Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014: A Year In Review

On the occasion of the final week of 2014, it’s only fitting that we should take a look back at the past year’s work. Here then is a reflection on some of the more notable events and how they may or may not portend things to come – entirely from my perspective.
A blog is born
The year began auspiciously enough with the initiation of this irriGator blog. On orders of "do the same thing you’ve been doing, but differently," I packed up my wares from my previous writing home in the interweb’s lost recesses and set about writing/editing here. 
Design notwithstanding, this blog has developed considerably this year. We featured one notable guest author (fresh from a national victory) and slowly began integrating entries summarizing recently published research pertaining to irrigation and water conservation (the latter's popularity exemplifying the utility of the blog format). Expect more of this in 2015 as we feature more guest authors, more research, and the thrilling conclusion of the soil moisture sensor “water-saving” saga.
The Unit turns 1
One notable event in 2014 was the Landscape Unit research site celebrating one year in operation. We marked the occasion over the summer by adding a final flourish to the site: warm-season turfgrass. 

St. Augustine, centipede, zoysia and bahia were added – the latter species as demonstration, and St. Augustine as a critical part of the research plots comparing Florida-Friendly (FFL) and traditional landscape designs.
Click here to view some of my field images…and see ongoing Landscape Unit research data.
While one project was just getting started, another study we endearingly referred to as the “strawberry project” came to a close following three years of winter plantings and frost protection irrigation work. 
The wet, wild winter that spanned Jan./Feb. made for some sloppy harvest days and constant battles with fungus and pests. Nevertheless, the research did generate some insight as to how lowering spray head pressures can reduce water-use without affecting fruit yield.
Roll camera
In addition to the blog, the irriGator project’s video arm also picked up steam in 2014. We produced 13 videos on water-use topics as wide-ranging as soil-water retention curves, methods for using ET in Ag irrigation and, as a matter of fact, why do we even irrigate?
The latter production coincided with this year’s Water Institute Symposium at UF and provided a perfect opportunity to approach disparate experts and capture their insight into why we irrigate. 
What motivates irrigation according to author/journalist Cynthia Barnett? Watch the video and find out! 
One video, about the parts that comprise a typical residential irrigation system, stood out from all the others this year when it was selected by water blogger Alan Harris for his annual Labor Day Tribute to water management workers nationwide.
Meanwhile, in Miami…
In addition to my irriGator hat, I also continue producing visual media for Miami-Dade’s Urban Conservation Unit (UCU). 2014 started off with a bang for us with a video about industry certification that was shared by peers from coast-to-coast. Why certification? When you evaluate irrigation systems (and new system installs) daily, you gain an appreciation for craftsmanship. Industry certification helps set a standard in quality while also bringing the lazy and/or ill-equipped in our industry into stark relief.  
Some intriguing video topics fell into our lap this year. Our tree-planting allies at Citizens for a Better South Florida began work on a project to revive a 20s era underground cistern on their property and we were happy to chronicle this effort over two chapters (1 and 2). In 2015 we hope to capture the culmination of lots of work when the cistern goes online to help water their demonstration FFL garden.
And on other occasions we used context to our advantage. Such was the case in April when all of Miami celebrates National Poetry Month and we gathered some area friends and put image to verse to join the festivities.

Considering all our shorts and micro-shorts, we produced 15 videos this year. In the final weeks of December, we began photography on two new productions. 2015 here we come!

#futurevideo: a community garden in Florida City, FL.
To tweet, perchance to dream
I also had the opportunity to attend the irrigation industry’s biggest conferences this fall: WaterSmart Innovations and the Irrigation Show and Education Conference. These conferences provide great opportunities to revisit with colleagues, stay updated on new developments in research and technology and tweet up a storm. And tweet I did.
Notable moment: Dr. Michael Dukes accepts the Irrigation Foundation's Excellence in Education Award in Phoenix, AZ.

