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Saturday, April 4, 2020
Connecting Our Communities

New watering system is powered by the sun

Trees for Woolwich volunteer rigs up an automated method of replacing volunteer labour at Elmira tree nursery

Many hands may make light work, but automating the process really lessens the load. That’s especially helpful when the work involves relying on volunteers to provide the manual labour.

Already facing an increased demand on its resources thanks to a new township greening initiative, Trees for Woolwich volunteers found themselves expanding an Elmira tree nursery it’s been cultivating to help with their work. Enter a plan to automate the watering of an ever-growing supply of trees, one that’s powered by the sun, to boot.

Recognizing seedlings and young trees require plenty of care-taking, Matthew Cowan created a solar irrigation watering system that helps with the upkeep of the tree nursery while relieving volunteers of an ongoing job. It’s a project that he took into his own hands when he saw there was a huge amount of manual labour involved in watering more than 2,000 trees. From that the idea sprouted of an automated system that requires minimal human intervention. 

“It all operates hands-off most of the time. Occasionally there’s a glitch, but it allows us to give the seedlings and the bigger trees the amount of water that they need,” Cowan explained.

Adding to the complications was also the location of the nursery, since it is off grid and not near any power sources this called for the use of solar energy.

“I looked at it from the point of view ‘can we do this on an automated basis?’ and so the second part of the question was ‘could we do it using solar power?,’” he explained.

Prior to the system that was built by Cowan, Trees for Woolwich relied on volunteers that would have to visit the nursery three to four times a week to do serious labour – drag the pump out and the hoses. From there they would have to remain on site from anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour to monitor the watering.

“Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s pretty nifty,” said Inga Rinne, who chairs the Trees for Woolwich effort.

To start off the irrigation system, Cowan set up a 100-watt solar panel and connected it to a battery to keep it charged. That was more than enough power for what the nursery needed, explained Cowan. Next, he set up automated valves in the water tanks that would automatically open and close with the help of a float switch that determined when the tank was full.

“We set up a watering routine, when they needed to be watered and how much. So they were watered four days a week for about 45 minutes and then the valve would open automatically then close again.”

Adding onto the old setup, which was a drip watering system – water from the tanks ran through hoses and would water the seedlings – two new circuits were implemented for an increased watering range. Cowan installed four sprinkler heads that were used with a pressure system that would allow water to spray through the nozzles and reach the smaller trees in the nursery.  And another circuit was added in the far back of the nursery where more trees were implemented into the watering process.

“It’s a complete game-changer for us,” Rinne said on the new watering system.

The solar powered system helped to remove the need of volunteer labour to run the nursery, but Cowan recalls there is a downside.

“When the volunteers used to show up and drag the pump out they had to stay there for 45 minutes or an hour while the watering happened,  so in the meantime they weeded. Now that we don’t need the volunteers to do that, the weeding is suffering a little bit,” he said.

With much planning and thinking involved in creating a system like this, Cowan is happy he gets to help the Trees for Woolwich initiative, which is working to make the community greener. The first part of the system was the drip watering that was created nearly three years ago, Cowan said, now back in June he was able to implement two more circuits that fully automated the watering system.

As the weather gets colder, Rinne explains that the Trees for Woolwich group will start to prepare and cover the trees for the winter season.

“This is kind of the end of the season for us. What has been really exciting this year is the number of people who have really been getting on board with the whole concept of planting, and new people who have come out to help.”

The trees will get winterized over the next few weeks as the volunteers start working on the 2020 plan.

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