smart irrigation month

Sprinkler System Check-Ups

Can you believe it’s July already??  July is “Smart Irrigation Month” deemed so by the SmartIrrMonthIrrigation Association since 2005, because that’s typically when the hottest temperatures occur.  With high and hot temperatures come higher water use, it’s just a given.  We still want our landscapes to look as good as they have the rest of the year, so we crank up the water.

It’s been a slightly different year already: we haven’t had a 100-degree day yet!  We’ve only had a handful of 90-degree days!  And, we’ve been inundated with rainfall all throughout May and June (which have refilled the lakes! Yay!); so we really haven’t needed to use the irrigation system at all so far this year.

That’s all great news!  But now that it’s becoming increasingly hot and muggy, I know we are itching to turn on those sprinklers!  Before you do, I advise you to do a quick check of the system, to make sure it’s working properly.  Details of how to this are below:

Performing a check of the irrigation system, (aka an Irrigation Evaluation, or Irrigation Audit) is the cornerstone for maintaining the system.  If you are a direct water customer of Round Rock, Water Conservation staff (that’s me) will schedule and do this for you; however, it’s simple enough that you could do it yourself—and it’s highly recommended to check you system monthly!  I recently found a broken head on my own system that I hadn’t noticed or even realized was there, that got hit when the grass was last mowed.   So, how do we check it?

  1. First you need to go to the controller and turn the dial to “test” or “system test” if that option is there (Rainbird controllers have this). If you have this option, great!  The number you see in the display are minutes that, once started, will run each station for x minutes and then turn off.  A good default number is 2 minutes.  After selecting 2 minutes, push the manual start button on the controller to begin the system test.
    1. If you DO NOT have the “test” option on your controller, you can simply program one in. Just choose a program that you are not using for your normal watering cycle—probably the C program.  You don’t need to enter in start times or water days, only watering times; so for each of your stations, enter a runtime of 2 minutes.  Then start the program manually.
  2. Once the system is running, you are looking for problems, issues like sprinkler heads turned the wrong way and spraying the street, rather than the grass. Or heads that do not pop-up over the grass (that’s why there’s that dry spot!), or heads that are clogged, and no water is coming out of them. You could also look for leaking heads, broken nozzles, and other leaks.  For an idea of what some of this looks like, see my blog “What is Water Waste?” from last month.
    1. The simplest, and most worthwhile, thing to fix is misdirected heads; most of them can simply be turned to face the appropriate direction by using your hand to grab the head (essentially the neck) and physically turn it. This prevents water waste, poor coverage, and ensures the water is used, rather than running off the property; all of which are positives for you and your property.
    2. Nozzles that are clogged are easily be cleaned out (when the system is turned off!). Unscrew the nozzle, rinse it and the filter off, and screw it back on.  You may use an old toothbrush or toothpick to clean out the emitter where the water sprays out of the nozzle, it’s pretty small.  Once screwed back on, turn the system on to make sure you have put it on facing the correct direction and it’s watering what it needs to be.
    3. Low heads or heads that do not pop-up over the grass is due to either too tall grass, which is really not a bad thing, usually, or more likely, the heads have settled over time and just sunk into the ground. They need to be replaced with taller heads in order to have better coverage—to get the water out far enough to water what’s it’s supposed to.  You can replace this head yourself with a taller head (they are sold by height in inches, so if you have a 4” head currently, you may increase to a 6”), or depending on the amount of low heads, you may hire a licensed irrigator to do this, as there is a degree of professionalism needed.  You don’t want the heads sticking up over the grass and become a hazard when the grass is mowed.

So that’s the basics of performing a system check!  Do it monthly to actually see how the system is working, that what is supposed to be watered is actually being watered, AND, most importantly, make repairs and adjustments to the system to keep it running efficiently!

