Predicted Water Shortages Driving Demand for Greywater Irrigation
Water scarcity is an issue we normally associate with the western United States. But a recent U.S. Forest Service study predicts that Ohio and the rest of the Midwest also will be threatened by significant water shortages in the next few decades.
And the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) expects that all but 10 states will experience shortages as early as 2024.
In such an environment, greywater irrigation systems will become increasingly popular, and perhaps even mandatory for commercial properties.
What Exactly Is Greywater?
Greywater (also spelled “gray water” or “graywater”) is gently used water from washing machines, bathroom sinks, tubs and showers.
The city of San Antonio, Texas, has the nation’s largest direct recycled water system, with a capacity to deliver about 29 million gallons per day of treated recycled water, using more than 130 miles of pipeline.
The name comes from its rather murky appearance, caused by traces of dirt, hair, grease, food and some household cleaning products.
Unlike “blackwater,” greywater has had no contact with any human waste from the toilet, sewer system, or from washing diapers. So while it may look dirty, greywater is a safe – and even beneficial – irrigation source. The same greywater that currently pollutes our lakes and rivers with its trace biomaterials becomes valuable fertilizer to plants.
(Greywater is not potable, however, and should never be consumed by humans or animals.)
Greywater vs. Recycled Water
Greywater is often confused with reclaimed (or recycled) water. And the terms are often used interchangeably. But they are not the same.
Recycled water is sewer water that has been cleaned with chemicals at a sewage treatment plant. It is then delivered to an entire community via purple-colored pipes, and is used primarily to irrigate parks, golf courses and other public areas.
Components of a Greywater System
Greywater irrigation is comprised of three primary stages: collection, storage and use. This can be as simple as a single diverting valve on a home’s washing machine, or a complex system of pumps, filters, storage tanks and pipes. The result is filtered greywater delivered directly to lawns, gardens and other landscaped areas via the property’s irrigation system.
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The most basic greywater system uses a three-way valve to connect a clothes washer with a home’s irrigation system. Another excellent source of greywater is condensate from an air conditioning system, which can produce as much as 20 gallons of water per day. Integrating with a smart irrigation controller ensures water efficiency.
The water may be delivered via driplines or spray heads, but all pipes and fixtures must be purple and designated as greywater conveyors of non-potable water. The water may be used to irrigate ornamental plants, fruit trees and vegetable plants other than root vegetables, but it must not touch any edible portion of the plant.
Benefits of a Greywater System
Greywater can be reused and recycled in Ohio with a permit from the local health department (Ohio Code 3701-29-17).
All pipes and fixtures conveying greywater must be purple or marked with a purple stripe and be labeled “Non-potable water, do not drink.”
There are four types of greywater systems permitted in Ohio:
TYPE 1 recycles less than 60 gallons per day. Used for subsurface irrigation of gardens, lawns and landscape plants during the growing season.
TYPE 2 recycles more than 60 gallons per day but less than 1,000 gallons per day. Also used for subsurface irrigation of gardens, lawns and landscape plants during the growing season
TYPE 3 recycles hand-carried gray water that is poured through a screen into a disposal sump tank before discharging into leach field trenches. Commonly used in campgrounds, Amish homes and remote vacation homes.
TYPE 4 recycles treated greywater to be reused year-round outside or inside buildings. Water is stored for no longer than 24 hours before reuse. Outdoors, used for green roofs, living walls, surface and subsurface irrigation of lawns, gardens, and landscape plants. Indoors, used to irrigate houseplants or living walls.
Greywater systems save water and money. Manufacturers of greywater systems state that greywater irrigation can save as homeowners much as 40,000 gallons of water per year. The result is a dramatic decrease in water bills, especially during the summer months. According to Saniflo spokesman Chris Peterson, “Homeowners who begin recycling greywater now could be well ahead of the curve if and when their states begin requiring water conservation measures.”
Greywater systems prolong the lives of septic tanksbecause the amount of water being deposited into the system is greatly reduced.
Most ornamental plants find greywater to be more beneficial than tap water.Greywater contains residues, such as nitrogen, which many plants can use for food. Roses, bougainvilleas and honeysuckle particularly benefit from greywater irrigation. In addition, slightly soapy water will percolate more deeply into the soil, preventing runoff.
What It Means for Irrigation Contractors
The experts at Rain Bird believe that many (if not most) of new commercial building projects will soon require greywater or some other water-harvesting system be integrated into their landscape irrigation designs. (Hunter Industries currently uses greywater irrigation at all of its operational sites.)
In other words, irrigation professionals who haven’t yet designed and installed these systems will do so in the near future.
Are Your Customers Still Using Standard Irrigation Timers?
Smart technology may be everywhere, but irrigation contractors know that standard, old-school irrigation timers are still very much out there.
These basic clock timers are still being manufactured, installed and maintained—so they’re not going anywhere soon. According to Rick Arena, a training manager at SiteOne in North Carolina, “Probably 75% or more of all controllers sold right now are still the old style.”
And while they’re not capable of making any complicated decisions, for certain applications, these “old timers” are actually better suited.
