Sprinkler Smarts

Challenger Park in Parker, Colo.

By Elisa Kronish

hen water bills at Challenger Park in Parker, Colo., were ringing in at $40,000 a month, it was clear that something had to change. "My boss about fell out of his chair," recalled Parks Supervisor Chuck Klafka.

Part of the problem was that the municipality had designated Challenger as a residential site, rather than commercial. But there was no budging on the issue. So Klafka had to come up with another solution.

The natural-turf soccer field at Challenger Park measures just over 6 acres, one of the larger fields among the four major regional parks that make up Colorado's Douglas County Parks system. Naturally, the field drinks up a lot of water, so Klafka decided to focus on how he could control its water consumption.

Because his area of Colorado has been on water restrictions for more than 20 years—as long as Klafka has been with the County Parks—he and his staff attend seminars every year to find out what the latest gadgets and goods are that will help them achieve their watering goals. Various products are always touted for their various virtues, and for Challenger Park, Klafka was open to anything. "I'll entertain anyone to show me what they've got, and if they can prove to me that it's going to work better than what I've got, then that's great," he said.

With the Challenger situation, he was almost convinced that the best option would be to turn the field into a synthetic surface, but he saw a demonstration of how a WeatherTRAK system could help him both keep his grass and cut costs, he was sold. Klafka had the system installed in late 2005 and said the results were amazing.

"Now we're down to a manageable $15,000 or so a month," Klafka said. "I contribute much of that to that WeatherTRAK clock." Plus, it saved millions of gallons of water that didn't end up as run-off. "You've got to be a good steward of water," Klafka added.

The technology for smart irrigation controllers (also referred to as weather-based controllers) is about 10 years old, explained WeatherTRAK Director of Conservation Tom Ash. What's new is a national performance test that the products go through instigated in 2004 called the Smart Water Application Technology test (SWAT)—"like a how-many-miles-do-I-get-per-gallon type of thing," Ash said.

Plus, the level of perfection that these systems can now achieve has been greatly enhanced. With a traditional controller, a member of the parks staff needs to input the days, the cycle and the soak of the water, but with a smart controller, changes to the schedule are made automatically and include not only the minutes and days of watering, but also the soil type, the plant type, root depth, whether there's sun or shade, the sprinkler type, the slope of the site and more. "Those are the variables that go into an equation that determines how much water a landscape needs," Ash explained. A traditional controller typically only changes the minutes of watering time; it doesn't change things like the watering cycles or the soaking of the soil.

"Every landscape is typically over-watered because it's easier to do than under-water," Ash said. In fact, roots of playing fields need time to dry out to some extent to enable air to get into the soil and allow the roots to flourish. Of course, allowing a field to dry out too much isn't optimal, either.

"The turf can't be healthy with an over-watering or under-watering," Ash said. But it happens, because the alternative with a traditional controller is a lot of time spent manually adjusting clocks, turning them off when it rains and simply correcting human errors. With a smart system, these issues are practically eliminated. Plus, with wireless communication, adjustments can be made right from your desk. Klafka hasn't set up that element of the software yet, but said he plans to.

"Once you get that clock set up, you just walk away," Klafka explained. Whereas his other irrigation clocks need to be checked and "fiddled with" twice a week or so, the WeatherTRAK clock hasn't needed more than a couple of tweaks since it was installed. "It'll probably take three to four hours to program it to make it perfect, but once you do, you're done," he said.

Another benefit of optimum watering is the aesthetics and safety of the field. "That is one of the big things that I and even the irrigation techs that work with me noticed," Klafka remarked. Before the smart irrigation controller was installed, Klafka always had greener areas here and there, and less green areas in other spots. "Now, it's been plush," he said.

"The plant health is really something to play up," Ash noted. "Every park wants to look good and be playable."

Klafka hopes to add more smart controllers to take over the work that his now 30-plus clocks do throughout the county parks, but knows it's a huge financial undertaking—which includes a monthly subscription fee for the weather data and on-call field support—that will have to happen in stages. In the meantime, he said, his Challenger Park system is "worth its weight in gold because I don't have to mess with it."


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