Smart Irrigation Month, Pt 4: Scheduling

SmartIrrMonthWhile it’s technically NOT Smart Irrigation Month any more, I wanted to make sure I got this last part of the series out to you, it’s probably the most important of the bunch.  I’m referring to efficient scheduling of the irrigation system, based on the amount of sunlight in your yard, the sprinkler head type, and to a lesser degree, the plant types in your yard.

These three items require some consideration when entering in how many minutes you are setting each station for-there’s no point in having specialized heads, a shady yard, and native plants if everything is going to run for 20 minutes no matter what it is.  Unfortunately, I see that happen a lot.  Then folks wonder why areas are brown or plants are dying.  (There’s also the consideration of soil type and soil depth; we’re not going to get into that here, but it certainly does play a huge role in irrigation amounts.)

Amount of Light

It may seem obvious, but I’m going to come out and say it anyway-shady areas require less water than sunny areas.  If you have good tree coverage and areas of the yard receive less than 6 hours of direct sunlight daily, that’s considered a shady yard.  The narrow, sides of our houses qualify for this designation.  Full sun areas are areas that need more water, usually; this is dependent on what the plant type is here.   So, when entering time into your controller, you know that the times should be higher for the sunny spots and lower for the shady ones.

Head Type

As I’ve talked about in an earlier blog, there are two main sprinkler head typesrotor and spray.  There is also drip irrigation, which technically has no head at all!  Rotor heads, if you remember, rotate, so they are not watering the same area the entire time they are running, therefore, they need to run for a longer period of time than spray heads.  The minimum I typically recommend running them for is 15 minutes, and that’s in a shady area.  Usually between 25-35 minutes is a good time for sunnier areas with turfgrass.

Since spray heads are stationary, they pop-up and stay watering the same spot the entire time, they can run for a shorter amount of time than rotors.  I usually recommend between 6 -15 minutes for those stations, depending on the plant material and amount of sunlight, with the 15 minutes being for areas in full sun and turfgrass.

Drip irrigation is different.  Drip typically emits water very slowly, very minimally, so it oftentimes needs to run for longer periods-30 minutes at minimum or much longer in many cases.  I caution you to know how many gallons per minute your drip is using before you just set it for an hour.  I’ve seen drip that was using 20 gallons per minute, which is just as much as “traditional” spray zones!  Unfortunately it cased very high water usage at the property before it was discovered.

Plant Material

Landscape material is the last component of the irrigation scheduling trifecta.  Landscape could include turfgrass, trees, shrubs, groundcovers, perennials, annuals, natural areas (like tree motts), bare ground, rocks, and I’m sure many other things.  It may be obvious as well, but it does need to be said-areas with no vegetation really don’t need to be watered.  The bare ground will just be muddy.  Same goes for rocky paths, they don’t grow.  Mulched areas don’t grow.  Driveways, sidewalks, patios, and decks don’t grow.  Pools don’t need to be filled by the sprinklers (I’ve seen plenty of sprinkler heads spraying directly into pools!).  Trees have usually been growing there longer than you’ve lived there, so they typically don’t need the extra water.

Native plants, established shrubs, or other established perennials do not, I repeat, do not need the same amount of water as the grass.  That’s why you’ve planted them-they are native!  They are made for our climate and weather conditions.  They will survive without being irrigated twice per week.  I can’t count how many times I see native plants being watered more than the grass.  It’s counter intuitive to the reason for using natives.  So, turn those stations off completely and just water when they look completely stressed out.

I like to recommend that people put the stations that are shrubs or plants on a different program than the grass stations and set them to water once every other week (if needed; if there’s been no rain).  If you want to keep the shrub stations on the same program as the rest of the yard, simply turn down the time.  I recommended between 6-8 minutes regardless of if it’s sun or shade.  They really just don’t need it. Many natives do best in dry, hot conditions and die with too wet soil.