In fact, this year my social media experience opened several new doors. I was invited by the Graduate Student Professional Development Committee in our department (Ag and Bio Engineering) to present on the effective use of social media. And as fall semester came to a close the committee invited me back to organize a workshop on video editing.
Always add a QR code for good measure
Both of these topics are increasingly relevant in our mobile, social world where one's professional presence and accessibility needs to extend from the physical to the digital. UF/IFAS is certainly embracing this reality. One 2015 event we're already planning for is an in-service training for Extension Agents exploring both social media and mobile apps and how facility with these tools can complement a program’s outreach and public profile.
2015? Let's get it
At the same time we continue using every venue and opportunity within our reach to get the message out about water-use efficiency and conservation. To that end, look for the UCU next month on national twitter discussion #landscapechat

We’ve been invited to highlight all the good work Miami-Dade and UF/IFAS are doing to help everyone save water and make informed decisions when managing their landscape.

About the author: 
Michael Gutierrez is a water resources 
technician with UF/IFAS in the Ag & Bio 
Engineering Dept. He tweets, blogs and 
also shoots still and video media in South 
Florida, Gainesville and anywhere else a 
camera is handy. (image: Michael Dukes)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Extension Programs in a Mobile and Social World

In January, the Orange County Extension Office will host “Water Conservation On-the-Go,” an in-service training (IST) for UF/IFAS Extension Agents. Attendees will learn to use mobile apps for irrigation and then get familiar with how social media can enhance Extension program outreach.

Get in on the action! Courtesy: Media Bistro

The interweb never sleeps
As an Extension Agent, what’s the advantage of putting yourself or your program on social media? Well, your client-base, peers, academic institution, and industry partners are all on social media. So why not you and your expert insight?

Who remembers #IFASDay 2013? 

A digital presence can only enhance your program's accessibility and profile, as well as that of any promotional or educational content you generate. Even if you find your clients are mostly face-to-face or phone people, a well-managed social media presence makes you and your program available to the wider world 24/7, 365, with minimal demand on your time. This IST will train on the Twitter platform and set-up accounts for attendees.

There’s an app for that
With the prevalence of smart phones, tablets and phablets, most everyone is obtaining their information immediately, wirelessly and via touchscreen. UF/IFAS is meeting this trend head-on with a bevy of mobile apps on a variety of research topics.

Get to know a host of UF/IFAS mobile apps

Mobile apps combine the latest technology with years of research and data to engage new and existing audiences in an accessible way. This IST will introduce and train on a gardening app, a weather app for use in agriculture and a smart irrigation app for turf.

You are invited
The “Water Conservation On-the-Go” in-service training takes place: 
Twitter accounts will be set-up for interested attendees, so bring your favorite head shots or program/field images on a USB drive for use in account design. 
 For additional information contact: Jennifer Pelham or Kati Migliaccio.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Make it work: Methodologies for successfully implementing smart irrigation controllers

Encouraging the use of smart technologies for residential landscapes has become a popular trend in water conservation and rebate programs by water utilities and agencies looking for ways to decrease waste due to inefficient irrigation.  Generally, these technologies can be separated into two categories (Figure 1):
  •  evapotranspiration-based irrigation controllers (ET) The ET controller uses weather data, inputs chosen by the user based on landscape characteristics, and proprietary algorithms to determine when to irrigate and how much to apply. 
  • soil moisture sensors (SMS). The SMS measures the amount of moisture in the soil and skips irrigation if the soil is too wet.  

Figure 1. Examples of ET controllers and SMS systems (clockwise from top left): Rain Bird ESP-SMT, Weathermatic SL1600, Rain Bird SMRT-Y, Toro Precision Wireless, Toro Intelli-Sense, and Baseline WaterTec S100.
If at once you don’t succeed
A recent ET controller study was planned and implemented in Hillsborough County, FL.  A community-wide analysis of water billing data was completed for the county and the three communities that showed the highest estimated irrigation were Apollo Beach, Riverview, and Valrico.  A total of 36 volunteers were selected across the three communities with 21 of them receiving Toro Intelli-sense ET controllers.  All ET controllers were programmed with UF/IFAS-recommended program settings (ET+Edu).  The remaining volunteers were monitored, but did not receive an ET controller (comparison).