How to Get Smarter
Just about every “dumb” irrigation controller made in the last decade or two includes sensor terminals for connecting to a rain or soil-moisture sensor.
Numerous add-on devices are available, such as:
Hunter’s Rain-Clik, Mini-Clik, Freeze-Clik, Soil-Clik and Mini-Weather Station devices, which will work with virtually any controller.
Rain Bird offers a LNK Wi-Fi module for weather-based water management, which can be plugged into any of their ESP-TM2 and ESP-Me Series controllers that were manufactured after Nov. 2, 2016. For Rain Bird controllers made before that date, a Wi-Fi-compatible replacement panel can be installed.
ETwater from Jain offers a retrofit smart controller which can be attached in less than 10 minutes and is compatible with all irrigation controller brands.
Keep It Coming
A perfect example is a new lawn, whether sod or seed. With standard irrigation timers, the water is applied at regular intervals with no exceptions. Which is what you want with new turf: frequent, short bursts of water for at least 30 days, until the grass takes root.
In fact, standard timers are often installed (at least temporarily) to maintain curb appeal for newly built homes.
Another reason standard timers are still in demand is their simplicity. As it turns out, not every homeowner wants an irrigation controller that uses ET data, local weather forecasts or various sensors for its watering schedule.
Rain Bird product manager James Harris explains it this way: “New technology like smart controllers always has an adoption curve, and not everyone is ready to adopt it at the same time.”
Particularly for some older homeowners, a smart controller may as well be speaking a foreign language. They can be baffled by all the settings. And they’re not interested in investing their time learning to set up and use the latest technology. Millennials, on the other hand, naturally gravitate toward and embrace technological advances. As this younger demographic continue to purchase homes, the demand for smart controllers will likely increase.
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This required paradigm shift applies to contractors, as well. Ramzi White is a SiteOne key account manager in Texas. He says the standard Hunter or Rain Bird clock timers are still his best sellers. In fact, many contractors in his area don’t really even know what a smart controller is.
Know Your Customer
As an irrigation contractor, the decision to offer smart technology to your clientele often comes down to knowing the customer. A 70-year-old who’s just learning how to email and text is probably not a good prospect for a smart controller. Some younger people may also prefer to have fewer bells and whistles.
But generally speaking, homeowners in their mid-40s or younger, who’ve essentially grown up with technology, enjoy integrating new gadgets into their homes. For them, smart controllers can be a very easy sell.
Since July is Smart Irrigation Month, let’s explore one of the most effective means of conserving water in a landscape: drip irrigation.
A drip system may not be the first thing most people envision when they think of landscape irrigation. But these highly efficient systems not only conserve water, they also can irrigate slopes and oddly shaped areas with precision.
Drip Irrigation Basics
Drought in Ohio
Since 2000, the longest duration of drought in Ohio lasted 44 weeks beginning on July 23, 2002, and ending on May 20, 2003. Drought conditions ranged from “moderate” to “exceptional” during this period.
On the other hand, the most intense period of drought occurred during the week of September 4, 2007, when “extreme” drought affected more than 11 percent of the state’s land.
Drip irrigation slowly and steadily delivers gallons of water per hour, as opposed to gallons of water per minute like sprinkler systems. And because the water is directed to the plants’ roots, runoff and evaporation are minimized. So less water is required.
A drip irrigation system consists of the following basic components:
Dripline (PVC or polyethylene tubing)
Once the basic system is installed, any number of lateral lines can then be attached through various headers. Each line is fitted with water-dispersing emitters, and then can either be buried or covered with mulch.
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When it comes to the dripline, contractors have two options: Insert the emitters anywhere you wish along the line, or purchase lines with pre-inserted emitters at regular intervals.
However, choosing the correct emitter is important. Output rates for emitters vary from a half gallon to two gallons per hour. Emitters with different output rates may be installed on a single dripline. This comes in handy if you need to irrigate plants with distinct watering needs that are located close together.
Adjustable emitters are also available. These allow you to regulate the water flow rate, from a steady drip to a slow stream.
Drip System Applications
Drip systems are primarily used to water flower beds, gardens and particularly small or unique landscape areas. They’re perfect for xeriscape-type gardening which requires limited irrigation.
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But they can also be used to provide supplemental irrigation. For instance, drip irrigation can be added to bedding areas that are already incorporated into sprinkler zones.
In addition, drip systems can be used to irrigate larger areas, such as both new and already-established lawns. For a new lawn, simply install the dripline before sodding or planting grass seed. With an established lawn, the drip line is trenched into the turf.
Typically, drip systems are easier to maintain than sprinkler systems, because the emitters and dripline aren’t deeply buried. The trick is in determining when a repair is needed. Whereas a broken sprinkler head is easily identified, with a drip system, you must look for browning or wilting vegetation.
Which is why you’ll want to incorporate a flow meter in the system. This sensor will notify the controller of any flow irregularities. An alert is then sent to the home owner’s smartphone. Wireless flow meters are both affordable and easy to install.
Drip irrigation systems offer numerous benefits your customers should know about:
Better plant health. Water penetrates slowly and deeply into the soil, placing moisture exactly where it’s needed – at the roots. Plants grow quickly when they are watered uniformly without stress created by lack of water.
