A High-tech Approach to Water Conservation

Earth and Water

This June a change took place on the University of Utah campus. This change, though imperceptible to most, touches nearly every corner of the approximately 700 acres of landscaped campus space. With 200 controllers and ten dedicated staff, the university has a high-tech weather based irrigation system known as Rain Bird’s Maxicom Central Control.

And who is the individual overseeing Central Control? Irrigation Technology Specialist, Russ Jacobsen, who brings over 30 years of experience to the U. Well versed in landscape construction and maintenance, irrigation design and system management, he began this work watering plants for a nursery here in Utah. Though his primary responsibilities now take place in front of a computer, his early work experience helped him develop on-the-ground knowledge of plants and how they react and thrive in this environment. Sue Pope, Grounds Supervisor, is happy to have Russ on board. “We are very lucky to have Russ here because he is the best in the state”. She continued, “We didn’t have someone who could run this system to the fullest. We are fortunate to have his knowledge and skills to take us to the next level”.

Taking campus irrigation to the next level could mean big savings for the U. Savings with the weather based system are twofold. First, the electronic system reduces labor costs. In a downpour, the irrigation system can be remotely turned off once the weather station is engaged and connected to the system, avoiding the frustrating experience of seeing sprinklers doing their work in the rain. The irrigation system is also able to sense problems in the system without having to send individuals down to seek out a leak. Second, the system provides a balance between savings in water use reduction while keeping plants healthy. The irrigation system is a part of a larger effort on campus to increase drought resistant planting practices which also serve to reduce the consumption of a precious resource.

A weather based irrigation system is able to track moisture lost or used on a daily basis. Evapotranspiration, or ET, is a landscape term used to describe moisture lost from evaporation in the soil combined with moisture lost through transpiration from the plant’s leaf surface. The irrigation system collects data from an on campus weather station. Solar radiation, wind speed, temperature, humidity, and precipitation are run through an algorithm to determine how much water is lost in the soil. The weather based irrigation system then responds by applying the appropriate amount of water to keep plants happy and healthy without over watering. Compressing and managing watering patterns on campus can mean faster mowing and longer hours of use availability on fields for campus recreation purposes.

The system is still in the activation process. Russ came on board just this summer but by June of 2013 there will be a year’s worth of data allowing the Landscape Maintenance Department to track the overall campus wide water reductions and savings.

With record breaking temperatures this summer and limited rainfall, it’s a great time for the U to refine and reduce water consumption on campus. Technological advances and skilled employees are making a big impact in managing the amount of water used by the University of Utah.

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Shireen Ghorbani