Smart Sprinklers for Smart Irrigation Month

So here we are in July again this year!  How did it arrive so fast and so hot??  We know in these hot summer months, we tend to use more water outdoors, which is why July is designated as Smart Irrigation Month by the Irrigation Association and endorsed by Governor Abbott.SmartIrrMonth

I don’t think anyone deliberately chooses to look silly or be wasteful by watering during or immediately after a huge rainstorm, or during the heat of the day.  For commercial properties, it’s bad for their image to look so wasteful, so I would think they’d be the first to jump on the efficient bandwagon.  Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.  This brings me to my topic for Smart Irrigation Month—Upgrading your Irrigation System.

Updating, or improving irrigation systems, in my experience, tend to happen mainly when other big yard activities are going on—installing a pool or a new patio or deck; replanting the sod or a huge remodel of all the landscaping in the yard.  I don’t really see folks upgrading their systems, just because there’s a new model of controller or sensor.  While irrigation is technology, apparently it’s not the cool technology that people invest in as frequently as their electronic devices.

I think it’s because we don’t often visually see them or think of them nearly as much as our phones, or portable devices.  They seem to do a good job—the grass is alive, so what’s to change?  Well, technology has come a long way in the last decade in irrigation systems, which can save you money in water costs, conserve water, water more to the plant’s needs, and maybe have a little cool factor when you talk about your yard with your friends!  Maybe!

The two main areas your controller can be smart is when dealing with the weather.  Sensors and controllers are the two areas that can help you with determining if the yard even needs to be watered.

  • Sensors are still around—rain sensors, freeze sensors, and soil moisture sensors are the main ones.
    baseline soil moisture sensor

    soil moisture sensor

    • A rain sensor turns off the irrigation system (if it’s running) after a specified amount of water has fallen or it delays the system from turning on after a specified amount of rain—so all of its actions are during or after the rain. There’s no weather forecasting, or determination of if watering is necessary.  They have to be installed in an unobstructed location (like a fence or roofline) so that rain can fall in it.  I’ve seen them under trees and under buildings!  But, it is better to have a rain sensor than nothing!  By the way, they’re pretty cheap—about $35-$75 retail.
    • Tremendous improvements have been made in the soil moisture sensor arena. A soil moisture sensor is actually buried in the ground about 6-inches deep (yes, you have to have that much soil for these to work!).  They take moisture readings from the soil to determine if the soil is dry enough to require the irrigation to run; if it determines the soil is wet enough, it doesn’t allow the system to run.  Ideally, you’d want more than one soil moisture sensor installed in your yard, one in sunny area and one in a shadier area, otherwise parts of your yard may be under- or over-watered.  It’s more accurate watering than just watering because it’s a Saturday.  It’s watering because the soil actually is dry.  They are a little more costly than rain sensors, but more effective use of water.
    • Freeze sensors do not allow an irrigation system to turn on when temperatures reach a specific degree, usually around 40° These aren’t that common to have at homes, because we just turn off our irrigation systems for the winter.  Commercial properties tend to water more year-round and would benefit from a freeze sensor to prevent the irrigation from freezing and causing a hazard.
  • Weather-Based Controllers–this is where things have really gotten interesting.Logo-WaterSense
    • There are several controllers on the market currently that take into account the actual weather, either with a weather-station that is installed at your home (it’s not too large), or a near-by weather-station that the controller can connect to thru WiFi.  That said, you would need to have a WiFi connection at your property that the controller can connect to.
    • The controller checks the weather forecasts daily, if not multiple times a day, to determine if the irrigation system needs to run or not.  It may delay the irrigation cycle if rain or other inclement weather is forecast.
    • These controllers need some extra set up time.  Once they are installed, they are not just go to go.  You have to spend a little time to enter in information about each irrigation station in your yard, like what type of sprinkler head it is, how much light it receives, landscape material, slope, and even more.  There is the very real possibility that using one of these controller can increase your water use, if it’s not set up properly.
    • Many of these “smart” controllers have online apps or websites to use.  The irrigation can now be controller from your desktop, laptop, tablet or phone!  It’s a little nicer than standing in your hot garage to make adjustments, which is pretty cool!
    • Look for a controller that is WaterSense approved.  That’s what is approved by the City’s rebate, as it’s been third-party tested to maintain water savings.

