irrigation Auditor. The fifth program is the North Coast Water Conservation Group’s Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper. At press time, there were more than 500 WaterSense partners, according to the WaterSense Web site,

Irrigation professionals who meet the program’s criteria can use the WaterSense partner logo on outreach material and use a variety of program templates and brochures in conjunction with their marketing. These aids will help them differentiate themselves from their competition, says the EPA.

Also, landscape and irrigation professionals should be aware that green building programs have begun specifying WaterSense irrigation partners. They include the U.S. Green Building Council’s new construction rating system and the National Home Builder’s draft National Green Building Standard.

WaterSense is also working with many industries, focusing again on the irrigation industry, to develop criteria for water-efficient, high-performance products.

For products to be considered for program labeling, Tanner says they must:

  • be about 20% more efficient than conventional products;
  • be able to realize water savings on a national level;
  • be appropriate for use everywhere, even if it’s not in common practice; and
  • provide measurable water savings.

“We don’t label individual products, but develop criteria for product categories,” says Tanner, adding that the EPA looks to industry to identify, develop protocols and evaluate the attributes of products within particular categories.

“Third-party certification is required for WaterSense products,” she adds. “We will be working with these (irrigation) manufacturers more directly to help them integrate into the certification process.”

The WaterSense program, now in just its third year, has made big strides in labeling indoor water-saving products such as high-efficiency toilets and faucets. As it continues to investigate other indoor plumbing categories, it has ramped up its efforts to identify and label irrigation products, as well.

“It takes time to get an industry to agree on how the products should be tested and for manufacturers to agree that the tests it comes up with are fair,” Tanner says.

The good news, given the seriousness of the nation’s fresh water issues, is that the process is under way and the irrigation industry, including the Irrigation Association, is a full partner in its success.


Smart Water Application Technologies (SWAT) is an effort you may not recognize, but you should. SWAT is a national partnership created to promote landscape water use efficiency through the application of state-of-the-art irrigation technologies. It operates under the umbrella of the Irrigation Association (IA), and focuses its efforts on product categories targeting both the residential and commercial markets.

It is made up of water purveyors, irrigation product manufacturers and irrigation and landscaping professionals, all of them working to identify and quantify technologies that make landscape irrigation more efficient.

Brian Vinchesi, CID, is the chairman of SWAT, a position he has held since its formation in 2002. He is also president of Irrigation Consulting Inc., Pepperell, MA, and a former president of the IA.

Vinchesi explains that SWAT was initially formed at the request of water purveyors to evaluate the attributes and efficiencies of the various climate-based (“smart”) irrigation controllers that began appearing on the market about 10 years ago. It has since started the process of developing testing protocols to investigate the performance of soil moisture sensors and rain sensors.

To date, the initiative has looked at 14 controllers and recently finished drafting the seventh protocol for this testing, which is undergoing review for comments. SWAT is measuring two controller performance attributes: irrigation adequacy and irrigation excess. In other words, they’re quantifying how well each controller meets the watering requirements of landscapes, and how much excess water is applied, if any.

After the review is complete, the revised protocol is expected to go to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program.

“SWAT protocols are anticipated to be the basis for WaterSense outdoor irrigation product labeling specifications,” explains Vinchesi. “Climate-based controllers are expected to be the first irrigation products that are labeled.”

SWAT is also developing testing protocols for soil moisture sensors and rain sensors in its efforts to identify products that offer water-saving efficiencies. These investigations are not as far along as the work on controllers.

Vinchesi says SWAT selects product categories based on:

  • their ability to improve the efficiency of an irrigation system;
  • their availability in the residential and commercial markets;
  • their adaptability with new or existing sprinkler or drip irrigation systems; and
  • their ability to improve the water efficiency of a system without negatively impacting a customer’s landscape.

“Another big part of SWAT is to try to get these products into the market,” adds Vinchesi. “You can develop the best products in the world, but if nobody buys them, they’re not going to save us any water.”

To learn more about SWAT, visit


Slightly smaller in size than the U.S.’s contiguous 48 states, Australia is the driest inhabited continent on the planet — and one of the most urbanized.

Because of this, and because extended droughts regularly threaten water supplies to its major cities, conservation is a huge issue on the continent. In most respects, Australia has been proactive in achieving conservation, as evidenced by decreasing per capita demand for urban domestic water over this past decade. Most of this has come from indoor water use savings.

In recent years, conservation efforts have focused on outdoor water use, as well. Recognizing this, in 2004 four associations — the Australian Water Association, Irrigation Australia, Nursery & Garden Industry Australia and Water Services Association of Australia — jointly developed the Smart Approved WaterMark water-saving labeling program. In 2005, their program, commonly referred to as WaterMark, was written into the National Water Initiative, the country’s policy for water. In 2006, it received a grant from the federal government to increase its awareness with the public.

