How Smart Irrigation Controls Offer Cost Savings
Mark Hurd, grounds and irrigation foreman for the Davis School District, Utah’s second largest, has seen a lot of changes in irrigation technology in the three decades he’s been doing his job. But as of late, he’s noticed them developing at warp speed.
“Changes are happening in this industry faster the last 10 years than I’ve ever seen,” he points out. “Who would have ever guessed 10 years ago that we’d be watering grass based on the computer?”
For Hurd and others tasked with overseeing irrigation, it’s a welcome advancement. Irrigation has become more precise due in large part to innovations in controllers and consequently is helping irrigation managers save water, money, and time.
Hurd and his team are responsible for the irrigation of more than 2,000 acres of turf in the district of 93 schools. That includes landscape, flowerbeds, natural grass, and turf areas such as for sporting events.
To carry out their work in the most efficient manner, they use HydroPoint’s WeatherTRAK smart irrigation system.
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Analysis and optimization using data help provide the best water efficiency for sites, points out Peter Carlson, HydroPoint co-founder and chief technology officer.
HydroPoint offers three main series of controllers. OptiFlow XR is designed for large sites such as corporate campuses or city parks. WeatherTRAK ET Pro3 is designed for commercial buildings and other major sites. WeatherTRAK LC is designed for light commercial areas.
All of the controllers go through the WeatherTRAK Central dashboard, with each of them centrally managed from the same interface, which allows end-users to mix and match depending on their requirements, notes Carlson.
HydroPoint’s controllers can be hooked up to get real-time data, he adds.
Users can get flow data and understand electrically what’s going on to open and close valves on the irrigation side. Based on the data, it enables them to act on it if there are any issues, catching problems quickly and making sure the correct personnel is alerted at the right time, says Carlson.
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Sending real-time weather data to devices helps those managing irrigation figure out schedules based on site and individual zone requirements.
For example, a site may have turf on one area and trees on another. By knowing about other factors such as soil type, the technology helps end-users figure out the irrigation schedule based on the weather.
The data is in the cloud in real time, enabling access via mobile apps and websites so not only can end-users get visibility, but also remote control, says Carlson.
On a day-to-day basis, the system helps those responsible for irrigation look for instantaneous leaks and breaks, he notes.
Because WeatherTRAK is a cloud-based solution, it enables a variety of end-users to leverage that data, Carlson points out.
HydroPoint’s technology creates interfaces and reports specific to an end-user’s needs to ensure that everyone is on the same page and has real-time access to all of the information, says Carlson.
HydroPoint’s technology collects eight million data points daily, used to calculate irrigation-specific evapotranspiration data down to a square kilometer, notes Carlson.
It also collects water budget data so end-users can track their water budgets against their targets and make sure they’re within range of what they’re reaching for, says Carlson, adding that it also collects asset locations.
That’s helpful for those who have to maintain a site and may be new on the job or may visit the site infrequently, in that they can quickly get up to speed by viewing physical assets from a mobile phone.
The captured site data offers information on who is logging in, what they are doing with that login information, and what changes they are making, says Carlson.
The system offers full audit control associated with the different elements of the control piece, the user data, site level data, and weather data, and brings it together to provide intelligent control to deliver the right data to the right person “and those people are the maintainers, managers, and portfolio executives,” notes Carlson.
In Utah, as in other places throughout the US, Hurd has had to deal with water restrictions. There are the typical time restrictions based on the science of evapotranspiration. But a few years ago, the area was hit by drought and Hurd’s team had to adjust to the challenges it ushered in. It was in the middle of football season for the school district and the irrigation water supply was shut off three weeks earlier than usual for water scarcity reasons, he says.
And in years prior to that, members of the district’s energy committee had started to take note of soaring water costs.
“I had 17 schools on culinary water with two of them being 50-acre high schools,” says Hurd. “Our costs were going through the roof.”
Hurd was directed to cut back 25%, which he found profoundly difficult to do in the face of irrigation demands, so he began researching options. He came upon HydroPoint’s technology and ran a pilot program at one of the elementary schools on culinary water.
“We saved 1.6 million gallons of water in the first 90 days, which equated out to be a 38% water savings at that one site,” notes Hurd, adding that the landscape was “just as pretty, if not prettier.”