Unfortunately, results were not as positive as anticipated.  Though the ET controllers decreased irrigation application by 23% to 41%, irrigation increased by 14% for homes in Valrico and 54% for homes in Riverview when compared to the respective volunteers without technologies. Irrigation was high within these two communities, but the volunteers were not necessarily over-irrigators.  It was clear that there must be a better way to identify the utility customers that would benefit from smart technologies. 

More technology, bigger canvas
A new study was planned for Orange County, FL, that would evaluate the water conservation potential of both types of smart technologies when installed on homes with excessive irrigation habits.  Instead of focusing on communities, all customers in the Orange County Utilities service area were evaluated individually for trends in over-irrigation.  The UF/IFAS recommendation for irrigation is based on a soil water balance approach where the change in soil moisture depends on evaporation, transpiration, rainfall, and irrigation (Figure 2).  

Figure 2. The soil water balance is used to estimate the amount of irrigation needed to account for evaporation and transpiration losses when rainfall is not sufficient.
Landscape Irrigation Ratios (LIR) were calculated for every month over a five year span for each utility customer.  The LIR is a ratio of measured irrigation to UF/IFAS recommendations for the same month.  An LIR greater than 1 indicates over-irrigation whereas an LIR less than 1 indicates conservative irrigation practices.  Customers were considered for the study when a minimum of three months in three consecutive years had ratios greater than 1.5.  Out of 140,000 accounts analyzed, there were only 7,408 accounts that exhibited this behavior and out of these accounts, there were 843 volunteers willing to learn more about the study. 

After a detailed evaluation of many of the volunteering homes, the study included 139 participants located in seven communities across the county.  There were 28 that did not receive a technology (comparison), 55 that received a Rain Bird ESP-SMT (ET), and 56 that received a Baseline WaterTec S100 (SMS).  There were 28 homes of each technology that received additional educational opportunities and UF/IFAS recommended program settings (+Edu). 

Figure 3. Average landscape irrigation ratios from before the Orange County smart controller study began.  Irrigation trends were high with 6-8.3 times the recommendation.
The average historical LIRs (five years of monthly irrigation application to monthly UF/IFAS recommended irrigation) for Orange County study subjects ranged from 6.0 to 8.3, meaning that these volunteers were applying 6 to 8.3 times the amount of irrigation needed (Figure 3).  When considering historical LIRs in the aforementioned Hillsborough County study, they ranged from 1.5 to 2.4 indicating that they were also over-irrigating but were already much more conservative than the Orange County participants (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Average landscape irrigation ratios from before the Hillsborough County ET controller study began.  These volunteers had some over-irrigation, but did not exhibit signs of excessive water use.
Diving into the numbers
Irrigation by the comparisons in Orange County decreased from historical trends (6.9 before the study, 4.3 during the study).  Though the real reason is unknown, possibilities for the behavior adjustment include highly publicized droughts encouraging water conservation, awareness of being monitored for the study, or even repairing leaks discovered during their initial system evaluation.  Implementing the technologies had a larger effect, reducing the LIRs to 2-3.3 (Figure 5).  The additional education and programming was important for the SMS, reducing the ratio significantly from 2.9 (SMS) to 2.0 (SMS+Edu).  However, all of these treatments are still well above a value of 1, which is the goal, so more savings are possible.

Figure 5. Average landscape irrigation ratios that occurred during the smart controller study in Orange County.  The technologies were effective at reducing water use, but there’s room for improvement.
The takeaway
Smart technologies should be focused on homes that exhibit habitual excessive irrigation.  In situations where marginal water savings are possible, such as in the Hillsborough County ET controller study, a soil moisture sensor with UF/IFAS recommended installation and programming is recommended.  These sensors can be used in situations of deficit irrigation schedules whereas ET controllers can increase water use to maintain a well-watered landscape.  Both technologies were effective when used in the right situations.

Thanks to Hillsborough County Water Resource Services, Tampa Bay Water, Orange County Utilities, Water Research Foundation, St. Johns River Water Management District, and South Florida Water Management District for providing the support to complete these projects.  These studies were co-authored by Michael D. Dukes.

About the author:
Stacia L. Davis, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of irrigation engineering with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center located at the Red River Research Station, Bossier City, LA.  She studied the water conservation potential of smart technologies at the University of Florida prior to moving to Louisiana.