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Profitable Practices: Knowledge is Power

Features - Business Management

How irrigation contractors can learn to fine-tune their trade.

John Torsiello | January 9, 2009

Winter is an ideal time for lawn and landscape contractors to hit the books (and the Web) in anticipation of selling irrigation system maintenance services for the coming season. With the number of new residential and commercial units dwindling in an ever-tightening economy, adding existing irrigation system maintenance services can create vital new cash-flow streams for contractors.

“Given the current economic crises, the only people growing their businesses and working full-time are the service companies,” says Stephanie Pollard, irrigation industry consultant and owner of The Oasis Group, an irrigation installation company based in Ontario, Canada. “I was talking to a contractor in Florida and they said business owners there are making a shift. They don’t have 3,000 new homes coming online every year anymore, so they are looking for an edge in the marketplace.”

In many instances, that edge is education. Most irrigation equipment companies offer various levels of training for both residential and commercial contractors. And having a comprehensive working knowledge of a system – knowing not only how to install it but also how to maintain it – can result in potentially lucrative service contracts.

“There seems to be a very low entry point into our industry,” Pollard says. “There are people with a pickup truck and a wheelbarrow going around saying that they can install and care for an irrigation system when they might not know how the sprinklers are supposed to be putting water down on the property.”

Pollard adds that contractors who have completed a training program and/or received certification in irrigation maintenance enhance their credibility with customers.

“If you communicate to your customers that you have taken classes and have some type of certification for servicing irrigation systems, it goes a long way toward building customer loyalty.”

Mickey Irwin, owner of Select Environment in San Carlos, Calif., also says knowledge is invaluable.

“When I can speak to a client and can be confident that I know what I’m talking about, how can they not hire me?”

Irvin has attended the educational programs offered by Phoenix-based Ewing Irrigation Products for almost 20 years. His studies have covered basic irrigation, troubleshooting, water management, water auditing, lighting and water features.

“Next, I believe, will be the smart controllers, which I have used for three or four years,” Irvin says. “The more I can learn the better.”

Victoria Michaels, owner of Victoria Gardensmith in Anaheim, Calif., concurs. She has also attended educational seminars offered by Ewing.

“The more I learn, the more I am able to help my customers,” Michaels says. “An irrigation auditor class was very helpful, as it gave me valuable tips on selling to customers.”

Ewing Irrigation Products offers a wide range of educational opportunities, including irrigation design and troubleshooting, irrigation system auditing, water feature installation and maintenance, and landscape installation and maintenance. Each season, the company hosts more than 200 courses. The firm also conducts educational events at various store locations, and its branch and field staff are available for customer consultation. Ewing also offers a digital resource center.

“Right now, professionals are looking to cut costs and streamline operations, improve skill sets and identify ways to grow and develop their scope of services,” says Terry Williams, vice president of the Ewing customer experience. “Education is always an area of interest for landscape and irrigation professionals.”

Williams adds that many green industry professionals are interested in becoming certified and are requesting new courses to help them prepare for certification, such as the Irrigation Association’s Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor exam (which allows individuals to apply to become an Environmental Protection Agency WaterSense Partner). The designation can prove an important asset in an industry facing increasingly strict water management guidelines and regulations.

“There definitely is a changing environment in our industry from a water conservation angle,” says Craig Otto, an instructor at the Rain Bird Academy. “Technology is advancing in irrigation right now, and it is vital for contractors to keep up so their knowledge can be applied properly and is beneficial to customers. More and more end-users are seeing that it isn’t always a case of the lowest priced contractor. They want to make sure they get value for their money.”

The Rain Bird Academy, which is conducted at sites around the country, offers diverse programs ranging from field installation techniques to troubleshooting irrigation systems. The academy is staffed by certified professionals, and contractors can sign up for one or several classes during the weeks that the academy is being held.

“There are plenty of contractors who know how to install irrigation systems, but some don’t do a fantastic job of servicing those systems,” says Keith Kuehn, Rain Bird corporate marketing manager. “Servicing is one of the most frequently requested training sessions.”

Donn Mann, Rain Bird sales manager, finds that when his company trains contactors to properly service its systems, the result is satisfied end-users who are getting maximum value for their investment.

“We feel what differentiates our company from others in the industry is that we have taken our support to such a high level,” Mann says.

Rick Heenan, commercial division sales manager for Vista, Calif.-based DIG Corporation, believes the training and support that his company offers is “an opportunity to come into contact with the contractors on a one-on-one basis.” This way, Heenan says, he can discover precise application needs and allow sales people to make specific product recommendations for those applications.

Stuart Spaulding, DIG customer and technical service manager, says the firm offers irrigation and maintenance contractors access to the company’s technical service department during business hours by calling a toll- free telephone support line. Contractors can talk live to an irrigation expert who can troubleshoot and help them repair various types of irrigation products. The company’s Web site, where contractors can obtain programming and troubleshooting information, design tips, products specifications and part numbers in addition to answers to many frequently asked questions, can be utilized 24 hours a day.

DIG also conducts irrigation training and product knowledge sessions for contractors at a variety of local dealers and, when necessary, makes field service calls to assist contractors with on-site troubleshooting.

Alden Cleveland, director of sales for Jain Irrigation, says his company offers personalized, bi-lingual training to its nationwide wholesale distribution network and to irrigation contractors.

“Our training is specially geared toward understanding not only Jain Irrigation products, but the application of low-volume irrigation principals, water conservation, installation of systems and proper design and maintenance of those systems to assure efficient operation.”

Jain says low-volume systems, while simple to operate, require a regular maintenance schedule to assure proper filter operation that is required of all such systems.

“You need the appropriate pressure regulation to assure quality emitter flow and an evaluation of any distribution or micro-tubing to assess damage that may be present as a result of shovels, edgers, vandalism and other unforeseen events. These are preventative maintenance operations that can really benefit the contractor, and they assure the site’s irrigation system performs to customer expectations.”

A golf irrigation service component is also available at Toro’s service training facility in Bloomington, Minn. The facility has classrooms, complete audio-visual capability and a full shop and lab available for hands-on training.

But for those who can’t set aside time to travel, Hunter Industries of San Marcos, Calif., also offers irrigation contractors a wealth of information on its Web site, including a helpful irrigation business library, technical bulletins and project profiles.