He requested $170,000 from the energy committee to extend the technology to the district’s other 16 sites using culinary water. Within 23 months, using WeatherTRAK derived a significant return on investment in water savings, Hurd says.
The Davis School District also uses HydroPoint’s flow sensor technology on many of its systems.
“If I get a high-flow situation, WeatherTRAK will detect that high flow and shut it down,” notes Hurd.
With school property typically subjected to a high amount of foot traffic, it is not unusual for a sprinkler head to be knocked out, Hurd points out.
“For us to combat that, we needed to know,” he says. Prior to utilizing WeatherTRAK, the only way Hurd knew of a missing sprinkler nozzle was in discovering a dead spot on the landscape and doing so would take some time, given the acreage that Hurd’s team has to cover.
With WeatherTRAK, he is able to immediately pinpoint a high flow on a certain station at a specific school property and shut down just that particular station without needing to shut the entire system down.
“We like that it goes through and checks the whole system to find out if there is a problem with the mainline, lateral line, or just a sprinkler head,” says Hurd. “It detects that and we get that report in the morning. If I want reports any time before then, if I have a high-flow situation, the program will page me and tell me I have a high-flow situation.”
Hurd is able to access that information on any electronic device.
The comprehensive use of WeatherTRAK “seems to give me two additional personnel with what it tells me,” notes Hurd.
A Hydropoint controller
Hurd has three employees on his irrigation staff.
“Each of those irrigation people needs to see 33,700 sprinkler heads a week for us to stay on top of our job,” says Hurd. With WeatherTRAK, his staff is able to get a morning report and map out the day’s workload, he adds.
“They know what they have to repair instead of waiting for a couple of weeks wasting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water because we didn’t know the head was broken,” says Hurd, adding, “The public will really let us know quickly if there is a head broke and there is water running down the gutter.”
As a veteran irrigation manager, Hurd says those in the industry need to accept that there may very well be a day when water is scarce. To conserve it, irrigation managers need to make themselves aware of the existing technology, he adds.
Hurd says he found no learning curve in adapting to the technology.
“WeatherTRAK is a plug-and-play system,” he says. “A lot of us who are experienced in the industry used to have to chart it out—if we had so much money we could spend in a season, how many gallons of water that equated to.
“WeatherTRAK does all of the calculations and figures all of that out for you,” he adds. “Let’s say you only have $1,000 worth of expense set at a certain site. You can put that parameter into WeatherTRAK, calculate the water out to the ET [evapotranspiration], and it will tell you how long and how much water can go down there before that money is gone.”
Hurd also favors the HydroPoint technology for automatic update downloads that don’t cost more. That’s significant for a public, tax-based entity, he adds.
The latest technology in irrigation controllers “is really all about remote water management,” points out Sean Azad, marketing group manager for Rain Bird.
“All irrigation controllers can be set to turn on and turn off at a set time and water the plants for as long as you want, but the growing challenge is managing the water,” he adds.
Azad notes that managing water is based on three key principles—tracking and monitoring, reporting, and making intelligent decisions on behalf of the user based on user settings. Rain Bird offers the technology to address all of them, he adds.
Tracking and monitoring is not just how long a system runs, but it’s also bringing in real-time flow capture, says Azad. An end-user can determine how much water was used in a given time period or how much is wasted when a pipe is broken. Flow sensing can enable an end-user to monitor and track the impact of those events.
Reporting enables the data to be shared with the end-user, Azad points out.
Intelligent actions enable those responsible for the irrigation system to set protocol so that it can “intelligently respond to the conditions and then shut down anything that’s happening to minimize the water waste,” he says, adding that intelligent action also utilizes weather data to respond and irrigate based off of that information.
In choosing the appropriate irrigation controller for a commercial or municipal site, there are fundamentals such as the number of sprinkler zones or stations the irrigation manager is looking to activate. From there, a controller is selected to handle that capacity.
The selection criteria also might be based on water management features, says Azad.
“Is it connected to a water management platform that can be accessed from a mobile device? Can you log into a website, get reporting, and make those program modifications? Does it have the ability to do flow sensing, capture flow rates, report those in real time, and provide trending?” he points out.
