Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Smart Moves to Save Water in Orange County, Florida

By Michael Dukes

It’s fitting that I compose this post when rain has delayed my afternoon plans to mow and reminded me that I can turn off my irrigation timer until the weather conditions dry out. That said, for most people it isn't convenient to monitor their timer on a daily basis. New irrigation technology affords us the option of automated, weather-based irrigation.

Properly installed weather-based irrigation controller
Real World Testing
For several years now, we’ve been putting these new irrigation controllers to the test in Orange County. Last year we highlighted the progress of the project discussing the success of the technology with irrigation reductions. 

OCU study data manager/masters student Eliza Breder and the Dukes research group
This year we’re marking the publication of the project’s final report via the Water Research FoundationIn a nutshell, using smart irrigation technology we have measured irrigation reductions of 18% to 42% over more than a three year period. 

Soil moisture sensor in use in Orange County research sites
Seal of Approval
Recently the Orange County Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution in support of smart irrigation controllers reducing excessive irrigation (i.e. saving water) based on our study. The Board recognizes that fast growing areas of the county will present a tremendous demand on the water supply infrastructure. 

New developments afoot: water supply must meet new demand 
Incentivizing these technologies is a cost effective way to reduce water demand. Further, the majority of customers using these devices during the study were satisfied or extremely satisfied.

Wither Watering Restrictions?
What does this mean for Orange County residents? In our study, smart controllers reduced irrigation when exempted from standard watering restrictionsBased on this success, plans are in the works to seek an exemption from watering restrictions for irrigation systems using smart irrigation technology. 

Some soil moisture sensor options: the potential for water-savings is boundless
Will these changes result in a full-fledged rebate program to encourage wide adoption of smart irrigation devices? Watch this space and stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hot Days and Dry Nights: A Florida Summer '16 Tale

The City of Clermont, FL, is lovely this time of year. And by lovely I mean oppressively hot and, oddly enough for summer, exceedingly dry. I know because I traveled there recently at the request of UF/IFAS Extension Agent Brooke Moffis. Ms. Moffis required technical assistance with some residential irrigation systems and such matters, as part of the Dukes research group, are my specialty.

green on green on green in Clermont, FL.
Situation: Dying Turf
Residential Horticulture Agent Moffis wears many hats in Lake County. In this instance, she elected to assist a handful of homeowners in a verdant, sprawling Clermont community beset by failing, distressed turfgrass. There are many reasons why turf might fail in the landscape: poor soil, fungus, pests, insufficient irrigation, etc. On that day my task was to assess the latter, while Agent Moffis gathered soil samples to ascertain the status of the former.

A Thing or Two about Residential Irrigation
If you own an automated irrigation system, what is the one thing you should do at least once a month to stay on top of system malfunctions? A wet-check!

What follows is the irrigation assessment procedure I executed in Clermont:
  • Note the irrigation programming (does it make sense/abide by area watering restrictions?)
  • Note the presence and functionality of a rain shut-off device
  • Turn on each zone and walk through looking for breaks, leaks, obstructions, and coverage quality
  • Note plant life and/or sprinkler head type mixing within zones
Proper irrigation scheduling is critical to water-use efficiency and landscape health
Life is full of surprises. And these five systems I evaluated that day had several in store. Namely, someone took the time to design the zones by plant type (turf and ornamentals kept separate) and the mixing of sprinkler types within zones was non-existent! Both of these design factors allow for precise scheduling of irrigation run times and frequency.

Backyard in extreme distress
One Piece of the Puzzle
In Clermont, however, irrigation was only one part of the story. As I mentioned above many variables can lead to dead or unhealthy turfgrass. At some of these locations the culprit was clear: summer. In a typical year, summer in Florida is considered the rainy season. Temperatures peak but rainfall does as well. This has not been the case for summer 2016. 
A glimpse at monthly averages from a weather station in Lake County (courtesy UF/IFAS FAWN)
July was especially cruel in Lake County - temperatures consistently in the 90s with minimal rain in between. Couple this with scant shade and poor irrigation coverage in the landscape and the result is dry, wilting turf. For the locations where insufficient moisture was the driving factor, sizable early August rain events were already having a positive impact.

