Why Spend More on Irrigation When We Need Less?

Drought, water waste and inefficient irrigation systems have forced water restrictions across most of the country.

Drought, water waste and inefficient irrigation systems have forced water restrictions across most of the country.

Home owners, builders and landscape companies have a lot of questions as to why it is worth investing in an efficient irrigation system and TIS, Inc. in the Houston market has the answers.

TIS is one of the nations top design/installation companies when it comes to irrigation systems that conserve water and create healthy and sustainable landscape environments.  TIS has won three consecutive Angie’s List Super Service Awards placing them in the top 5% of irrigation service providers across the country and they are currently the number one ranked irrigation company in the Houston market according to Angie’s List.  These rankings are based on quality, price, professionalism and sales according to customer feedback.  TIS has also won a bevy of industry awards, lead designer John A. Taylor was awarded the 2013 Environmental Protection Agency Partner of the Year Award for his role and efforts in water conservation, and they have been featured in dozens of industry magazines, to include; Landscape Management, Lawn & Landscape, Turf, Green Industry and Angie’s List.  Mr. Taylor lectures on water conservation through irrigation design and installation across the country.

After recent code changes in California that are costing a great many Californians their turf and landscapes, code changes in Austin that are restricting designers ability to plant many shallow rooted plants like color and azaleas, a lot of homeowners and builders want to know where this leaves them and what they should do.  We recently sat down with Mr. Taylor to shed some light on what is going on, what can be done and where true value is to be found.

What role does irrigation play in the grand scheme of water consumption?  Depending upon which study you read you will find that somewhere between 45% or 50% and as much as 70% of all of the water we consume in the United States is irrigation related.  That includes both agricultural irrigation as well as commercial and residential landscape irrigation.  Another way of looking at it is that everything else we do with water combined does not equal to what we do with it on our landscapes.  Healthy landscapes provide a great many daily benefits to all of us.  Turf, plants and trees provide oxygen, cleaner air, shade that reduces utility bills, noise reduction, purification of water that leaches through the root zone and into underground aquifers and they make our living spaces more valuable and attractive.  Studies also show that plants reduce stress, reduce crime and promote lower blood pressure. While plants need water to survive and thrive a study from Texas A&M published a few years back revealed that the average acre of landscape was over-watered by more than 200%.  We cannot continue to waste water at that rate; it’s not healthy, it’s not sustainable and so it’s certainly not prudent.  There are a great many people that want to do away with plants and turf or landscape irrigation altogether but the real solution is doing away with irresponsible irrigation design and installation.

Irrigation accounts for between 45% and 70% of all the water we consume as a nation.

Irrigation accounts for between 45% and 70% of all the water we consume as a nation.

What is the government and local municipalities doing to curb this waste?  They are doing what they have to right now.  A lot of it is knee-jerk but I can certainly understand the need for an attempt.  California’s recent water restrictions dictate that consumption be reduced by 25%.  This is a great idea but many people do not understand where the real inefficiencies are and how to correct them.  Tackling the problem with low flow toilets or shower heads is a great start but it is ignoring the primary problem and barely making a dent in correcting the overall issue.  Again, the primary issue is inefficient, poorly designed and improperly installed irrigation.  According to the EPA, as much as 50% of the water used for landscape irrigation is wasted due to inefficient watering methods and systems.   Austin now has mandatory watering restrictions but has approached these restrictions very responsibly with a real understanding of the core problem.  Austin allows for restrictions to be bypassed when drip technology and ET based smart controllers are used.  Though TIS operates out of the Houston market we have clients calling from Austin to help them save their landscapes.  My hometown of Houston struggles with the same battle but is also dealing with an aging infrastructure within their water system that is leaking millions of gallons per year and requires millions of dollars in repairs per a Houston Chronicle report.  Restricting water would almost certainly mean lost revenue and that would tie their hands keeping them from addressing the much needed repairs and upgrades.  National, state and local government is doing everything they can to get this problem under control but in the end we can all expect water rates to go up significantly and rightfully so.  We pay very little for water in the grand scheme of things and it is time the cost of water be in line with the value of it; the water itself as well as the delivery of that water.  Big changes are coming and some homeowners, builders, landscapers, irrigators and properties will be ready for it while others will not.

Drip technology and high efficient rotary nozzles, like the MP, can reduce water waste significantly and are much healthier for the landscape.

Drip technology and high efficient rotary nozzles, like the MP, can reduce water waste significantly and are much healthier for the landscape.

What is the difference between responsible irrigation and the systems that are wasting so much water?  Everything!  For the last fifty years irrigation contractors, for the most part, are guys that show up and glue some pipe together but that is the mentality that caused the water issues that we are currently facing.  It is tough to blame the contractors from the past as they just didn’t know what we know today and they did not have the products available that we have available today.  Irrigation is no longer about gluing pipe but rather it is hydraulics, evapotranspiration and code.  There are three key areas that separate poorly installed systems from properly installed systems; design, product, and maintenance.

The design is the most important part of the system.  Water flowing under five feet per second is efficient but water moving faster than five feet per second mists and becomes highly inefficient.  This one issue can mean the difference between 40% of the water that leaves a sprinkler head making it to the targeted root zone or 70% of the water making it to the root zone.  During the design the beds and the turf need to be separated because they have different water needs and sunny areas should not be included with shady areas as they also have completely different water needs.  Installing them together means that plants that require less water are going to get watered as much as the plants that require the most water whether they like it or not.  All state and local codes need to be adhered to and to be honest, most companies do not adhere to them.

