Keep the flow

Features - Irrigation

Try these basic maintenance tips and tricks for irrigation systems.

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October 10, 2017
Holly Hammersmith
Different water sources can impact how often an irrigation system needs to be serviced.
© NelliSyr | iStockphoto

Irrigation system maintenance can keep the phones ringing, especially as older installs age.

Johnny’s Turf Management has been in business for 35 years and has offered irrigation system installation since the early 1990s. The company, based in Jacksonville, Florida, provides lawn maintenance, landscaping and irrigation services to both residential and commercial customers. Today, 11 people work at Johnny’s Turf Management, which has an annual revenue between $750,000 and $900,000.

“Most of the stuff we do is repair work for big outfits,” says John Day, owner. “We have a customer with over 2,000 rental homes that we do all their service work. They call us when they know something’s broken.”

Lawn & Landscape spoke to Day about best practices for offering irrigation maintenance service, common questions from customers and tips on pricing. Here are some of his suggestions:

How often should you be servicing heads and nozzles?

“At least twice a year, we recommend them being flipped on and gone through,” Day says.

This recommendation is for customers with a clean water supply – typically city water. If the customer has well water, this may need to be done more often. “If you get into a drought situation, wells start picking sand up and the water table drops,” Day says.

How does the age of a system impact maintenance needs?

Irrigation heads can begin sticking out higher than the turf over time.

“It depends, again, on the water (source). That’s got a lot to do with it, but five years probably (when) heads begin to pop up,” Day says. “That head is popping up and down, and up and down, and up and down. Over time they wear, just like anything else.”

Other frequent reasons for maintenance calls include failed valves, stuck valves, broken heads and problems with rain sensor functioning.

When do you know if you have enough demand to start offering irrigation services?

“You just kind of have to feel your way around it,” Day says. “At that stage when you’re troubleshooting systems and someone calls and whatever is wrong – that takes a trained technician to do it.”

This typically requires a new hire. “A good one gets paid a good wage. To bring somebody on full-time, then you have that overhead. You’ve got to have somewhere to plug them in when you start. You’re not just going to have a full-time service truck running all the time when you’re starting.”

Once irrigation installations are completed by the company, maintenance can be offered going forward. Just recently, Day received a call for maintenance on a system he installed in 1999.

“We put stickers on the controllers when we were doing new construction with our company contact information on the stickers,” he says, adding that new homeowners may move in, see the sticker and call his company when maintenance is needed.

Do you have any tips for winterizing a system?

While irrigation systems in northern climates experiencing a hard frost should be winterized using an air compressor, this type of maintenance is not typically needed in warmer climates.

“You can’t set it and forget it. It’s automatic, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting enough water or too much.” John Day, owner, Johnny’s Turf Management

“The only (winterizing) thing that really needs to happen (in a warm climate like Florida) is the backflows. They are above ground. Sometimes we’ve had freezes to the point where they’ve frozen,” he says. “That’s on rare occurrences, but it has happened.”

Placing insulation on them and around the above-ground pipes can mitigate the risk of freezing and damage.

How do you price irrigation maintenance?

“We’re $75 for a service call. That gets us there and includes a half-hour of labor,” Day says. “And then we’re $75 an hour after.”

Customers at Johnny’s Turf Management are charged the same fee regardless of their distance from his place of business.

“You see people advertising maintenance all the time for $69, and they’re basically going through and they’re turning everything on and inspecting,” Day says. “The heads have gotten knocked over and they’re spraying up in the air or spraying down to the ground. That (fee) usually includes a half an hour or 45 minutes labor and then you charge from there for repairs and whatnot. When you go through, you can tell if the nozzles are clogged or the heads are sticking up or that type (of) stuff just by turning it on.”

What do you need to tell customers about their irrigation systems?

“The biggest thing is that you can’t set it and forget it,” Day says. “It’s automatic, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting enough water down, or too much.”

Many customers in Florida run their systems before the sun rises.

“They never turn them on and look at them. They just assume it’s doing what it’s supposed to do,” Day says.

Customers should turn the system on and view it in operation at least once a month.

“Down here we have water restrictions that are in place all the time. That’s two days a week. Because they’re watering for the restrictions, they think that’s supposed to be enough,” Day says. “We get a lot of rain in the afternoons so it usually works, but again, in a drought situation, two days a week just doesn’t work.”

Customers need to be involved in the programming, whether it’s a drought or a season with above-average rainfall.

“Rain sensors can be set up to an inch and a half of rainfall before they kick in. And if that’s the case, we’re getting a ton of water and the system is still running. Or it could be set at an eighth of an inch and it sprinkles and it shuts it down,” Day says.

Do you have any other tips for communicating with the customer?

“Be careful not to make the customer too knowledgeable, or curious, about the system,” Day says. “You can have them too informed to where they start messing with it. They start asking for tools to adjust rotors and then I can’t tell you how many times people do that and then they strip them and they’re doing full circles and watering the road or the house.”

Keep customer knowledge to the basics, he says.

“If you notice something is not right, then give us a call,” Day tells customers.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.