Effective irrigation

Contrary to recent weather forecasts, the biggest challenge for many landscapers, whether maintaining a lawn, sports turf or cityscape, is the need for effective irrigation. Maggie Walsh speaks with industry experts to find out how we can achieve this

Water is not only essential for growth, but, and certainly in the case of the sports industry, is also necessary for conditioning turf to handle and recover from stress caused by heavy use and harsh environmental conditions. If there is not enough natural rainfall (difficult to consider with recent storms) supplemental water is essential to keep turf healthy after the soils have dried out.

So while groundscare professionals are keen to keep our landscapes green, the climate change storm is brewing, which means the heat is on for us to irrigate efficiently.

Water Act 2003

The government is piling the pressure on those who use water for their business (abstractors) to use water supplies as effectively as possible. The Water Act 2003 was introduced so that abstractors would demonstrate efficient use of water. If you need more than 20 cubic metres (approximately 4,400 gallons) per day from a river, stream or canal or from an underground source such as a bore hole, you will almost certainly need an abstraction licence available from the Environmental Agency (EA).

Irrigation scheduling

There is no quick fix to irrigate well, but the UK Irrigation Association (UKIA) says managing irrigation better is about optimising your soil water management practices, which in turn will improve irrigation efficiency. This means applying the right amount of water at the right place and at the right time. To do this, advises the UKIA, you will need to, “continually make two important irrigation decisions – when to irrigate and how much water to apply to keep the soil in the right condition for your crops.” This is irrigation scheduling.

Nick Ryan, Operations Director, of Waterwell Ltd, a London-based irrigation installer, suggests scheduling allows for different irrigation zones to run for longer
or shorter times to facilitate watering different types of vegetation. For example he explains, “scheduling irrigation to run in the middle of the night reduces the amount of water lost from the system due to evaporation from the soil surface before its absorbed.”

It is important to schedule water applications according to needs of the landscape, so that you avoid unnecessary waste and also don’t over-irrigate. Effective scheduling is also dependent on having an understanding of soil types. Soils act as a reservoir to hold water and different types of soils will hold different amounts of water – an understanding of the science behind these systems is paramount.

Irrigation design

In addition, getting the best results for your projects can be achieved by designing and maintaining irrigation systems correctly, says the UKIA. Peter Longman, Northern Europe Landscape Area Manager for Rain Bird, manufacturers and supplier of irrigation products, agrees but he also adds that landscape contractors need to be educated to do this.

“Landscapers have got to know the basic principals needed to design an irrigation system, as they will come across pitfalls,” he explains. “Once they’ve mastered the building blocks of how a system works, they can translate what they’ve learnt to any size of garden or area that they need to water.”

Rain Bird is one of a number of training outlets that offers courses giving participants the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to design a residential watering system, to implement and operate a controller system and offer tips such as troubleshooting with managing water consumption on large sites.

However, says Peter, “if the project is simply too complex, and you don’t have time for training, you can employ consultants to take on the design for you.”

While some, such as those working in the world of sports turf, rely on judgement to decide when to turn on emission devices, such as sprinklers, increasingly scheduling is managed using remote controllers to regulate irrigation.

Says Nick Ryan: “Controllers can facilitate any form of scheduling. They allow allocated zones to run for the correct amount of time at the best time of the day. Most controllers also can be attached to rain sensors or soil moisture sensors to automatically modify the irrigation schedule.”

Smart controller

In recent years the smart controller has become
a must have gadget. According to Peter at Rainbird, these smart devices have raised the profile of irrigation technology, and he suggests “this leap in technology aids water efficiency. “

“It takes a lot of water to irrigate and we want end users to do it productively,” he continues.

Man using mobile smart phone while relaxing in a hammock

“Controllers are now connected to the internet, which importantly allows access to weather data and remote control,” explains Peter.

Controllers can now access weather reports on the go. There are systems in place that can tell a controller if it’s going to rain tomorrow, so that the controller can then make a decision as to whether to irrigate today or leave until tomorrow.

Algorithms minimise water use

“Essentially there are algorithms in place that can minimise water use,” explains Peter. “This can make a significant change to the amount of wasted water – it can cut the amount of irrigation water used by up to 30-60 %.”

Peter is rightly excited about the affect advances in irrigation technology is having, particularly on the private residential market.

“With householders being able to manage their irrigation systems remotely, controllers have been instrumental in the growth of installations within the residential market,” he says.

“But also as we see a gradual change in climate,
we as an industry are working closely with landscape architects, whose strategy is to make cities less concrete and in their words ‘child friendly.’

“Using more grass and flora to keep the city cool, needs good irrigation support, which in industry terms is a growing opportunity for us,” concludes Peter.

There is no such thing as an ‘un-scheduled’ irrigation
– no-one irrigates completely at random says the UKIA. However, it concludes, there is ‘good’ and there is ‘bad’ scheduling. With awareness and using the intelligence of internet data hopefully end users will practice the former.

• For more information on water management visit UK Irrigation Association at www.ukia.org

• For details on training opportunities in irrigation with Rain Bird visit www.rainbirdservices.com/online-interest-form/

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