Rules target lawns watered by the clock

Sam Holcomb likes having a green lawn, without the hassle of a hose.

So the North Raleigh retiree has opted for an automated irrigation system -- an approach favored by increasing numbers of Triangle homeowners.

"My irrigation system is much more effective than trying to drag a sprinkler around," Holcomb said.

But Triangle water providers worry that the growing popularity of that convenience is heightening demand at a time when they're taking steps to encourage, if not require, more conservation.

Wake Forest has found that homes built within the last few years use 40 percent more water than those that are at least 15 years old. Much of that difference, town officials are convinced, is due to automated irrigation.

Even though the systems can be more efficient than the conventional garden hose and sprinkler, they're also more regular, water officials say. They operate like clockwork, literally, because they're controlled by timers.

"There's no question that the in-ground systems are more efficient," said Roe O'Donnell, Wake Forest deputy town manager. "But in-ground systems get more use. People using hoses tend to be more hit or miss."

The region remains on the edge of drought conditions, although the latest long-term forecast calls for above-average temperatures and rainfall. The threat of drought aside, rapid growth in the region has led to permanent water restrictions by most of the Triangle's largest water providers.

Starting July 2, residents of Raleigh and six surrounding towns will face alternate-day rules for lawn watering, joining customers in Cary and Orange County who have followed similar rules for several years.

Wake Forest town leaders last week adopted a conservation policy aimed at discouraging developers from installing irrigation systems that tap municipal water. Instead, the town wants them to draw from other water sources: wells, rain barrels, in-ground cisterns or eventually, treated sewage or reclaimed water. Growth is running up against the town's available water. Last year, 800 water connections were added, most of them residential.

The town gets its water from Raleigh, and its peak use on a few days this year has edged close to its maximum allotment, O'Donnell said. The town's use in December, when people use little water outdoors, was about 2 million gallons a day. On May 27, the town consumed nearly 4.7 million gallons, just 200,000 gallons shy of its daily allotment.

"The vast majority of that is going on the garden or the lawn," O'Donnell said.

Across the Triangle, peak water use in summer tends to be double that of December.

"Everyone wants a nice green lawn," said Linda Craft, a Raleigh real estate broker who has been selling homes in the Triangle for 22 years.

Increasingly, Craft said, home buyers want in-ground irrigation, along with the two-car garage, walk-in closets, hardwood floors and ceramic tile bathrooms. She said it's a frequent request with homes selling at or above a price of $230,000.

"They don't always want to spend the $4,000 to $7,000 extra to have them included," Craft said, "but they want them, absolutely. They don't want to be dragging a hose around. People don't have the time to do that."

Drive around any neighborhood, she said, and the greenest lawns are bound to be nurtured by both a professional lawn care service and in-ground irrigation.

Cary, which requires separate water meters for irrigation systems, has seen a 70 percent increase in residential installations since 2001, while the number of regular residential meters has grown by 20 percent, based on billing data. Customers aren't charged sewer fees for the water, but the cost of irrigation water is set at the highest of four levels the town uses to encourage conservation.

Raleigh will also require separate irrigation meters beginning July 2.

Marie Cefalo, who coordinates Cary's water conservation programs, said in-ground systems account for heavier demand.

"The convenience makes a difference," she said. "There's more regular watering going on."

Garry Grabow, an assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at N.C. State University, said irrigation systems are often mismanaged. He and other researchers are conducting a study to test a number of devices that measure soil moisture and regulate irrigation.

"Most people have very little idea of how much water they're putting on," Grabow said.

David Williams is sensitive to those concerns. He earns his living from installing irrigation systems. Rainy Days Irrigation, the Garner company he and his brother own, generates more than $1 million in annual sales a year, with an average cost of about $5,000 for each system.

But his business slowed to a crawl after outdoor watering was banned during the 2002 drought, Williams said, and he knows the current focus on conservation is likely to continue, drought or not.

Done right, he said, in-ground irrigation systems use less water, and use it more effectively, than typical sprinklers. They're tailored for the area needing irrigation, and if operated correctly, provide an optimal amount of water.

Yet the theory doesn't always play out in practice, Williams said.

"It's the responsibility of the end user to manage the irrigation system," he said. "That's where some of the failure comes from. It's not a set-it and forget-it kind of thing. Contractors need to do a better job of instructing their customers."

Holcomb, one of Williams' customers, counts himself as a careful user. His system, installed when he purchased his home in 1999, is governed by a rain switch that prevents irrigation after a quarter inch of rain, and he makes sure the system is well maintained.

Still, whether people use sprinklers or more elaborate irrigation devices, others question the use of such a high volume of the region's drinking water supply.

Marks Arnold thinks that less of it should be used to keep grass green.

"I really do worry about running out of water," said Arnold, a lawyer who lives in a condominium in Raleigh. "It truly is a luxury for people to have lush green lawns if we haven't had rain for six to eight weeks and then pay the same as the water for drinking and bathing."

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