Irrigation upgrades deliver crucial water savings in time of drought

How can Palo Altans revamp their yards to save water?

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the midst of California's driest year on record -- and $500 fines for sprinkler runoff as of Aug. 1 -- residents with out-of-date or problematic irrigation systems are due for an upgrade.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 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."

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Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 9:48 am

500$ fines for urband dwellers wasting a little water--but no fines for farmers who use approximately 80% of California's water growing non-essential crops, like pistachios.

When are we going to get our collective heads out of the sand, and begin to demand accountability from our elected officials--rather than just looking for handouts from them?

Like this comment
Posted by New in Town
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 28, 2014 at 10:41 am

I agree that the focus on residents isn't going to make as big a dent as municipalities and rural areas. Those of us who love almonds and almond milk aren't helping as a single almond uses a gallon of water to grow and California grows over 90% of almonds in the US.

Web Link

On a personal level, we reduced our HH water usage by 200 gallons per day by simply replacing two toilet flappers. If your toilet is making any noises, possibly you still have a plastic flapper. A rubber replacement is $10 and is an easy DIY project that does *not* require a plumber. Matt Rowe, the plumber quoted above, gave us that good advice and he was right.

Like this comment
Posted by jm
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 28, 2014 at 12:34 pm

If farmers use 80% of the water and residents use 20%, does that mean industry uses none?

Like this comment
Posted by cn
a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2014 at 1:11 pm

jm- Where are you getting the 20%? I can't find it in the article or the comments.

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 28, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Has anyone noted how much water it took to grow the first field planted at the new Levi's Stadium or how much it will take to grow and maintain the second installment? My yard is sooo much smaller. And Santa Clara County is sending water cops around to homes? Yikes!

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2014 at 3:38 pm

> where does 20% come from?

Web Link

Note-from trying to locate a couple of links to provide this important bit of information, it seems that some folks have been rethinking how water is used, and tracked, in California. One source suggests that as little as 40% went to farms, 11% to urban use, and the rest to rebuilding wetlands.

The farming numbers may be bobbing about at the moment, but the urban use (including manufacturing) is clearly 20%, or less.

Like this comment
Posted by Industrious
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 28, 2014 at 8:06 pm

Industries often use de-ionized water, which comes pre-bottled from a source far away.

Like this comment
Posted by Greg G
a resident of Ventura
on Aug 28, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Greg G is a registered user.

It is important to conserve water. The water issue in California cannot framed as' farmers or urban users' . For the most part, as farmers decrease the amount of water they use, that same saved water does not magically become available at out home faucets. Another point is, farmers are not irrigating with water equal in quality to the water coming out of our taps in Palo Alto. It is important to conserve water, fresh potable water in the urban environment is precious. It has always been against the law here in California to allow wasteful runoff of water from ones property. It's bad public policy to allow water waste. One of the best ways to conserve water in your yard is to look up a Palo Alto Landscape contractor who specializes in modern irrigation methods.

Like this comment
Posted by gabe
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 28, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Before going out and buying a bunch of MP rotators for $8 a pop, check the program in your controller, and as is stated in the article, run through your irrigation system about once a month, and check for breaks. One little hose break on a drip line running for 20 minutes can add up quick. Even more quickly would be a broken spray head, and worst of all, broken lateral and mainlines. MP's will work for low water shrubs, but for lawns they don't work so well. They won't break down fertilizer either, and if you want to use a slow release fertilizer then forget it. Nothing beats head to head coverage with traditional spray nozzles. Tune the flow control on valves to avoid misting. To avoid runoff or excess water use, remember some guidelines. Run spray zones for no more that 5 minutes at a time. Drip for 20 minutes. Rotors for 15 minutes. Micro spray for 9 minutes. MP rotators for 18. From there, check your landscape in the morning to see how things look, and fine tune the hardware and programs. If your landscape is sloped, use sealed sprinklers that trap water in the bodies at the bottom of the hill, this will avoid water escaping and slowly dribbling out. Program your landscape to water between 10pm and 6am to maximize water retention in the soil. Watering too close to mid-day and you don't get the bang for your buck due to evaporation from heat and sun exposure. I don't believe in getting complicated with et controllers and satellite systems, nothing beats a walk around your property to survey results on the ground. As I say, "Use the force Luke." And don't buy products like Toro or anything from HD. Go to your local irrigation store and ask for advice.

Like this comment
Posted by Greg G
a resident of Ventura
on Aug 28, 2014 at 11:03 pm

Greg G is a registered user.

It is important to conserve water. The potential for waste in the landscape is great. There is a lot of bad advice out there. The MP rotator sprinkler nozzles mentioned in the article are one of the best and most efficient advances in lawn irrigation to date. MP rotators combined with a ET controller(weather based irrigation controller) is the most efficient way to irrigate a lawn. There is a reason water agencies are giving people rebates to install them. Call a licensed California Landscape Contractor, preferable one who is an irrigation expert for good advice. There are many good irrigation landscape contractors in the Palo Alto area.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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