The City’s Efficient Irrigation Rebate provides a rebate of 75% of the purchase cost of a sensor or weather-based controller for your existing irrigation system, so if you don’t currently have a working one, please get one and apply for the rebate!

 

After the Rain: Summer Lawn Watering

Do I need to water?

Do I need to water?

With temperatures beginning to soar into the 90s everyday, we need to start being aware of our water consumption—summer heat is coming!  You know it is.  Thanks to all the great springtime downpours (and floods!), we have had the luxury of low water bills since we haven’t really needed to turn on the sprinkler (aka: irrigation) system yet this year!  In order to prevent a shockingly high bill when you do start using your sprinklers regularly, (remember tiered rates are in effect), here’s my main advice about how to start watering smartly this summer.

So, how do I know if I need to water?

Has it rained recently?  If yes, then turn off the sprinklers!  We can really keep sprinkler systems turned off for a solid week, or longer, after a good rain event, to let the plants use the rainwater and the soil start to dry out.  We want Mother Nature to water our yards, its so much better than tap water thanks to the nitrogen in it AND saves us money.  Keep those sprinklers off at least 2 days for every 1/4″ of rainfall.

So, how do you know if your soil is dried out?  You can test how wet or dry your soil is with a soil moisture sensor—this is a device for automatic sprinkler systems that is buried in the yard to monitor the soil’s moisture and will either allow or not allow the sprinkler system to run based on how wet the soil is.  The City’s Water Conservation Program offers a rebate on this type of device.

soil moisture sensor

soil probe

You can also test your soil moisture with a soil moisture probe; this is simply a hand-held device that you push into the ground and the display tells you if the soil is wet, moist, or dry.  You can find one of these at most garden supply stores.  Or, a good old-fashioned long screwdriver will do the job too!  If you can easily push it into the ground, then you probably can hold off watering for another couple of days.  When you can’t push it easily into the ground, time to water!       

 

And how much do I water?

When you do turn on the sprinklers to start watering, don’t just turn it on full blast to the summer watering schedule—it’s not that hot yet!  Keep it moderate, meaning, water on the lower side; about half of your normal summer water schedule.  Then as temperatures increase over the rest of the summer, increase the areas that are looking stressed.  My recommendation is start with watering no more than once per week.  Then, when you notice the lawn or plants look droopy or dull-colored first thing in the morning, that‘s a sign it’s time to increase the water—this could mean add a second watering day, or just increase the time by 2 minutes on the areas that need it.

Remember, the goal is to not have to water!  We want to have drought-tolerant plants than need infrequent watering.  That happens by letting the soil slightly dry out between watering and getting those roots to grow.

We’re very lucky right now since we’re not under any water restrictions, so watering is allowed on any day.  This is great, because it means you can water when your landscape actually needs it, not just because it’s a Tuesday (or whatever day).   It’s always best to water before the sun comes up or after the sun goes down each day, to reduce evaporation.

If you are a direct City water customer and your property has an automatic sprinkler system and you are unsure of how to program it or concerned about its efficiency, you can  request a free irrigation system evaluation.  The evaluation consists of running through the system looking for problems, ways to upgrade or adjust the system to operate more efficiently, and providing recommended water schedules.

To schedule an irrigation evaluation or more water conservation information, contact Jessica Woods by email jwoods@roundrocktexas.gov or 512-671-2872 or visit www.roundrocktexas.gov/conservation for all program information and more detailed recommended watering schedules.

 

We Want to Alert You!

Is there truly ever a time that we enjoy opening bills?  I can’t think of any, except when maybe I’ve just paid off a credit card and am very happy to see the zero balance!  Who wouldn’t enjoy knowing you owe no money that month!?!?  I would love it!high bill

Well, when the opposite happens–opening a bill you thought would be small, but was very high—that can cause a lot of unhappy feelings, stress, anger, confusion—what happened?  Why is this so high?  Why didn’t I know?  Enter applicable emoji faces here.  Ha!

