With summer approaching everyone is working hard outside; planting, treating the lawn, landscaping and testing or repairing their irrigation system. With all of that comes a significant increase in your water and sewer bill, which unfortunately is less and less predictable due to changed weather pattern and more frequent dry period. If you are a commercial property owner or home owner, or both, here are three main ways to manage and reduce your water bill:
1. Reduce your demand
2. Control your water use
3. Retain water for irrigation
The first two are easily implemented and have a lot of low cost options. Retaining water, such as storm water run-off, is often more involved.
Reduce your demand
The water demand of your plants is driven by the species selection, density, location, soil composition and the area. In order to reduce the demand of water you could reduce the vegetated area. However that is not the goal here. The next best thing, and often overlooked is the soil. It’s not just important to have good soil and to conduct soil improvement to achieve better growth or more appealing plants and flowers. Water management and retention of the soil should also be on your list, when you are doing your landscaping. Properly selected soil means fewer fertilizer and pesticides, because plants have the right amount of moisture and less run-off from the beds. If you are not sure what kind of soil you have, you can use the jar test to find out.
Organic compounds are most important to increase water retention in the soil. Dry compost is a great choice, worked into the soil every 2-3 years. As for your lawn, leaving clippings in the lawn is the best way to add organic compounds. As long as a few rules are followed. Never cut more than one-third of the grass, if it’s intended to stay in the lawn. Leave grass longer in the summer to encourage deeper roots and protect from heat stress. This also reduces the need for fertilizer by up to 25%. Remember clippings do not contribute to thatch problems because they decompose much quicker. All the other grass clippings also make for great compost.
What kind of plants and flowers you select, also has a big influence on water consumption. Native and adaptive plants and non-invasive plants are good choices. They are used to the climate conditions and will keep watering in check. Also select plants based on location. For very sunny spots look for drought resistant species. In general plants with small and thick leaves use less water. You may also want to look into decorative grasses, sedum or even a cactus, if you are located in Arizona. As for flowers, the blanket flower, Yarrow, Pine-Leaf Penstemon, Agastache, Russian Sage, Meadow Sage, Lavender, Sundrops, Coneflower and Amsonia are great choices for a sunny spot and can tolerate drought better. A plant that covers the ground well will also help evaporation and therefore keep water use low. Another strategy is using mulch to cover the ground instead of leaving it exposed, which protects the soil from evaporation, erosion from run-off and can add organic compounds depending on the selected mulch.
TIP: Don’t throw away your coffee grounds. Do it like PNC bank, which uses it to improve soil and as their mulch. It’s a natural slug deterrent, contains nitrogen (main ingredient in fertilizer) and suppresses fungal diseases.
Control your water use
Even if you are not doing any of the demand reduction strategies, there are plenty of other ways to reduce consumption by better managing how, when and how much you irrigate.
The simplest but often missed tip is to “Only irrigate things that grow”. No sidewalks and driveways please! That often means adjusting the location of sprinklers or replacing the sprinklers to have a more precise coverage area. More so choose sprinklers, which provide uniform distribution and eliminate over-spray, that can result in 30% water savings.
Drip irrigation is often mentioned as one of the best ways to reduce water consumption. However an inground irrigation system for your lawn, even if using drip irrigation, are often inefficient and as much as half of water delivered doesn’t actually benefit the plants. Drip irrigation is ideal for flower beds. Shrubs, trees and planters may have a higher water need and can use spot watering devices. This can save between 30-50% of your water use, compared to sprinkler irrigation.
Soil and Irrigation technology, also the kind of soil and ability of the soil to retain water is important. Heavy clay soil will quickly show puddles, if you are using more of a soaking technique such as sprinklers or soakers. In comparison to drip irrigation it won’t have that problem. Sandy soil on the other side will drain quickly, and will also not retain much water and therefore waste water. In both cases more frequent but shorter irrigation periods are better.
Don’t over water. Not just are you creating run-off, which washes away the nutrients, it also isn’t good for plant grow. Lawns watered too frequently develop shallow root systems. Overwatering causes lawns to grow faster and require more frequent mowing. The same holds true for flowers.
Water in the early morning, between 5am-10am. At this time evaporation is still low and wind is less. Both will help to get the water where it should be. Watering in the evening isn’t so good either, because it leaves room for mold growth.
Use rain, moisture sensors and smart controllers with weather stations. Have you ever watered the lawn the previous day and now today it’s raining? Smart controller will help to avoid that. Depending on the weather forecast the controller will adjust the irrigation schedule, considering when it rained last and when it’s supposed to rain. If it did not end up raining the irrigation will just happen a little later. This helps you take advantage of rainfall and reduce water consumption. The evapotranspiration also plays a role here. Smart controls will calculate watering need based on soil type and plants, so that the right amount of water, in the right intervals is supplied. This can reduce water consumption by 20-40%. Flow monitoring and leak detection will also help identify broken pipes and vandalized sprinkler or failed valves. The smart controls will also regulate soak cycles for slopped areas and areas of poor drainage.
What’s your pressure? A reduction in water pressure in the irrigation system will save money too. Every 5 psi reduction will reduce usage by 6-8%. That can translate into 50% or more in water savings.
Rain Bird and Hunter provide products as mentioned above, which can be installed by a professional or yourself. Some local water utility providers also have rebates for smart controllers and high efficiency nozzles.
System maintenance is also not to be underestimated. Inspect heads, valves and sprays regularly and adjust controllers for seasonal changes. Have an irrigation audit performed to optimize your system's efficiency and to stay up to date with new technology by using online training.
Retain water for irrigation
Rain water collection is certainly a great way to manage water consumption and also deal with storm water. Check local and state code first to make sure you can use non-portable water in an irrigation system. It is still often prohibited due to the possibility of people drinking the water. However a nicely incorporated rain garden can make use of the water without the need of a storage tank and be a very attractive landscaping installation.
At home a simple rain barrel collecting water from the down sprout may be enough. For commercial facilities this is certainly a bigger investment and may require permits for a cistern, pumps and filtration systems. However cost can be offset by savings in sewer fees for storm water run-off and saved potable water. Although this is a great way of saving irrigation water, it’s also the most expensive.
So where should you start?
Improve and evaluate the landscaping projects, which you have already planned and incorporate soil improvement and water conscious plant selection.
Check your current system for leaks and not properly working equipment. Also check that sprinklers are covering only vegetated areas.
Invest in a smart controller. They will not just save you money, but also time, since they can adjust to seasonal changes automatically.
Install high efficiency sprinkler heads and drip irrigation when replacing equipment and whenever possible. Or engage an irrigation professional to help you figure out the best and most water conscious solution for your property.
If you have any suggestions for a topic you’d like to see discussed in a future post, feel free to contact me@susann_gt or connect with me on Google+. Be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ to know when all our other blog content is released.
About the Author: Susann Geithner is an expert in LEED® design and energy auditing. Susann is a LEED® Accredited Professional (AP) for Existing Buildings, Operations and Maintenance, as well as a LEED® AP for Building Design and Construction. Susann has worked on LEED® projects in almost every building category and led the certification of the first LEED® CS Platinum building under the 2009 version of the standards, for which won Real Estate Manager Award for Sustainability in 2011. She has also led LEED® certification of Germany’s largest office building. Susann Geithner is also actively involved within the industry on a local and global level. She serves as Vice Chair for the Cleveland 2030 District, an organization committed to reducing the carbon footprint of area buildings.