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Turf battle: finely tuned watering practices keep gardens green while saving precious resources and capital.

The hissing of summer lawns is no longer considered beautiful music to many ears. Over-watering not only threatens the ecosystem and budgets, but also quietly shortens the life cycle of plants and erodes structural property elements.

Creating a cost-effective and environmentally friendly irrigation plan is complex. Water bills, particularly those with irrigation submetering, are key indicators of inefficient sprinkling practices, but these need to be analyzed against the amount of water required by plants in native soil and equipment problems that can perpetuate waste. One solution is to consult an irrigation expert.

Actually Invite the Auditor

Landscape water audits are designed to perfect an irrigation system by reducing wasted water and lowering bills while protecting the health and beauty of a property's horticultural investment. A water audit report provides detailed information about sprinkler system performance in regard to uniformity (applying water as evenly as possible to all the plants) and efficiency (applying water to the root zone where plants utilize it), along with a recommended irrigation schedule and cost/benefit analyses for replacing equipment or landscaping elements.

Steps in a Landscape Water Audit

1. Perform a site inspection. Evaluate topography (level or sloped), location (solar and wind exposure), soil characteristics and landscaping (types of plants and water requirements).

2. Examine and evaluate irrigation system equipment. Visually inspect the condition (damaged or missing parts, leaking lines, clogged nozzles) and type (nozzle style, placement of sprinklers, pressure settings) of equipment. This is supplemented by cycling the sprinklers in selected areas and performing a catch can test to pinpoint irrigation uniformity problems (which result in wet and dry areas) by recording how much water is collected in small containers placed in the watering zones.

3. Review current water usage records.

4. Develop an efficient watering schedule and conservation strategies. Recommend sprinkler settings (timing, placement and duration) and suggest savings opportunities through upgrading or retrofitting equipment, or changing plants to ones better-suited to the environment or that require less water. Meters provide the key to monitoring efficiency after an audit is performed.

The Price May be More Than Right

Many municipalities in drought-affected Western regions perform landscape water audits at no charge for commercial, industrial, institutional and multifamily properties. Gail Tauchus of the Sacramento County Water Agency said her bureau has contracted with a local firm, Irrigation Consultation & Evaluation, to provide no-cost reports from certified water auditors for property owners or managers within their district. One of the property managers who took advantage of this program was Mike Wolcott, PCAM, who manages Heritage Lakeside Owners' Association in Elk Grove, Calif., a development with 269 single-family homes, a clubhouse and common green areas, for Association Management Concepts, Inc. Wolcott said the audit was seen as a helpful tool to increase watering efficiency for areas the association is responsible for maintaining, which include the front lawns and shrubs of each home in addition to the common grounds.

The audit was completed last fall and Wolcott received a detailed report for each home and common area section. He anticipates the recommended changes will produce less run-off, better fertilizer absorption and a significant savings in overall water use in the common areas. "From the property manager's perspective, obtaining the level of detail in this no-cost study, which is far greater than a commercial landscaper's specifications, is a big bonus," he said. "I expect that individual homeowners who correct identified problems will also experience increased water usage efficiency, translating into consumption savings."

Capitalize on Rebates and Incentives

Even without a formal water audit or landscaping submetering, Barbara Holland, CPM, of H & L Realty and Management Co., Inc., in Las Vegas, developed some various conservation strategies. Her firm, which manages 5,000 residential units plus commercial, office and industrial properties, converted two residential projects from greenbelt landscaping completely back into desert and two others into a desert/greenbelt combination to reduce water consumption.

Holland started with just a basic water bill analysis. "If you looked at our detailed profit-and-loss statement, you'd see a major difference in our water bills. It was very simple to sit there and say, 'We're averaging $200 a month for water in non-summer months and $800 in summer. In June, July and August, 75 percent of our water expenditures take place.'"

Holland used this information to formulate her water management plan and took full advantage of local incentives designed to ease the drought situation in Nevada.

"For every square foot of greenbelt we converted back to desert landscaping, we got a $1 rebate from the Southern Nevada Water District, up to $50,000. It cost us $1.35 to re-landscape the areas and the $.35 a square foot difference will be recovered within two years at our larger properties. Also, the moment we converted, we renegotiated all our landscaping contracts and, in some cases, brought services in-house. We are one of the major property management companies in southern Nevada to pursue this program," she said.

In addition to the rebate, the water district offered free indoor water-saving devices to Holland's properties in recognition of their efforts to conserve on their landscape irrigation. She said another side benefit was a reduction in the risk for slip-and-fall injuries caused by standing water and a decrease in structural damage from water hitting stucco building exteriors and pavement.

Reviewing irrigation practices, whether through a formal water audit or a practical budget analysis and assessment of landscaping and equipment, can both conserve and preserve a property's resources.


Evapotranspiration (ET) is the amount of water lost through evaporation and transpiration (transfer to the air by plants). New ET controllers integrate real-time data broadcast by weather stations or calculated from historical records with landscape parameters such as plant type and growth, soil characteristics, slope and sun exposure to create irrigation schedules tailored to a specific landscape environment. The resulting calculations provide the correct amount of water to schedule for irrigation of large areas, and automatically adjust as the local weather changes, preventing over-watering and urban run-off.

A 2001 study by the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County and the Irvine Ranch Water District that was partially funded by the Environmental Protection Agency measured the impact of ET controllers on reducing urban run-off in 125 residential and 13 commercial landscape sites and found run-off was reduced by 64-71 percent by using an ET controller while the test landscape areas remained healthy and attractive.

Source: Municipal Water District of Orange County. Landscape Certification Program E-Newsletter. Vol II, June 2003.


Controlling settings on a quality, regularly serviced sprinkler system is one of the simplest ways to conserve water:

* Establish different watering zones or stations to meet the needs of particular plants.

* Adjust sprinklers for changing seasons to compensate for spring and fall periods when less water is required. For instance, a bluegrass lawn may require 0.6 to 0.9 inches of water per week in spring and fall and 1.25 to 1.5 inches per week in mid-summer.

* Coordinate watering time with exposure and surface.

(A south- or west-facing, sloped surface may require twice as much water as a sunny, level area.)

* Encourage deep root growth by heavy, infrequent watering of clay-based soil.

* Practice cycling to avoid run-off from clay or sloped surfaces by splitting watering into two or three cycles between which water is allowed to soak into the soil. The cycles can be calculated by determining the amount of time required to produce run-off.

Source: Wilson CR, Whiting D. Operating and Maintaining a Home Irrigation System. Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. No. 7.239.


The Irrigation Association ( offers a Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor designation for water management professionals. The certification requires coursework, a comprehensive exam, adherence to a code of ethics and continuing education. In addition to seeking a certified professional, the association recommends the following steps before contracting with a water management specialist:

* Read the Irrigation Consumer Bill of Rights for Turf/Landscape ( and "Your Professional Irrigation Contractor: What You Should Know." (

* Verify the contractor's credentials, certifications and licenses (if required by state, county or city).

* Ask for proof of liability insurance.

* Request to see a portfolio of past work and talk to local references.

* Make sure your property is inspected before accepting a bid.

* Insist on a written contract that sets a time limit on installations and requires the contractor to obtain required permits.

* Be sure the backflow preventer required by local codes to protect drinking water is installed.

Source: The Irrigation
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Title Annotation:Feature
Author:Halm, Karen
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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