Sprinklers running? Better catch them!

Does your home have an automatic sprinkler system? When is the last time you ran it during the day to look for leaks or broken sprinkler heads? If you’re like most people, the answer is never.

According to Sam Bauer, a turf expert and educator with University of Minnesota Extension, most people set their automatic sprinkler systems to run at 4 or 5am and are never awake to see broken heads shooting like geysers into the street or leaking pipes creating soggy puddles in their yards. As an early-morning runner, I can personally attest to this problem, having been the victim of more than one rogue sprinkler at way-too-early in the morning.

Last year, Minnesota Extension conducted a survey of 1000 Twin Cities residents in partnership with the Metropolitan Council. The goal was to learn more about people’s lawn care habits and identify ways to waste less water. As Met Council’s Brian Davis explains, cities have always used more water during the summer when residents are watering lawns and gardens. “Back in 1980, however, most people were using a hose and sprinkler, whereas today’s newer homes almost always feature in-ground, automatic systems. Cities used to pump twice as much water during the summer as during the winter, now many are pumping four or five times as much.”

Municipal water use during the summer spikes dramatically due to lawn watering. Most new homes have in-ground automated systems and people tend to run them more than is necessary.

In their survey, Minnesota Extension and Met Council found that 63% of respondents had automated irrigation systems and half of those (45%) set their systems to run every other day. As a result, says Bauer, most people are putting way too much water on their lawns.

On average, lawns in Minnesota need about 1-inch of water per week to remain green. Luckily, nature usually delivers enough rain to meet the need. The Twin Cities area receives an average of 4in of rain in June, 3.5in in July, and 3.5in in August. As a result, homeowners shouldn’t need to water their lawns more than once a week. “When you water every other day, it’s actually bad for your grass,” cautions Bauer. “Deep infrequent watering promotes deeper roots, whereas every-other day watering leads to shallow root systems that are less drought-resistant. Thus, overwatering creates a vicious cycle where you have to keep overwatering.”

06_Deeper Roots
Encourage your lawn grass to grow deeper roots by setting the mower blade higher (3-3.5in) and transitioning from a frequent, shallow watering pattern to infrequent, deep watering.

As part of the research project, Bauer and his team also conducted comprehensive irrigation audits for 61 randomly selected survey participants. They found that 75% of the properties had at least one broken sprinkler head and two properties had 15 broken heads each! Among their audits, Bauer’s team found a sprinkler head that had been covered over by a concrete sidewalk, a sprinkler that watered nothing but the back of one hosta plant, and two homes that were watering an average of 1700 sq ft of pavement each. Mistakes such as these translate into high water bills, patchy lawns, and wasted water.

Bauer has a few simple recommendations for Minnesotans this summer:

  1. Use your automated irrigation system wisely: If you have an automatic sprinkler system, install a controller with a soil moisture sensor or turn the system off completely and run it in manual mode only when you need it. (Running your system in manual is easy. Just flip the switch or turn the dial one click to the left to turn it on when you need it. Then turn it off half an hour later when you’re done.)
  2. Mow high: Set your mower blade to 3-3.5in tall to promote deeper roots.
  3. Plant fescues: If you are establishing a new lawn, opt for fine fescue or tall fescue, which are naturally drought-resistant and can remain green even after 60 days without rain.
  4. Fix leaks: Be sure to run your automated system once before the summer starts to find and fix leaks and broken heads. Your aquifer will thank you, and so will the early-morning joggers in your neighborhood.

To get more advice about lawn care in Minnesota, go to: www.extension.umn.edu/turfgrass.

Thanks for not using our drinking water to irrigate the road! Photo: cleanwatermn.org