Influential irrigation

Features - Irrigation

A move toward water conservation is forcing companies to use more efficient products and invest in training.

September 19, 2022

Photo © Kirill Gorlov | Adobe Stock

Despite issues with inflation or lack of labor, irrigation is still a thriving service green industry companies are providing no matter the climate.

“Demand is very high right now,” says Justin Vergano, managing member of Colorado Sprinkler Service. “Denver is growing very fast, so demand is unbelievably crazy high. Service and the installation side of things has been high.”

During the peak of the summer season, Vergano says his crews are scheduled three weeks out for a service call or repair and nearly two months out for installations.

On the opposite side of the country in Connecticut, Adam Morse, general manager of Fournier Irrigation, reports demand is just as high. He says in the last three years, it’s been higher than ever before.

“It’s a seasonal business. There are not too many companies doing it,” he says of his market. “A lot of the guys doing it now are starting to get older and are looking to get out of it.”

Because more people are investing in their lawns and there aren’t as many companies providing irrigation service, Morse says there’s enough work for everyone.

Yet this isn’t the case in the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina, market. President of Bio Turf, Anthony Lansdown, says new installation jobs have been down in the last decade as water conservation and stricter watering rules have made an impact.

“For installs in this market, the majority of the jurisdiction of water purveyors want a second meter.

"And the second meter prices, over the last 10 years, has gone from like $400 at one time to over $3,000. So that has put a damper on a lot of the installs,” Lansdown says.

He goes on to note that as more homes are built in the area, builders are moving toward Bermuda grass and similar turf options that inherently require less water.

“So that has all knocked down the install side of the business, but the service component has been picking up every year,” Lansdown says.

Waste not want not

It doesn’t seem to matter where the market is at — when it comes to irrigation, the most crucial element is conserving water.

“Back in the day they put in one nozzle and just threw water everywhere, Morse says.

“Now they make things much more uniform, and we change out nozzle sizings to keep water off the hard surfaces.”

Morse adds that more and more of the communities Fournier serves are starting to establish watering rules.

“There are some water companies around here that do water restrictions,” he says. “The towns are doing a lot of audits. That’s new within the last couple of years out here in the Northeast. Before we didn’t really have to deal with that. Now they’re cracking down.”

And while he definitely sees the value in the conservation, Morse says the mandates can be difficult to manage, especially as they vary from town to town.

“The restrictions make it harder for us just because it requires a lot more communication with municipalities,” he says. “The time involved with that, you’re not really getting a return on.”

Tim Cota, owner of Gopher Irrigation & Landscaping in Silt, Colo., says watering restrictions are a way to get people’s attention.

He says now's time for desperate measures.

“In the last couple of years, we’re starting to see water restrictions in our valley more so than what we have in the past due to fires and water levels and everything,” he says.

“One thing that concerns me is people, probably nationwide, don’t seem to respect water as much as they should. They see it as an unlimited natural resource, and that bothers me.”

But before these restrictions were even put into place, Cota says he was passionate about conserving water.

“When we build an irrigation system, or when we maintain them, we’re focusing on making it the most efficient system we can,” he says.

For Lansdown, he says the best way to navigate water restrictions and conservation measures are to fully embrace them.

“We work with a lot of water conservation products,” he says. “We install Wi-Fi controllers, pressure-regulated heads, sprays, rotors and rotators.

“We’re probably one of the only companies around here who actually push all for water conservation. We perform the install all the way down to the service and upgrades.”

Work smarter not harder

Lansdown says smart controllers have been the biggest trend he’s seen in the industry. He says Bio Turf has gotten increased calls from homeowners who’ve purchased the controllers themselves from big box retailers and now need help not only installing them but getting them to work correctly.

“The wireless flow meters have also been a big selling point for us,” he says.

“This year we’ve been advertising these more and more, and a lot of customers are actually going with it from the start. Now they can see how much water they’re using per zone and if they have a leak in the system.”

Vergano says the latest smart controllers have made dealing with stricter watering rules easier while also still delivering the lush lawns customers expect.

“Smart timers and smart controllers have really become the tools we use to accomplish it,” he says. “Sprinkler head technology and pressure regulation are huge parts of that as well.”

Vergano adds that he only expects the technology behind the products he and other irrigation companies use to get better and better.

“The manufacturers know where the trends are heading as well,” he says. “They’re building toward that.”

