Tim Malooly, president of Water in Motion, was recently asked to give advice to homeowner association (HOA) members and community managers about how they can save water – and money – by adopting specific landscape maintenance practices.
There are many approaches to caring for a homeowner association (HOA) community outdoor environment that will lead to better looking lawns and planted areas – and save money. Some are no-brainers, and some may take getting used to, as they represent a change from what residents are used to. I’ll present them here for your consideration.
Irrigation Practices That Save Money
Communities sprinkle thousands of dollars-worth of water onto their outdoor environments every year. This is an easy place to identify ways to save money.
Have Your Irrigation System Checked
If the system isn’t in good working order, fixing it is the quickest way to save water. We recommend working with a third party certified landscape irrigation auditor. In some cases, watershed district funding may be available to help defray the cost of an audit. Check with your local watershed district for more information.
The irrigation professional can help you save water by:
- Performing a visual audit, noting deficiencies and giving you a repair plan
- Performing maintenance on misdirected, broken or leaking sprinklers
- Adjusting the schedule to suit the microclimate of each zone (for example, a shady area between buildings will need less water)
Get on a Maintenance Program
There are three types of maintenance programs.
1) None. Startup and shutdown only.
2) Break-Fix. Perform maintenance only when something is broken.
3) Proactive. Conduct periodic walkthroughs and make adjustments.
The last one, proactively maintaining your system, is the most expensive annually, but by far the least expensive over the life of your assets. These assets include the irrigation system, water, the landscape itself and your property value. With proactive maintenance, the amount of water and money saved is significant.
Refine Your Water Delivery
To ensure you are delivering the right amount of water to your landscape, you need to adjust your irrigation systems for changing weather conditions. It’s not enough to do this once at the start of the season (set it and forget it). We experience significant changes to rainfall, even in the heat of summer, and the irrigation schedule needs to be adjusted accordingly. At a minimum, a qualified irrigation professional needs to adjust irrigation schedules during periodic visits during the season.
Technologies can be applied to further refine water delivery.
- Rain sensing technology (required in Minnesota since 2003) will automatically interrupt the irrigation schedule during periods of rain.
- SMART irrigation controllers contain technology to adjust schedules daily based on changing weather and other available inputs.
- Soil moisture sensors communicate with your SMART controller and provide daily data on both soil and root moisture to properly manage watering activity.
A commonly sized HOA can use upwards of 40,000 gallons for irrigation in one evening. If the system isn’t properly maintained, it’s likely running in “set and forget” mode, wasting at least 40% of the water flowing through the pipes. Using a cost of $276 per thousand gallons (the actual fee in Chanhassen, MN), that’s $9,200 wasted over a year, and that doesn’t include extra fertilizer and mowing requirements that result from over-watering.
Your watershed district may offer financial incentives to install technology like a SMART controller that is EPA WaterSense® certified.
Narrow Your Timeframe for Watering
Your residents may question this, but it really isn’t necessary to start watering in May and go all the way through frost. Your landscape typically doesn’t need it. If you withhold irrigation until June and stop watering in mid-September, you’ll save thousands of gallons of water and the associated dollars. It will strengthen your landscape, especially in the fall when the earth is naturally putting itself to bed.
Other Smart Landscape Stewardship Practices That Save Money
In the heat of summer (end of June through end of August), ask your grounds crew to mow as high as the members of your community will tolerate, up to four inches if possible. This will result in healthier turf, both short term and in the long run. The stronger a blade of grass is above the surface, the stronger its root system becomes. This makes your grass more robust and drought tolerant. It requires less water and less frequent fertilization, reducing your resource costs. It also means the crew mows less frequently, reducing your labor costs.
Select the Best Plant Species
Whether we’re talking turf, shrubs, trees or ornamental plantings, plant material selection can dramatically reduce the need for – and cost of – watering. Plants native to this region are naturally resilient. They have survived in our climate without special care for thousands of years. Providing the right amount of irrigation and nutrients helps establish them and can make them grow better.
Native plants are hardy. Once they’re established, they typically don’t require fertilizer or irrigation. Native plants provide food and habitat for animals and pollinators. They’re easier to care for, because most native species are perennial and maintain themselves by reseeding on the same site. Some non-native species can also do well in this region if properly selected and planted for soil type, amount of water, sunlight and so forth. You may wish to get the help of a certified horticulturalist to determine the most successful and attractive palette for your property, based on your goals.
Replace High Maintenance Turf
When it comes to turf grass, the choice here is between non-native species. Fine fescue is a better option than Kentucky bluegrass, but all turf requires heavy maintenance: watering, mowing, fertilization, periodic repair. The average annual cost to maintain cool season turf averages $.25 per square foot, not counting irrigation. On 10,000 square feet of lawn, that equates to $2,500 a year. If you replace some of that turf with lower maintenance plantings, you’ll come out ahead year after year.
You may be able to do this in many areas of your property. Consider replacing sections of cool season turf with a lower maintenance area of wildflowers, prairie grass, ornamental grasses or woody plants. Your upfront investment in these plants is offset by year-over-year reductions in maintenance. You don’t have to do this throughout your entire property to realize benefits. Every square foot provides long term savings.
This practice takes a long-range view. An investment in trees boosts property value by up to 15%* and delivers many additional benefits to communities.
- They provide shade
- They absorb rain and stormwater
- They can help cool buildings and provide a wind screen
- They require little maintenance
- They displace turf that is high maintenance
- They provide habitat for birds
- They are attractive and provide varied interest in all seasons
The good news is, you don’t have to go “all in” with these stewardship approaches to reap rewards. Any of these practices could be implemented as a pilot project on a portion of your property to test resident reactions and start a dialog. We’ve served up a big platter of options. We hope you find some to your – and your budget’s — liking.
Tim Malooly is President of three green industry companies: Water in Motion, Irrigation by Design, and Dulcet Fountains and Aeration.
* “Good tree cover” or “well-spaced” mature trees (trees planted or preserved for aesthetics, shade, energy conservation, and screening purposes) can increase the value of a developed property by 6 percent to 15 percent, or add 20 percent to 30 percent to the value of an undeveloped property (Source: Minnesota Society of Arboriculture, 1996).