winter water use

Freeze Protection

Welcome to the new year!  Did your landscape look like any of these pictures recently??  Those beautiful icicles and “snowy” grass is a hint that you have probably left your irrigation system on and it ran during the freezing temperatures we’ve recently had.  Please, go turn them off now!  

I will admit that I like to go drive around town the morning of a freeze to see who has left their systems on.  It’s very dangerous–with frozen sidewalks and streets, but also a little humorous.  I hope to not have a picture of your house or business!

Having the irrigation system on in freezing temperatures can cause a lot of damage to the system–freezing pipes and heads, which can cause broken pipes and heads, and then leaks.  This means water waste and higher water bills!  It can also damage the plants, being coated with water that freezes is hard on the plant and could essentially freeze it to death.  You don’t want any of that!

Having your irrigation system on during the winter months is also not recommended since we’re still in waste water averaging mode.  The less water you use from November through February, the lower your wastewater (or sewer) charges will be the rest of the year.  Find more on wastewater averaging here.

Here’s a quick list of things to do to protect your irrigation and landscape investments during freezing temperatures:

  1. Turn off your irrigation system.  (Reasons stated above.)
  2. Compost and mulch outdoor plants thoroughly.  These two layers will help insulate the plant’s root zones while supplying the plant with needed nutrients.  Two inches of mulch is ideal, and remember, not too close to the trunk of trees or shrubs.  Mulch should be about two finger widths away from the truck.
  3. Water well, but avoid moisture on the plant leaves and stems–this means hand-water.  No irrigation use (of course, underground drip is fine).  Water saturated soil holds heat better than dry soil.  Keep damaged plants well watered, but be aware that plants needs much less water in cooler months.
  4. Water only when temperatures rise above 45 degrees or higher the day before a freeze.

During most winters, supplemental watering isn’t necessary.  Think about your landscape, and water bill, before adding additional water in the winter.

 

Read Your Water Bill

front of water bill

I want to ask you a very important question: Do you read your water bill?  No, not just look to see how much you owe; but look at how many gallons you used during the last month?  No?  Not really even sure how?  Or what you’re looking at?  I understand!  I feel that way about my phone bill!!

In this blog I wanted to point out several things to start looking at on your water bill.  Maybe not every month, but at the very least each quarter or each season to check in and see how you are doing with your usage.  This may run long though, so I’m going to break it into a small series of things to look at on your bill.

Today I want to point out what I consider to be THE most important place to start looking at on your monthly bill, because you can’t save water if you don’t even know how much you’re using!  Right?  And then, you’re going to need to know if that amount is a high number or low one.  And what (or how much) is  a “normal” amount of water to use each month?

Of course, I have no exact answer about how much water is “normal.”  The answer depends on several factors, like the number of people in the house and their ages, the age of the home or the age of the appliances (like the toilets, dish and clothes washers, showerheads, and faucets), and whether your house has a water softener.  I’ll discuss this more at the end.

back of water bill

So look on the front of the bill at the little graph that shows the gallons of water used during each of the billing cycles for the last year (note: chances are the billing cycle is not for the entire month, it’s part of one month and part of another).  The x-axis (bottom) shows each month’s usage and the y-axis (vertical) indicates the gallons.  See the upper bill picture, I’ve circled the water use graph in red.  We measure the amount of water used each month in gallons—the same amount as a gallon jug of milk and you are billed by the thousand gallons used.

Another place to look at the amount of water used each month is the back of the bill.  Here is written the actual number of gallons used for the current bill.  See the bill at the bottom, I’ve circled that amount in orange.  The water bill says “total consumption in gallons” and then 12,400 is to the side.  That’s 12,400 gallons used this last billing cycle.

Now, many things can determine how much this number will be, as I’ve already listed a lot of those variables–number of people in the house, age of house and appliances, etc.  I will tell you that here in Round Rock, our average winter bill is for 5,868 gallons and our average summer bill is for 12,252 gallons.  How does yours stack up?

