In the midst of California's driest year on record -- and $500 fines for sprinkler runoff as of Aug. 1 -- residents with out-of-date or problematic irrigation systems are due for an upgrade. Watering more efficiently doesn't have to break the bank, thanks to basic adjustments to your current system, free water usage evaluations from the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) and even rebates for installation of certain water-saving technologies.
Nothing points to faulty irrigation like a planter box dribbling onto the sidewalk or a lawn sprinkler dousing the driveway. The culprits are misaligned or malfunctioning sprinkler heads, as well as excessive water output, problems that constitute "overspray," according to Matt Rowe of Matt Rowe Plumbing & Irrigation, Palo Alto.
Many residents remain unaware of overspray on their properties because "people aren't spending enough time checking their systems," Rowe said.
Rowe, who grew up in Palo Alto himself, installs and maintains irrigation at many homes in Crescent Park, including the home of Dave and Lynn Mitchell. The Mitchells called upon Rowe in 2010 to revise their irrigation system, a project they started "for many reasons," Dave Mitchell said. The updates qualified them for a rebate from the SCVWD that year as well.
Aside from wanting to save water on principle, Mitchell recognized that parts of the yard received ample shade and did not require heavy spray from traditional sprinklers. Many of the plants and flowers were also better suited for drip irrigation, he said.
For the Mitchells' lawns, Rowe installed an MP rotator system, pinwheel-like sprinkler heads that slowly rotate individual streams of water, providing more thorough lawn coverage than traditional spray.
"MP rotators run longer, but at a lower precipitation rate," helping the lawn more thoroughly absorb the water, Rowe said. "Traditional (sprinkler) systems put a lot of water on at once."
"With the MP rotators, you're going to need less water to do more," Rowe said.
All stations in the Mitchells' irrigation setup are controlled by one overall watering percentage, with "100 percent" as each station's normal output. The Mitchells can adjust the percentage based on daily weather conditions, which "enables us to establish a budget," Mitchell said.
Working with the weather is a key water-saving strategy, according to Rowe, who recommends watering lawns either before sunrise or after sunset. This schedule targets times when less water evaporation will occur, as well as off-peak hours of consumption.
Most recently, Rowe installed an additional water meter for the Mitchells that solely tracks irrigation usage, a gallon count isolated from the overall household usage. A ticker inside the irrigation meter clearly shows when any water is flowing, helping identify leaks early. Otherwise, they often take longer to discover, if discovered at all.
"Something breaks, people are never home to see it and it spills tons of water every day," Rowe said of the damage created by a constant leak. "If there's a problem, often people don't notice."
Maintaining an irrigation system is well worth the time and attention, according to Rowe, because landscaping comprises much of a property's value. Keeping a lawn just green enough, or "limping it along during the drought," Rowe said, is one visual guideline to follow.
"You don't want your landscape to die. It's a big investment," Rowe said. "Just because your lawn doesn't look perfect (now) doesn't mean it's not recoverable."
For those looking to modify their landscapes for drought conditions, Rowe suggests removing plants that require large amounts of water and replacing them with low water usage plants, such as native or drought-tolerant plants. And installing an efficient watering system, of course.
"Many systems can easily be converted to an MP rotator, and it works for both lawns and shrubs," Rowe said.
A higher-tech option is a controller from OnPoint EcoSystems. The company's WaterSage model automatically optimizes a schedule for each yard zone based on the weather, while the WaterPoint model provides complete manual control of the system from a computer or smartphone. A system from Hydrawise also allows for automatic scheduling and remote control.
To focus more on landscape modification than irrigation upgrades, xeriscaping, a landscape design that reduces or eliminates altogether the need for irrigation, is another option.
Residents can quickly find areas for irrigation improvement through the SCVWD's Water-Wise House Calls, the county's free comprehensive water usage evaluation program. A Water-Wise call will identify leaks or other malfunctions and provide a personalized irrigation schedule and prioritized list of water conservation steps for the household. Visit save20gallons.org for more information.
For a limited time, the City of Palo Alto is also offering an increased rebate for conversion of a lawn to a low-water-use landscape. The increased rebate amount is available until Sept. 30, with certain restrictions on plant choice and irrigation design.
As for the Mitchell residence, the rebate they received in 2010 was only a perk.
"I'm happy with saving water and trying to be a good citizen," Mitchell said of his updated system.
Rowe believes that all residents, whether switching to new technologies or continuing use of older ones, can save water by keeping an eye on their own systems' upkeep and efficiency.
"People could benefit a lot from more frequent checks (and) regular timer adjustment," he said. "It's just putting a little more time into your system."