The products used are just as important.  There are controllers that the client has to set (most clients would have no idea how long to run a zone for and they tend to use old wives tales or rules of thumb that cause significant waste) and then there are controllers that track the weather in real time and adjust the system hourly in accordance with sun/shade, slope, plant type, soil type, rainfall, etc.  There are heads, nozzles and drip technology that are many times more efficient than the average product being put in the ground.  There are heads that will stop leaking and flow sensors that will report leaking.  Most of this technology is not new and is very reliable but it is just not used.

Maintenance is also incredibly important.  Leaks need to be found sooner rather than later.  An irrigation system is a lot of little moving parts and, like a car, it requires routine maintenance but most homeowners tend to neglect this maintenance until algae, fungus, root rot, pests, anaerobic soil and other harmful conditions have plagued their properties.  Many homeowners think those problems can be solved by adding a head, repairing a pipe or changing the settings on the controller but by that time it is too late for those sorts of corrective actions.  Soil health may well be the single most important component across a landscape and it is also happens to be one of the most neglected with many soils never being cared for, analyzed or maintained.

Bad Irrigation Contractors

Saving money by installing substandard products or by using unlicensed contractors leads to wasted water, bloated water bills and lost landscape.

So why are builders and homeowners not opting to use the proper design and the appropriate technology?  They just don’t know enough, they don’t have all of the information.  I spoke with a friend of mine last week that owns one of the biggest irrigation outlets in the state of Texas and he made a great point.  Homeowners and builders will spend a lot of money on LED lights to save what amounts to a few hundred dollars per year on their electric bill but they balk at spending money to save thousands of dollars per year on their water bill.  The truth is that builders have it set in their minds that irrigation costs a specific amount of money.  Many in my market price it as low as $250 to $350 per zone.  This is paying to throw water and get things wet but it will not sustain the landscape and it will waste thousands of dollars per year in water.  It also invites unlicensed irrigation contractors which is a class “C” misdemeanor in the state of Texas which results in many more shortcomings and problems as well.  Many homeowners will elect to save $1,500 on the initial installation of a system only to waste $1,500 per year in water for the life of the system which could be between 12 and 25 years.  It makes no sense and we have to empower the homeowner as well as the builder and act as their advocate because it benefits everyone when we save water.  There is less burden on the city’s infrastructure, we conserve a precious resource for the state and we save the homeowner thousands of dollars per year while keeping the landscape healthy and thriving.  There was an article by the Texas Tribune last year that identified builders as one of the primary reasons that water was being wasted and a cause for modern technology not catching on.  Many builders have been around a long time and are simply set in their ways but they are out of touch with what irrigation is and how it affects the landscape and the homeowner’s water bill.  Financially speaking; investing in a quality irrigation system is one of the strongest investments you can make in your home.  If builders could see the lost landscapes three years down the road along with the complaints from new home owners who routinely tell me they would not have paid for an irrigation installation from the builder if they knew what it was going to lead to then I would think a lot of builders would change the way they look at irrigation.  The difference between a poorly designed system and a quality system is only a few hundred dollars per zone.

Do you have any recent jobs to use as a case and point?  Sure.  Our Smart Systems average a 35% reduction in water on residential sites and a 45% reduction on commercial sites though we have spectacular savings in some cases that can be as high as 70%.  I recently completed a nine month job audit at a Houston area HOA; Park on Enclave near 10 and the Beltway.  We performed an audit of their existing system and found significant waste.  They opted to move forward with a full system renovation even though we were more than about 40% higher than the nearest bid.  That nearest bid offered irrigation while we offered irrigation, reduced water consumption and a healthier, sustainable landscape.  After we renovate a system we monitor the water bills to have an “apples to apples” comparison of the old system versus our Smart System.  The HOA only had eight months worth of bills available for this audit and in the first eight months we had saved them 904,000 gallons of water, around $6,100 in water bills and the landscape has never looked better.  One of the other companies would have installed a system that waters.  TIS installed a system that pays them a shade under $10k per year for the life of the system.  They will make their money back in under three years and over the next twenty years we will have partnered with them to save them more than $150k, not taking into account hikes in water price and reduced maintenance costs which would make that figure a lot higher,  while also making their landscape a lot healthier and much more attractive.  We do the same thing for residential clients though obviously the water savings and the cost of residential systems are smaller because of the scale.  The numbers hold true though.

Happy With Contractor

Conscientious irrigation yields water savings that make everyone a winner.

Are there any other benefits to a smart irrigation system?  Absolutely.  As these codes change the way they have in places like California and Austin, homeowners stand to lose landscape and turf that they have spent a lot of time and money installing and maintaining over the years.  A quality irrigation system that utilizes smart technology in many of those cases allows the homeowner to water as the controller sees fit which means no lost landscape and no lost investment.  The other great thing about these systems is that they are a lot more self sufficient and require very little input from the homeowner, often none, once they are properly installed and programmed.  There is absolutely nothing a homeowner needs to do with one of our Smart Systems as we even include maintenance with all of our systems.

Is there anything else you would like to convey to homeowners or builders?  Yes.  The irrigation industry is changing and we all have to change how we think about irrigation as it does.  Unlike landscape design/installation which is 90% aesthetic where the client should have a hand in every aspect of it if they are so inclined; irrigation is scientific equation, mathematical formula and code which leaves no room for direction or preference.  Holding fast to irrigation installation rates from ten or twenty years ago is only perpetuating a very real and very significant problem which is a disservice to the landscape as well as the homeowner.  This problem will be addressed; the only question is will it first be addressed by the builder/homeowner in a manner that provides value to all or will it be addressed by the city or local municipality in a manner that could yield lost landscapes and wasted money.  Take a moment to look at the irrigation numbers because there are very few investments anyone can make that yields the ROI associated with conscientious and responsible irrigation.


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