Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Project aims to save 1 billion gallons of water

Nonprofit garden working with landscapers

Express Staff Writer

The Big Wood River flows through Hailey. It is estimated that domestic irrigators use 3-4 billion gallons of water per year in the Wood River Valley. Express file photo

    A partnership between the Sawtooth Botanical Garden and local landscaping companies hopes to save a billion gallons of domestic irrigation water within the next four years by increasing the use of “smart” irrigation controllers.
    The computerized controllers sense changes in temperature and humidity to adjust the amount of water supplied by automatic irrigation systems.
    Sawtooth Botanical Garden board Chair John Balint said the Billion Gallon Project is the result of discussions among the garden and about a dozen local landscaping contractors over the past four years about what they can do to save water use in the Wood River Valley. Balint is also owner of local company Mountain High Landscapes.
    He said the project involves an innovative payment plan for customers and volunteer time provided by contractors to provide free training to installers.
    “Even though we’re competitors as landscapers, everybody’s working together to make this work,” he said.
    Balint said the contractors agreed to allow customers who cannot afford the upfront costs of the controllers, which run about $300 to $600 plus the labor needed to install them, to make payments through their savings in water costs.
    He said the program was made possible by a considerable reduction in the cost of the smart controllers, which only a few years ago ran between $3,000 and $5,000. He said the payback time for most systems is now between two and five years.
    “The bigger the scale, the quicker the return,” he said.
    Balint said an important part of the project is a free certification program for landscape company employees to ensure that the systems are installed effectively.
    “It’s only as accurate as the information you put into it,” he said.
    Balint said the installations are combined with a water audit to determine the components needed, size and spacing of the sprinklers and how best to separate irrigation on sunny and shaded areas.
    “There is some work involved in upgrading the system,” he said. “It takes about a year to get it tweaked in.”
    Balint said employees from a half dozen local contractors were trained this winter at Silver Creek Irrigation in Hailey. He said an online course to supplement the certification classes has just been set up by Hunter Industries, a manufacturer of the smart controllers.
    The certification standards were set with the help of the nonprofit Wood River Land Trust, which has been involved with landscape contractors participating in its Trout Friendly Lawn program. The program seeks to reduce water and pesticide use, and promote the use of native plants.
    “It’s pretty exciting to see the professional standards raised and really regulated from within,” Land Trust Project Manager Patti Lousen said.
    Balint said the plan is to have each of the contractors involved complete an installation and water audit at one home in the valley by mid-June. He said those homes will be used as models for hands-on professional training, provided by Advanced Irrigation Solutions owner Cody Farnsworth, for those who passed the class work. The installations will also be used to demonstrate to other groups what the project is about.
    “We’re trying to make this a template to get the cities on board, the contractors on board and the nonprofits on board,” he said.
    Hunter Industries Sales Manager Guy Collins said the project is the first he knows of to include the innovative payment plan and a free, comprehensive certification program.
    “I personally think it’s the right approach,” Collins said. “It’s not just putting a device in a controller that makes it a smart controller. It’s one piece of an effective system. Without the knowledge and education, it could make things worse before it makes things better.”
    He said the system needs to be properly adjusted so that brown spots do not result as water use is reduced.
    Balint said there are between 8,000 and 10,000 automated domestic irrigation systems in the valley, and the project’s goal is to convert between 2,000 and 2,500 of them to smart controllers by the end of 2017.
    He said the expectation is that the new systems will reduce the 3-4 billion gallons of water used by domestic irrigators each year in the valley by 200-300 million gallons—thereby producing the billion-gallon savings.
    “If we don’t start controlling [water use], we’re going to have a lot less than what we’ll need in the future,” he said.
Greg Moore:

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