Eco-Friendly Landscaping in HOAs: Design for Water Conservation

"Go green" might be a rally cry for associations trying to polish their eco-friendly image, but moving towards sustainable resources goes beyond minimizing environmental impact and boosting public relations. Going green offers practical long-term benefits on the bottom line of cost. For managers and board members seeking tangible ways to minimize their landscape assets in today's fluctuating economy, an audit of landscaping practices and materials can provide plenty of reason for a "green" transition.

Before implementing any green landscaping practices, the HOA board and community managers should step back and take a full inventory of what they're working with for lawn, irrigation, plants, materials, and hardscape. To get a cursory understanding of these items, it is important to look at the different components in a landscape, from the simple to the complex, that benefit from an eco-friendly update.

Analyze Your HOA’s Landscaping

Your HOA’s property layout might have large lawn areas or small patches alongside walkways, or both, all of which present problems. Large lawns can cause your water usage costs to skyrocket, while small lawns often mean wasted water since much of the irrigation hitting pavement instead of grass. The moisture and mineral deposits left behind from overspray (sprinklers spraying non-targeted areas) can also be very noticeable and corrosive, leading to serious damage can over time.

With these problems in mind, your board members or management company should starting asking some tough questions about the HOA’s lawns.

Does the lawn really add value to your community or property? Would a low-maintenance, visually appealing alternative make a difference, either positive or negative?

If a potential water-free or low-water-usage design sounds beneficial to the HOA, plenty of options are available, from elegant paving stones to attractive drought-resistant plants.

Update Your Current Watering System

If you’ve decided to maintain some lawn areas in your HOA, you should evaluate how those spaces are currently being watered.

Watering Best Practices

Irrigation controller technology has come a long way to help conserve water and money, with many different efficient programming options, but we’ll discuss this more later. For now, just know that a good rule of thumb is to water early in the morning, sometime between 4:00 - 6:00 a.m. You should also identify which grassy areas are situated in predominantly sunny or shaded locations. Shaded areas require less watering, and your irrigation system should be adjusted appropriately. Your landscape professional can handle this for you.

Methods for Water Waste Reduction

When you're examining your current irrigation situation, HOAs should look for ways to reduce overspray and run-off. Over-spray was mentioned earlier, and typically entails miscalculated sprinklers spraying cement, buildings, and other structures instead of the lawn. Run-off is water that is sprayed onto the lawn but literally runs off into hardscape and parking lots, causing asphalt degradation, erosion, and pollution into major water sources.

Run-off typically occurs when the soil reaches its maximum water-holding capacity (sometimes referred to as “field capacity”) due to a soil infiltration rate that is much slower than the applied water.  To prevent this unnecessary water waster, the HOA’s irrigation controllers can be adjusted with multiple start times to allow water to infiltrate slowly between irrigation cycles.

Implement Water-Saving Plans and Techniques

After the lawn, how else can your HOA conserve water? A complete audit of your landscaping can identify plants and their relationship to sunny and shady areas of the site. Chances are the original design of the HOA’s property relied on the basis of aesthetics with little regard for water conservation. This typically leads to the mixing of different water requirements for different plant material, which can waste water and actually reduce their life span.

To increase water-saving efforts, consider implementing a “Hydro-zoning” design technique, which groups plants of similar water requirements together to maximize water and space efficiency. When you combine this with micro-climates and seasonal differences, a surprising amount of water can be saved simply by changing plant groupings and zoning.

Your board of directors or management company may also be interested in creating a new landscape design for the HOA, in order to reach the properties true potential for water conservation. There are several ways to go about this. Your HOA can either hire a landscaping firm to help, or utilize the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Budget Tool, which has an online tool for both professionals and DIY green thumbs alike. The tool examines climate, plant type, irrigation hardware, total square footage of area and other criteria to estimate a water budget. By using this tool and educating yourself on potential plant groupings, it becomes a game of give and take for a preliminary design that brings diversity, color, texture, depth, and water savings.

Utilize Irrigation Technology                                    

Innovations in irrigation technology allow for easier water conservation for homeowners and HOAs. There are many methods to analyze the efficiency of your HOA’s current irrigation system to determine if this new technology can help the association in the long run.

Audit of Your HOA’s Current Irrigation System

Before making any hardware adjustments, consider taking a closer look at your HOA’s irrigation with a water budget analysis, which includes an examination of the current irrigation system and its performance. One key point of examination is Distribution Uniformity (DU), which can be analyzed using a small plastic beaker called a “catch can device.” This device measures precipitation rate (Water Applied) in inches per hour and can determine the uniformity of water distribution. A DU analysis helps explain dry patches or flooded areas.