The City is trying to prevent that negative reaction from happening when you open up your water bill each month.  Thanks to the new automated water meters that the Utility Department has installed over the last several years, we can now let you know if you’ve had water running through your water meter without stopping for over 24 hours!  Pretty cool!

Here’s a little history on these new meters:  Back in 2009, we began upgrading the meters from a traditional meter that is read each month (and only once per month) by actual persons that walk the town, street by street, opening up meter boxes to write down that month’s number.  That was pretty inefficient, but the standard practice in the water metering world.  Those new meters installed starting in 2009 were called AMR (automatic meter reading), as a person didn’t have to walk all day and open up these boxes.  Now we could read the meters from the comfort of a car, with this drive-by system, as the meter reads would automatically be uploaded into the computer in the car with the now-mobile meter reader.  This allowed the city to read meters much faster, find meters that weren’t working quicker, prevent mistakes made when manually reading the meter, and provide more water data and information to you (our water customers) about when water is being used at your property.  (You may have seen some of the cool water use graphs we can now access.)

Moving forward, starting in 2015, we upgraded the meters again, moving to an even more automated system where now we don’t even need to drive-by to get the monthly meter reads.  Now, the meters send their reads twice a day to our billing software infrastructure.  This makes us even more efficient in removing vehicles off the road (helping with air quality, saving fuel costs), knowing nearly immediately when meters stop working, having quicker access to water use to help answer questions about why bills may be high, and again, (we’re coming full circle now) let you know if you have a leak registering on your water meter.

We receive an alert from the meter if water has been flowing for more than 24-hours without stopping.  So, rather than finding out a month or so later (when the bill comes in the mail AND you’ve actually opened it), you now may find out within a week that you have some kind of odd water use.  You can start checking things out at your house to prevent that shocked when opening the bill experience!  Maybe it’s an easy-to-prevent toilet leak, a water hose left running, a swimming pool fill stuck open, or unfortunately something worse, but we want you to know about it as soon as possible to prevent damage, save money, and save water! alert word

The leak alerts will primarily be sent in the mail as a postcard, but may be a doorhanger, or an email.  We aren’t able to say what specifically is causing the constant water use, we can only tell you that water is being used continuously at your house.  Hopefully before the end of this year, you’ll also be able to receive this alert as a text message.  More on that coming soon!

Starting this leak alert notification is just another way we are striving to save water as a community and provide the best customer service we can, to you!  I really hope you never get one sent to you—no one wants a leak!  But if you do, you’re welcome!

Memorial Weekend = Smart Water Weekend

  • May 5, 2016

  • By Jessica Woods

  • Posted In: Water Spot

WeMEMORIAL-DAY know that the last weekend of the month of May is Memorial Day weekend, usually associated with the ending of school, BBQ, some kind of water sport (lake, boat, swim, beach…), perhaps even for what it’s meant to acknowledge–those who have died in active military service to our county.  Not to make light of the sacrifices many, many soldiers have made for the USA, now we here in Texas have another reason to enjoy the weekend:  This year will be the first time WaterSense products and certain water conservation products will be tax exempt!

Backstory:  You are probably familiar with ENERGY STAR, a widely recognized and trusted label on products that meet strict energy-efficiency requirements set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Products that have earned the ENERGY STAR label will help you save energy and money without sacrificing features or functionality.  For several years now, certain ENERGY STAR products have been tax-exempt if purchased during the Memorial Day weekend.  

Find out answers to all your energy related questions at the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts website because I am excited to discuss the new part of this tax-free weekend–the water part!  This year, you can buy certain water-efficient and water-conserving products tax free during the Water-Efficient Logo-WaterSenseProducts Sales Tax Holiday.

The 2016 holiday begins Saturday, May 28, and goes through Monday, May 30 (Memorial Day).  During the holiday period, you can buy any product tax-free that displays a WaterSense label or logo.  (Pictured at the right).