On the mend: turf hot-spots filling in following consistent rain events
Expanding the Agent Toolkit
In addition to a newfound appreciation for residential irrigation in Clermont, that day I also discovered that there is eagerness among Extension Agents for basic irrigation system auditing skills. Agent Moffit expressed interest and I am pleased to report that there are plans in motion to develop such trainings.

UF/IFAS Miami-Dade's Morgan Hopkins in action 
“The idea is to create an irrigation assessment toolbox so that when an agent steps on a property they can identify major issues like poor coverage, timer scheduling or no rain sensor shut-off,” said Miami-Dade FYN Agent Morgan Hopkins (part of a group developing an irrigation In-Service Training (IST)). “They should have the resources and correct information with which to assess an irrigation system.”    

Serving the public: UF/IFAS Extension Agent Brooke Moffis with soil samples 
Watch this space for news on the developing irrigation IST. Keep up with Brooke Moffis' work in Central FL via her newspaper column or UF/IFAS Lake County Extension calendar.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Big problems call for big data: reporting back from the CUAHSI Biennial Colloquium

CUAHSI recently hosted its Biennial Colloquium at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This year’s symposium focused around the theme of “Finding your place in big data: using observations to understand hydrologic processes for predicting a changing world.” More on that in a moment, but first: CUAHSI.

What is CUAHSI?
CUAHSI stands for Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Sciences, Inc. CUAHSI is funded by NSF, governed by a community of expert water resource scientists and researchers, and serves as a collective voice for over 100 universities and organizations on subjects related to water science. Generally speaking, CUAHSI aims to support the advancement of water science in the United States. This goal is operationalized through workshops, conferences, the coordination of initiatives that assist water researchers (i.e., HydroClient and Hydroshare, which simplify data download and sharing), and more.

CUAHSI’s Biennial Colloquium
The Biennial Colloquium aims to host an event with content that lands between “super specialized and only for a select group of experts” and “broadly appealing to all environmental/biosystems scientists and engineers.” This year’s program addressed all things “big data” within the context of water science – big compute, large-scale modeling, tools and sensors that collect loads of data, and case studies of big data analyses – by including a variety of talks by distinguished lecturers, concurrent sessions on specialized topics, workshops, water-related field trips, and a poster symposium.

Students setting up for the poster symposium at the CUAHSI Biennial Colloquium
Rather than detail all of the interesting experiences had over the few days of the colloquium, I’ll focus on two workshops that I participated in: (1) Do-It-Yourself, Open-Source Wireless Environmental Data Logging, and (2) CUAHSI Data-Driven Education.

EnviroDIY Mayfly: fun, open-source, inexpensive, wireless environmental monitoring
At the “Do-It-Yourself, Open-Source Wireless Environmental Data Logging” workshop, my geekiness reigned as I tinkered with the Arduino-based EnviroDIY Mayfly data logger. The workshop was directed by the brains behind the Mayfly, Steve Hicks (Research Engineer) and Dr. Anthony Aufdenkampe (Associate Research Scientist) of the Stroud Water Research Center. The Mayfly was born from the desire to create an extensive network of sensors that monitored various environmental variables, but on a tight budget. The EnviroDIY Mayfly logger board is based on Arduino, an open-source platform that uses simple and user-friendly hardware and software to translate inputs (i.e., a digital signal, button push, sensor trigger, or even a Twitter message!) into useful information based on user-programmed instructions.

At first glance, the Mayfly looks like a simple circuit board with a few additional components. These components include an atomic clock, microSD memory card slot, several input pins (i.e., 8-bit Analog-to-Digital, 16-bit ADC), microUSB port, Bee socket (allows for wireless capability), and solar panel connector. For a full list of Mayfly features, check out their website. All of these components allow for data to be collected from several solar- or battery-powered sensors, and logged on the microSD card that the user has plugged into the Mayfly. Users program the Mayfly using open-source software that is both Mac OS X and Windows compatible. The code is easy to write, and the creators of the Mayfly have created an online community called EnviroDIY that includes blog posts and forums on all things open-source + environmental monitoring. On this website, Mayfly users can download and contribute other open-source codes, making this technology very accessible for those of us who lack experience in Arduino. Have I convinced you that it’s awesome yet? If not, maybe the price will: you can buy a complete EnviroDIY Mayfly loggerstarter kit on Amazon for $90.