WaterMark drives outdoor water conservation by:

  • promoting products and services that help conserve water;
  • helping consumers understand often-complex water conservation measures; and
  • championing innovative solutions for sustainable water use around the home.

WaterMark accredits products and services that have been tested and deemed to conserve water by panels of independent technical experts. The testing is rigorous, and products and services are compared against sets of established criteria. Products and services passing muster get a license to use the WaterMark logo for two years.

The two-year provision is not the only difference from the similarly aimed U.S. EPA WaterSense program. For example, WaterMark focuses strictly on outdoor water savings, but the range of products it accredits is broader to include categories such as car washes and pool covers as well as gardening and irrigation.

In the short time since its inception, WaterMark has gained broad-based support from water utilities, government departments, retailers and from service providers.

After gaining acceptance and participation from industry and retailersin 2007 it was finally confident that it had enough accredited products in the commercial pipeline to make a concerted effort to educate the pubic about its mission and the importance of the WaterMark logo. Public awareness has grown thanks to widespread coverage in TV, radio and print media.

Ultimately, the goal of WaterMark (and its sister program aimed at indoor water conservation, Water Efficiency Labeling and Standards or WELS) is to educate the pubic that water conservation is a sustainability issue, and it’s not just about crisis management.

To learn more about Smart WaterMark, or to see the categories and products that have gained its accreditation,


The challenge of managed water

Green Industry contractors in North Carolina are adjusting their businesses to meet what they see as ongoing restrictions on outdoor watering.

Slowly emerging from its worst drought ever — a calamity still gripping the southwest corner of the state — the Green Industry in and around Raleigh, NC, is adjusting to a world of tightly managed municipal water.

This is a relatively new phenomenon for the East, especially North Carolina.

“The restrictions right now are manageable,” says Kurt Bland, general manager of Bland Landscaping Co., a 32-year-old, $10-million-plus company headquartered in nearby Apex. Homeowners can now water either two or three times weekly, depending upon the community, he says.

He and others in the Green Industry believe restrictions on the use of municipally supplied water for landscape irrigation are likely to become the norm and not the exception in their part of the state. This is something the industry is adjusting to. Just seven months ago, local officials threatened most irrigation with municipally supplied potable water would be banned. But local lakes, the region’s primary supply of domestic water, refilled after a wetter-than-normal spring.

“In February, we were being told that we will not have irrigation systems operating on potable water in 2008,” says Bland. “All of a sudden it was raining and people were saying, ‘We want flowers.'”

But the negative effects of the drought (coupled with a stalled housing market) are still being felt. The state’s Green Industry is far from returning to “business as usual.”

In terms of landscape irrigation, it’s not likely that will happen anytime soon.

Apart from the water restrictions that local and regional authorities imposed, which are likely to become year-round, Gov. Mike Easley this summer signed a bill giving the state the power to order water restrictions. The law allows the state to order local or regional water providers to ratchet up to a more severe level of restrictions. Also, the bill requires local authorities to file drought conservation plans with the state. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources could reject plans that it believes wouldn’t save enough water.

Bland says his family-run business lost “tens of thousands of dollars” in installations this past fall thanks to overly strict irrigation restrictions and “shattered customer confidence.” Even so, it kept some of that business going by trucking reclaimed water to clients’ landscapes. Some communities offered reclaimed water free as long as landscapers took a two-hour educational course and had their trucks examined and properly marked. But hauling reclaimed water was an expensive proposition. Fuel and labor costs added up quickly, says Bland.

“I’d rather take a hit on the bottom line than not have a top line,” he says.

“With the drought last year, our installations and the irrigation business slowed dramatically,” adds Chris Lambert, sales manager of Carolina Outdoor Care, Raleigh. “We had a significant amount of revenue we had to replace. We’ve had to change.”

Lambert beefed up the company’s maintenance division to generate revenue. “Fortunately, we also had some good relationships in the commercial market. That’s helped us to cover our overhead and keep moving,” he adds.

When the region’s installation business dried up, Carolina Outdoor Care lost two irrigation technicians. Lambert now takes on more of that part of the business. This season, bulk of his irrigation business has been servicing and repairing systems that sat idle through the drought, he says.

Erich Kolb and a partner founded Triangle Green Scene in 1993 and has guided it through several droughts.

“A little bit of drought and hot sunny weather is good because everybody starts thinking about putting in an irrigation system. But this drought was bad,” says Kolb. “My phone quit ringing for new irrigation systems.” Although not as dramatic, calls for other services such as fall aerations and overseeding also declined.

“We looked for alternative services rather than plant and irrigation sales. We marketed more hardscaping. We looked harder at our maintenance,” he adds.

Kolb says he feels the recent drought marks a turning point for the region in terms of residents’ heightened perception of water conservation and of the importance of efficient landscape irrigation.

