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Features - Irrigation

Utilizing the latest irrigation technology benefits you and your customers. Plus, it positions you as a professional and a leader in sustainable practices.

Jason Stahl | January 18, 2013

Mel Grills has only been in the irrigation installation business for three-and-a-half years, but from day one he set out to be a “professional” and to epitomize that term. That’s the primary reason he immediately jumped aboard the high-tech train and offered his clients smart controllers and weather-sensing devices.

“I’m able to provide the professionalism of the industry,” says Grills, who owns Mr. Lawn Irrigation in Greenwood, Mo. “Clients are impressed when they see a company employing that kind of technology to provide a service. Whenever I pull out my tablet and show them pictures of previous jobs or talk them through an estimate, they understand it and are able to get a visual and are more inclined to give me the business.”

Although Grills has embraced smart controllers and weather-sensing devices, and has recently begun integrating this technology with mobile devices, he has stayed away from soil moisture sensors due to the fact that he mostly has small residential clients who would most likely balk at the cost. “For commercial properties, it’s a smarter investment because the water savings would be significant due to the size of the property,” Grills says. “One of my clients told me he just wanted a green backyard that would be a soft place for his six-month-old child and new puppy to play. He was not interested in competing with the Joneses down the street.”

Grills recently purchased a GPS device to aid in system design and maintenance and allow him to easily identify which valve, head or zone needs to be repaired or has been repaired in the past. Using remotes during system maintenance has reduced his labor cost.

Southern Nevada Water Authority: 10 Years Make a Difference

Just the other day, Doug Bennett, conservation manager with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, emailed a list to a landscape contractor who had asked for the names of smart controller products he could manage via the Internet. That alone shows how far the industry has come since 2002, when Bennett met with manufacturers at the Irrigation Show & Conference and told them the industry needed better devices.

“I told them that we could push better management, but until we get smarter, better and simpler devices that help people save water – even if they’re not highly educated on how to do it – that’s what we need to do. So it’s exciting now to see how many different products are on the market.”

As far as marketing these products to consumers, Bennett says that they may achieve the greatest potential with the most clueless customers or the least attentive landscape contractors, provided they’re set up properly. That’s because the people most likely to adopt this smart controller currently may already be among the most efficient irrigators.

Bennett recently discussed how to sell these devices and who to sell them to with the Irrigation Industry Association of British Columbia. The discussion centered around the male of the household, who is more likely to be focused on technology and gadgetry. But the point was made to not rule out the female of the household, either, as a decision-maker.

“Women have a lot to say about landscaping, and you can appeal to them with the sustainability of it,” Bennett says. “The message should be that water supplies are being stretched further and further, and it’s important that we all manage them effectively so our children and grandchildren have the same opportunities and choices we had. That’s a strong sell to a mother or businesswoman who has children, or a business that just wants to do the right thing and portray that image to customers.”

“Some people are sending out two guys to winterize, but there’s no need to if you have devices that can take the place of that other employee,” Grills says. “I’m not moving back and forth between controllers to change stations or trying to communicate with another employee.”

Grills is making the technology available to his other employees, but since he doesn’t have an overwhelming number of blowouts to do just yet, he can handle the work himself in one week.

“I’ve talked to other businesses that are running 1,000 to 1,500 blowouts, and I think I’ll be able to get there too someday because I’m employing cutting-edge technology early on and minimizing overhead.”

Due to rampant growth this year, Grills has not had to time to market his technology, but he has chatted up customers at every opportunity on the benefits it offers. Whether it’s at the tailgate of his truck or walking through a client’s property, he has talked about the water savings the technology, showcased at the latest Irrigation Show & Conference, can give them.

“I’m working to get samples or products I can show them and use as a test for my clients – changing spray zones to drip zones, making sure all the heads are matched precipitation, etc.,” Grills says. “Trying to explain that to somebody who just wants their grass to be green isn’t always easy, but the manufacturers are starting to make products that are easy to sell to clients.”

As far as pricing goes, Grills doesn’t charge his customers any more than normal despite the investment in technology he has made. Being a new company intent on growing, he feels it is suitable to charge for a product but not for a service.

“If I’m providing a service, maybe down the road it would be a benefit to add that cost, but right now with it reducing my overhead and reducing my out-of-pocket expense, I can’t see charging for doing something that is smarter and makes my job easier. If they see the devices and say, ‘Oh, you can do this for me?’ and want my staff to do six more zones, then we will have to charge for time on the ground and start looking at charging for the technology. Right now, to just use it is smart business.”

Grills feels his 13-year career in the Air Force made the transition to this high-tech gadgetry that much easier, saying, “After all that time in the Air Force, picking up a smart way to do something was not that difficult for me.” But he also admits that he doesn’t need to understand the technology fully to understand the benefits it provides.

“Recognizing (this technology) will save my client time, money and water expenses and save me overhead made me realize it was worth the time to get into it and learn it. As my revenue stream grows, that will point me in the direction of what technology I will further focus my business on. Innovation is the key – if we’re doing something old school, then we’re doing a disservice to our customers and we’re wasting money.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum from small company operator Grills is Richard Restuccia, head of ValleyCrest Landscape Companies’ irrigation division, which has installed more smart controllers than any other landscape company in the U.S. He says the concept of smart technology is really starting to take off with customers.

“A few years ago, we were really having to present this concept to our customers, but recently I’ve been starting to see this tide shift where we’re having more customers talking to us about it,” Restuccia says.

Restuccia heard support for that at the Building Owners and Managers Association Conference last June. Many of the commercial real estate leaders there said they felt that they had invested all they could in energy management and were not willing to invest any more because it would not yield the results they had seen in the past. The next area of savings they could see was in water.

“I think this is a very good sign for all of us who are trying to promote efficient irrigation,” Restuccia says.

To understand the benefits of smart controllers, Restuccia says one only has to look at what they do: 1) they adjust daily to weather information, 2) you can access them via a smart device, eliminating the need to physically go out every day to manage water, and 3) they can sense flow so you can be alerted if and when a catastrophic incident happens in the system.

“Those are the three keys to saving the customer water and money,” Restuccia says. “And they make landscape maintenance contractors a lot more efficient and gives them the opportunity to spend more time on other key areas of the property and not have to worry about water management.”

The other component of using this technology, Restuccia says, is establishing the landscape/irrigation industry as a leader in the effort to conserve the planet’s natural resources.

“The last thing we want to see is water being wasted and having the government come in and establish rules and regulations that impact not just our industry, but also our commercial customers and HOAs in a negative way,” he says.

ValleyCrest is getting that message out in a number of ways. One is www.valleycresttakeson.com, which was started a year-and-a-half ago and includes a water management blog (you can read their monthly column on pg. 48). Also on the site is LandscapeChat, an online chat focusing primarily on water management that occurs on the third Wednesday of every month. ValleyCrest also direct markets to their customers, alerting them to rebate opportunities in their areas, and offering to do water analyses on their properties to show them how much water can be saved and how fast smart controllers can pay back over time.

“We have to show as an industry that we’re leading the charge and doing what’s best for sustainability so the industry keeps thriving,” he says.

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