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Irrigation water management: it’s come a long way in recent years

March 9, 2010  By  Mike Jiggens

By Alan Driedger

Irrigation water management started with the golf industry and its need
to manage the application of water for turf health, pump longevity,
power management, water conservation and runoff reduction.

The first methods of water management would have been the turf manager on a golf course applying as much as he thought best,  plugging sprinklers in here and there and looking at his watch. Eventually, fully-automatic systems came about and more accurate measurement and planning were required for large-scale water use.

Several manufacturers started building and marketing controllers that could adjust water use automatically using local weather information. These central control systems could also be programmed for sensing flow rates and detecting leaks, and they could manage many controllers at the same time, communicating by radio or telephone. The ability to automatically adjust watering by the weather was a breakthrough as the water savings were significant, not to mention the time saved. Irrigation managers no longer needed to reprogram all timers manually on a daily basis. Tracking flow enabled managers to pinpoint anomalies in the system flow rates when problems occurred, and to go out and methodically find them instead of waiting for a lawn mower to fall into a mud hole caused by a broken pipe.


Central control started to be used in municipal parks, sports fields, and amusement parks. Users went ahead with installation of the product, but sometimes not enough attention was given to educating the people who would be running the systems. Some very high tech and expensive equipment ended up with less emphasis on water conservation and more emphasis simply on control, which may have been “good enough” at the time.  

Let’s keep in mind that a large amount of the systems worked wonderfully when given the attention that they required, but at lower levels central control systems had an upfront cost and complexity, and often were not used to their full potential. Water management companies with skilled technicians began offering turn-key solutions and centralized multiple clients’ systems into one location with one or several water managers operating the software and watching over the systems. 


Full irrigation management is the management of quantity of water used as a function of evapotranspiration and effective rainfall, application rate and how often applied  as well as monitoring of valve by valve flow rates and hydraulics. Local watering restrictions can be detrimental to this process since they typically force us to water on particular days of the week, disregarding whether the landscape needs water or not. 

“Just because it’s Tuesday does not make it a good day to water.” Weekly or monthly site visits are also very helpful to ensure optimum system performance and to identify any issues.

Air audits and heat audits have been commonplace for some time and, as water prices continue to increase along with awareness, water use and efficiency audits will become more prevalent. Typically, residential and commercial irrigation systems are set up with a schedule in the spring and run on that schedule until they are shut down in the fall.
Owners are not usually confident enough to change the program monthly, nor do they wish to pay a contractor to come by four or eight times a year. It is important to be sure you have someone qualified to install new equipment and audit, and/or manage your system. The newest and best controllers cannot fix or replace poorly-installed and inefficient systems. They can, however, correct poor scheduling and enable us to tweak/manipulate water usage and work to lower it to the minimum possible level. 

When I say “minimum possible level,” it is a baseline that exists somewhere between the achievable water savings and the desired landscape appearance. In other words, if you want an emerald green lawn you will pay a little extra for it, and this is where a balance exists between a good lawn care program (fertilizer and cut-height) and irrigation. Too often I get the request to water more on a site that is already overwatered, when the problem is actually lack of nutrients in the soil due to the absence of a fertilizer program. 
Communication among the lawn care professional, the irrigation contractor and the client are absolutely necessary for good and long-lasting results. In addition to that, a professionally audited irrigation system can make a huge difference in efficiency, and in some municipalities audits may be mandatory. 

The City of Calgary has a program that offers reduced watering restrictions if one has met the efficiency requirements of a “water-managed site.” To meet these requirements, you must have your system audited every year or two, depending on your level of water use reduction. The number of certified auditors in Alberta is currently double that of Ontario which may show a higher level of commitment to saving water in the west. This is likely due to higher public awareness of water shortages in Alberta, as well as policy and public education differences.

Some cities will actually provide a system audit free of charge in the interest of water conservation.

The client and contractor of today are much more tech-savvy. Awareness in the industry is increasing rapidly and water conservation is often the topic of choice. More irrigation auditors are getting certified and advanced residential and commercial controllers are now in nearly all product lines. Similar to central control, these controllers adjust watering daily using local weather data from sensors on site or data sent by pager signal (in lieu of having to purchase a weather station), and dramatically reduce the costs of upgrading or retrofitting your system to save water. 

The industry has developed testing standards to evaluate these new products and their ability to save water called SWAT, or Smart Water Application Technology, and most new timers fare very well with little under or overwatering. The lines between high end commercial and residential are starting to blur which is a sign that water savings is important to both large and small scale users.

Future scarcity of water has prompted new industry forays into large-scale rainwater harvesting projects, and sustainable sites of the future will collect all of their rainwater, HVAC condensate, and grey water, and treat and re-use it on site, reducing or eliminating the amount of surface runoff and grey water that ultimately ends up in our rivers and lakes. Conserving water that has been collected and reducing waste will be of utmost importance. The ultimate finite water supply is the one that we catch and hold on our own property for as long as possible.

Irrigation systems keep our surroundings vibrant and are ubiquitous on well maintained properties, but they also have the ability to waste tremendous amounts of water if not managed correctly. It is a bit of a shame that the amount of water saved is actually the amount that hasn’t been wasted, but these are benchmarks that we need to see to understand the progress of the industry.

Alan Driedger is a certified contractor, auditor, designer, and water conservation manager with the Irrigation Association and is also an EPA WaterSense Partner. With nearly 20 years of experience in the industry, he and his company AWS Irrigation Management Inc. strive to install high-quality, efficient systems while educating the end user on wise water usage. AWS is also one of the first irrigation management companies in Canada to sell, install and manage central control for clients from an off-site location.

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