Multifamily Communities Get Smart about Irrigation Thanks to High-Tech Sprinkler Systems


Sprinkler watering flowers

Apartment owners can get smart about irrigation, conserve water and ensure that landscapes stay healthy and green, thanks to more affordable evapotranspiration sprinkler systems.

Evapotranspiration (ET) systems that regulate water usage based on calculations of weather data and conditions are becoming more feasible for apartment owners. Once a significant investment that included purchasing a satellite, ET systems can be installed for a fraction of the cost and enable a property to better manage increased water restrictions while maintaining sufficient moisture levels for a variety of plants, grasses, trees, and shrubs.

In most cases, installing a new system or retrofit an existing one is only a few hundred dollars more than traditional controllers.

ET systems work off of evapotranspiration, the net water loss caused by evaporation of moisture from the soil surface, and transpiration by vegetation. In addition to calculating the amount of usable water removed from the soil through natural occurrence, evapotranspiration-based irrigation factors solar intensity, wind, ambient temperature, and humidity through data from the closest weather satellites.

Considering types of plants, property slopes, sunlight exposure, and other factors, smart controllers can be programmed to provide just the right amount of moisture for any time of the year. The system virtually becomes hands-off while adjusting to climate conditions.

The technology has been around for about 20 years but, until lately, mostly used by big corporations, golf course, and government installations that could afford to spend $10,000-$15,000 on a satellite to gather data. But advanced technology has pushed down the startup price.

Cellular components communicate with existing weather satellites that are contracted by news agencies, weather networks, the National Weather Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Once a day, usually in the middle of the night, the system calls the closest weather satellite (sometimes a cluster of three because weather varies over an area) to download information.

Diagram of Evapotranspiration
Water cycle of the Earth’s surface, showing the individual components of transpiration and evaporation that make up evapotranspiration. Other closely related processes shown are runoff and groundwater recharge. (Image source: Wikipedia)

The evapotranspiration rate is calculated and water times and volumes in zones are adjusted. For example, if the evapotranspiration rate indicates that .02 inches of water was removed from the soil in the past couple of days, the system adjusts sprinklers to replace that same amount. That can translate into water usage savings of up to 30 percent.

Also, the system can be set up to recognize the wilt point for plants. Based on the tracking data of water loss or gain, the controller will determine when the system should run. Each zone is reprogrammed on a daily basis to compensate for the conditions, applying the right amount of water, no more or no less.

And, the controller can be programmed to run at shorter intervals for areas that have lower absorption rates or slope, avoiding costly runoff. Apartment properties save water – and money – and the headaches of manually keeping the right moisture levels on a property go away.

Depending on the controller size and number of zones, initial investment of the system – not including actual installation of piping, heads, etc. – can be $600 to $2,400 per controller. Most properties with four or five controllers can retrofit most irrigation systems for $1,500 to $6,500. An annual data usage fee costs $50-$100 (the first year is usually free).

Because of increased focus on water conservation, ET systems are more in demand – and sometimes required by municipalities. Some cities even exempt properties employing ET technology from water restrictions. Others mandate that all irrigation systems be installed with an ET controller.

An ET system is powerful stuff and very effective. Multifamily property owners can reap the benefits of this high-tech irrigation system and contribute to improving the water supply.


President, Earthworks

author photo two

Chris Lee is President of Dallas, Texas-based Earthworks, which specializes in multifamily housing landscaping. He is a contributing author to Landscape Management magazine, licensed irrigation specialist and a Toro Intellisense certified technician. Chris studied business at the University of Arkansas from 1990-94 and horticulture and landscape design at Tarrant County College from 1999-01. He has been employed at Earthworks since 1998.

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