License to Water

Features - Irrigation

States like North Carolina use licensing to regulate irrigation installation practices and conserve water use.

April 9, 2009
John Torsiello

North Carolina irrigation and landscape professionals are in the process of adapting to doing business in a brave new world after the state’s governor, Mike Easley, signed into law an irrigation contractors licensing bill.

The law, which became effective Jan. 1, created the North Carolina Irrigation Contractors Licensing Board and established a license requirement for irrigation contractors as well as disciplinary rules for non-compliance, including a fine of up to $2,500. The bill exempted professional engineers and landscape architects, irrigation systems at golf courses and agricultural operations and projects costing less than $2,500. Individuals and businesses have until July 1 to obtain a license.

Those applying for a license must have at least three years experience in irrigation construction or contracting or the educational equivalent. Two years of educational training in irrigation construction or contracting is considered the equivalent of one year of experience. A $10,000 corporate surety bond or letter of credit must also be filed with the board.

The examination administered to obtain a license tests an applicant’s understanding of efficient water use and conservation in irrigation construction and contracting; proper methods of irrigation construction; proper methods for irrigation instillation and basic business skills.

One more in a trend
North Carolina joins the growing ranks of states that have taken steps to safeguard water supplies and offer some level of consumer protection by ensuring those doing work on medium to large irrigation systems have the expertise and formal accreditation to perform the task, as well as manage and maintain the system at a highly efficient level.

States such as Texas, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Louisiana have similar laws on the books, and others, like Florida, South Carolina and Nebraska, have city and/or county licensing requirements. Illinois is considering licensing legislation.

Recent droughts in various areas of the country have only heightened government and public concern over water resources. Many communities have banned or severely restricted outdoor watering, at least temporarily.

Ronald Sneed, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, who provided input and guidance to groups that formulated and lobbied for the North Carolina legislation, says the effort to adopt such a law was thwarted for several years.

“Every time a bill would get to committee it ran into opposition. Somebody would stand up and say, ‘What about the 16-year-old who mows grass on weekends?’ It wasn’t until the drought of 2007 that groups got together and said we really need to do something to protect the green industry here,” Sneed says.

Contractors, landscapers and other green industry professionals in North Carolina were concerned severe water usage restrictions would negatively impact their industry, an $8 billion annual business estimated to employ around 150,000 in the state.

“There were moves to cut landscape irrigation altogether. There was real concern among those in the green industry that their livelihoods were at stake,” Sneed says. “That’s when people in the industry realized they had to band together to demonstrate they truly wanted minimum standards of proficiency in installing and managing irrigation systems. It’s difficult to build more reservoirs, and you can’t control rainfall. But you can be more efficient in using water for irrigation. There was a strong lobbying effort and the bill was sold on the theme of water conservation.”

Contractor response
Jim Garvey, owner of Garvey Rain Co. in Raleigh, N.C., whose firm does $500,000 in business annually, of which around 90 percent entails irrigation work, likes the new law. “During the drought in 2007 our fate was left up to the city council as to whether we could water or not,” he says. “Now, we have a concerted voice that says we are trying to install responsible sprinkler systems that do not waste water.”

Kevin McRae, owner of K2 Irrigation Services in Enka, N.C., which derives most of its $500,000 in annual sales through irrigation work, concurs. “A fair percentage of our work involves coming in after another contractor has installed an irrigation system to repair or retrofit a system that was poorly installed,” he explains. “We have come across some pretty crazy systems and many of them are wasting more water than anything. Water conservation is extremely important today.”

“Anyone can go to a hardware store and purchase the materials to install an irrigation system,” McRae adds. “However, the experience and knowledge necessary to install a good, water-efficient irrigation system is extremely important. The new law, hopefully, will reduce the number of unskilled contractors and provide more opportunities for those who take the time and effort to become licensed, certified and continue their education on a regular basis.”

Greg Todd, owner of Dogwood Landscaping and Design in Apex, N.C., is concerned with the financial impact of the new bill on the industry, such as the cost of bonding, testing, education and the license fee, as well as advertising to “get the word out” that he is a licensed contractor. Todd’s firm does $1.3 million in annual sales, about 10 to 20 percent of which is irrigation work. Other contractors, including, McRae, say the costs involved are “minimal in the grand scheme of things.”

While Kyle Molesky, owner of Williamson Irrigation and Lighting in Mooresville, N.C., approves of the new law, he worries it may place an extra burden on some contractors. Almost all of his $500,000-revenue business is made up of irrigation work.

“It will be up to us to make sure the client knows a system must be installed and repaired by a licensed contractor,” he says. “We will have to police our own industry and competitors. Short term, the cost of the licensing classes, paying for a hotel and the test was an expenditure we did not need. Long term, I hope it will be a positive by driving out unlicensed, ‘low ball’ bids on projects.”

Brent Mecham, irrigation development director of the Irrigation Association in Falls Church, Va., says the future is now when it comes to insuring efficient water use.

“If you believe that water is a precious resource, then there should be some sort of controls to guarantee a high quality of workmanship and a minimum level of expertise for contractors,” he says, adding that while not in favor of extensive regulations, in the case of North Carolina such as bill may force things to become better. “There is a mechanism in place for doing the job right.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Torrington, Conn.