Water Conservation Energy Efficiency
Do you want your home to be safer and more efficient? Here is our 4-part video series and map sharing some tips to protect your home, save on energy and water, and avoid danger from utility infrastructure. Let's get WISE about landscaping!
WISE Video 1: Fire & Infrastructure Safety Zones
“Home ignition zone” maps show three zones to be aware of around your home, where landscaping choices play a huge factor in wildfire risk.
Zone 1 is the area up to five feet from your home, where you want to avoid any combustible items. Recommended plants should be herbaceous – high moisture content and leafy – not coniferous – wood, oily or with sticky sap. Whatever plants you use, keep them low to the ground and spaced apart to prevent fire from spreading if they were to ignite. Many folks use flammable bark mulch in flower beds against a house, but a fire-resistant option would be rock or hardscaping like paving.
Basically, if you could start a campfire with it, keep it out of Zone 1.
Zone 2 takes you five to 30 feet out from your home. Focus on low to medium-sized plants, as well as turf, fire-resistant rock or hardscaping. Whatever you plant, keeping it low and spaced apart will prevent the spread of fire.
In Zone 3, 30-100 feet from your home, you could plant larger trees and shrubs, but it’s still important to keep from planting too close together and to choose fire-resistant options when possible. You also need to clear out dead fuel material as part of seasonal maintenance (we’ll talk more about maintenance in part four of the series).
There are many other factors to consider, so if you want an assessment of your home, contact the Okanogan Conservation District, www.okanogancd.org. You can also sign up for Wildfire Ready Neighbors through the Department of Natural Resources at www.wildfireready.dnr.wa.gov.
But whatever zone you plant trees in, watch out for utility infrastructure. Before you plant trees, make sure the mature plant will stay at least 10 feet away from overhead powerlines as it grows. Otherwise, the trees could grow right into the lines and cause a fire. Keep all plants more than 10 feet away from power poles, where they could pose a fire hazard.
If you have a pad-mount transformer on your property – green electrical boxes on a cement slab – please keep it clear from any plants or other items. If possible, keep 10 feet clearance on all sides, but especially the front to prevent anything from growing into it and causing problems. Utility workers need to be able to easily access it for maintenance. Fencing is OK around the transformer with proper clearances, so long as it can open up on the front of the box for access. Don’t paint or put anything on top of your transformer – it’s best to just keep it clear.
Before you start digging to plant a tree or a new garden bed, make sure to call 811 two days before you dig! It’s a free service, and public utilities will mark their underground infrastructure for you. Get more information at www.digsafewa.com.
WISE Video 2: Energy Efficiency
Now, take the home ignition zone map and wildfire-ready landscaping. Based on the three zones, there are ways to reduce the risk of wildfire destroying your home: Some think that you can’t be both energy-efficient and wildfire-ready, but with some creativity, you can have a bit of both.
Protecting your home from the heat takes the pressure off your home cooling system and provides energy efficiency. It’s like climate control inside your home, but it’s your own “micro-climate” outside.
One common practice that we don’t recommend is planting arborvitae or other trees or shrubs against a home to shade it from the sun’s heat. But arborvitae, for example, are referred to as “plant torches” or “gas cans” in the firefighting world, and are a major fire hazard, along with some other evergreen and coniferous plants.
Instead, in Zone 1 use groundcovers, vines, and low-growing herbaceous plants; in Zone 2 plant small to medium-sized broadleaf evergreen and deciduous shrubs and deciduous trees, spacing them apart to prevent fire from spreading.
In Zone 1, instead of clusters of fire-prone plants, provide shade with an herbaceous flowering vine up a fire-resistant composite or metal trellis or arbor. Consider a water feature to keep the air humid. Install fire-resistant window shades or awnings. Plant a vegetable or herb garden close to the home and keep it irrigated with easy access when it’s time to grab ingredients for your next meal.
As for using trees to shade your home, consider moving them out to Zone 3 (more than 30 feet from your home) and using broadleaf evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs, that will grow to provide shade for your home and your yard, especially on the east and west sides of the home. Deciduous plants are not only more fire-resistant, but block the hot sun in the summer with their leaves, and let the sun warm the house in the winter when the leaves fall – perfect for energy efficiency! They also provide a windbreak which can help in both summer and winter.
There are plenty of options for your landscaping to stay both fire-ready and energy-efficient. Also consider pairing portions of irrigated lawn with some hardscapes, like a patio with potted plants or dry rock beds.
Speaking of irrigation and water features, if you are on a well that uses an electric pump, your water usage also affects your energy bill. We need to also keep water conservation in mind during our landscape planning.