“I’m confident we’ll see a lot more installations again. People have busy lifestyles and they want their homes to have all the features, and they expect to have irrigation,” he says. “But I think you’ll see people wanting better-designed systems. They’re getting more concerned about water and how they’re using it. I think contractors are going to have to become more professional.

“The drought has made everybody in this business think and readjust,” adds Kolb. “And that’s just what we’re doing too.”


The City of Cary is a perennial selection by national magazines as one of the most livable cities in the United Sates. With Raleigh, the state capital, nearby and surrounded by Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina, Cary is ideally located for growth.The entire region experienced incredible development in the past decade, with Cary in the forefront — thanks, in part to the presence of The Research Triangle Park, the region’s economic driver. The RTP is an enclave of high-tech research and development with more than 150 operations employing 39,000 people on 7,000 acres (most of it pine woods) just off I-40.

Cary also leads the region’s population growth and development. Its population grew by 43,000 in 1990 and now exceeds more than 114,000. Planners expect it to double again within the next 20 years.

Development and concerns over meeting future needs, as much as the region’s periodic droughts, drive the city’s aggressive water conservation efforts. Cary’s palette of regulations governing the use of city-supplied water for landscape irrigation is more representative of those in place in cities in the arid U.S. Southwest rather than in the usually verdant East. After all, Cary and surrounding communities average 44 inches of precipitation annually. And even during last year’s devastating drought, that part of North Carolina received 36 inches of precipitation. Compare that to the 12 inches of rain that Los Angeles averages annually.

Here are the measures directed at landscape irrigation that Cary has instituted to conserve water:

  • A tiered water rate. The more municipally supplied water that you use, the more you pay. For homeowners, the cost goes from a minimum charge of $3.28 per 1,000 gal. to a maximum of $10.83 per 1,000 gal.
  • A “turf buy back” program offering homeowners a one-time incentive of $500 to replace their fescue lawns with warm-season turfgrasses that the city says are more water-efficient.
  • Readily available reclaimed water for landscape irrigation, either in bulk or through approximately 20 miles of pipeline across several different sections of the city. Cary was the first city in the state in 2001 to pump treated wastewater to homes and businesses for landscape irrigation.
  • Separate meters required for indoor and outdoor water use.
  • Water and sewer “development fees” for new construction to offset the infrastructure costs of serving new development. The development fee for a new 2,500 sq. ft. home is $5,281; for a new 150,000-sq.-ft. office building, it’s $130,230.
  • Aggressive ongoing public education focusing on outdoor water conservation.

Landscape professionals say that Cary is far from the easiest city in the region in which to do business. But they also admit the city has been the most progressive in terms of educating its residents to water conservation.



When John Feagans and Ryan Jones started White Oak Landscaping and Irrigation, Clayton, NC, 10 years ago, they never dreamed they would be installing rainwater harvesting systems. This season they were — more than a few.

Rapid urban development in and around Raleigh, the state capital, is now straining the region’s ability to meet its potable water demands. Everyone’s eyes are now open to the region’s water challenges as a result of the drought of 2007 that prompted severe watering restrictions.

“Once the irrigation started getting shut down we had a meeting in the company to talk about ways we could serve our customers and generate income for the company,” says Feagans. “We researched rainwater harvesting and determined it was something that we could do. Within three weeks we went from getting the idea to having five people sitting in a classroom learning all we could about installing these systems.”

Company management spent weeks researching the Internet for suppliers and vendors. Then it got as much formal training as it could before it began offering a service new to the region.

“We worked through what we were going to do with rainwater harvesting in the office a hundred times before we ever went out on a site,” says Feagans.

The results so far have been modest but encouraging.

“It’s not enough to support the whole company,” he says. “But I think it’s starting to take off.”

Feagans says that customers generally want rainwater harvesting systems for their trees, shrubs and landscape beds more than for their turfgrass. They like being off public water systems, and the availability of a free source of water when they want it for whatever reason.

“The systems usually don’t provide enough capacity to keep the grass happy but they can keep the expensive landscape plants alive during a drought,” he says. “We can always reseeed and re-establish the grass once the rain starts.”

White Oak Landscaping & Irrigation installs a variety of systems. It depends upon the size and layout of the customers’ property, the amount of capacity they want and, of course, their budget.

“People don’t like being told they can’t use their water at all,” says Feagans. “If they have a 3,000-sq.-ft. roof area, we can give them 1,500 to 2,000 gallons of water every time we get an inch of rain.”

The smallest system they offer provides 500 gallons of water capacity. “That’s about as small as you’re going to go,” he says. “I can’t imaging doing the plumping and installing a cistern and pump for anything smaller than that.” As a point of reference, the cost of a 2,500-gallon system for a customer runs in the $6,000-$7,000 range, “a big pill to swallow,” he admits. But, like him, many property owners are beginning to realize that the availability of public potable water for landscape irrigation is going to get more restrictive — and expensive.

