On a bright, sunny day, a new Porsche convertible was parked with its top down in a parking lot near a landscaped area. Shortly after the owner walked away from his car, the landscape irrigation system sprung to life, spraying water on the plants and turf. Unfortunately, one of the irrigation system’s sprinkler heads was malfunctioning. Instead of irrigating the plants and flowers, it threw water straight at the Porsche, through the open convertible top, and flooded the car.

Ellen Beighley, water manager with Irrigation Management Systems, Inc., Portland, Ore., lets out a laugh as she tells this story. It’s just one of the many strange occurrences that have sent clients to use the services of her irrigation system monitoring company. If the irrigation system bordering that parking lot had been monitored by a trained professional using a computerized central control system, it would have recognized the problem with the broken irrigation head and shut it down long before the unfortunate incident.

Irrigation Management Systems remotely monitors irrigation systems for hundreds of clients located up and down the West Coast using computerized central control systems linked to each client’s facility. Large housing developments, corporate campuses and other commercial properties all rely on IMS to monitor every sprinkler head and valve on their property. By doing this remotely, through a computerized central control system linked to sensors built into the irrigation systems, IMS can help improve the health of the client’s landscapes, save money on the needed labor to maintain the systems, troubleshoot issues in real time, and save water by increasing irrigation efficiency.

“The central control system is a software application that can be running on a computer or Internet servers, and it basically allows the user to remotely program, monitor and adjust irrigation systems for the purpose of managing it and for the purpose of saving water,” says Doug Callison, senior product manager for new product development with Rain Bird Corporation. “Usually, there’s a variety of communication options depending on the site application, which may also include sensors that provide feedback since the person isn’t there on the site, weather sensors or soil sensors so they can see what is happening in real time.”

It starts with an audit

When IMS works with a new client, Beighley says it conducts a site audit to map out where plants and turf are located, identify high sun or shade areas, and determine the type of soil present using soil probes. They also map slopes and hardscapes, and analyze exposures to wind and other elements.

“We take all of that into consideration,” Beighley says, when gathering data to create an irrigation program. “The site audit, combined with real time weather data, is used to calculate how much irrigation a site requires.”

In an ideal world, a manually controlled irrigation system would be adjusted daily. But, says Bill Wolfe, product marketing manager for Rain Master Control Systems, that rarely happens.

“Central control has two major benefits. One is the water savings, and two is the labor savings,” Wolfe says. “A typical system is a conventional set it and forget it, or it’s adjusted once every season. By using a central control system, users can achieve anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent water savings, and there several studies that support that.”

Bob Dobson
Bob Dobson

Bob Dobson is president of Middletown Sprinkler Company in Port Monmouth, N.J. He also serves this year as president of the Irrigation Association. Dobson agrees that central control saves water.

He recounts an example of a 30-year-old retirement community of 650 homes that saved a significant amount of water by switching to a central control system to monitor their irrigation. “We have their water use records for the past 10 years. They are required to report their usage to the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) because they use well water for irrigation. Twenty independent remote controllers operated the older system. We converted the system over to a central control system,” Dobson says. “The five-year average prior to the conversion was 47 million gallons of water per year. The year after the conversion was made, the water consumption was 26 million gallons. They saved about 40 percent – and it was a dry summer.”

Not only did Dobson’s client save water, but also other benefits sprung from the conversion to a central control system. “The turf and landscapes improved from the reduction of over watering. I was personally amazed and it truly is a result of developing a good irrigation schedule and having good rain sensors that will interrupt irrigation,” Dobson says. “Often overlooked is preemptive interruption when there is rain in the forecast. If you have a rain event coming in on Friday, is there any reason to irrigate on Thursday? Through either our control or the training of in-house staff in these communities, the irrigation can be put on hold a day or two prior to a rain event.”

Central control systems, Dobson says, “make a remarkable difference to our clients in their ability to do in-house management of their systems or our ability to be able to manage those systems for them.”

Save water, save money

Saving water, Beighley says, also saves money for her clients. “We already know that it saves money, especially if you’re looking in an area where your water costs are high. Seattle is not a bad place to start. Northeast of there, in Redmond Ridge, there is a large housing development, a commercial complex and a senior living community, and their water is running a little over $10 per 100 cubic feet, (the equivalent of 748 gallons). So, every drop of water we put down there costs a lot. Back in the day I can remember when water was 88 cents per 100 cubic feet.”

Good public relations is another unexpected benefit of using a central control system. “As you know, wasting water has become one of the seven deadly sins, and so when you have a system that turns the water off when it’s raining, it looks good for my clients,” Beighley says.

A central control system allows a water manager to make changes to irrigation schedules and monitor flows from almost anywhere. Most of the systems allow for access using a computer, iPad or smartphone. It’s no necessary to visit a site to monitor or change the irrigation schedule. This, of course, offers savings in labor and fuel costs.

“Typically in a conventional system, without having central control you have to throw labor dollars at the system in able to realize your water savings. You’d have to drive around to different sites doing manual water starts or to turn it off in the rain,” Wolfe says.

Without central control, Wolfe says there’s no way to know if a line breaks or if there’s water running down the road from a broken irrigation head unless you see it yourself, or worse, if your client, the property manager, calls to tell you.

Chris Wright
Chris Wright

“Here, you’re getting real time alerts for failures, for unscheduled flow. You’re getting alerts and alarms in real time to your iCentral account, (Rain Master’s proprietary system) to efficiently and effectively deploy your labor in the field, manage the system, shut down the valves, stop the water from a lateral line break from flowing down the street.”

The ability to customize run times and shut off times yields other benefits, Beighley says. She’s had clients call to ask her to dry out a certain area prior to an event to accommodate foot traffic, tents or trucks.

“A more frequent scenario is the property manager forgot to mention that they’re going to be striping the parking lots and they call at 11 p.m. and don’t want water and we can turn it off immediately,” Beighley says.

Central control software often includes maps to give a water manager a visual representation of an irrigation site. Base Manager Software from Baseline, Inc., has a map-based interface with icons representing the location of every valve in the irrigation system and allows the user to control up to 200 zones at once, says Chris Wright, regional sales manager for the company. The Rain Bird system, says Callison, features a CAD map of the space that animates the valves so the user can tell which valves are running in real time.

So, what is the overall impact of the movement from manual to central control of irrigation systems in the landscape?

“I think it’s made water management accessible to a wide customer group,” Callison says. “Before we had central control, we had to train every single person to make their own adjustment. Now we can take one well-trained person who understands soil and water relationships and they can manage hundreds of site from one office. It eliminates some of the challenges of having a real highly educated and trained field staff. You can do more with less.”