Utility helping make smart irrigation affordable

System: Smart systems pay for themselves, conserve water

by Frank DeLoache

Whenever Alan Hales a homeowner an estimate for a new irrigation system, he always the bid for the regular system and a second bid for the same system with “smart-irrigation controllers.”
Those controllers consist of a computer programmed with information about that homeowner’s yard, which is connected to sensors that tell the computer about the weather at that house, 24-7, 365 days a year. The “smart system,” studies have shown, reduces the water going on lawns and saves homeowners money on their bill.
But right now, Hales, a licensed contractor for LandCare Innovations, guesses only one out of 10 customers buys the smart-irrigation system because it costs an average of $500 more.
Officials with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities are determined to change that because helping homeowners use less water also reduces the amount of water the utility has to produce, conserving a resource that has limitations.
The utility is giving residential customers a substantial financial incentive to install and use the smart-irrigation controllers.
Customers who install a separate irrigation meter, backflow device and smart controller will have all irrigation use charged at the tier 3 rate beginning July 1, 2012. Currently, those with irrigation meters are charged at tier 3 and 4 rates – $3.41 for 1 to 16 ccf (or 100 cubic feet of water­) and $5.32 for 17 ccf or higher.
To help offset the costs of installing a separate irrigation meter, the utility will waive the $433 capacity fee for the installation of a single-service residential irrigation meter, and a homeowner can spread payment of the connection fee for single service or a dedicated service line across 12 months.
“Smart controllers differ from traditional controllers because they automatically shut off when it is raining, apply water based on weather conditions and do not require seasonal adjustments,” Maeneen Klein, performance manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, said in a news release. “These controllers are ‘smart’ because they take the guesswork out of when to water. The plant material and weather conditions dictate the watering needs and adjust the watering cycle accordingly.”
The utility has about 7,000 irrigation meters in its system, but state law requires most customers of a public utility, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, to install a separate meter for an irrigation system. The law requires all new in-ground irrigation systems on land plotted after July 1, 2009, and connected to public water systems to have a separate meter.
Plus, the smart-irrigation system just makes financial sense, according to Blue Teeter, a licensed contractor who represents Ewing Irrigation Systems in Charlotte. Teeter installed a system at his home and said most homeowners can expect to recoup the extra they spent on the smart system in two to three watering seasons.
The systems are so efficient because the computer controls watering using the characteristics of different parts of a yard with real-time weather data occurring at that house. That’s important, he said, because of the flukiness of Southern weather, when one street can get a summer downpour but not the homes one street away.
Most yards have five to eight zones, Teeter explained, and a licensed contractor will feed in variables for each zone: Full sun or shade? Flat or incline so that water runs off? Watering grass or plants? What type of grass? What type of soil? What type of sprinkler?
With that amount of data and the current temperature and rainfall, a smart system might not water a lawn for days. Or it might water the full-sun zone but not the rest of the yard.
One important point that utility officials, Hales and Teeter emphasize: Homeowners should make sure they are dealing with a licensed contractor. Any licensed contractor must register through the N.C. Irrigation Contractors’ Licensing Board. Those licenses are available online at www.nciclb.org.
Find more about the irrigation incentives at the utility’s website, www.cmutilities.com, or call CharMeck 311.
“The upfront cost have been the barrier to overcome,” Hales said. “But the utility’s incentive should make a big difference. The smart system will help everybody. The utility saves water. Licensed contractors get more work, create jobs. And homeowners use less water and save money” – and still get a green lawn.

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