According to the comptroller’s website, you can buy any WaterSense labeled item tax-free, or any product (such as the ones listed below) that will help make your residence more water efficient, such as:

  • WaterSense labeled toilets, showerheads, and faucents
  • a soaker or drip-irrigation hose
  • a moisture control for a sprinkler or irrigation system (like a soil-moisture sensor)
  • mulch* (*note: you can get this free year-round if you are a City of RR water customer.  Just take your bill to the brush recycling center at 310 Deepwood Dr).
  • a rain barrel** or an alternative rain and moisture collection system (**note: rain water collection barrels, tanks are tax-exempt year-round in Texas.)
  • a permeable ground cover surface that allows water to reach underground basins, aquifers or water collection points (like paving stones with holes in them) 
  • plants, trees and grasses
  • water-saving surfactants

 

Of course, this isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive list, it’s merely to make you aware of the tax-free holiday.  Find the full details at the Texas Comptroller’s website.  You could certainly use this to maximize your water (and money) savings at your home.  Because, don’t forget, the City’s Water Conservation Program gives rebates on WaterSense labeled toilets, and specific irrigation components (like controllers, sensors, some sprinkler heads, and well at rain barrels).  Find out rebate information here.

Make this the month you start saving more!

 

 

 

Take the Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation!

  • April 13, 2016

  • By Jessica Woods

  • Posted In: Water Spot

On this blog, I’m going to let our Mayor, Alan McGraw, do the talking for me!  Give a listen about why saving water is important and then go to mywaterpledge.com to sign up for the challenge and help Round Rock be the most water conserving city in the U.S.A.!

By saving water, our community saves energy, money, and valuable resources. That’s why he and I are encouraging you to take the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, April 1-30. By making a simple pledge to save water and reduce pollution, you are not only doing your part for our community – you can win any of hundreds of prizes, including a Toyota Prius, Home Improvement Store Gift Cards, Toro Smart Irrigation Controllers, and more.

Plus the pledge helps further our City’s goal of reducing our water consumption and being the most efficient city in Central Texas, if not all of Texas!  Let’s show the other cities around the nation how Round Rock takes care of our planet. Make your pledge throughout the month of April at mywaterpledge.com

Rain Barrel Sale Begins Now!

  • March 3, 2016

  • By Jessica Woods

  • Posted In: Water Spot
springsaver rainbarrel_9-9-14

50-gallon Spring Saver

The City’s Water Conservation Program is having a rain barrel sale!  The barrels are sold by pre-order, so you place the order for the barrels online at www.cityrainbarrelprogram.org, then come pick them up on a specific day.  There is no limit on the quantity of barrels you may order, and sale isn’t limited to Round Rock residents, anyone can purchase one; however the last day to order is May 7, 2016.

A variety of sizes of rain barrels are being offered, as well as diverters to make it easier to get the water from your gutter downspout into the barrel:

  • 50-gallon Spring Saver, 6 color choices, $64.99; black-colored barrel is $59.99
  • 54-gallon Rain Saver, 3 color choices, $84.99
  • Classic 100-gallon, 28 colors, $184.99
  • Classic 150-gallon tank, 28 colors, $239.95
  • Classic 250-gallon tank, 28 colors, $344.95
  • Water diverter kits for $15.99 – $21.99
rainsaver rainbarrel_9-9-14

54-gallon Rain Saver

The barrel distribution will happen on Saturday, May 14th at the Dell Diamond’s northeast parking lot.  Once you make your purchase, you’ll be emailed all the relevant pick-up information.  Also, please make plans to have a vehicle the barrels will fit into!

To pre-order and full details:  www.cityrainbarrelprogram.org

Barrels purchased at this event ARE eligible for the City’s rainwater rebate. There will be applications for the rebate provided at the distribution.  Please note: you must be a direct City of Round Rock water customer in order to receive the rebate.  This means you pay your water bill to the City, not a MUD.

A limited selection of barrels will be available for sale on May 14th, so plan ahead and purchase yours today to ensure you get the colors you want; otherwise you can take your chances and show up to purchase whatever is on hand the day of.

