Checking basic system performance can conserve resources

The IRS has given audits a bad name, but the principle of making sure everything is operating as it should be – without waste or abuse – should be reassuring. In the case of irrigation audits, there’s also the potential to save a valuable resource, water, as well as some money.

Even lawn maintenance firms that typically don’t handle irrigation can help their customers perform a basic irrigation audit in order to save money and water.

There are a number of certified irrigation consultants around the country who can be contracted to provide a comprehensive audit of an irrigation system. They are experts in their field, and the following information isn’t intended to give the impression that their expertise is easily replaced. But, there are avenues beyond private consultants to help lawn care professionals take stock of the systems installed on the properties they care for. Whether it’s a residential lawn or commercial account, taking the initiative to help your customers save money will reflect well on you, and may help increase your business in the long run.

The first option is to take advantage of the free irrigation audit programs available from many water utilities and government agencies. These entities manage and sell water, and thus have an interest in seeing that it’s used responsibly. In Santa Clarita, Calif., for example, the Castaic Lake Water Agency offers a Large Landscape Checkup program to help HOAs and other community owned properties save water.

“We’re trying to use the word ‘checkup,’ because we’ve found that the word ‘audit’ scares people,” explains Stephanie Anagnoson, water conservation coordinator with the Castaic Lake Water Agency. A landscape architect on staff there is currently focused on working with HOAs to help examine irrigation performance on large community spaces. “He looks for things like broken or leaning sprinkler heads, any areas where there is overspray, and things like that,” explains Anagnoson. “We also see a fair amount of misting – when the pressure is too high – and he looks at the timers to see what the settings are. Then he makes recommendations in a report.” Depending on what changes the HOA decides to make, rebates are available based on the number of acres involved. “The program has been very successful, and we’re actually full for this calendar year,” she adds.

Rarely, says Anagnoson, does an irrigation checkup reveal an irrigation system that’s working perfectly. “I think that was the case at one park we examined; in every other case we’ve been able to make suggestions,” she says. In many cases, the recommendation is to install a weather-based irrigation controller, a relatively quick and easy change that retains the existing irrigation system while simply swapping out the controller. “Then, much of what’s required is a behavioral change. You really need to back off and let the controller do its thing,” she explains. “If a lawn has been overwatered, it might not be evident if there are sprinkler heads that are broken or leaning or not aimed correctly. Once you back off on the irrigation, you might see brown spots develop, and that’s where you need to go in and inspect the system.”

While HOAs and other property owners have an incentive to use water effectively, that’s not always the case for those charged with maintaining the properties. “Landscape contractors don’t pay the water bills, so they often don’t see the results. If their only job is to keep something green, they’re going to do that in part through water use,” Anagnoson points out. An irrigation checkup is one way to give plants the amount of water they need, thereby possibly conserving water while maintaining plant health. “We’re trying to get people to irrigate effectively. That’s our main goal,” she explains.

If no such program is available locally, another option for lawn care professionals is to conduct irrigation audits themselves. Colorado State University Extension, for example, has devised the LISA (Lawn Irrigation Self Audit) program to provide guidance and product recommendations for carrying out this task.

For a small fee, the LISA program provides the tools needed to complete a basic lawn irrigation audit: the LISA kit container, a stopwatch with battery, tape measure, plastic mallet, soil probe, 20 numbered catch cans and catch can steel support stakes.

Many water utilities and government agencies offer some type of free landscape irrigation audit program to help property owners conserve water.

Information is provided on the placement of the catch cans, as well as directions for completing the audit. A LISA web tool is also available to analyze the results, explains Denis Reich, water resources specialist with CSU Extension.

Reich says one common problem identified in irrigation audits is that a controller was set up initially when a new lawn or landscape was installed, but was never readjusted after it became established. “There are obviously very different water requirements, and the initial setting is far too high for fairly mature grass,” he explains.

Additionally, Reich adds, many controllers are set up for the hottest, driest days of the year when the grass needs the most water: “In many locations, that’s July and August, but in April and October, when you’re watering grass, the temperatures are much more mild; you might only need half as much water.” To help correct these problems, the LISA program offers guidance on how to adjust an irrigation controller on a monthly basis, depending on evapotranspiration (ET) data for each specific zip code. More detailed information on the program is available at

Even if irrigation isn’t something you normally handle, helping your customers to audit and adjust their irrigation systems is good for the environment – and good for business.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.