The Mayfly data logger and relevant accessories for implementation in environmental monitoring hardware systems. Images from

Teaching Hydrology with Data
The second workshop I attended focused on Data and Model Driven Hydrology Education. Participants were asked to create a data-driven hydrology assignment prior to attending the workshop. These assignments were then contributed to the Science Education Resource Center (SERC), which is a NSF-funded venture with the mission of improving "education in the Earth sciences and beyond." The SERC website includes several different modules with user-contributed earth science assignments that target K12 through higher education students, making this online platform a wonderful resource for any and all educators working in natural sciences and engineering. If you ever find yourself needing to create an educational exercise, save yourself some time and check out the brilliant assignments on SERC!

The SERC webpage on Data and Model Driven Hydrology Education created in collaboration with CUAHSI.

CUAHSI researchers successfully received funding to create a module within SERC that includes problem sets for training the next generation of water scientists and engineers. I created and submitted an assignment on dissolved oxygen (DO) trends in the Lower St. Johns River. For this exercise, students download data from three locations along the Lower St. Johns (estuarine, transitional, upstream), and evaluate how the combination of hydrology and system biology produce distinct DO behavior at each of these three river reaches. Data are downloaded with CUAHSI’s HydroClient and evaluated using a Python-enabled Jupyter notebook that I created specifically for this assignment. If you’re interested in including this assignment as part of your curriculum, check out the assignment’s webpage and/or reach out to me! I’m happy to help implement the assignment, or directly teach it to your class. There are also other fantastic assignments included on the Data and Model Driven Hydrology Education webpage that I’m sure you will find useful and/or inspiring.

Snapshot of the Jupyter notebook created as part of a Data and Model Driven Hydrology Education assignment.

All in all, I found that the CUAHSI Biennial Colloquium provided several unique learning experiences, and opportunities for interactions with leaders in the field of hydrology. Whether you’re a student like me, or an experienced water professional, you should strongly consider venturing to the wilds of West Virginia to participate in this conference in 2018! If you don’t want to wait that long, there will also be a Hydroinformatics conference coming up in July of 2017 in Logan, UT. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

ASABE AIM 2016: Ag and Bio Engineering in the Happiest Place on Earth

Last month marked one of the high points of every summer for our UF/IFAS group – ASABE’s Annual International Meeting (AIM). As an added treat this year’s meeting was held in Orlando so travel was markedly easier for us. Further, I was offered the opportunity to don my digital comms hat and attend.

ASABE’s AIM is an excellent venue for staying abreast of the latest research in Ag & Bio engineering on the local, national and international level. Presentations ranged from food processing to biofuels to landscape irrigation to precision ag and robotics - essentially all the disciplines of the field.

Familiar faces on Sunday morning: UF ABE PhD Students Joe Sagues and Natalie Nelson
It’s quite the slate of events, often running concurrently. In addition, students have a prominent role at AIM, as volunteers, as presenters (talks and posters) and as competitors in various events.

Getting the Story
For me, AIM began in early July when I learned I would be covering the Fountain Wars student competition. Fountain Wars is an AIM staple that challenges student teams to devise ways of using water and engineering to accomplish specific tasks. 

Putting in work: Mike and Lexi of UF ABE's Fountain Wars squad
I was able to connect with the UF ABE team as they made final preparations for competition. This allowed me to both learn about the event and begin the documentation process early, should UF be victorious. See more about the 2016 competition's tasks in the short video below.

My other assignment was robotics. Each year student teams are given a task around which to construct robots that will fulfill the challenge. 

Picking it up and delivering: Clemson Edisto's robots came to win
This year the theme was citrus and the robots had to pick up items, separate them by color and deliver them to one another and then a final location. I did not have the luxury of touching base with the UF ABE team outside of AIM so I had to get the team and event story on site. Following a long absence, the UF ABE robotics team returned to competition again in 2016. 

Team member Amanda DeCanio with one of UF ABE robotics' mean machines
Bringing Home Gold
Two of our closest collaborators won big at AIM 2016. Dr. Michael Dukes was awarded the John Deere Gold Medal for excellence in the application of science and art to the soil
And Dr. Kati Migliaccio was recognized for outstanding associate editor.

A Plethora of Resources
If you were not at AIM 2016 or wish to revisit one of the many excellent presentations, all are available here. You can also relive the events as they happened on Twitter. And finally watch for two videos about the student competitions mentioned above to be released in August.