Efficient Watering Practices

Programming your irrigation controller for efficient watering

The average household in Colorado uses approximately 150,000 gallons of water per year, of which about 82,500(55%) gallons is used in the landscape. Following a few simple guidelines when programming your irrigation clock can save you, the homeowner, a lot of money and thousands of gallons of water per year. Since every landscape is different, the following are only general guidelines to follow when programming your controller. Remember, the idea is water conservation. Even the smallest amount helps.

There are 3 major components to your landscape that will affect how much water your plants will need.
  1. Soil Type
    • Clay Soils – Clay offers better water retention than sandy soils Need to be watered for shorter periods of time, less often For example, it may be better to water 2 times for 15 minutes/day rather than watering one time for ½ hour all at once.
    • Sandy Soils– Sandy soils don’t retain water as well as clay soils. Need to be watered for longer periods of time more often. Hydrophobic (dry soils) pose different watering problems. The soil is so dry that it actually repels water to an extent. There are specific products/treatments for this type of soil. A good rule of thumb would be to apply water at a slower rate for longer periods of time.
  2. Exposure The geographic area of the plant material in the landscape A plant with southern exposure will deplete its water more rapidly than a plant with northern exposure. Different micro-climates within the landscape can also create different watering needs/schedules for the plant material. Micro-climates are created in landscapes by different exposures to wind, slope and sun. All these factors influence the amount of water individual plants will need.
  3. Plant Type – Different plant types require different watering needs. Some more xeric (native) plants will use less water while non-native plants will require more. More mature landscapes will use more water than newer ones. The larger the canopy, the higher demand for water.

Before You Reprogram Your Irrigation Controller
Make sure your irrigation system is operating properly. Replace broken heads, check for leaks in each of the individual zones and in the mainline and adjust heads to make sure they are not spraying the hardscape (streets, pathways, sidewalks…).
Understand the water needs of the plants in your landscape. Different varieties of plants and grasses require different amounts of water. If unsure of your individual plant needs, ask a professional.

Irrigation Controller Functions
There are many different types of irrigation controllers. Each type offers a variety of functions, some more advanced than others. Educate yourself on the operation and different functions your controller. Some advanced features include:
  1. Rain delay – allows the homeowner to turn off the controller for a specified # of days during rainstorms.
  2. % Water Budget – allows the homeowner to increase/decrease the overall % of a watering schedule based on the time of year. For example, a landscape may need less water in the month of May than it does during the month of July. So the % water budget for the month of May might be 80% while the % for July may be 110%. This also allows the homeowner to adjust the watering times for every zone without adjusting or erasing individual zone run times.
  3. Rain Sensors – some models are equipped, or can be equipped with a rain sensor. The sensor is placed in the landscape and adjusts the irrigation controller according to the amount of rain fall that has been received.
  4. Smart Controllers – automatically adjusts watering times for individual zones based on rainfall, temperature and plant/soil type.
  5. Multiple Programs – allows the homeowner to be flexible to the individual needs of the plants in the landscape.
  6. Watering Day Schedules: Odd/Even Schedule – allows the homeowner to water on only odd or only even days. Interval Watering – Allows the homeowner to pick the number of days in between watering without having to worry about the day of the week. Manual – Make your own schedule for the days of the week you would like to water.

Guidelines for Programming Your Irrigation Controller
  1. Setting the correct date and especially time of day is important. You don’t want to be accidentally watering your lawn during the middle of the day.
  2. Set program start times:
    • Watering during the evening or over night hours is the general rule of thumb. The air temperature is cooler, there is less wind and chance of water evaporation is minimized.
    • The demand for water during these times is typically lower.
    • Stagger start times based on the total run times for each program. For example, if you have Program A, Zone 1 starting at 10:00 pm for ½ hour and Zone 2 for 40 minutes. The next program or start time should not start until 1hr 10 minutes later . It may be easier to set alternating programs for alternating days to avoid conflicts. Most controllers will stack start times but a few will run them at the same time causing a loss of water pressure.
  3. Set station run times:
    • Drip Zones (point source application to trees, shrubs and perennials).
    • Drip zones usually require longer running times than spray zones.
    • Typically drip zones run from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the type of plant material, soil type and exposure.
    • Depending on the type of tree or shrub, different emitters can be used. They usually range from .5 gallons per hour (gph) to 2 gph. For example, a 2 gph emitter is going apply 1 gallon of water to the plant if the zone runs for ½ hour.
    • Typically, ½ gph emitters are used for #1 perennials. A 1 gph emitter would be used on #5 shrubs and 2 gph emitters used for trees. Multiple or combinations of emitters can be used depending on your exact watering needs. Spray Zones (rotor or pop-up spray heads are usually used in lawn or perennial beds)
    • Spray zones usually require shorter running times than drip zones.
    • In general, rotor zones need to run 3 times as long as the pop-up zones.
    • Be sure not to apply too much water during (1) run time. If you see water starting to pool and run off in the landscape, decrease the run time.
    • Cool season grasses vs. warm season grasses. Cool season grasses (Kentucky blue grass, perennial ryes) will require more water. Average amount of water per week is approximately 2.5”. Warm season grasses (buffalo grasses, blue grama) require less water. Average amount of water per peek is approximately 1.75”.
  4. Set days to Water: Choose between an odd/even, manual or interval schedule as explained above.

Winter Watering
During winters with little precipitation, watering your plants may be necessary. This will reduce the amount of stress to the plant material. Be particularly mindful to newly planted material. Plants that have not had full growing seasons in their new homes are typically more susceptible to stress during the dry winter months. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty! Stick a finger or two into the base of a few plants to determine if they are dry or not. If it’s muddy, they probably don’t need to be watered. If it feels dry/dusty, the plants could probably use some water. A slow steady flow from the hose for a few minutes will do wonders for the health of the plants in the Spring.

Other Considerations
  1. Mother Nature – be conscious of the water landscapes receive from rainfall. Turn off your controller before/after a rainstorm to save water and avoid over-watering.
  2. Using 2” – 3” of mulch over weed barrier fabric in the tree and shrub beds will help retain moisture, cutting down on your watering times.
  3. Do monthly inspections on your irrigation system. Check for leaks, broken heads and proper head adjustment. Flag or mark problem areas and if you cannot make the repair yourself, call a professional. Look for areas that seem to be getting too much/too little water. Adjust your controller schedule accordingly.
  4. Be conscious of water restrictions in your area. For specific information, please visit the City of Fort Collins website for up to date information on restrictions in the Fort Collins area.