Many apartment communities around the country are well into their peak watering season (usually March to June). But turning that spigot on is getting more and more expensive. “We believe that the cost of water will grow at a faster clip than the cost of energy,” says Greg Mutz, CEO of Chicago-based AMLI Residential. “In Atlanta, we anticipate water rates increasing by 50 percent over the next four years. Over the past eight years, AMLI’s water rates have doubled.”

AMLI is addressing this problem by monitoring its water usage through its green dashboard and utilizing different systems, including weather-based irrigation systems, rain sensors, and some drip irrigation practices.

AMLI is not alone. Other companies are also taking high-tech strides to compensate when Mother Nature doesn’t deliver enough moisture. Atlanta-based Post Properties is using systems that can detect rainfall and adjust accordingly.

“We’re at the middle stage of intelligent irrigation systems,” says Steve Sadler, vice president of strategic business services for Post. “We have satellite-type systems that track and monitor current weather patterns.”

Memphis-based Mid-America Apartment Communities is taking the use of technology a step further. It has a high-tech computer controlling its irrigation system. The computer knows what types of plants are on each property, how much water they use during certain periods of time, and how much water those plants need to live.

“A scientist within ET Water Systems [the provider of the product] develops a coefficient for every type of plant,” says David Nischwitz, senior vice president and director of property redevelopment at Mid-America. “Those coefficients are plugged into a clock. It’s zone by zone. Some zones will more need water than others. It’s very specific to the plant types for each zone that you’re watering.”

The watering schedules per zone are based on factors such as plant material, rainfall, temperatures, soil type, terrain, root depth, and sun-versus-shade conditions. The schedule is calculated by the system so that watering times can vary on a daily basis as needed. Mid-America can control the system through the web and receive email updates regarding watering schedule changes or rain detection.

“We can dial into one weather station per controller, but the large network of weather stations can put us within a mile of each property for accurate weather details,” says Josh White, director of landscaping operations for Mid-America.

All in all, the system seems to be working. Mid-America has cut its water costs by 25 percent at sites that use the system and is aiming for an ROI of less than four years. Right now, the system is deployed at 21 properties across all six of the company’s regions, with the largest concentration being in Texas. The REIT does not want to sacrifice curb appeal during this process so it introduces the plants to less water and monitors for any shock that is noticed.  

“Our initial threshold for selecting properties was the cost of water and level of usage per site,” White says. “We combined these two factors and selected our sites. The key to maximizing efficiency in 2009 and 2010 was to install the systems before the peak watering season began [typically March-May].”