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Spreading the word

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A landscape and irrigation company owner develops a water management app that he is sharing with the industry – even his competitors.

Lindsey Getz | April 12, 2012

Tom Del Conte started his landscape business while he was still in high school in order to put himself through college. After earning a business degree he realized he was too passionate about the green industry to give it up and decided to stay in the business. Since that time, he has grown not only a successful landscape business but also a green waste recycling company and a technology firm responsible for the development of an app and online program for water conservation.

Del Conte, president of Del Conte’s Landscaping in Fremont, Calif., says that he’s long known water management is the “next big frontier for landscape contractors.” And while his company has been employing technology to better manage water for years, he also knew that many were lagging behind. “Our irrigation division has always been very aggressive in water management,” says Del Conte. “We were using computers 20 years ago to do our scheduling programs and that was way before its time.”

One day in October 2010, his water manager, Logan Oates, suggested the idea of turning that technology into a mobile app that could be available to others. From there, the idea for Sprinkler Times was born. In 2011, Del Conte founded Garden Apps, LLC, using his knowledge of landscaping, irrigation, and conservation to ultimately develop the Sprinkler Times application. It was an enormous investment of time and money but Del Conte believes it’s something truly unique to the industry. He has been helped along the way by Oates, who is also now co-owner and senior irrigation specialist of Garden Apps.

The Sprinkler Times website and smart phone app help provide accurate watering schedules for sprinkler systems without much effort. The app is $5.99 and Del Conte says is therefore a much easier sell than the installation of a smart controller, due to the initially high price (despite savings in the long-run). “If contractors can convince their customers to install a smart controller then that’s really the ideal solution. But in the meantime, we hope to be another great solution,” says Del Conte. “Customers have become more and more demanding that their steward of water management has solutions for conservation.

With this app you have the technology at your fingertips to run a smarter schedule.”
 
The initial purchase of Sprinkler Times includes one timer with 32 zones. Contractors can purchase additional timers

once inside the program. Once a zip code is entered, Sprinkler Times utilizes 20 years of historic weather data along with entered data on plant type, sprinkler type, soil type and sun exposure for each zone of the yard in order to generate a monthly watering schedule that is specifically customized to the landscape. The schedule can be viewed from the computer and accessed through an online account at any time.  

Del Conte says that even though people are starting to realize the importance of water conservation, the time involved in smart management is a deterrent. He aims to solve that problem using simple mobile application technology that anybody can master.

“People are still just not going to spend that much time calculating and managing every zone they are stewards for,” says Del Conte. “The Sprinkler Times website and app uses basic information from each property to develop a base schedule. The program even allows for adjustment factors so that every station can be fine-tuned over the initial periods to arrive at a greater water management program to both save water and improve plant health. This is how high level irrigation managers program, except it only takes minutes to determine run times for every month of the year rather than several hours to determine a schedule.”

A passion for sustainability and conservation

Even as a young man, Del Conte says he’s always been passionate about the environment. That passion was a major factor in his decision to stay in the green industry, instead of using his business degree to become a “banker or a stock broker,” as Del Conte puts it. “I just loved the diversity and the challenges that this industry brings each day,” he says. “And I love working with the environment.”

In 1993 Del Conte formed an organic waste management company called Vision Recycling. In total, the company processes more than 200,000 tons of products each year. It takes organic waste out of a county’s landfill and puts the finished product back into the community in the form of compost wood chips, mulch and soil amendment. “I’ve just always been really passionate about both water conservation and the overall green movement,” Del Conte says.

His passion for the green movement is also why Del Conte strongly endorses smart timers even though it would eventually make Sprinkler Times obsolete. “We recognize that we may very likely be obsolete in about 10 years,” he says. “We do believe that smart controllers will continue to catch on and are the way of the future. But what we’re concerned with is what’s going to happen in the meantime. That’s where we come in.”

Del Conte says there are roughly 25 million sprinkler timers out there. Of those, he says, only three to five percent are currently smart timers. “The industry has no answer for those other 95 percent of timers which is why we created Sprinkler Times,” says Del Conte. “The water auditing process and scheduling using scientific methods is extremely comprehensive and time consuming so it’s not cost effective for contractors to employ such methods. Instead most take their best educated guess. But with Sprinkler Times you can now calculate the schedule for the whole year in about two minutes.”

Available to all

Because Del Conte decided to make this available on the marketplace, he knew it would mean talking directly to his competitors, which has certainly been an unusual situation. Del Conte still considers himself a landscape contractor, first and foremost, but he knew that the product had too much potential to keep it from the industry as a whole. “Saving water is a huge social issue so it was ultimately an easy decision to make this technology available to everyone,” he says. “It’s built for everyone to use.”

It was one of Del Conte and Oates’ main objectives to make Sprinkler Times so intuitive that truly anyone could use it. “We understand that people will spend a second or two looking at something and then want to be able to just push a button,” says Del Conte. “So we had to make it incredibly simple. We have a ticker tape that gives instruction on every single page of the app. This allows people to always have the information of ‘what to do next.’ Irrigation can be pretty complex so we needed to find ways to simplify the process and allow users to plug-in and quickly get the information they need.”

Del Conte says it’s also an opportunity for irrigation contractors to add some dollars to their bottom line.  The company offers templates of letters that landscapers can use to send out to their customers once adopting the Sprinkler Times technology.  “The letter explains that XYZ Landscaping Company has engaged a sophisticated computer program that will allow them to better manage their water,” says Del Conte. “They can charge the customer a little bit of extra money, which they’ll have no problem paying because the customer will understand it could save them some money in the long run and help improve the management of their sprinkler system.”

By adding an irrigation scheduling service through Sprinkler Times, Del Conte says contractors can charge an extra $8 a month to the customer. After paying Garden Apps for the purchase of each unit, Del Conte says a contractor with 100 maintenance accounts would still make an extra $9,000.

Del Conte adds: “Customers will be happy to pay an extra eight bucks in order to receive superior water management and contractors will find it’s easy to add the extra $9,000 to their bottom line – especially when it’s for something they should really already be doing.”

This is one of three stories that appeared in Lawn & Landscape’s Water Works e-newsletter. To continue reading:

Research and development: Measuring and managing water correctly takes a lot of work.

From contractor to software developer:
It wasn’t an easy road when this landscaper jumped into the tech world.

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