Bathroom faucets, showerheads, residential toilets, flushing urinals, and irrigation systems: one of these things is not like the others. Only irrigation systems are optional equipment used outside the bathroom, but they recently joined the list of products eligible for the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense label, which is awarded to water-efficient technology that’s sound, frugal, and innovative.
And while watering the lawn might seem more avoidable than flushing the toilet, landscape irrigation uses the better part of 7 billion gallons of water every day and can add up to well over half of a household’s total water use. In the same way that smart grid technologies can help consumers cut energy use, smart irrigation systems can help consumers manage water use. Like smart grid technology, the leading smart irrigation systems depend on collecting and monitoring huge amounts of data. And in the best case scenarios, they can cut a household’s or a business’ outdoor water use in half.
Smart irrigation systems start from the premise that most people aren’t paying close attention to their water use. Homeowners set a timer on their sprinkler system and forget about it, leaving it to run during a downpour or afterward, when the soil is saturated. Smart irrigation systems pay much closer attention to the weather and adjust their behavior—one type measured how dry a patch of a soil was and watered accordingly. But studies have shown that those systems are less effective than ones that base watering schedules on huge amounts of processed weather data.
HydroPoint, a California-based company that has been a leader in developing this second type of irrigation system, was named to the Cleantech Group’s annual list of 100 top clean tech innovators this year. The company downloads massive quantities of data from weather satellites run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, then translates it all into numbers relevant to kilometer-square patches of land. Its WeatherTRAK system knows, more or less, the condition of a family’s front yard or a business’ campus grounds. Customers can also input the types of plants and soil they’re working with for even more specific watering plans.
Using a smart irrigation system doesn’t guarantee water savings. If a piece of land has been underwatered, for instance, a smart system can increase water use. And using water more responsibly doesn’t address the fundamental disconnect of water use in America: People are still trying to grow grass lawns and green golf courses where they’ve no right to be.
There’s a growing interest in net-zero landscaping—creating outdoor spaces that thrive on a supply of rainwater and graywater from household appliances. The winning entry in this year’s Solar Decathlon, for instance, paid particular attention to the house’s water use. Smart irrigation systems can support this type of sustainable landscaping: When there’s less water to work with, it’s all the more important to use it wisely.