“People are going to start paying a premium for irrigation water,” says Feagans. “This region is going to continue growing and developing, and water is going to get more precious here.”

Feagans describes the past several years as “challenging” for his company, but he’s confident it will grow again as the economy improvdes.

“We’re certified irrigation designers and installers and we’ve gone to the trouble of learning our trade,” he says, adding that the region’s water challenges will ultimately provide a competitive advantage for contractors that can work with communities and their water purveyors in conserving water.


Using science to aid water policy

NCSU researchers are taking the mystery out of landscape irrigation with a multi-year study.

Plants don’t waste water; people do. That’s one of the mantras of irrigation designers and installers.

It’s not that homeowners and property managers intentionally waste water, especially if it costs them money. It’s just that few of them are aware about how much, when and where, when it comes to landscape irrigation. Some irrigate on the premise that if a little water is good, more water is great.

Their understanding of automatic systems is generally not much better. It’s often best described as “set it and forget it.”

A small team of North Carolina State University professors is in the middle of a three-year study to take the mystery out of watering turfgrass for property owners. They’ve set up a research project to quantify how much water is needed to keep turfgrass healthy and attractive. They’re also evaluating what types of irrigation management systems work best for their region.

“It’s a two-fold study,” says Dr. Grady Miller, professor and extension specialist. “We’re testing technology, but we also have the turfgrass telling us what to expect. For example, just because one technology might put out less water, if the grass looks bad, that technology will not be acceptable to a homeowner.

“We want a technology that doles out the water as the plant needs it and is efficient in doing that — while still maintaining acceptable turf quality.”

The NSCU team’s findings to this point suggest that keeping turfgrass healthy and attractive doesn’t require as much water as most property owners seem to think. Irrigating two days a week works fine, even during the mid-South’s hot summers.

“There is no reason to water every day,” says Dr. Garry Grabow, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering.

Grabow, Miller, Dr. Rod Huffman, also a professor of biological and agricultural engineering, and crop sciences professor Dr. Dan Bowman installed 5,000 sq. ft. of turf-type tall fescue sod at the university’s Lake Wheeler Turfgrass Field Laboratory in the fall of 2006. They divided the turfgrass into 40 experimental plots and began watering it with 160 sprinkler heads controlled by an automatic irrigation system.

Some plots are watered daily; others are watered once or twice a week. All the watering is done between 12:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. daily.

All of the irrigation systems have rain shut-off switches — a valuable and inexpensive system feature that more than pays for itself in water savings, the researchers say.

“We’re comparing the irrigation technologies against the standard type of operation,” says Grabow. “We’ll also compare how much water they use and what we think the turf required. We’ll also compare the turf quality.”

So far, the researchers have been most impressed with the results obtained by using soil moisture sensing. It has delivered the best combination of turf quality and water savings to date. The soil moisture sensors, placed five inches below grade in the plots, activate irrigation when soil moisture drops below a pre-set level. Once the soil moisture increases to the desired level, the system turns off.

“It did not apply the least amount of water,” Grabow admits. “But it applied what I would consider the right amount of water to provide good quality turf.”

The researchers are also evaluating satellite-controlled irrigation control, which uses weather data to determine evapotranspiration to provide a measure of when to water. It, too, has shown promise, and the researchers are tweaking the system to see if they can get just the right amount of irrigation to maintain turf quality in their region of the country.

As team members evaluate various irrigation systems and measure irrigation frequencies and water use, they’re also rating the condition of the turfgrass. They’re rating it visually on a scale of 1 to 9, and measuring its canopy temperature as it relates to each irrigation program.

Regardless of the potential water savings, property owners are not going to embrace any irrigation system if it doesn’t deliver an acceptable quality of turfgrass, says Grabow.

The NCSU research project has attracted the attention of officials from several communities in and around the region.

“We are working closely with several municipalities,” says Grabow. “We want to make sure they make policy that is scientific and is based on sound science.”

He adds that, based upon what the researchers ultimately find out, local water providers may want to consider incentives for property owners to purchase technologies that offer the best combination of water savings and acceptable turfgrass.

“Some of these technologies may be able to almost take the untrained homeowner out of the irrigation equation, regardless of whether they have restrictions,” explains Miller. “Perhaps it’s a sensor that will override the controller and keep the irrigation from coming on when the soil moisture is adequate, but wait until the next available cycle, which might be a day or two later.

“We see a lot of people who have an irrigation system installed but when the installer leaves that might be the last time they worry about it until there’s a problem,” he adds.

The Center for Turfgrass Environment Research and Education at NCSU is funding the research effort.


LM Staff

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