WISE Video 3: Water Conservation
When we talk about home ignition zones, a basic principle is that the closer you get to your home, the more critical it is to avoid combustible items. Part of wildfire readiness is keeping plants well-watered, and providing natural fire breaks like an irrigated lawn. But you might not want a huge yard that requires a lot of water. Instead, you might want to create a xeriscape, which utilizes plants that require little or no water.
Many Okanogan County native plants are good for xeriscaping, since they are both drought-resistant and fire-resistant – like lupine and balsamroot. Group plants based on similar water needs to avoid over- or under-watering. Consider some hardscaping as well, such as pavers or dry rock beds. If you plant a lawn, consider reducing the size and plant grass types that are conducive to your site and environment.
A greener lawn means better fire resistance, but you can minimize water usage with a timer system for optimal times – earlier morning or evening when temps are cooler. Water deeply, but infrequently, which helps plants develop deeper roots. Soil probes help to determine if you are over- or underwatering.
Don’t water on windy days when water will evaporate quickly. Also, arrange your sprinklers to water low to the ground (avoiding evaporation again) and to avoid spraying on pavement or other areas where water will be wasted. Make sure you water where plants need it – trees for example need water out to the edge of their canopy to reach the full length of the root system.
Regularly inspect your irrigation system for leaks. A leak as small as the tip of a pen in your automatic irrigation system can waste as much as 6,300 gallons of water per month!
Healthy soil is important for water retention. Consider a three-bin compost system, and use it in your garden. The organic matter in the compost helps retain moisture. You could also lay non-combustible mulch around your plants to retain moisture as well.
There are several other ways to reduce water waste: Winterize outdoor spigots when temps get below freezing to prevent leaks. Aerate your lawn, which allows for better absorption of water and nutrients. Install porous walkways to prevent water runoff. Wash your vehicle or your pet in an area of the lawn that needs the water. And maintain your plants by proper pruning to save on water.
WISE Video 4: Maintenance
We’ve shared a lot of tips about reducing your risk of fire and conserving water, but there’s no way to be perfect. Instead, let’s strive for excellence, rather than perfection. It’s all about increasing efficiency and reducing risk. Selectively begin to remove highly flammable plants and make improvements. Even fire-resistant landscapes are not fire-proof, but with proper maintenance, you can keep what your hard work has created.
Make sure you thin and prune your plants. Prevent the build-up of “ladder fuels” which would allow fire to climb from one plant to another. Prune trees 10 feet up from the ground, or from the top of a shrub underneath it. Prune and thin shrubs back to keep them separated to prevent fire spreading – they should be no closer than twice their height. You can clean the debris out of some shrubs or trees by hosing them down. And make sure to take care of those weeds regularly!
Don’t forget to maintain your clearance zones with utility infrastructure, too! Trim back shrubs or low trees to be at least 10 feet from poles and the front of pad-mount transformers. The edges of trees should have at least 10 feet clearance from power lines. If you have concerns or need more specific tips or help with clearance zones, please call us.
Now that you’ve done your pruning, thinning and weeding, clean up those debris piles. Rake up dead leaves, twigs and other plant litter – the leaves will be great for your compost bin. If you have a deck, get rid of debris under it and consider placing gravel underneath to reduce weeds and other fuel materials that may build up.
Look around your home for other places where debris can build up. Look for leaves or weeds around your roof, gutters, and outdoor HVAC units. Also remove items that are flammable, such as fuel cans or wood piles. As for wood piles, a cord of wood contains 20 million BTUs, which means it has the same potential to burn and cause damage as about 150 gallons of gasoline!
Speaking of damage, while you’re looking for debris, look for any needed repairs around the house. Check your vents for holes where wildfire embers could get in. Check those shades or umbrellas for wear and tear. Check your irrigation and hoses for leaks or other issues. And before temps drop to freezing, don’t forget to winterize – that could save you from a leaky system next season!
A few other tips: If you did put together a compost bin, it’s important to turn it to aerate it – materials should be wet, like a wrung-out sponge. Add more material if it’s too wet or add more water if it’s too dry. Also, maintain your non-combustible mulch and composted soil around plants to keep that moisture and replenish nutrients while discouraging weeds.
And while you’re using tools for maintenance, be careful to avoid the heat of the day and/or very dry conditions – fuel-based, heat-producing equipment can actually be a catalyst to spark a fire – use them in the cool of the day and be sure to keep your plants green.
View our WISE Landscaping map for some quick tips:
Get more information from the WSU-Extension Master Gardeners of Okanogan County or The Okanogan Conservation District.