Turfgrass is a little tricky too.  A lot of Bermuda grass gets planted here, yet is watered just as much as any other grass (namely, St Augustine).  What I said about native plants is true about Bermuda too, you’re growing it because it’s drought tolerant: it doesn’t need to be watered as much.  Bermuda grass that’s overwatered tends to get a lot of weeds growing in it.  If you have Bermuda, I recommend cutting back the watering time to once per week.  Let it perform.  Yes, Bermuda goes dormant in times of drought, but it’s not dead.  It will green up when it rains or receives irrigation.  It looks better with rainwater though.  Also, Bermuda is not going to survive in shady areas, it will thin out and eventually all die.  It requires full sun to really thrive.

St Augustine grass has such a bad reputation as a water hog, but I don’t buy into it.  It’s not setting the controller, the yard owners are!  St Augustine does great in areas with partial sun or partial shade.  I’ve seen it look really good in full sun too, with less water than you may think.  It will also thin out in full shade areas, but does better than most grasses.  Ideally, St Augustine should be kept at 3-4″ tall when it’s being cut to keep the soil from drying out.  I water my St Augustine yard with rotor heads for 20 minutes and it’s looking great.

You may have picked up that there’s no exact time that works for every station or even every yard!  Irrigation systems unfortunately aren’t just a turn it on and forget it.  It will take a little tweaking to determine how many minutes the yard will perform well on, and it may need to be changed every year as the trees grow and give out more shade.

Here’s a watering Summer (June – September) schedule I follow, when irrigation is necessary, setting my controller for two water start times (i.e. 2:15am and 4:15am)

PlantExposureType of HeadDaysRuntime (min)
St. AugustinesunsprayEvery 5-7 days 10 – 15
  rotorEvery 5-7 days15 – 30
 shadesprayEvery 5-7 days 8 – 10
  rotorEvery 5-7 days15 – 20
BermudagrasssunsprayEvery 5-7 days10
  rotorEvery 5-7 days20
 shadesprayEvery 5-7 days8
  rotorEvery 5-7 days15 – 20
Zoysia japonica (wide blade zoysia, El Toro, JaMur, Palisades)sunsprayEvery 5-7 days 10 – 15
  rotorEvery 5-7 days20
 shadesprayEvery 5-7 days10
  rotorEvery 5-7 days20
Buffalograsssunspray1x per 2 wks10
  rotor1x per 2 wks20
 shadespray1x per 2 wks8
  rotor1x per 2 wks15
Common shrubssunspray1x per 2 wks10
  rotor1x per 2 wks20
 shadespray1x per 2 wks8
  rotor1x per 2 wks15
Common groundcoverssunspray1x per 2 wks10
  rotor1x per 2 wks20
 shadespray1x per 2 wks8
  rotor1x per 2 wks15

July is Smart Irrigation Month, Pt 2: Sensors

SmartIrrMonthThe first thing I saw when I turned my computer on Friday morning was emails from co-workers and City residents voicing concern about the irrigation systems they saw running this morning-after receiving 3+ inches of rain!  It’s crazy, I know.

I don’t think anyone deliberately chooses to look silly or be wasteful by watering during or immediately after a huge rainstorm, they just don’t actively think about their irrigation system.  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 and make sure the irrigation is always working as efficiently as possible.  Unfortunately, that’s not always the case–and not just with commercial properties.  This brings me to my second 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, such as 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 cool sensor.  While irrigation is technology, apparently it’s not the cool technology that people invest in as frequently as their portable, hand-held electronic devices.  I think it’s because we don’t 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!

I don’t want this article to go too long, so I will focus only on sensors today.

Rain sensors are required on all newly installed irrigation systems since January 1, 2009.  Though they have been around many years prior to that, they generally weren’t installed very frequently even though they are relatively cheap.    sensor poor location edited

  • Sensors include rain sensors, freeze sensors, and soil moisture sensors.  All of these are separate devices that are wired into the main irrigation controller, they do not come installed as part of the controller.  Some controllers have a switch on them that says “sensor active” and “sensor bypass”, that doesn’t mean there is actually a sensor installed on your system.

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! (see the picture for proof).  But, it is better to have a working rain sensor than nothing, as I wish some commercial properties would have this morning! 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 doesn’t require additional water, 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 overwatered. 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 they provide a 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° F. 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.

