In the Sunbelt, a single irrigation of an average yard typically consumes 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water. You can reduce that amount, save money, and achieve a healthier and more environmentally friendly lawn by following these steps.
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Get an irrigation audit
If your lawn has a patch that's perpetually wet, or if you're watering the side of your house, your driveway or the street, you know you're wasting water. But if you're depending on an automatic irrigation controller or haven't had your system checked in a while, get a professional audit. Longtime irrigator Judy Benson, in Orange County, Fla., says her clients use an average of 35% less water after an audit, just by amending the irrigation schedule and repairing broken spray heads or other components that may have been leaking.
To find a certified irrigation auditor, visit www.irrigation.org. Benson says that in her area, a visual inspection with a written report detailing water schedules (current and recommended), recommended maintenance and estimated water savings per irrigation cycle costs from $200 to $300. A full audit -- which includes gathering extensive site data and use of "catch cans" to measure how much water the system is laying down at various locations -- is typically reserved for systems that need renovation and runs $400 to $600. The city of Austin, Tex., offers free audits to its heaviest water users, and watershed groups sometimes subsidize audits.
Add water conservation devices
At a minimum, you should have a rain sensor ($50 to $75, plus installation), which turns off your irrigation system when it's raining. Even better is a smart controller (about $300 or more, plus installation). It automatically adjusts the watering schedule based on real-time environmental data or historical data for your region. It can reduce water use by a third, but you may still be overwatering, given that most plants are healthier when slightly drought-stressed, says water-conservation expert Amy Vickers.
Use drip or micro irrigation
This is highly recommended for trees, shrubs and planting beds. Ted Moriarty, a Boston irrigator, says spray irrigation set to provide enough water for turf will dump too much on everything else. Plus, because drip or micro irrigation uses low pressure and is close to the ground, the water goes straight to the roots. On a recent project, Moriarty converted about 20 irrigation spray heads to drip. The project cost about $800, but he says homeowners can recoup the cost via lower water bills over two to three seasons.
Hire licensed irrigator
Whether you're installing a new system or want to repair one, find an irrigator licensed by your state or municipality (this is most meaningful if the license requires specific education). The best irrigators have also been certified as designers, installers or auditors by the Irrigation Association and they partner with EPAUs WaterSense program (at www.epa.gov, search "landscape irrigation services"). You want to avoid "flag throwers and pipe slammers," who create inefficient systems that throw water everywhere but fail to cover your landscape properly, says Benson. If you're installing a new system, it's worth the extra 15% to 30% cost to hire a certified designer.