Another criterion might be based on weather data, with adjustments made to the system accordingly.
Toro’s Sentinel Central Controller is designed for and used most often for muni and Parks/Rec environments.
“Many companies provide full system controls, including alarms,” he says. “We always recommend that companies fully research all available technologies and ask questions about scalability and whether the product will allow for remote monitoring.
“If the technology does allow for remote monitoring, the potential customer should ask about network coverage to make sure that every inch of their property will be covered 100% of the time.”
All short-term and long-term resource plans are usually based on a good baseline, Azad points out, adding that Rain Bird systems have the ability to set a baseline.
When the system is operating correctly, “we know how much water will be used at each minute during an irrigation cycle,” says Azad. “A cycle is the time in which it’s irrigating, so from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., at each minute and in between, we will establish a baseline and have that as a comparison point.”
If the irrigation system goes outside of the thresholds, slight adjustments can be made to account for different hydraulic dynamics of the site.
“If the whole system is not considered a catastrophic failure, it has some intelligence built in to isolate between subsystem breaks or mainline breaks,” says Azad.
Rain Bird technology is designed to track water usage and irrigation usage and “the only way you know if you’ve met your goal is if you’re able to report on the end result,” says Azad.
“We can monitor your water usage before you switch to doing irrigation based on weather data and then report on the results afterwards,” he says, adding that it can result in up to a 30% decrease in water consumption.
Most end-users typically overwater when using their irrigation systems, says Azad.
He has noted significant savings when end-users switch to running an irrigation system based off of previous weather patterns.
Case in point: conserving water in an arid climate is always a concern. One challenge when managing large properties is the ability to easily pinpoint problems in the irrigation system that are not visible, such as cracked mainlines or stuck or seeping valves.
Meanwhile, water continues to be wasted during the time it takes to identify the issues.
At three large master-planned communities in Phoenix, AZ—Norterra Pointe, Desert Ridge, and Tatum Highlands—the homeowners’ associations are responsible for maintaining common areas consisting of 3 acres of turf grass and 200 acres of desert/subtropical planted areas.
To help them do so, AAA Landscape provided the installation and remote maintenance of irrigation equipment, including the central control systems, using Rain Bird’s IQ-Desktop 3.0, ESP-LXMEF Controllers with Flow Smart Modules, WS-PRO2 Weather Station, WR2 Wireless Rain Sensors, 5000 Series Rotors, and PEB Series Valves.
Each ESP-LXMEF Controller with the Flow Smart Module monitors the flow rate and IQ uses the information to compare actual flow rates with learned flow rates to detect problems. IQ’s FloWatch alarms are activated when excess flow is detected and IQ shuts off the system or individual zones when breaks in the mainline, damaged sprinkler heads, or stuck valves are detected.
As a result, AAA Landscape has been able to reduce its response time from an average of two hours to three minutes.
While average water savings has typically been 25%, one of the properties realized a 75% water savings in one quarter last year simply by adjusting the irrigation schedules based on daily weather conditions.
IQ’s detection of excessive flow rates recently saved one property nearly 7,000 gallons of water during one event. IQ also automatically adjusts the irrigation schedules daily using information from the onsite WS-PRO2 Weather Station. The IQ system enables AAA Landscape to manage multiple sites from its office.
Scott K. Simeon, AAA Landscape’s IQ Central Control manager, says in addition to water and labor savings features, IQ also gives his company various reporting options such as simple program reports per controller, alarm reports to identify problems in the field, and water usage reports for monitoring and budgeting future water bills from its office.
The company favored the user-friendly software interface, the flexibility to install only what its client needed, and the ability to deliver only the water needed for any given day by using IQ to program controllers daily using live weather updates from its weather station, notes Simeon.
In the agricultural sector, many end-users utilize Informational Data Technologies “in an effort to reduce water waste and provide a way for rural farmers, ranchers, and educational research entities to view their water system and mitigate losses from leaks,” notes Amber Thurman, IDT’s business strategist.
Finding the right technology is key to reducing water waste, the most precious commodity in the agricultural sector, Thurman says, adding that IDT provides remote shutoff capabilities with the IDT water management solution.
The company’s end-users have prevented at least 10 leaks last year, equating to thousands of gallons of lost water, Thurman adds.