UW Information Technology

Watering UW’s lush landscapes

New virtual irrigation network will make massive job easier

Beautiful flowers being water by an automated irrigation system

By Elizabeth Sharpe

A single computer on James Boeckstiegel’s desk controls the majority of irrigation systems for the UW’s 650-acre Seattle campus.

Boeckstiegel, maintenance mechanic lead in UW Facilities Grounds Maintenance, is one of only three staff members who manage the massive task of irrigating the cultivated landscapes, green roofs and athletic fields that are signature features of the campus.

Imagine the many iconic spots on campus: Sylvan Grove, The Quad, Rainier Vista, HUB Lawn, Burke Gilman Trail, Memorial Way and the athletic fields. Now imagine them if they didn’t have the water they require, particularly now in the sun-drenched days of summer.

Unfortunately, over the last several years, the irrigation central control computer on Boeckstiegel’s desk has been cut off from the satellite controllers that manage the irrigation for vital planting zones across the Seattle campus, and significant numbers of trees and plants were lost. Three staff couldn’t keep up, as much as they tried, running out to manually operate each satellite irrigation controller at disconnected locations across campus.

“It’s critical that we have a viable central control and an irrigation infrastructure with a reliable communication platform,” said Brian Davis, the Outside Zone project manager for UW Facilities Maintenance & Construction, who uncovered the source of the irrigation problem. “You have three people managing this whole campus, so you need to be able to do global and independent programming at a central location.”

So he and the irrigation team worked with UW Information Technology (UW-IT) over the last two years to set up a secure virtual network just for the irrigation system.

The disconnect

Before, the satellite irrigation controllers located in the mechanical rooms of buildings or adjacent landscapes across campus were attached to that building’s network called a subnet, along with many other devices, such as computers and phones. Changes to the subnet could disconnect the satellite irrigation controllers from the central control computer system in the irrigation office. That caused the system to be unreliable; it wasn’t able to perform critical functions like remote monitoring, troubleshooting and control in those disconnected locations.

Unique water needs

The connection between the satellite irrigation controllers and the central control computer in the irrigation office is vital because irrigation is complicated, and the central controller ensures the satellite irrigation controllers are delivering the right amount of water to the disparate planting zones across campus.

“Irrigation is both science and art,” Davis said.

Each satellite irrigation controller has an average of 20 zones, and each zone comprises up to 50 or more sprinkler heads or drip irrigation under the ground. Each zone is carefully planned to ensure sustainable and environmentally friendly watering practices meet the needs of individual plants, while also conserving water.

“The UW is the second largest water user after the City of Seattle,” said Davis. “We have to be very responsible for our water usage.”

James Boeckstiegel and Brian Davis inspect equipment that help control irrigation systems that cover most of the UW's 650-acre Seattle campus.

Brian Davis (left) and James Boeckstiegel (right) inspect one of the satellite irrigation controllers that connects to the central irrigation system to water UW’s Seattle campus.

But this is not easy with the diversity of landscapes and plants across the Seattle campus.

Some landscapes are on a slope, while others are in raised planters. Sandy soil won’t hold a lot of water, but a sandy loamy soil will. And plants can be finicky. A Japanese Yoshino Cherry tree and a Dragon’s Claw Willow tree are not equally thirsty. Water needs largely decrease in winter because of the Pacific Northwest cooler, rainy weather. But plants in a rain shadow, or under an overhanging eave of a building, still need irrigation.

That’s why plants are co-located with plants with like water needs. It’s intentional campus landscaping design best practices, explained Davis. While campus’ landscape leans toward drought-tolerant plants, the University has unique landscapes and plant and tree collections too. There’s the Medicinal Herb Garden, Brockman Memorial Tree Tour, Drumheller Rose Garden and Fountain and the new Life Sciences Building’s green roof, to name a few.

To preserve these landscapes, the link between the central and satellite controllers needs to be reliable.

The irrigation network

Now, 15 satellite irrigation controllers have been moved to the new virtual network set up exclusively for the irrigation office. UW-IT leveraged UW’s existing network hardware and wiring to build the virtual network, giving UW Facilities uninterrupted connection to the zones controlled by the satellite irrigation controllers on the new network.

While 15 controllers only represent a fraction of the total number on campus, the goal is to eventually move all the controllers over to the dedicated network. This will take considerable time and resources because of the work involved in converting some of the existing controllers, which aren’t even networked, Davis explained.

Yet, having an irrigation-only network is already making a big difference, saving considerable time, and helping to protect the UW’s treasured landscapes, Boeckstiegel said.

“We know the water is turning on and turning off on campus when it should,” said Boeckstiegel. “It’s a thousand percent more efficient.”