Why collect rainwater??  I’ve talked about it in previous posts, and condense the “whys” here:

  1. Rainwater is much better for plants than the municipal water supply (it’s generally higher in nitrogen and it’s softer water), which probably is THE main reason people collect it.
    classic rainbarrel_9-9-14

    100-gallon Classic

  2. However, an often overlooked, and just as good reason is for erosion control. You don’t have to actually “use” the water collected, but if you could at least slow it down on your property; that would aid in reducing the amount of erosion your property is subjected to.  You can collect the water and then just release it, slowly, over your yard a few days after the rain event. Then the barrel(s) is empty and ready to collect the next rain event and you don’t have any worries about mosquitos!
  3. It’s free, and
  4. Tax-exempt! The water falling from the sky is free, and the purchase of collection containers has been tax-exempt in Texas since 2001.  To assist you with collecting this precious resource, the City of Round Rock has a rebate for installing water collection tanks or barrels. (This rebate is available for direct City of Round Rock water customers only.)

Recharge Your Battery

battery backup location

Hunter Controller battery location

Now is a great time to replace the back-up battery inside your irrigation controller.  What?  You didn’t know there WAS a battery (or place) for a battery in your control box, since it is plugged into the wall?!?!    Well…you’re not the only one!!  Most people don’t realize there is a place for you to install a 9-volt battery in the controller.

A back-up battery will not operate your controller, however, it will hold your program settings in case of a power outage.  If (really, we should say when) your controller loses power and you have no battery, or a dead battery, many controllers will reset to factory default program settings.  Default settings will vary by brand and model, but often times they will be 10 minutes/zone, 7 days/week, with multiple start times.  Unfortunately, people usually don’t realize this has occurred until they receive the high water bill, which could be 30 days down the road.  You can prevent that from happening by installing a back-up battery.

Raindial controller battery location

Rain Dial controller battery location

The battery spot is usually behind the controller face in most brands of controllers (Hunter, Rainbird, and Irritrol or Rain Dial are all like this).  See the pictures.  You simply need to “open” or flip over the face of the controller.  There are little finger grooves to the right-side of the controller face that allows you to open and turn it, much like turning the page of a book.  There will be a little pocket for the battery to connect into.  Most controllers require a 9-volt battery.

So, when replacing your smoke detector batteries annually, I recommend you add the irrigation controller battery to the list!  This may save you money, frustration, and some water down the road.

 

Rainbird battery location, slides in

Rainbird battery location, slides in

 

 

Tis the Season for Water Smart gifts

This holiday season, if you happen to be getting anyone on your list a new appliance, don’t forget to think about water (and energy) efficiency.washing machine  Appliances that have the Energy Star label or WaterSense label are better choices, simply because you know that they will retain their water an/or energy efficiency over the lifespan of the appliance.  So, it’s kinda like the gift that keeps on giving!

The City’s water conservation program has a rebate for the purchase of new efficient clothes washers, if they meet the program criteria, which is pretty easy.  Find out about the rebate here.

New, efficient washers are a good investment, as they account for 22% of the water use inside our homes. By replacing older models with new, front-loading efficient washers, water use can be reduced by 15 – 40%, depending on how old your previous washer is. Energy Star labeled washers use 20% less energy, 35% less water, and have larger wash tubs, which means fewer loads and less detergent use.toilet-clip-art

There’s rebates for efficient toilets too!  That’s a really water smart gift, because, not only does a new toilet save water, it can also help reduce water water charges…so it saves year-round!  The rebate details can be found by following this link.  To qualify, the new toilet(s) must be WaterSense labeled (very easy to find!) and your house must have been built before 2006.

Toilets are the largest water-using fixture inside a property; by replacing old, inefficient toilets with more efficient 1.28 gallon per flush (or less!), commodes, you can save up to 4,000 thousand gallons of water per toilet, per year!  That’s amazing!

Happy shopping!

 

Smart Controllers

Now is the time of year to think about turning off your sprinkler system, if you haven’t already.  Remember, it’s about to be winter, plants go dormant, we’re having regular rainfall, cooler temps… you know all this.

one type of smart controller

one type of smart controller

So, it may seem like a strange time to think about sprinklers, but I wanted to see if you knew the City’s water conservation program offers rebates on various items to help make your sprinkler system more efficient?  One of those items is a smart, weather-based controller.

So, what is a smart controller?  Simply put, it’s a controller that takes into account the current weather, the weather forecast, the type of sprinkler head (drip, spray, rotor, etc), the plant material (grass, shrubs, trees, etc), and probably the slope of the yard, and the soil type to come up with a watering schedule that is truly personalized for your yard.  No more guessing how much time you need to set for each station!

