Monday, April 25, 2011

Do You Want a Sprinkler System? Probably Not.

A Sprinkler System will insure that you have a green verdant lawn, but will cost a lot of money to install and maintain.  Think carefully before you add another money drain to your pocket.

As I noted in my Great American Lawn posting, Americans, particularly middle-aged to elderly men, spend enormous amounts of money trying to create the "perfect lawn" in defiance of nature.

And the reasons for this are status, and to keep up appearances.  People obsess about a lawn so as to impress the neighbors with their nice lawn.  But they rarely "use" their own lawn for recreation.  And of course, these artificially green nightmares look, well, fake, fake, fake.   Particularly in areas with dry climates, the super-neon-green lawn patch (extending to the periphery of the sprinkler) looks, well, obscene.

Sprinkler systems are touted as the answer to all your lawn problems.  And yes, it is true that regular watering will result in a green, lush, lawn, even in Antarctica.  But sprinkler systems can be a financial and ecological nightmare, so think carefully before installing one.

50 years ago, only "rich people" and golf courses had in-ground sprinkler systems - usually with galvanized steel pipe and steel fittings.  The rest of us middle-class drones made do with sprinklers on a hose.  In the hot summer months, Mom would set up the sprinkler and we would play in the cool water.

In the last 20 years, however, cheap plastic sprinkler heads and plastic pipe have made installing a sprinkler system far less expensive.  You can buy 10 fee of PVC tubing for a couple of bucks, or get soft plastic tubing by the roll.  And this softer tubing is freeze resistant, so the need to dig deep and winterize systems is reduced.

The problem is, even with these reduced costs, such a system can easily cost hundreds of dollars in parts alone, plus much more for installation, if you hire an installer.  Control panels and valves add to the complexity, of course.  And once installed, well, it ain't over.  Sprinkler heads constantly need adjusting, aiming, and repair, as they clog with sand and minerals.  And then there is the inevitable replacement, when the lawn man runs over the head with his lawn mower.

No matter how hard you try, the sprinklers are never quite right - spraying your car or the sidewalk, or passing cars in the road.  So you dick around with them, constantly, trying to get the perfect spray pattern for the perfect lawn, all the time losing sight of why you did this in the first place.

And if you live in an area with hard or brackish water, the water will stain your concrete patio, driveway, walkway, and the side of your house, a nasty dark brown color.  So you have a lush, artificially green lawn, but a brown, shit-stained house and driveway.  Some trade-off!

Then there is the water bill - and the associated environmental impact.  In some areas of the country, the price of water has skyrocketed.  People in Atlanta are paying hundreds a month for water, and being surprised by bills of over $1000 a month  when they try to water their lawns.

Part of the high water bills is due to the various water shortages across the country - indeed the world.  Water is the new oil - and look for shortages coming to your neighborhood soon, as we once again overpopulate the world beyond the capabilities of our natural resources.

The other half is the sewer bill.   It is hard to meter sewers, so they generally charge your sewer rate based on water used - the theory being that your water consumed ends up in the sewer.  So if you fill your swimming pool or water your lawn, your sewer bill will go up.

Because of this, or because of local water shortages, many people decide to dig a well for their sprinklers, as they do here on the island (which will undoubtedly pump down the aquifer in no time).  A 220V pump and surge tank are required, as well as the use of a drilling machine in many cases.  Add a thousand or two, perhaps more, for this luxury, plus the increased electricity for running that 220V pump.

And yes, these shallow water wells tend to be brackish or have minerals, and end up staining your house and driveway that lovely shit-brown color.

And yes, if you live near the ocean, like in Florida, eventually the well will become contaminated with seawater and you will have to drill a new well.  Salt kills grass, pretty effectively.

So you spend thousands of dollars installing a sprinkler system, and end up creating a nice leak in your rowboat, as the costs of maintaining the system, the water, and the electricity, continually come out of your pocket over time.

And I know this, having installed a sprinkler system in my home in Virginia.  We even had micro-drip irrigation for all our potted plants.  And yes, it made everything green and verdant, so long as I kept it all working.  But it was expensive and time-consuming, and the pleasure and novelty of it quickly wore off.  Been There, Done That, Bought the T-Shirt - don't need to do it again.

Of course, if you are a hard-core lawn fanatic, you've already spend thousands a year on chemicals and other lawn maintenance items, so what's not to love?

But ecologically and economically, it makes no sense - and aesthetically, it is a look that only old, straight, white men love - the golf course look.

I think as water shortages increase, people may start to re-think these things.  While it may be nice to have a sprinkler system, it is cheaper and easier not to.

So what do you do instead of having a sprinkler?

1.  For starters, have a smaller lawn.   Buy a house on a smaller lot that doesn't have the All-American 1/3 acre.

2.  Let more go to greenscaping or hardscaping - bushes, plants, shrubs, trees, patios, decks, gravel, etc.  - that doesn't require constant watering.  Bamboo is my favorite - creates a wall of privacy and requires no water.  Not surprisingly, my lawn-obsessed neighbors hate it.  But bamboo is also a grass, you know!

3.  Explore dryscaping - rocks and gravel, as an alternative to lawn.

4.  Just let the lawn die in the summer months or dry season.  Many types of grass, such as Zyosia or Bermuda Grass, turn brown in the winter, and that is perfectly natural.  Once summer comes along they turn green with the seasons.  Trying to make a lawn "green" in the winter is as stupid as trying to glue leaves back on the trees.   But people do it.

We are experimenting with our lawn first to see how it plays out over the summer.  We don't want to spend money on a sprinkler system and we don't want a neon green lawn, which is unnatural on a barrier island.  We may plant more decorative grasses, which require no watering and need be cut only once a year.  We may dryscape.  We may plant more shrubs.

And I've already planted bamboo.  My neighbor says, "That stuff grows like crazy!  It will take over your whole yard! and it gets out of control!"

Oh, we can only hope!  Because I'd rather live in a bamboo forest than on a neon green putting green!

And the "hassle" of a maintenance-free plant that grows in harmony with nature, not in spite of it, is far, far less than trying to make a perfect putting green out of your front yard.  Go figure - people will spend hours and hours every week mowing, fertilizing and spraying a lawn, but think that a little bamboo is a "nightmare".  People are idiots.

I'd rather have this, than a lawn!