Moultrie Observer

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February 16, 2013

Irrigation systems are mainstay in the landscape

TIFTON — Increased property values, reduced maintenance costs, and instant curb appeal can result from effective irrigation installation and operation. Irrigation of landscapes and lawns is a common practice since the precipitation rate (rainfall) varies from month to month throughout the year. Automated irrigation systems continue to replace the hand and hose watering systems and strategies of the past.

Turf and ornamental research continues to identify and define the water use rate for specific landscape plants, thus allowing us to better manage the water use in our landscapes. Water use is not a guessing game but a precise value that we must continue to acknowledge and respect. Water is a priceless resource that we must continue to better conserve and properly manage. Otherwise, we will be depleting the water supply needed for future generations and placing their quality of life in jeopardy.

Automated irrigation systems save water because they apply only the amount programmed based upon infiltration rates into the soil and plant needs, thus reducing over-application which results in puddling and runoff. These systems also save money due to the ever-increasing cost per unit of water available to the landscape.

Your first step in planning an automated irrigation system is to seek the appropriate specialist to assist you in system design and layout. Also, if you are unfamiliar with such systems, it would behoove you to hire a reputable landscape irrigation company for installation and servicing. Once the system is designed, most irrigation companies have a basic price per head for installation to cover irrigation heads, piping, wiring, etc. Also, selection and site placement of the appropriate control box unit is most critical.

Landscape irrigation is accomplished through either sprinkler irrigation or trickle irrigation systems. Sprinkler irrigation systems function through a delivery system that applies the water under pressure over the tops       of plants. Trickle irrigation systems function by delivering low pressure water to the root zone of the plants from the top of the soil or within the soil.

As a novice, some terms that you should become familiar with are infiltration, percolation, water holding capacity, sprinkler head, nozzle, spray pattern, sprinkler pattern, precipitation rates, emitter, discharge rate, flow, friction loss, velocity, surge pressure, static pressure, dynamic pressure, local geographical areas, and electronic timing units.

Infiltration is the movement of water into the soil profile. Percolation is the movement of water down through the soil profile. Water holding capacity references the capacity of the soil to retain moisture for plant use (soil water tank).

There are two types of sprinkler heads, the spray head and the rotary head. Nozzles are selected to distribute water in a full circle or part circle (half, quarter, etc.) and at varying volumes. The spray pattern is the specific distribution pattern of a particular sprinkler head. Sprinkler pattern references how the sprinkler heads are aligned within one zone and throughout the landscape.

Precipitation rates are measured in inches per hour for output and delivery of the water. Regardless of the type of irrigation system selected, it is necessary to match the discharge rate of the system in gallons per minute (gpm) to the precipitation rate (application rate) that will permit optimum infiltration and water use by the plants (in inches per week). Never allow the application rate to exceed the infiltration rate, otherwise puddling and runoff will result.

For irrigation needs in general, turfgrasses need 1.0 to 2.0 inches per week, flowers need 1.5 to 2.5 inches per week, trees and shrubs need 1.0 to 1.5 inches per week, and groundcovers need 0.5 to 1.0 inches per week. The lower rates support sustainability and the higher rates are for more exotic plants.

An emitter is a device that functions as a sprinkler head for trickle irrigation. The discharge rate is the amount of water flowing from the irrigation system during a specific time period. Sprinkler systems are measured and rated in gallons per minute (gpm) while trickle systems are slower and measured in gallons per hour (gph).

Flow is the movement of water through the irrigation system. Friction loss is the loss of pressure during water flow that results from the increasing speed of the water, the increasing length of the piping, and the roughness of the inside walls of the pipe. Velocity is the rate of flow and expressed in feet of movement per second (standard in landscaping is 5 fps).

Surge pressure is a shock wave type of pressure created when water velocity is too high followed by sudden stops. Excessive surge pressure weakens piping and connections over a period of time. Static pressure (in psi) is the pressure in a closed system when water is not flowing. Dynamic pressure is the pressure (in psi) present in a system as a given quantity of water flows past a given point. Elevation, piping distance and friction loss impact dynamic pressure.

Each local geographical area (zone) of the landscape will contain plants that have similar water needs and soil absorption rates. One operational schedule that serves all areas is highly unlikely, thus establishing geographical areas that better allow you to provide sufficient water to each zone. Allowances must be made for terrain factors, temperatures, drying winds, shade, sunlight, and quantity of competing plants.

As the local geographical areas are identified and transitioned into the overall plan, some questions must be addressed. What sprinkler or trickle irrigation heads or components are necessary for each zone? How many and what sizes are needed? What is the total gpm or gph needed by these sprinkler heads or emitters in each zone and for the total system?

Also, how does the total system needs compare and contrast to the total water flow available from the watering source? What sizes of pipe are needed and how much? What piping layout is best? What support units (tees, elbows, connectors, etc.) will be necessary to satisfy the system? And, what static and dynamic water pressures are available on the site.

Electronic timing units (time clocks) are most effective in regulating the operation of the irrigation system. Research available units and determine the needs for your system. These units are computers with many capabilities and will operate effectively and support sustainability practices.

The technology of irrigation systems is very dynamic and ever-changing. Improvements and advancements are allowing irrigation systems to keep up with current water use, quality and availability restrictions, as well as environmental issues and sustainability practices. Water is a very precious resource and efforts must be made to conserve it!

Best management practices will involve proper plant selection based  upon lower water requirements, passive water conservation such as proper plant placement for particular purposes (shade trees, etc.), efficiently operating irrigation systems through appropriate computer control, pursuing alternate sources of water (reclaimed water), irrigation systems that are more need-responsive rather than simply operated by on-off time schedules, systems with rainfall and wind sensors to minimize unnecessary operation and waste, systems with potential solar panel control units, and more effective use of irrigation specialists for better systems management and conservation of  water.

As you plan your irrigation systems into the landscape, always keep water use, conservation and sustainability in mind. Seeking proper advisement and consultation promotes a more effectively designed and installed irrigation system. Continue to play in the dirt and enjoy each moment as you prepare your domestic environment with a watering system most beneficial to the plants and the environment!

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