Innovative thinking and a strong commitment to water savings leads to a successful campus overhaul for the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith
It’s not everyday that a university can save $100,000 in expenses. What’s even more extraordinary is a university’s ability to save over 12,000,000 gallons of water. But innovative thinking and a strong commitment to water savings led to a successful irrigation overhaul project that accomplished these results.
This year’s Water and Sustainability Innovation Award winner is SSC Services for Education. On January 15, 2020, SSC was honored with the sustainability award for their irrigation overhaul of the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith (UAFS) campus.
The Water and Sustainability Innovation Award is an opportunity to recognize landscape companies, organizations and municipalities for sustainable, water-efficient projects.
This irrigation improvement project began in July 2017 when Matt Rich, Grounds Manager for SSC, took over management of the UAFS Campus. The campus had significant irrigation issues in the beginning. Water usage was steadily rising even though there were no new buildings. Leaks were extensive, and the campus had poor irrigation installation and scheduling.
“We started with the basics and fixed all the leaks over the first few months,” said Rich. “Dozens of valves were replaced, hundreds of heads, pipes were fixed, and controllers were adjusted.” As winter approached, Rich and his team installed unions on backflows and valves in order to maintain the system more efficiently.
Rich and his team continued to implement creative and impactful changes, performing an extensive overhaul of the irrigation system over the course of the next couple of years.
“We inventoried and adjusted all the timers and schedules to be more appropriate to the size of the backflow and to be courteous to students walking on campus, since they were previously irrigating in the middle of the day,” Rich explained. The team also catalogued all the water meter numbers for each backflow so they could track them in a spreadsheet, calculating potential water output which allowed them to water more appropriately for the time of year.
But SSC didn’t stop there. Rich said, “We did want to fix an irrigation system, but as we did so, we realized we could fix much more than that. We could promote a healthier environment for our campus.”
The team added smart irrigation controllers to continue to improve water conservation and eliminate additional costs. They changed high water use landscape areas to mulch to improve water retention. “For example,” Rich explained, “we changed from grass in parking lot islands to Asiatic jasmine, which is more drought tolerant and easier to maintain.”
Since they were able to identify the water meters and backflows associated with them, the team could reduce costs by redirecting some of the irrigation water that was potable, which Rich explained has a higher surcharge.
One other important update to the irrigation overhaul was the addition of student involvement. “We involved many student groups at our university,” Rich said. “We educated and built systems together in a collaborative effort to understand the problem and to create the overall solution. After identifying all of the irrigation on our 168-acre campus, we started to change the way irrigation was discussed.” The students also helped plant sustainable landscape areas, such as a butterfly garden.
Rich added, “We are using our creativity to maximize the efficiency on our campus. We are combining new integrated technology, such as automowers and smart controllers, to control the irrigation system and original practices like xeriscaping. We have created a cycle of internal investments that support each other and help with future innovations that may come available.”
As a result, the campus reduced its water use from 15,721,464 to 9,020,880 gallons per year, a decrease of 42.6%, saving almost $100,000 per year. The improvements also saved 12,000,000 gallons of water over the course of the first two years. They plan to invest these savings into additional sustainable efforts, including the installation of LED lighting and upgrades to air conditioning units. The updated smart controllers and other irrigation equipment could potentially lead to a 20% per year reduction in water usage.
Rich pointed out, “We incorporated more than just the solution to a common problem. Our project will always be ongoing because to make it sustainable, we need to incorporate our most valuable asset, our students.”
Each year Water and Sustainability Innovation Award recognizes a project that strives to solve sustainability and water efficiency challenges that help to contribute to a healthy environment, equity (quality of life) or a vital economy. SSC was able to improve the overall look of the UAFS Campus while addressing these three key components. We congratulate them for their innovative sustainability efforts.