Also on average, we here in Round Rock use 75 gallons of water per person, per day.  Of course, this is average because a baby isn’t going to use that much, yet a teenager may use more!  You could make it easy for yourself and say each person in your home uses 100 gallons each day.  The average billing cycle is 30 days, so that would be 3000 gallons for each person each month.  If you have 2 people in your house that would be 6,000 gallons for your water use would be “normal” or expected.

This number can be greatly reduced by installing low water use (or efficient) fixtures, especially toilets and showerheads since they are used the most and the most often (multiple times a day).  Don’t forget the City has a rebate program for water efficient toilets and clothes washers.  Find out those details at www.roundrocktexas.gov/conservation   If there was any one thing you wanted to do to reduce the amount of water in your home, I would say replace your toilets.  If your home was built before 2000, I would replace the toilets with newer WaterSense models.  This allows you to save water without changing anything, you’ll still flush the same way.

I will say those efficient appliances really do make a difference.  My family of 4 (2 teenagers and 2 adults) uses right at 3,000 of water each month for all of us.  We installed new WaterSense toilets, showerheads, and a Energy Star dishwasher when we moved in 2 years ago.  Our house was built in 1999.  We don’t have a water softener.  We do have an irrigation system (that’s turn off currently!).  The clothes washer is a front loader that’s about 6 years old.  We do use them all several times each week!  It really is possible to reduce your consumption without it being a chore.

Now pull out those bills and take a look!  Next time I’ll point out a couple more places to look on the bill.

 

Water Less this Fall

Now that we’re officially into Fall hill-country-highlights-watching-the-leaves-change-at-lost-maples-state-parkand enjoying some cooler temperatures; it’s time to reduce the watering times on your irrigation controllers.  With less evaporation occurring, the landscape doesn’t need to be watered as often as during the summer months.  My general rule of thumb is: cut watering times in half during Fall and Spring

If you don’t really know how much you should be watering to begin with, let me go over the 3 basic things to look at to determine how long the system should be running because, 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.

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.  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

There are two main sprinkler head typesrotor and spray.  There is also drip irrigation, which technically has no head at all!

  • Rotor heads rotate, they turn, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Plant Material

Landscape (read: living plant) material is the last component of the irrigation scheduling trifecta.  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.

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 and require less water to survive.  They are made for our climate and weather conditions.   So, turn those stations off completely in the fall, winter, and spring and just water when they look stressed (i.e. droopy leaves, limbs first thing in the morning).

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 few 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 schedule I follow, when irrigation is necessary during the Fall months:

Fall—October, maybe November

Set controllers for 1 start time for all lawn types.

Plant

Exposure

Type of Sprinkler Head

How Often to Water

Runtime (minutes)

St. Augustinesunsprayas needed, max. 1x/wk10 to 15
  rotoras needed, max. 1x/wk15 to 20
 shadesprayrarely, 1x per 2 wks15
  rotorrarely, 1x per 2 wks20
Bermudagrasssunsprayrarely, 1x per 2 wks15
  rotorrarely, 1x per 2 wks20
 shadesprayrarely, 1x per 2 wks10
  rotorrarely, 1x per 2 wks20
Zoysia japonica (wide blade zoysia, El Toro, JaMur, Palisades)sunsprayas needed, max. 1x/wk10 to 15
  rotoras needed, max. 1x/wk20
 shadesprayrarely, 1x per 2 wks15
  rotorrarely, 1x per 2 wks20
Common shrubssunsprayrarely, 1x per 2 wks10 to 15
  rotorrarely, 1x per 2 wks20
 shadesprayrarely, 1x per 2 wks15
  rotorrarely, 1x per 2 wks20
Common groundcoverssunsprayrarely, 1x per 2 wks10-15
  rotorrarely, 1x per 2 wks20
 shadesprayrarely, 1x per 2 wks15
  rotorrarely, 1x per 2 wks20

Winter Waterland

I’ve frozen irrstarted hearing the question: “how much to I water the lawn in the winter?”  from the newly moved here Texans; of course, the answer depends on who you talk to!  As you know, the winter months are a great time to cut back on water use, reduce water bills, and make sure things are running properly and efficiently at your property.  Winter is ideal, because during these cooler months, your irrigation system doesn’t need to run as often, or at all, and many utilities use the average of the winter water consumption to determine the wastewater charges for the rest of the year.

