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What are the advantages of a smart irrigation system?

Smart irrigation systems are integral to saving water and improving efficiency. IEEE senior member Shawn Chandler explains how.

One of the greatest advantages of a smart irrigation system is its ability to save water.

Generally speaking, traditional watering methods can waste as much as 50% of the water used due to inefficiencies in irrigation, evaporation and overwatering. Smart irrigation systems use sensors for real-time or historical data to inform watering routines and modify watering schedules to improve efficiency.

There are two important aspects of smart irrigation: control types -- the way the irrigation is controlled -- and delivery types -- the type of water delivery systems used.

There are also two basic types of control for smart irrigation systems, weather-based and soil-based, each varying in its technical method of sensing and supplying information.

Weather-based smart irrigation systems use local weather information drawn from reliable weather sources, sensors or historical data to support informed decisions about watering schedules. A weather-based irrigation system is also called an evapotranspiration, or ET, system, referring to the loss of water through evaporation from the land and transpiration from plants. Water schedules are determined using an analytical assessment of the combination of local temperature, humidity, insolation and wind.

Soil-based smart irrigation systems use local soil moisture data drawn from sensors in the ground to support informed decisions about watering schedules. Users can configure these systems to manage irrigation on demand, for example, when a particular land area is too dry and starting an irrigation routine or to stop irrigation when a particular saturation point is met because a soil moisture level has been reached. Controlling these two set points reduces the amount of water used by linking it to the moisture level needed in the soil for a particular crop.

One of the other major advantages of a smart irrigation system is that precision watering in smart irrigation also deals with efficiencies in the delivery of the water. There are generally four types of delivery: surface, sprinklers, trickle and subsurface methods.

Surface irrigation is the most traditional method, and it distributes water through irrigation ditches, letting gravity do the work. Sprinklers distribute water through the air like rain and can be fixed or mobile. Trickle irrigation spreads water very locally to the ground surface. Subsurface methods are buried next to the plant's root zone and apply water below the ground. Trickle systems and subsurface methods generally save the most water given their ability to reduce loss to evaporation.

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This was last published in February 2019

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