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Water conservation becoming big business for Petaluma company

When groundskeepers for the Petaluma City Schools District suspect they have a water line break, they no longer need to keep the sprinklers running while they walk between the control box and the play field in order to test the irrigation system.

With a tap on a smartphone, the sprinklers will remotely switch on and can be similarly shut off once the break is pinpointed. The smartphone app is part of the technology provided by a Petaluma company, HydroPoint Data Systems, that has helped the school district save an estimated $250,000 a year, said Jamie King, the district’s operations and energy manager.

“I’m telling you, it’s been a blessing having these guys in our backyards,” King said of HydroPoint. The technology helps the district staff “work smarter and not so much harder.”

Water consumption in California has often been a low-tech operation, with an estimated 200,000 homes and businesses in the state still lacking water meters. But years of drought have sent companies and municipalities scrambling for ways to conserve water, and HydroPoint says its technology is saving billions of gallons a year by reducing the amount used for irrigating lawns and other plants.

“At the end of the day, we’re keeping landscaping alive,” said Chris Spain, CEO of the 13-year-old company.

HydroPoint uses wireless technology to automate the operation of sprinkler and dripper systems. The company has developed a weather data system that can automatically customize a watering schedule based upon temperature, wind, humidity and solar radiation for a given location. The system takes into account the type of plants and soil, as well as whether the land has a slope or is mostly sunny or shady.

With 53 employees, HydroPoint’s technology operates in nearly every state. Its clients include Wal-Mart, Oracle, Caltrans, Target, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Hilton and the Los Angeles school district.

In a single year, its customers cut water use by 15 billion gallons and saved $137 million, the company touts.

Last fall HydroPoint won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense Manufacturer Partner of the Year award. The company said it was the first winner among smart irrigation businesses.

The recognition comes as California struggles through its fourth year of drought. State water officials last week approved sweeping rules meant to back up Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for a 25 percent cut in urban water use statewide.

Water tech companies haven’t drawn the kind of investment that has gone to startups bringing energy-related innovations to market. Global venture funding for companies with water solutions amounted to $1.5 billion over the last five years, compared to $1.6 billion in 2014 alone for energy-saving startups, according to the Cleantech Group’s i3 information service.

But the water sector is gaining more attention, and the state drought seems to be a good reason. In a time of need, startups are showing their innovations can help both homeowners and businesses use water more efficiently.

The technology won’t be the total solution to the drought, but in many cases “it’s a cheaper alternative than installing new toilets or building a new reservoir,” said Scott Bryan, chief operating officer for Imagine H2O, a San Francisco nonprofit that encourages entrepreneurs to bring water-saving innovations to market. Wells Fargo has pledged $1 million to the organization, which Bryan called a sign of the widespread interest in finding solutions.

Spain and co-founders Chris Manchuck and Peter Carlson began HydroPoint in 2002. A former software company owner, Spain said the three sensed an opportunity to boost efficiency in landscape irrigation, a major area of water consumption.

“We were right about the market and the opportunity,” said Spain. “We were just about eight years early.”

At the start, he recalled, the work “was all evangelism,” trying to explain both the problem and the solution. But those early years did prepare the company to capitalize on both developing technology and a growing awareness of the need to better steward the world’s water supplies.

The company first concerned itself with getting the right amount of water to the right place at the right time, said Spain. But today “it’s about getting the right piece of data to the right person at the right time.”

A key development was the company’s WeatherTRAK system, which collects weather measurements from around the nation, “8 million data points a day,” said Spain. With all that information, the system uses computer modeling to calculate “evapotranspiration” values for neighborhoods down to the square kilometer. The company maintains the modeling has been independently proven to be within 2 percent of accuracy, compared to having an actual weather station at the irrigation site.

Using the weather data, the system automatically controls the watering in an effort to avoid excess irrigation. The aim is to water infrequently but deeply, said co-founder Carlson, who also is vice president of product management and technology.

HydroPoint offers its clients a computerized dashboard to monitor and manually control water use. The technology can show the latest compliance rules of the local water agency and even program a system-wide reduction in water use, say 10 percent. Thus, a user can change the operation of thousands of valves “with a single click,” said Carlson.

The system also works with special flow sensors that are being installed in the vast majority of new landscaping projects, Carlson said. The technology allows an operator to get a mobile alert if a valve malfunctions or a sensor detects a leak.

“If there’s a break,” said Carlson, “we can catch it quickly.”

To connect all the components of this wireless system, HydroPoint partnered with AT&T. “The coverage is essential,” Spain said of the communication company’s network. Since HydroPoint works with large clients that have sites spread around the nation, “either you’ve got a solution or you don’t” for every state.

Such wireless machine-to-machine communication continues to afford new areas of exploration, AT&T officials said.

“As we become more connected as a society, it creates great opportunities for us,” said Ken McNeely, president of AT&T California. The aim, he said, is “making people’s lives better.”

Such efforts include the company’s participation in “smart cities” initiatives in such locales as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Along with efforts to more efficiently use gas and electricity, AT&T is involved in water management programs with special acoustic detectors that can send out an alert if a water line develops a leak.

Without such detection, “it could be days and weeks before you figure out that there’s a loss,” said Mobeen Khan, an executive with AT&T Advanced Mobility Solutions.

Since its beginnings, HydroPoint has raised more than $40 million in venture capital.

In the next three or four years, the company might go public or be acquired, Spain said. The privately-held company does not disclose revenues, which Spain said are growing 20 percent a year. Growth could accelerate even more, he said, under its current owners and investors through mergers or partnerships.

“We see the opportunity to build this to a $100 million business,” he said.

Given the severity of the state’s drought, Californians need to look at every available tool for conservation, said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland nonprofit research group that has added up the number of state households without water meters.

Gleick specifically noted HydroPoint’s focus on excess watering of turf and plants, calling it “a big part of the problem” that needs to be addressed.

Efficiency matters, he said, because “we no longer have enough water to do everything we want to do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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