Help with lawn water conservation

By Gary Deters

As a manager of turfgrass for the last twenty-plus years, paying attention to the weather during the growing season was essential because many decisions I made were dependent on the forecast. Just like my job of managing turfgrass at work, my home lawn decision-making is purposeful as well. There are several reasons for that decision and with my new role as Lawn Water Conservation Educator I am hoping to persuade homeowners with lawns who use irrigation sprinklers to become better stewards of water. 

To have a nice-looking yard is the hope of many. Besides being visually pleasing, there are many benefits a healthy lawn provides such as runoff infiltration, erosion control, and the cooling effect it has during warm weather. My home came with an underground irrigation system, controller, wireless rain sensor (Figure 1) and newly installed sod. I don’t spend a lot of time maintaining my yard since it is very small, about 3,000 square feet, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about my lawn, especially how much water it needs. During the last two summers, areas in Minnesota have had extended periods of drought and for most people, irrigating lawns and landscapes was necessary.

 Irrigation controller and rain sensor.
Figure 1. Irrigation controller and rain sensor. Photo - Gary Deters

With my new irrigation system, I came up with a few approaches to reduce lawn water. This past summer, which had long stretches of no rain and high temperatures, I kept the system in the “off” position and then manually turned it on once I knew the lawn was in need of irrigation. This worked very well for me, even with extended periods of little to no rain. If the lawn was in need of an irrigation cycle and I knew, based on my weather app, there was a good chance of rain in the next day or two, I held off on irrigation until I knew for sure it would not rain in my area. I also hand watered dry spots because many parts of my lawn, including those that are shaded, often do not need irrigation. I use this tactic because the irrigation sprinkler zone which waters the dry spots in the sunny area also waters the shady area. If I turned on the whole zone I would surely be overwatering, which is wasteful environmentally and since I pay for city water, a waste of money, too. I know the steps I take might seem to be a little extreme, but with today’s smart irrigation technology, a person can help with water conservation without taking the extra steps I use. Anyone who installs a wireless soil sensor or incorporates a sensor to prohibit their irrigation system from watering has taken important steps to help conserve water.

 So, who are the homeowners we are trying to persuade? Irrigation operators who don’t turn off their landscape irrigation when it isn’t needed, even after a sufficient rainfall. I have witnessed many occasions where an irrigation system is operating at a home or business after or even during ample rainfall. This usually happens because the user sets up the program at the beginning of the season and then fails to monitor if the rain sensor is working. This situation is 100% avoidable. Irrigation systems can also become inefficient because of broken or leaking sprinkler heads, which will lead to overwatering as well. One of my goals in this role is to help influence as many homeowners as possible to look at what is happening with their irrigation system and to simply shut it off after rainfall or incorporate the new smart irrigation technology. Even without a new controller, a good start for everyone is to begin the season with a check of each sprinkler to make sure it is working properly, that alone can lead to savings. Weather app alerts can inform users about incoming rain possibilities and help remind them to put a hold on their irrigation program. 

I am going to visit areas around the Twin Cities Metro Area this summer and continue to spread the word about saving water through better lawn watering practices. If you want more information about reducing water on your lawn, check out one of these resources: