Water auditor saves drop by drop in thirsty times
As Lauren Nel was hard at work watching a yard filled with blue catch cups all over the section of a yard facing 300 North in Price on Tuesday morning, people couldn't help but to turn and look at what was unfolding before them as they passed by.
It seemed interesting and unique, if not out of the ordinary.
But while the work Nel was performing looked interesting, the premise behind it all can greatly impact the way homeowners and businesses use watering systems to water areas and yards.
Nel, a student intern, is working with the USU Extension Office through the summer to research and perform free water audits for homeowners and businesses in the area. With the help of a $5,000 grant and a stipend for gas money from Price City, Nel is working to help improve the use and efficiency of water systems in the community.
"Lots of homeowners leave their sprinklers set to a certain cycle for a long period of time and they may not change it throughout the whole watering season," said Nel, 18. "Some homeowners may not realize that there are times to water more and times to water less over the course of the year."
By performing a water audit, a person could find out everything from how much water to use, how long to keep the sprinkler system on and much more, according to Ron Patterson, an extension agent with USU.
"This program can help people to be more efficient with their sprinkler systems while helping people to conserve water, lower water bills and become more knowledgeable about watering their yards," Patterson explained.
After hearing about the program, homeowner Sam Rawson said he was interested in what he and his wife could do to better maintain their yard on his house just off 300 North in Price.
Over the course of the morning, Nel performed a number of tests looking at the sprinkler system, how the water was spread across the different zones of the yard during a watering cycle, the depth of the soil in each zone and much more.
Clad in beach shorts and sandals on a warm sunny day, Nel's job requires getting soaked by sprinklers and getting a little muddy while checking the soil. But that doesn't bother her one bit.
"I don't think there is a better job for me to be doing right now than this," she said noting the best part of the job is interacting and helping out the community.
And the idea of water conservation falls right in line with she was raised. Raised by her parents to conserve when and where she could, the thought of working to help preserve a vital resource like water makes the work that much more interesting.
"This work helps give me a greater appreciation for the work involved," she said. "It takes a little more than just technology in getting the answers to the watering problems for homeowners."
After checking the sprinkler system, Nel placed blue catch cups in a row all through the zone of the yard she was testing. The catch cups help measure the amount of water hitting a certain area of the yard and help to determine how much water is used during a particular water cycle, Nel said.
"By using the catch cups, I can see what spots are being watered and which spots are not receiving a lot of water," she said.
There can be a difference in the water systems people use. Those with sprinkler systems built into their yards may have different watering techniques compared to those who use hoses to water. Jokingly called 'hose draggers', Nel said yards watered with hoses must be monitored to make sure water is reaching all areas of a yard. And over watering can be a problem with using a hose.
Watching the work unfold before him, Rawson said he was surprised by how using a few catch cups and some math formulas can give a good description of how his sprinkler system is working.
"My wife and I usually ask ourselves 'what can we do to improve our yard?'" he said pointing out some dry spots on the yard. "We don't want to overuse water."
After breaking up the yard into zones, Nel placed the catch cups and tested each zone separately running the sprinkler system for about five minutes each time. At the end of each water cycle, Nel checked the amount of water in the catch cups which were placed in a grid throughout each zone. The measurements were taken down on a sheet she used to calculate the amount of water used in each zone and would later be used to determine other key information for a homeowner such as Rawson.
After running the water for five minutes, Nel also checked the depth of the soil in all of the zones. Soil depth, Nel explained, shows the strength of the root system of the grass. Reaching a depth of eight to 10 inches in some spots, Nel said Rawson's yard was doing well overall. And pulling up a few worms in the test tube wasn't a bad sign either.
"That's a good sign to see worms in the soil," she said with a laugh. "They help to aerate the soil and keep it healthy."
After completing the tests, Nel began calculating the results with the help of a few mathematic formulas. The end result that a homeowner can be given includes the distribution uniformity, how much of the yard is covered with water and the number of inches of water used during a particular watering cycle.
One of the key terms Nel tries to teach homeowners through the results of the tests is distribution uniformity (DU). The higher a DU percentage is what homeowners like Rawson are trying to accomplish. Nel's tests showed that throughout the three zones of Rawson's yard averaged a DU of 50.5 percent.
Homeowners should try to have a DU between 50 to 60 percent, she said. Golf courses, because of their need to keep fairways and greens as colorful and well kept as possible, shoot to have a DU as high as 80 percent.
With the results, Nel was able to show Rawson that his yard should be watered in shorter cycles about three days apart. This was compared to Rawson's original watering schedule which saw him water for about 45 minutes every three days.
"I think the idea of learning to have shorter water cycles will be better for the yard," said Rawson.
While the work did not include the use of high tech electronics, Rawson said he was surprised at the amount of information that can be found with a water audit.
"I think the whole idea of checking the system was definitely worth it," he said. "She (Nel) looked at the system more in-depth than I thought."
Nel said she has tested the systems at a few homes so far and has also performed a water audit at the playground at the Carbon County Fairgrounds. While it may be better suited for a two-person team, Nel said she has plans to also do water audits at the Carbon High School soccer and football fields.
"It may take a little longer to get done," she said with a laugh.
The job can be affected by the weather, Nel said, as rain and windy conditions can disrupt the results from a test. The hope is that the weather will cooperate through the rest of the summer while tests are being performed.
While the work can be time consuming and tedious at times, Nel said she is glad to be performing a free service to help the community preserve a vital resource.
"I like helping people out and this job and the work involved allows for that," she said.
For more information about the project or to have a water audit performed on your property, contact Lauren Nel at (435) 754-5969 or the USU Extension office at (435) 636-3235.