Central Texas doesn’t typically have the long, hard freezes that more common to the northern areas of the state and country, so often “winterizing” the irrigation system isn’t as a necessity as it is where freezes are more prolonged.  In our region, the most valuable adjustment you can make is to reduce the watering schedule or simply turn off the irrigation controller during the winter months.  Because the temperatures are cooler, less water is lost to evaporation and transpiration and plants simply do not need as much to replenish what is lost.

In addition to cooler temperatures, winter is typically our rainy season too, so it’s best to take advantage of the free, nitrogen-rich rainfall.  During normal winter conditions, the irrigation doesn’t need to be turned on more than once per month, if at all.

If you DO want to turn it off completely and winterize your system as a precaution and to ensure water savings, there are a few quick steps to take, or call a licensed irrigator to do it for you.backflow_cover

  1. First locate the backflow prevention device or the main valve to the sprinkler system.  Both are usually located very close to the water meter.  The backflow is located in a box that typically has a green, rectangular, plastic lid.  See the picture on the right.
  2. Next, turn the water off to the system at the backflow device.  Do this by opening up the green lid and turning one of the handles so that it is perpendicular to the metal device.  In the picture, the handles of the backflow are blue.  The arrows are pointing to the handles.  It’s not necessary to turn them both, just one will be fine.
  3. Then manually run each station for a minute or less to blow the rest of the water in the lines out; this eliminates the chance of any residual water freezing in the lines and causing pipe breaks or cracks.backflow device edited

4. Turn the system controller off when all the stations have run and leave the system off for the duration of the winter.

Again, this type of winterizing is not always necessary here, due to the lack of long, hard freezes; however if your irrigation system isn’t going to be used all winter, it certainly is worth the time to turn it off and clean the lines out.

 

Keep Water use Low in Winter and Save Year-Round

Winter seems to have come quickly this year!  It’s already the middle of November and wastewater averaging (WWA) is upon us.  3 month calendarWhat is wastewater averaging, you ask?  Well, let me tell you…

In the winter months (November, December, January, and February) the City assumes that our water usage is lower than any other time of year, simply because it’s cold out, its winter, we’re not watering our yards.  These are the months when water consumption is low, so the City uses these 3 billing cycles (Nov-Dec, Dec-Jan, Jan-Feb) to determine how much we’re going to be charged for waste water for the rest of the year.  See, the City has no meters on the waste water line; essentially the City makes an educated assumption that all water being used is going down the drains at our houses.  Since no water is being used outdoors (right?  Turn off those sprinkler systems!), then the theory is that all water is being used indoors, for necessary purposes-baths, showers, toilets, sinks, dish and clothes washers, etc.

The average of those months water use is what you are charged for waste water for the remainder of the year.  So, for example, if you use 5400 gallons on your Dec bill, 4900 on January bill, and 4500 on February bill then your WWA would be 5400 + 4900 + 4500 / 3 = 4933, which would be rounded to 4900 gallons.  So, for the rest of the year, the most you’ll be charged for waste water is 4900 gallons!  That’s good!  No matter if your water use goes higher in the summer; the waste water use is capped at 4900 gallons.

This is a number that is recalculated annually, so if you “mess up” and refill your pool or keep watering that yard the whole winter, you can fix it the next year by keeping the water use down.  So again, turn off those sprinklers!

Another way to keep water use low in winter is to check for leaks, especially in your toilets.  Watch my latest video on how to check for leaks and check your toilet to see if it’s efficient.  What I say in the video is that toilets using 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) or less are considered efficient.  I want to add to that a little, by saying that on January 1, 2014, it became state law that all toilets sold in Texas must use 1.28 gallons per flush OR LESS.  So that means, even if you have a 1.6 gpf toilet, you can make it even more efficient, and save more water each time you flush (and reduce those waste water charges further) by upgrading to a new 1.28 gpf toilet!  Find the details at www.roundrocktexas.gov/waterconservation.