New efficiency efforts by Albany County School District No. 1 could save more than 30 million gallons of water during the next 10 years, which would translate into almost $200,000 not spent watering grass.
At three sites, the district installed specialized controllers earlier this year that use weather data to decide how much to water and when. The sites — Laramie Middle School, Rock River School and Laramie Athletic Field — also have new flow monitors that can automatically shut off water to zones with unusual flow rates, which might indicate a break or leak.
“It’s not only just the right thing to do from a sustainability standpoint, but we’re also saving tax money,” said Daniel Minton, the district’s landscape manager.
Minton and irrigation manager Chris Rank started researching the possibility of improving the irrigation systems across the district after the opening of the new Laramie High School last fall. The campus is so big that a person can’t stand at the control point and see what’s happening where the watering is taking place. Minton remembers thinking it would be nice to have a system that could be controlled remotely, which would save manpower.
“In some of our big properties, you don’t always have a line of sight from your controller to where your issue is,” he said.
As they learned more about the latest technology, they discovered a company called HydroPoint, which offers a product called WeatherTRAK.
The heart of the system is a controller that’s connected to a cellular network. It pulls data from three nearby weather stations to calculate evapotranspiration, which is how much water evaporates into the atmosphere from the soil and vegetation.
Evapotranspiration is highly variable from day to day, depending on factors such as temperature, sun intensity, humidity and wind speed. Traditional watering systems aren’t adjusted frequently to account for such variability.
“If you see your grass is dry you may add some time, or if it rains maybe you’ll take the time to go out and back it off a little, but most of the time people set it and forget about them,” Minton said.
“You’re not really watering based on what the ground needs.”
The controller accounts for those factors, as well as rainfall, to make adjustments.
“It’s incredibly customized day by day,” Minton said.
The irrigation controller can also be customized to water different zones based on the type of soil or the slope.
For example, a hillside on the practice field north of the old football stadium has a line of sprinklers at the top and the bottom. An efficient watering method accounts for the slope by watering that zone for several short intervals, instead of one longer interval, allowing water to soak in without running off.
The system can be controlled remotely from a phone or tablet, which allows for easier troubleshooting and last-minute adjustments.
The system also includes a flow meter where the waterline enters the property. The meter tracks how much water is flowing through the system and looks out for zones with unusual activity. If a mower runs over a sprinkler head, it might take time for the leak to be noticed if the watering takes place at night.
“It’ll shut that zone off and send an email alert to me,” Minton said.
Minton gathered past usage information from the city to use as a baseline for tracking changes. At Laramie Middle School, the system cost $15,700 to install. The district used 6.2 million gallons of water on irrigation in 2016, compared to 4.9 million gallons this year — a 21 percent decrease.
At the Laramie Athletic Field, the district spent $6,900 on upgrades and used 2.3 million gallons this year compared to 2.7 million gallons a year ago. That’s a 15 percent decrease.
At Rock River, the system cost $7,100. The district used 1.2 million gallons this year, compared to 3.4 million gallons in 2016, for a 64 percent decrease.
That’s a total of about 4 million gallons in one season at three sites. The systems will pay for themselves quickly, Minton said, while also providing continuing efficiency. Throughout 10 years, he estimated the district would save almost 35 million gallons, saving $198,000 in the process. Those calculations don’t include water usage at the new high school because there isn’t any historical usage data.
The cost for installing the systems was supported by Laramie Rivers Conservation District, which provides grants through a cost-share program to support beautification, education and conservation projects. Grants are available to residents, organizations and public entities, said director Tony Hoch. He said the school district’s work to conserve water fits with the conservation district’s aims as well.
“Just by our climate, we’re in a perpetual drought state,” Hoch said. “Anything we can do to get people recalibrating to use less water, we think, is an important part of our mission.”
Minton said he’s hoping to continue installing new controllers at the rest of the schools in the district in the next couple years. Combined, that’s about 42 acres of playing fields and lawns, mostly bluegrass.
“It’s drought-tolerant, but for it to look good, you have to water it,” he said.