Celebrating Cerebral Irrigation

By Luke Frank

Smart Irrigation Month brings attention to the industry through a proactive, perennial campaign that emphasizes landscape water-use efficiency and positions irrigation professionals as valuable problem solvers — stewards of the resource. But what is “Smart” irrigation?

According the Irrigation Association’s Andy Smith, Smart irrigation integrates technologies within and outside of the irrigation industry to make landscape watering more precise and efficient. “The personal computer is a perfect example,” Smith explains. “Once modern computers entered our management toolbox, we experienced a water-management revolution of sorts. But Smart irrigation is about more than equipment and technology. It must also involve the human element.”

Bob Scott, president of the American Society of Irrigation Consultants (ASIC), footnoted Smith’s sentiment. “Smart irrigation is a good program to introduce tested, effective technology and promote sound water management practices,” said Scott. “Knowing you’re equipped with capable tools and some good base knowledge is a great start. It’s a vital piece of the puzzle.

 “Educate your client about options like rainwater collection and storage, graywater, treated effluent and others. Let them know they have options now and down the road.”
Ivy Munion

“But professional irrigation consultants, designers and contractors have a greater responsibility,” said Scott. “We’re the people — the human element — behind the scenes managing the distribution of millions of gallons of water over our urban landscapes every year. We need to stop and think about that every now and then.”

Scott, founder of Irrigation Consultants, Inc., in Conyers, Ga., said there’s a lot to the process of making Smart irrigation more intelligent. The human element that Smith refers to must be developed and qualified to address the site, the budget and the end user. “The strength of irrigation technology today is pretty remarkable,” he said. “In the right hands, it can create a powerful water-management, water-conserving system that applies resources with surgical precision. In the wrong hands, this technology offers no more advantage than a sprinkler at the end of a hose.”

The seeds of intelligent irrigation

Where might intelligent irrigation begin? Long before a system is designed, products are specified or water managers are trained, said Professional Irrigation Consultant Ivy Munion, president of ISC Group, Inc., Livermore, Calif. “In other words, get yourself a seat at the table at the front end. The sooner you have access to project information, the more intelligent your irrigation will be.”

Get a look at the plans. Contact the municipality and/or water agency for design specs and water conservation programs. Introduce yourself to the engineers and contractors. “Talk with people about ‘smart’ technologies; get their attention,” said Munion. “And be creative about saving them money, like using smaller, less expensive plants and incorporating fertigation to grow them in.”

“Identify the client and the protocol for accessing the client,” said Scott. “Review any site history, look at the scope of work and where your services fit, then assert as much control as your abilities and the team allow. Try not to be segmented in as an afterthought. Talk about water resources and water use requirements, develop objectives and bring your expertise to the team. Get in their heads and let them know you’re excited about irrigation solutions for the project, whether they are or not.”

Cranial crunch time — study the site

This is your bread and butter — your opportunity to integrate the ultimate system for durability, efficiency, simplicity and overall performance. For existing sites, look at management, maintenance and water-use history.

“Water resources are key,” said Munion. “Educate your client about options like rainwater collection and storage, graywater, treated effluent and others. Let them know they have options now and down the road.” If you’re pumping from a well, evaluate water quality and capacity. You might as well grab some soil samples, too.

Review the topography, exposures and planting plan for system and water needs. Where are the high, medium and low water-use plants located and what are their specific demands? Look for other special circumstances, like a nearby stream that can’t be exposed to runoff, or an historic structure on-site that might be vulnerable to overspray.

“We know that certain projects will have specific demands or restrictions,” said Scott. “Athletic fields, parks, campuses, hospitals – all of them have certain priorities, traits and characteristics. For example, you’d expect that a new building on a university campus would simply be integrated into the existing irrigation system. Oftentimes, however, they’re completely independent of the original system, but still a part of an overall institutional timeline and budget. That complicates things.”

Two cautionary notes: Always ensure that you provide for system expansion in the future, and always design with the end user in mind.

Set your mindset

You’ve met the client and key players, examined the site, and researched the water sources. Your irrigation plan and design have taken form in your mind, and you’ve developed a budget accordingly. Now comes the tough part — where to scale back because the client just can’t work within your budget.

This is a critical crossroads. Do you compromise your design to accommodate the budget? Can you substitute heads? Stretch the sprinkler spacing? Dumb down the control system? “Absolutely not,” said Scott. “At least not initially. Don’t let them sell themselves short, and make it clear that with every adjustment to equipment and design, the system loses performance and costs more in the long run in water use, plant replacement, etc.”

Munion submits that small adjustments to product and design might be possible, but there is a point of no return for each project. “It’s at that point we take a different tack, for example suggesting that a phase-in might soften the blow,” she said. “If your design is proficient, you might be able to roll water and dollar savings from phase one into a budget for phase two. Or dig into any rebate or other incentive programs to offset expenses.”

Leave some brains behind

Turnover can be a significant problem in how effectively an irrigation system is maintained and managed over the years. Both Munion and Scott prepare packets for the client and end user after completion of the project. “We provide irrigation as-built plans, water budgets, estimated water use month-by-month, owner manuals, warranties, business cards — anything that will shed some light down the road,” said Scott.

Smart irrigation is one of the best things happening for our industry right now. It’s one of the few — if not the first — public outreach campaigns that sell our industry as progressive and responsible to the public. And intelligent irrigation does the same. We all should be selling an ethic as part of our product.

Luke Frank is a writer, editor and publisher in the green industry, addressing water resource development, management and conservation through the irrigation profession. His field experience includes nearly two decades as an irrigation foreman, contractor and manager in the landscape, turf, golf and nursery industries. He currently resides in Albuquerque, N.M., and can be reached via e-mail at lukefrank@comcast.net

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