Like so many others, Patrick Crais didn’t wind up in the water industry “on purpose.” A Naval Academy graduate, Crais spent some time overseas, and then went to Westminster Seminary for a year after getting out of the military. After what he calls a “wonderful year off” with time to reflect and simply enjoy life, he started really thinking about getting a job.
That’s when his mechanical engineering background from the military helped land him an engineering position with an irrigation product manufacturer and got his first taste of the importance of conserving water. Up until that point, he had never worked with a sprinkler. But from there it’s become an intense passion – because like everything else in life, Crais approached it whole-heartedly. In 2009, Crais founded Blue Watchdog Conservation in San Diego, Calif. The company’s mission is conserving water and offering consultation services to help others do the same.
Approaching with passion. Crais is someone who approaches life with enthusiasm. He loves doing speaking engagements and also enjoys being an adjunct teacher at a local community college, instilling his passion for conservation into his students’ hearts. “I get really excited about conservation,” Crais says.
“Even though I’m a mechanical engineer and have that technical background, I’m also a good speaker and I know I need to play to my strengths. The combination of studying sprinklers as an engineer and finding better ways to do things and wanting to work with clients who are passionate like me, made the idea of my own business the ultimate goal.”
While Crais had enjoyed his work in irrigation product manufacturing thoroughly, in time he had developed the desire to be on the business end of the water world.
“There’s a lot of focus on web-based controls and other tools to conserve water, but our mission is helping anyone put in the right water management system – whether web-based or not – and assisting them in conserving water as efficiently as possible,” Crais says.
“That has evolved into working for water agencies and even taking the Blue Watchdog system and putting it into the hands of the water agencies with a program we call BlueDashboard.”
That effort ultimately grew into its own business – BluePandas, a company that works with water agencies to help them meet their program goals. “BluePandas has allowed us to do some of the same things we do for our Blue Watchdog clients, but on a bigger scale,” Crais says. “With BluePandas, we’ve really moved into the consulting arena.”
Beyond the sprinklers. Crais says the company looks at anyone with a lot of property as a “water agency” since they are managing water on a large-scale. While Crais says they started out primarily working with one- or two-acre properties, the company now travels all over the region and works with properties as large as 120 acres. But regardless of the property size, their mission remains the same – managing water as intelligently as possible. “We even do indoor evaluations now,” Crais says.
“I don’t just look at sprinklers. Our focus is not solely on irrigation but on ‘how can you manage your water better, overall.’ That includes looking at toilets. Some of these people have $400,000 water bills a year and aren’t doing anything to change it. So I come in and talk about taking over that management process.”
Crais says that better product is part of the solution, but it’s not the whole picture. “You could have the best equipment in the world with smart controllers and the works,” he says. “But if you’re not using it properly it doesn’t mean a thing. Our effort is not just on the product lines, but on the management system itself. How can we equip you to use the products the best way possible? That may even include teaching landscapers who are already working on a property.”
Although Crais is trained in the irrigation field he says that the focus is more on being “water conservationists” than technician, which he says is a little different than the way the industry typically looks at things. “We train our people in irrigation but also in water management operations,” Crais continues. “We’re not just trying to create good irrigation techs, but also good water managers. I also try to turn each employee into their own ‘small business owner’ in the sense that they run their own show. I can’t be everywhere at once and I need employees who can do things on their own.”
A three-fold approach. That’s not to say that the company doesn’t do irrigation repair and service. “We definitely do repairs,” Crais says. “We’re just not looking for sprinkler repair jobs that are a one-hour fix and the sprinkler is back to working but running inefficiently. We are conservationists and we want clients to care about conserving this precious resource as much as we do. We not only want to work with people who believe water is important enough to save but we want to work for people who believe that too. Our employees and our clients both agree with that mission. We’re all about saving water and making clients happy in the process.”
Crais says the company offers a three-fold service. “We’ll typically do a repair day or two where we take care of any major problems such as wire issues or man line leaks,” Crais says. “At the end of those repair days we pitch a bid with an itemized and prioritized list such as putting in a sub meter or putting in a flow sensor. It may even include just aerating a lawn – something that we don’t even do ourselves. We take a holistic view as we’re not just looking to do what’s best for us but what is truly best for the client. The goal is what would most effectively save water. Not what’s the highest profit margin.”
Next, for clients that are continuing their services with Blue Watchdog, the company does an “efficiency improvement project.” “We don’t call it a sprinkler install,” Crais says. “We may change out 150 of the 300 heads and we will spend a lot of time on the lawn looking into the biggest problems. We’re big into retrofitting existing systems with things like sub meters and pressure regulators. We definitely like web-based controllers but we also recognize that’s not always a good fit for our market as many of them already have landscapers.”
The final phase of three-fold approach is water management operations. “If the client is big enough, we sign a contract with them for ongoing water management through web-based controllers or other efforts,” Crais says. “We have one employee that drives around once a week and takes meter readings, all of which go into BlueDashboard.net, which we use to manage our sites. Once a month we send a report to the client showing what they saved.”
It largely comes down to strategic planning, Crais says. “Our goal is to have a plan for every single gallon of water used,” he says. “Of course we understand things do happen. We had one client whose grandkid came over and turned on the hose, which ran for 10 days. But we’re also looking at technology to prevent problems. We want to make irrigation management as simple as possible for the client. Keeping it simple makes it more likely to be successful.”