The smart controller will come up with a personalized schedule, though it probably will need some tweaks.  Full-disclosure, I installed a smart controller at my own house back in March or April of this year.  However, with all the rain this spring, it didn’t actually run until July and at that point I really thought is was watering some areas way too long.  I had to go into the application on my phone and adjust some settings to reduce watering time.  However, I will say that my highest water bill this summer was in August for 8,200 gallons–so not bad at all!  The smart controller I have estimates the amount of water used (in gallons) each time it waters, and the numbers it was reporting for my yard were very high.  The estimate of gallons used isn’t too accurate in my case.

But, back to the point; really, it’s ideal to water when the plants actually NEED the water, not just because it’s a Wednesday (or whatever day of the week your controller is set for).  AND, since we’re not in water restrictions, this is the ideal time to try out one of these controllers.  The controller will determine when it’s best to water and for how long, although they all have options to select specific days to water if/when we are under water restrictions.  Maybe all the zones won’t be watered on the same day, that’s the beauty of these controllers.  ILogo-WaterSenset’s watering to the plant, not to a schedule.

Many smart controllers are also designed to be used over WiFi: on home computers, phones, tablets…which may make it easier to control and set up.  No more trying to figure out all those buttons, knobs, and programs!  Through the internet connection, or an on-site weather station, they determine the current weather conditions to come up with the watering schedule.

If your interested has been peaked in smart controller, visit the WaterSense website to learn more, and find a list of WaterSense approved controllers, that are also eligible for the City’s irrigation rebate.  The rebate expires when funding runs out, but I don’t anticipate that happening any time before August 2016.

Let’s start watering smart in 2016!

My water bill is how much??

I know I have heard this too many times this summer,faucet-with-dollar-sign-234x300 “there’s NO WAY I used this much water!”  “It’s impossible!”  “The meter must be wrong,” or some version of  “the City isn’t really reading the meters, but estimating.”  Well, let me tell you, it IS possible to use a lot of water (I’m talking 30,000 gallons, 50,000 gallons, 70,000 gallons…or more!).  I’ve seen it.  A lot.  I have seen it due to leaks, or from sprinkler systems, but I’ve never seen it from someone stealing water from their neighbor!  (ha!  People say that a lot too.)

I say this with 15 years of experience behind me doing this type of work.  So, not just this year, but over many years of looking
at sprinkler systems and how they are set and reading water meters.  I still get surprised that people are surprised to find out that high water use is possible and the City ISN’T wrong.  We just really use more water than we realize we do, especially when it comes to sprinkler systems.  This really boils down to an education problem.

When we receive our bill, we automatically look at how much we owe, right?!?  I know I do.  That’s what really affects me anyway, how much do I owe the City?  What we really need to look at is what’s included in that final cost AND actually look at the gallons of water that we used.  That will tell you much more than the amount you owe.

On Round Rock’s water bill, what’s also included in that cost (besides the water), is wastewater (sewer) charges, garwater use chartbage and recycling collection, stormwater (or drainage) fees, and taxes.  The water portion of the cost is maybe less than half of what the actual amount is you owe.

Look at that little graph. That shows you the gallons of water your household has used that month, and the past several months.  It’s also under the “water” section of the bill on the back.  That’s a better way to judge how much water you are using each month.  [Of note, a very average amount of water used each month is 2,000 gallons per person, per month.  Again, that’s pretty average.]  If you are using more than that for your family, you may check toil
ets for leaks, or consider replacing any old toilets with new, efficient ones (remember, the City has a rebate for that), and bring your water use down.

Also, the graph should, ideally, be shaped like the one in picture, that’s what we expect to see.  It’s a bell curve:  Low use in the winter, a little higher in spring, peaking–the highest–in summer with the highest month usually August or September, then lower in fall and back to lowest in winter.  That’s a water use curve that is expected and means you are paying attention to the seasons, and the weather patterns and not using water outdoors when not needed (winter).

The water rates will go up, so just looking at the dollar amount isn’t always helpful, or provides any insight to what you’re using.  I challenge you to look at your bill in more detail this month!