Corporate Responsibility

It’s not easy being green: A focus on irrigation management

Posted by: Nate Mitten, Ph.D. Nate Mitten, Ph.D.
on September 28, 2015

Water is a timely topic. Supplies of freshwater resources across the U.S. vary, but demand for them is constant and increasing across the nation. The western U.S., in particular, is experiencing extreme long-term drought conditions as depicted by the U.S. Drought Portal. In California, the governor has mandated a series of increasingly aggressive water reductions across both residential and commercial sectors. In response, water districts in California are tightening allowable irrigation practices and cracking down on violations and public awareness has heightened significantly. For these reasons and others, enhancing irrigation management strategies has been a hot topic for shopping center owners this year.

How can owners strategically address the diverse issues related to our irrigation practices? While compliance with local ordinances like those in California is a starting point, going beyond to adopt best practices in efficient water management is an important next step. Balancing water reductions with the health and beauty of landscaping is challenging and necessitates developing tools for property managers to ensure they’re well-equipped to address these challenges effectively.

At Kimco, we’ve been working to develop and implement a set of irrigation best practices. Although this is an ongoing journey, here are some examples of our progress:

Benchmark water consumption and costs. For the past couple of years, we’ve put in place a utility management program that helped to build a foundational set of utility data at each property, allowing for benchmarking of usage and costs related to irrigation at each property. We’ve also recently analyzed historical irrigation data together with property information, including existing irrigation controller type and total landscape area, to identify and evaluate specific retrofit projects. Next year we plan to conduct a series of detailed site surveys to further vet retrofit opportunities.

Encourage active participation from vendors. As part of their daily role, Kimco’s property managers collaborate with local landscape and irrigation contractors. More often than not, our landscaping companies have frontline interaction with our irrigation systems. They are accountable for keeping our plants green but play an important role in water management. This may involve tasks such as fine-tuning irrigation controllers; adjusting the spray pattern of sprinklers; and making system repairs promptly.

As this is a newer role for some landscapers, training and accountability are essential. There are two tools we’ve recently implemented in some areas to assist them – one is a standardized site-inspection form to be completed on a reoccurring basis and another is a monthly report that provides details on the water restrictions of a given property.

Leverage new irrigation technologies. EPA’s WaterSense program is a good source of information on new technologies that can make every drip go further, while some even provide other ancillary benefits. One game-changing technology is evapotranspiration-based (ET) or “weather-based” irrigation controllers, which claim water savings in the range of 30 to 40 percent. With an ET-based system, a web-connected controller downloads daily weather data including rainfall, temperature, and humidity. It’s also programmed with information about each irrigation zone, such as plant type, soil type, and inclination. The system then calculates exactly how much water each zone needs daily to maintain good plant health and runs that zone accordingly within its programmed watering window. These controllers can also monitor water flow and send users email alarms on leaks from broken lines and sprinklers, enabling timely repairs and less wastage. Some options have mobile apps that turn any mobile device into a remote control for the system, which can be helpful for inspection testing of each zone.

Beyond controllers, there are continual advancements in drip irrigation and high-efficiency sprinklers to improve how effectively the water gets to the intended turf or plant material. Some employ lower flow rates and new spray patterns to improve distribution and reduce evaporation.

We have piloted several test sites with ET-based irrigation controllers and plan to expand the usage of this technology and others.

Installation of a smart irrigation controller with flow monitoring at our Mooresville Crossing property in Mooresville, NC

Design landscaping with water in mind. When investing in landscape beautification projects, designers and managers must be particularly mindful of how plant selection can set the stage for reducing irrigation requirements. By planting native and drought-resistant species, watering needs can be reduced or even eliminated. Where possible, alternatives to water-intensive turfgrass can be used, like decorative stone, mulch, shrubs, and groundcovers. Plant types with similar watering needs can be grouped together to help ensure that a single plant type doesn’t drive excess water use for the entire zone. Local nurseries and state university extension offices can be good sources of information on good design and plant selection. Lastly, in some cases, alternative water sources can replace potable sources to feed irrigation systems such as recycled greywater or storm water retention ponds.

As we enhance our property landscapes through our beautification efforts, Kimco is looking at these design facets of irrigation management more than ever before especially in drought-stricken regions.

Thanks for letting us share a little about the efforts we’ve been undertaking to understand and address the important issue of irrigation management. We’ll keep you posted on our progress as we analyze property and utility data to uncover opportunities, build participation with our vendors, and leverage new technologies.

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