Water, water underground

A local inventor has found a method for irrigating lawns and gardens without wasting water

Jonas Sipaila’s ECS chamber reduces water waste caused by evaporation.

Jonas Sipaila’s ECS chamber reduces water waste caused by evaporation.

Photo by David Robert

A new way to water plants is on the rise. Its inventor says that when people see the money and water it saves—compared to sprinkler or drip irrigation systems—they will never turn back.

“This is a breakthrough,” said Jonas Sipaila, the balding, mild-mannered inventor and president of Evaporative Control Systems, Inc. “It’s like the light bulb; it’s simple technology that opens up to many applications.”

Simple ideas, such as Thomas Edison’s filament inside a glass tube that forever pushed candles into the category of frivolous gift items, can change the world. Sipaila’s invention is a plastic chamber that resembles a 4-foot-long corrugated cylinder split lengthwise. Sipaila holds one of the black chambers delicately in his hands.

The chambers are made up of cells. Each cell has three holes: water in, water out and sand entry. The sand hole is on the side and allows sand—which has haunted gardeners because it clogs up sprinkler heads and drip irrigation systems—inside the chamber for a few inches. A second wall blocks the sand from getting any further in.

He explains with a wry smile that each cell is a unit. Just as one light bulb can be held in someone’s hand, but thousands of light bulbs can light a football stadium, thousands of these units can be used to slowly but effectively irrigate a field or yard so that it’s greener and crisper than it was under those old systems of above-ground watering. Sipaila’s eyes grow brighter as he explains his invention.

Nevada isn’t Sipaila’s first home. For 17 years he was an environmental-health worker in upstate New York. One of his feats there was to create a rat bait to help with the area’s infestation. He proudly shows a copy of a news article, which includes pictures of a younger Sipaila with a fuller head of hair, standing next to a diagram of how the rats would meet their demise.

This device, though, may turn out to be a better mousetrap for Sipaila. Nevada’s 7-inches-a-year average rainfall could certainly make his apparatus popular—especially as the Truckee Meadows begins to reach its development limits. Sipaila claims that the system can save around 54 percent of the water conventional systems use.

With evaporative control systems, gardeners place the chamber scoop-side-down 13 inches under surface level in a tray that prevents water from flowing downward. Then they put sand between the chamber and their plants. When water is fed into the chamber through a 2-inch underground PVC pipe, it fills and overflows slowly through a hole in the middle of the chamber into the sand. Through “capillary rise,” the water is pulled upward through the sand to the roots of the plant.

One of ECS’s strengths, Sipaila says, is that it does not saturate the plant as water from above does. The sand, because it is not compacted and is free of extra minerals, allows the water to be better oxygenated. This creates an optimal setting for roots to grow. The more roots, the healthier the plant is. Underground watering also prevents mushrooms, fungus and weeds, since there is less water on the surface to germinate seeds.

Watering from beneath the surface also means more water stays in the ground longer without evaporating, which gives the plant a steadier and more dependable supply. In the case of a football field, this supply of water from under the ground keeps the field cooler longer.

Sipaila has pictures of pristine football fields—such as the University of Nevada, Reno, practice fields and the slated Damonte High School’s new football field in the South Meadows near Damonte Ranch Road—to prove how effective the system is. Along with a large work crew, he installed thousands of the little chambers under these fields and developed a pipe system to fill them with water periodically.

Even though the field looked great, Sipaila says, the system scared maintenance workers, because they couldn’t see any water going onto the grass.

Joe Gabica, architecture construction supervisor for the Washoe County School District, says he didn’t like the system the first time he saw it in use on one of UNR’s fields. Turns out, the university had installed it incorrectly, and he’s now quite impressed with the system in use on the Damonte field.

“It’s performing handsomely,” he says. “[But] I’m still somewhat skeptical. This is a big decision for the district. Landscaping water is a big budget concern for us. If this works on Damonte, we’ll use in district-wide. If it doesn’t, we won’t.”

Sipaila is confident. He flashes “before” pictures of the UNR practice fields that show an off-green and brown surface with pools of water in the middle or wherever there’s a slope. Traditional fields like these have clay under the surface. When there’s excess water, the clay turns into mud, which can make for a slick surface. Maintenance workers also have to work at keeping the excess water off the fields, sometimes using hydraulic vacuums.

When deciding whether to install ECS or to use traditional methods to water their fields or back yards, people invariably compare costs, Sipaila says. Installing a traditional sprinkler system, for example, initially will appear to be a lot less expensive than installing ECS.

ECS costs $2.23 per square foot to install, whereas a sprinkler system costs $1.85 a square foot, Sipaila explains. If someone has a 343,000-square-foot, or 8-acre, project, this will amount to $634,550 for the conventional sprinkler system and $764,890 for the ECS system.

Sipaila says most people are “baited” at this point into buying the sprinkler system because it seems cheaper. But because of the water and maintenance costs saved, an ECS system can save someone up to $859,000 over 10 years on the same sized area, he said.

While ECS is new, the idea is as old as time. The Hopi Indians used to plant corn in the sandy riverbeds of Arizona and depend on the capillary rise of the water through the sand to nourish the plants.

Among the pictures Sipaila uses to market the underground watering system is one of him sitting in front of a garden with a 12-pound zucchini. It, of course, is a product of ECS. This one grew in Reno in an ECS-watered garden.

For homes, Sipaila has developed a graded system wherein ECS chambers are installed one row above the other in a stair pattern so gravity can pull the water from one end of the system to the other.

Sipaila has other refinements on the idea. One is a plan for using sewage water—which is often emptied directly into rivers or the ocean—in an ECS system. This system would recycle that water, which is normally abandoned on a large scale by cities, and put human waste to positive use.

After years of research and development, Sipaila patented ECS in 1999. Since then, Sipaila and a small team have been in the research-and-development phase of the project. Now, it’s time to sell it. Sipaila believes that because of its simplicity, ECS, like the light bulb, may take some time to catch on.

“It’s embarrassingly simple," Sipaila says.