 

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

July is Smart Irrigation Month, pt. 1

SmartIrrMonthJuly has been deemed “Smart Irrigation Month” by the Irrigation Association since 2005, because that’s typically when the hottest temperatures occur.  With high and hot temperatures come higher water use, it’s just a given.  We still want our landscapes to look as good as they have the rest of the year, so we crank up the water.

This year, I’d like to challenge you to do something different.  It’s been a slightly different year already: we didn’t have a 100-degree day until this last week!  We’ve had regular rainfall all throughout May and June.  We really haven’t needed to use the irrigation system until this month.  So, in honor of Smart Irrigation Month, I’m going to write a short series on automatic irrigation systems, in which I’ll (1) encourage you, and explain how, to maintain your irrigation system, (2) upgrade it where necessary, and (3) schedule it efficiently and effectively based on your plants, light, and sprinkler head type.

Performing a check of the irrigation system, (aka an Irrigation Evaluation, or Irrigation Audit) is the cornerstone for maintaining the system.  If you are a direct water customer of Round Rock, Water Conservation staff will schedule and do this for you; however, it’s simple enough that you could do it yourself-and it’s highly recommended to check you system monthly!  I recently found a broken head on my own system that I hadn’t noticed or even realized was there.   So, how do we check it?

1. First you need to go to the controller and turn the dial to “test” or “system test” if that option is there (Rainbird controllers have this). If you have this option, great! The number you see in the display are minutes that, once started, will run each station for x minutes and then turn off. A good default number is 2 minutes. After selecting 2 minutes, push the manual start button on the controller to begin the system test.

2. If you DO NOT have the “test” option on your controller, you can simply program one in. Just choose a program that you are not using for your normal watering cycle-probably the C program. You don’t need to enter in start times or water days, only watering times; so for each of your stations, enter a runtime of 2 minutes. Then start the program manually.

3. Once the system is running, you are looking for problems, issues like sprinkler heads turned the wrong way and spraying the street, rather than the grass. Or heads that do not pop-up over the grass (that’s why there’s that dry spot!), or heads that are clogged, and no water is coming out of them. You could also look for leaking heads, broken nozzles, and other leaks. For an idea of what some of this looks like, see my blog “What is Water Waste?” from last month.

 

a. The simplest, and most worthwhile, thing to fix is misdirected heads; most of them can simply be turned to face the appropriate direction by using your oversprayhand to grab the head (essentially the neck) and physically turn it. This prevents water waste, poor coverage, and ensures the water is used, rather than running off the property; all of which are positives for you and your property.

A big clue that you have misaligned heads and overspray is if you can tell your sprinklers ran–meaning you can see the water on the street, on the driveway, on the sidewalks, on the patios, etc., like this picture to the right!!

b. Nozzles that are clogged are easily be cleaned out (when the system is turned off!). Unscrew the nozzle, rinse it and the filter off, and screw it back on. You may use an old toothbrush or toothpick to clean out the emitter where the water sprays out of the nozzle, it’s pretty small. Once screwed back on, turn the system on to make sure you have put it on facing the correct direction and it’s watering what it needs to be.

 

c. Low heads or heads that do not pop-up over the grass is due to either too tall grass, which is really not a bad thing, usually, or more likely, the heads have settled over time and just sunk into the ground. They need to be replaced with taller heads in order to have better coverage-to get the water out far enough to water what’s it’s supposed to. You can replace this head yourself with a taller head (they are sold by height in inches, so if you have a 4″ head currently, you may increase to a 6″), or depending on the amount of low heads, you may hire a licensed irrigator to do this, as there is a degree of professionalism needed. You don’t want the heads sticking up over the grass and become a hazard when the grass is mowed.

 

So that’s the basics of performing a system check!  Do it monthly to physically see how the system is working, that what is supposed to be watered is actually being watered, AND, most importantly, make repairs and adjustments to the system to keep it running efficiently!