Wednesday, August 26, 2015

From Data to Action: Orange County and Smart Irrigation Technology

Following a little over three years of quiet research, the UF-managed smart irrigation study based in Orange County recently enjoyed some time in the spotlight. In July, Orange County Utilities (OCU), confident in the water saving data documented during the project’s lifespan, revealed the next steps for promoting water efficient technology to Central Florida.

Textbook installation of a stand-alone weather-based irrigation controller
A Study Intro
The smart irrigation technology study in Orange County is assessing the water saving potential of two devices in real-world locations:

a) weather-based (ET) irrigation controllers
b) soil moisture sensors (SMS)

167 homes around the county participate in the research - outfitted with one of these devices and a data-logging water meter. Treatments vary by soil type (flatwood or sand) and whether or not UF personnel engaged the study participant with educational material for using the device properly. A group of homes with time-based irrigation systems scattered among all the research areas is used as a control.

Figure 1: water use among treatments and different soil types (courtesy OCU)
The Good News
The study numbers are in (Figure 1) and the water savings are clear, with flatwood soil homes showing less irrigation than sandy homes, and participants that engaged UF personnel showing better savings all around. Michael Dukes, lead researcher and professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, said: “The original objectives were to determine if smart controllers in Orange County could save water. We have shown that they do. Also, most of the customers with this technology indicate they are satisfied or very satisfied with it.”

Textbook soil moisture sensor installation
Is there a difference between the savings achieved by the soil sensor and the weather-based timer? According to researcher/graduate student Eliza Breder the smart irrigation technologies that have site specific programming result in greater water savings. “The soil moisture sensors with site specific programming, on average, across all locations, are shown to apply the least amount of irrigation over the three year study when compared to all other treatments,” Ms. Breder said.

The Future
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Orange County Utilities is working with the St. Johns River Water Management District to establish a water restriction variance for homeowners installing smart irrigation devices. What will this mean? If you have a weather-based timer or soil moisture sensor scheduling your irrigation for you, one or two day a week restrictions no longer apply.
A smart irrigation technology workshop slated for September
What else is in the works? Mr. Dukes would like to see these water efficient devices integrated into housing developments from inception.

“Our monitoring data show average savings 12-45% using these devices for customers that have been verified as having potential savings,” said Mr. Dukes. “We’d like to investigate whether these devices have water savings on a wide scale, say development wide. We are in discussions currently to gauge builder interest in using these technologies widely.”

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