“How long has La Cañada been a customer, other than forever?” the Calsense company president asked staffers who’d been there longer than his 11 years.
The answer: Since the summer of 2001, when the city of LCF piloted the program at the city’s three elementary schools.
LCF, long a believer in wise water usage, increased its investment in the practice this summer by spending $68,600 to install a pair of additional Calsense controllers at spots along Foothill Boulevard.
Those sensors will allow for the city and its contractors to adjust irrigation remotely based on satellite weather data and functionality, which will ensure efficient water delivery to the shrubs, vegetation and ground cover via the drip systems in the medians. It’s the same story with 23 other Calsense systems already positioned around town, including at all of the city’s joint-use sports fields and parks, as well as the city-operated trails. (Staff also use it to control the lights at parks and ballfields.)
“Every morning I log in and check everything, and it tells me everything I need to know,” said Gonzalo Venegas, LCF’s facilities and maintenance superintendent, who introduced the Calsense program after using it at his previous jobs in Rancho Cucamonga and Valencia.
Now, 70% of LCF’s irrigation is controlled with the Calsense system.
According to van de Ven, Calsense controllers can lead to a 30-35% reduction in water usage, which is good for a city’s budget and for any city trying to deal with drought. Calsense sensors monitor evapotranspiration — ET to those in the business — a measurement of how quickly water evaporates from soil and transpires. The idea, van de Ven said, is to replace only as much as was lost in a day.
“You really want to dial it in by selecting the plant material and the soil type and how much water those plants need,” he said. “With trees, it’s root depth, and also you get into shade: Large trees generate a lot of shade, so they lose less ET throughout the day than grass or turf will.”
From the Calsense “motherboard” at his desktop, Venegas checked August’s usage at the La Cañada High School baseball field: 2,209 hundred cubic feet of water had been budgeted for use there that month, but Calsense “sensed,” by reading the ET data, that the field only needed 1,706 hundred cubic feet — 18% less than LCF would have used there otherwise.
“Before, you would have put all this down and it would’ve been completely fine,” Venegas said. “But the fact is, we only needed X amount.”
During August, van de Ven said that 86% of LCF’s irrigation was scheduled, 7.3% was maintenance-related, 5.4% was controlled remotely and the rest was turned on manually, likely to fix or inspect a small problem. Because, in addition to measuring evapotranspiration, the system monitors how well the city’s water-delivery mechanisms are working.
“Before we had Calsense, we would get mainline breaks at the high school, at the JV baseball field, which butts up to the slope there,” Venegas said. “And a couple of times, the water would just run and erode. There was one point where it almost completely eroded a whole section of that slope down to Berkshire. But it’s never happened since. We’ve had breaks, but now Calsense catches it and closes it off.”
The Calsense system will detect something as small as a “sprinkler pop” anywhere in its coverage area.
“We can automatically detect when the landscaper rolled over a pop-up sprinkler in the grass … and that can result in a huge waste of water, hundreds if not thousands of gallons of water,” van de Ven said.
In that case, Venegas said, the Calsense system can shut down the specific malfunctioning station to prevent water loss while sending the water on to the next programmed station to operate.
LCF is part of a growing number of cities and universities investing in such smart watering, but such systems are not a given, even in drought-stricken California, said van de Ven, who said there are cities in central and Northern California that are not even metered.
“And how can you budget for usage if you can’t even measure where that is going?” van de Ven asked. “It’s disappointing. Not everybody cares.”
But LCF does, said van de Ven, who counts Venegas among his most communicative clients.
“He’s one of the customers who gives us the most feedback,” van de Ven said. “This year, he started to use our cloud-based app in conjunction with the software … and he came to us and said, ‘I really like this, and I’ve got my contractors looking at it as well. But I’d really like to be able to see how frequently they log into the system.’
“We talked to him about it, and based on that feedback, we’ve implemented that feature, which is an important sort of transparency, especially from an upper-management point of view.”
Said Venegas: “I need to know that my contractor’s checkin’. Because if he’s not checkin’, I’ll come knocking on his door.”
There are plans for LCF to install nine more Calsense monitors throughout the city for Venegas and his team to keep an eye on, either from his desk at City Hall or remotely via the web.
Calsense is too involved a service for most single-family residents, but there are smaller systems on the market that function similarly on a smaller scale, said Nina Jazmadarian, general manager of the Foothill Municipal Water District.
“It’s a wonderful thing the city is doing,” Jazmadarian said. “They’ll be able to save water and it appears there is a sensor for weather, so it looks like it’s a great system.”