In addition, irrigation auditors measure pressure at each sprinkler head’s pressure and connection points to see if there are any obvious deficiencies. Should you prefer to outsource this analysis, it’s best to verify that the landscape provider is a Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor (CLIA) with the Irrigation Association.

Evapo-Transpiration Irrigation Controller Technology

Evapo-Transpiration is the water lost from soil through evaporation and a plant’s overall water loss. Irrigation controllers (called Smart Evapo-Transpiration Controllers) have been designed to take the guesswork out of scheduling by tracking your local micro-climate and automatically calculating a scientific weather-based irrigation program. The information collected is then downloaded into your irrigation controller for a program custom-built for your irrigation system, plants, and soil conditions. By accounting for the rate of water consumption from weather conditions, the Evapo-Transpiration system initiates a new schedule to replenish only the required water. The system can even adjust to extreme conditions, and additional rain-sensor devices can automatically pause irrigation programs during rainy weather.

Efficient Spray Systems

Irrigation technology goes beyond the controller. You can transition from traditional spray systems to low-volume drip irrigation to reduce water waste and allow for the use of recycled water. Less pressure is required for drip irrigation, and that saves on energy costs. Retrofitting from spray systems to drip irrigation comes with an up-front price tag (which can vary depending on the layout and initial state of the irrigation system) but that investment can usually be recouped over the long-term. In fact, the average ROI return-on-investment is three years.

Select Eco-Friendly Landscaping Materials

The next step is to look at the different plants and materials needed for your landscaping.

Native Plants

Using native plants for the landscape design basis over a random assortment of flowers and shrubbery is one of the best strategies for eco-friendly landscaping.

An eco-system’s native plants are accustomed to that region’s exact climate—from temperature to moisture. By being adaptive to the climate, these plants require less maintenance and stay healthier. This also helps to restore an area’s natural inventory of native plants after losing them to development, thus ensuring a stable eco-system for wildlife.

Recycled Material

Besides local plants and materials, you can also think green by using recycled materials. Recycled materials can be purchased through local rockeries, landfills and garden supply outlets. The obvious direct benefit is that it minimizes what goes into a landfill by re-use. It also offers practical benefits; for example, recycled bark (which comes in a variety of size, texture and color) reduces water consumption while minimizing invasive weeds, saving both money and resources on maintenance.

Synthetic Turf

Another consideration is synthetic turf, which has come a long way since the days of Astro-turf. Rather than looking perfectly groomed, with unnatural green swatches, new synthetic turf appears natural and holds up under adverse conditions such as heavy foot traffic and shade. It also offers a non-abrasive soft play surface for children and pets. In addition, the water savings are up to 70 percent with an 8-12 year life span. Just about any synthetic turf won’t hold up to up-close inspection, but if you’re considering using less water or energy within an area of your landscape, it’s worth exploring. Check with your local Water District authorities for potential synthetic turf rebate programs.

Practical Impacts of “Green” Landscaping

Once you’ve overhauled your HOA’s landscape, it’s time to enjoy the positives you’ve implemented. The most obvious benefits are from an ecological standpoint, but the practical benefits are also very real and very worthwhile.

Reduced Costs on Lawn Care

The most immediate difference comes from less water consumption. Efficient irrigation across a smartly designed landscape should noticeably decrease your carbon footprint – and that’s good for everyone. More indirect cost savings come with lawn upkeep and maintenance. Smarter landscape design requires less weeding, fertilizer and general upkeep, allowing associations to spend less on landscape maintenance costs.

Conservation Rebates

Local water authorities will offer tax rebates and other incentives; their availability varies from county to county, and some only last for a limited time. However, they can be very effective in covering some or all of upgrade costs. Before purchasing any equipment, contact your local water authority to check for any upcoming incentives. This can help you plan your project to maximize potential rebates and offers.

Conclusion

After reviewing these points, you might feel excited at the potential but overwhelmed by the options. Some of this can be handled through common sense and hard work, and other areas of “going green” require professional consultation. The most important part is to step back, see what’s feasible in your budget, and consider what you’re willing to do for your property. In the long run, you will find that going green is one of the best landscaping decisions you can make—and the environment will thank you.


Gene Ebertowski is a Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor, Certified Irrigation Water Manager, and Certified Landscape Professional.

Image courtesy of Anton Croos, CC-BY, 3.0

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