Another benefit of the smart controllers goes beyond water conservation, Morse notes. He says the products have saved his company valuable time by reducing the number of service calls.

“The smart controllers have helped us out a lot,” he says.

“We have 500 or more of them out there and I can see them all on our computer. If a customer calls and has an issue, we can easily look up their controller and see what’s going on. We can even make adjustments from the office rather than sending someone out there. That also makes the customer happy because we can expedite the process.”

With weather being notoriously fickle in Colorado, Cota says Wi-Fi enabled products make a huge difference.

“Smart irrigation has been big,” he says. “I’ve been setting up a lot of Wi-Fi clocks that are based on weather patterns and are self-adjusting. People seem to love them and definitely see a water savings just with that.

“The average person doesn’t go to their irrigation clock and adjust it every day, but when you have that technology to adjust the clock daily based on the weather conditions — that’s huge,” he adds. “I’d like to see more of that.”

Smart controllers and Wi-Fi-enabled systems continue to gain popularity.
Photo © Alan | Adobe Stock

Bring it to the table

Yet even with water conservation becoming a popular topic, Lansdown says customers aren’t necessarily seeking these new products out when they call for quote.

“I don’t think many customers call and request it, but once you bring it up, it sparks something in their brain and they’re like, ‘Oh I can save water and therefore save money,’ which is big especially with rising water prices lately.”

To make the case for the switch, Lansdown says he relies on data he’s collected for customers who’ve already converted to smart irrigation.

“We have three years of data for those customers,” he says. “We ask them to track their water bill. It shows they’ve saved 50-60% on their water bill. Now we’ve shown that data to (new) customers and it’s been a big selling point for us.”

Despite more municipalities enforcing watering restrictions, irrigation companies still have to introduce most clients to smart controllers.
Photo courtesy of Fournier Irrigation

Cota says that he, too, has to make the case for smart controllers. But, it’s usually meant with a resounding yes.

“When I bring it up to a client and tell them they could save water with this technology, I’ve never had anyone tell me no yet,” he says. “If they have a bad clock or need an upgrade, that’s always the upgrade I suggest first…I have to bring it up. It doesn’t seem like people are that aware of it.”

And while it might be more difficult to get some clients on board then others, Cota says everyone who makes the switch sees the value in it.

“With the older generation, sometimes it’s a little bit tougher to get them into the smart technology,” he admits. “They’re just used to what they’re used to.”

Take Time To Train

Even with products advancing, a system is only going to be as good as the installation. That’s why all four industry veterans say the most fundamental element of providing quality irrigation services is education.

“The manufacturers offer training and most of your distributors will offer training on how to use the products the right way…I think our industry is really good about training,” Vergano says. These training programs put on my manufacturers and suppliers are worth the investment, Lansdown says.

“Spend money in their training,” he says of these programs. “They have great training programs that we pay our techs to attend. They pass with a certificate and then we give them extra bonuses for that. The more they know, the easier it is.”

Lansdown adds having clear policies and procedures in place goes hand in hand with good training.

“The first thing is to have qualified technicians that are trained,” he says. “That’s the number one piece of advice I’d give any company. And then have a checklist of how you want things done. So, when they go to see a customer, they know they need to do Steps A, B, C, D. That way the technician knows to go through the list.”

Cota says he’s seen too many of his competitors not prioritize training and it leads to less-than-desirable work being done.

A fundamental element of providing quality irrigation service is training technicians.
Photo courtesy of Fournier Irrigation

“Don’t skimp by and put junk in the ground,” he says. “We see a lot of poor irrigation systems and just very shoddy installs.” Cota says he gets calls all the time to come and correct another irrigation company’s mistakes. In fact, he prefers doing these repairs more so than install work now.

“We started out as primarily new installs back in 1999, but honestly, now the repair and retrofitting has been a lot more profitable for us,” he says.

And training isn’t just a one-and-done thing when a new person is hired. Morse says the best thing to do is send employees for additional training routinely.

“We’re always sending our guys to continuing education,” he says.

Morse says the extra level of detail at the design stage differentiates a well-trained company from a mediocre one.

“Pay attention to your design and make sure you’re doing things properly,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there just throwing pipes in the ground and not paying attention to the overall design. In the end, the lawn should look better, and the customer pays less on water.”

The author is assistant editor of Lawn & Landscape.