Less waste. A good drip irrigation directs 90 percent of the water into the soil, with very little lost to evaporation.
Environmental benefits. Because drip irrigations are so effective, there is less chance of erosion, with very little runoff ending up in area streams and rivers.
Reduced risk of disease. Drip irrigation keeps the foliage dry, thus reducing the incidence of powdery mildew and other diseases that occur in damp conditions.
Weed control. Drip irrigation systems place water directly around the plant. As a result, weed seeds are water starved and germination is limited.
Like sprinkler systems, drip irrigation requires winterization. Be careful, however, that you don’t use too much air pressure when blowing out the lines. (You don’t want the emitters to pop off.) It’s also a good idea to store the backflow preventer and irrigation controller indoors for the winter.
For spring start-ups, be sure to inspect all components for cracks and splits that can occur in very cold weather.
If climate experts are correct, drier days are ahead for most of the country. Which is one reason drip irrigation has become increasingly popular over the last decade.
At times of severe water restrictions, homeowners with drip systems are often allowed to irrigate several more days per week because of the greater efficiency of these systems. (In fact, these customers may be exempt from watering restrictions altogether.)
And although properly installed drip systems are typically more expensive that sprinkler systems, that initial expense is offset by the cost of water savings over time.
Drip irrigation may not represent a total change of direction for landscape irrigation contractors. But it does nevertheless represent an expanding market and is well worth adding to your menu of services.
Market Your Business as a Leader During Smart Irrigation Month
July is Smart Irrigation Month. Are you geared up to market your company as a leader in water-saving practices?
It was 16 years ago that the national Irrigation Association (IA) first utilized the month of July to promote the social, economic and environmental benefits of efficient landscape irrigation. And every year, Smart Irrigation Month has gotten bigger and better.
Again this year, the IA has added some new tools to help irrigation contractors market smart irrigation throughout the month of July. Such as:
Residential areas, farms, forests, small towns, big cities …They’re all part of a massive watershed network. Watersheds cross municipal, county, state and even international borders.
They come in all shapes and sizes, encompassing millions of square miles or just a few acres. And like creeks that drain into rivers, small watersheds are almost always part of a larger watershed.
For instance, Ohio’s 23 major watersheds consist of 254 principal streams and rivers. But they all drain into either Lake Erie or the Ohio River. (See “Ohio’s Two Primary Watersheds,” below.)
Our landscape and all its activities interconnect with streams, lakes and rivers through their watersheds. Naturally varying lake levels, water movement to and from groundwater, and amount of stream flow influences them as well. The health of our waterways is largely determined by these dynamics between the land and the water.
Ohio’s Two Primary Watersheds
In Ohio, rivers north of the Continental Divide flow to Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Rivers south of the Divide flow to the Ohio River and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.
Learn more about the Lake Erie watershed:
Learn more about the Ohio River Watershed:
Becoming Watershed Wise
Watersheds must be protected if they are to sustain life. When human activities alter the natural function of the watershed, residents can be adversely affected by frequent flooding and routine periods of drought.
The three leading causes of polluted waterways are:
Bacteria (such as E. coli), and
Excess nutrients (such as nitrogen- and phosphate-based fertilizers).
Watershed-wise practices help create a balance and allow nature to work in our favor. When properly employed, residential landscapes can function as healthy mini-watersheds. The Green Gardens Group (G3) provides training and certification for its Watershed Approach to landscaping. This approach includes four key elements:
Build Healthy Soil
Select Native, Climate-Appropriate Plants
Use Highly Efficient Irrigation
Smart irrigation technology (smart controllers, rain and soil-moisture sensors, and pressure regulators) is a key component of this approach and ensures optimal irrigation system performance.
As an irrigation and landscape professional, are you practicing watershed-wise principles, or are you contributing to the problem? Here are a few tips:
Promote smart irrigation controllers and other technology with your customers, to ensure that runoff is reduced or even eliminated.
Utilize matched precipitation rate (MPR) nozzles.
Suggest that your customers create hydrozones (groups of plants with similar water needs) to conserve water.
Offer your customers natural alternatives to nitrogen- or phosphate-based fertilizers? And suggest integrated pest management instead of pesticides.
Make sure that roof runoff is directed onto a grassy area, not a sanitary or storm sewer system.
Suggest porous surfaces for landscaping (such as flagstone, gravel or interlocking pavers), rather than impervious surfaces like concrete.
Consider installing irrigation systems that draw from rainwater or gray water, whenever possible.
Remind your customers that irrigation system management is critical! Systems must be actively and constantly managed in order to be watershed wise.
From there, they move through the wider, slower-moving creeks and floodplains of the Middle Reaches. Then to the lakes, ponds and reservoirs, where sediments and many contaminants can collect.
The next stop is the precious Wetlands, with its large variety of plant and animal life. Finally, the last stop on the watershed tour is the Mighty River, where sediments, debris, or contaminants empty into the receiving waters.
We all affect the watershed, one way or another. Whether our individual influence is positive or negative is up to us.