Computerized smart-watering systems can make irrigation easier

Andrew Bolt talks about his system that controls the irrigation of plants at his home in Modesto.
Andrew Bolt talks about his system that controls the irrigation of plants at his home in Modesto. MODESTO BEE PHOTOS BY ADRIAN MENDOZA

MODESTO -- When Andrew Bolt designed and installed landscaping at his Modesto home, he also had workers put in an irrigation system that automatically waters the lawn, flowers, groundcover and bedding plants in the front and back yard gardens.

But instead of going to a timer control panel to punch in which days of the week he wants the garden watered -- along with the time of day it should be done and for how many minutes -- Bolt heads to his trusty laptop computer.

With it, he logs onto a Web site, enters his account information and, with a few keystrokes, programs his irrigation system.

One of the perks of his system, manufactured by ET Water Systems, is that Bolt can change or modify his home's watering schedule from anywhere in the world, as long as he has Internet access. And if he doesn't make the adjustment himself, the system will do it for him.

So if Bolt and his family are out of town and an unexpected heat wave hits the Modesto area, he doesn't have to worry about coming home to a heat-ravaged garden.

Welcome to the world of "smart-water" control systems.

Smart-watering systems, also known as self-adjusting irrigation systems, combine horticultural science and Web technology to automate watering schedules.

Water gets applied to the landscape based on local weather conditions and specific factors such as plant and soil types, land slope, the amount of sun and shade the area receives, and sprinkler type, from drip irrigation to sprays.

The system determines how much water to use based on user-supplied information and data it receives from a nearby weather station. Weather stations monitor an area's climate and rainfall.

Traditional sprinkler timers require manual adjustments when the weather changes.

For example, when the weather cools and the garden requires less water, the user must program the traditional timer to water on fewer days and for shorter periods.

Smart controller products such as the ones manufactured by ET Water "know" when it's raining outside and will automatically not dispense any water.

Global climate changes, increasing water rates, community restrictions on water use and drought concerns are prompting more people to take a hard look at their consumption with an eye toward conservation.

In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a statewide drought after two years of below-average rainfall, low snowmelt runoff and the largest court-ordered restrictions on water transfers in state history.

State officials added that the drought outlook for 2009 could worsen if California experiences yet another dry winter.

Some communities and water utility companies already have implemented restrictions as a result. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, wants single-family residential homes to cut overall water use by 19 percent and irrigation use by 30 percent.

Officials in several Ventura County communities said that despite their pleas for residents to conserve water, usage has increased.

While city dwellers in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties are not yet facing major water restrictions, officials are encouraging residents to practice water conservation.

According to information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense program and the Irrigation Association, landscape irrigation is the biggest source of household water consumption, accounting for as much as 50 percent.

Most people water their plants too much, said Bolt, a professionally trained landscape designer. In addition to being wasteful, it's not good for the plants.

At his home, Bolt landscaped much of his garden with drought-tolerant plants in addition to installing a smart irrigation system to curb water use.

His ET Water control panel is attached to a wall in his backyard garden. It uses data from the weather station closest to his home. Any adjustments he needs to make are done via computer.

Purchasing and installing a smart water system isn't cheap. A control like the one Bolt has costs about $500, with installation at more than $2,000. He also pays a monthly Web service fee that ranges from $6 to $16.

Because of those upfront costs, smart water systems at this point are being used mostly by entities with high water usage, such as large commercial properties, homeowner associations, schools and parks. But proponents of the systems say they pay for themselves after three or four years because less water is used.

Bolt says he's cut water use at his home by about 30 percent. And he doesn't have to think about setting irrigation timers when the weather changes.

The system also allows him to input information based on Modesto's watering schedule. For example, Bolt is allowed to water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, according to the city's residential watering schedule. To ensure he follows the rules, he can inform the system not to water on the other days of the week.

Also, if he's planning a backyard barbecue or other outdoor event, he can use his computer to tell the system not to water on a specific date well in advance.

"So you can avoid any surprises," he said.