It's Time For An Audit: Irrigation

Irrigation professionals all speak highly of the benefits of irrigation audits, but it’s a challenge to find a contractor who’s performing them regularly.

Believe it or not, some landscape and irrigation contractors actually welcome and solicit audits. Of course, these audits are of the irrigation system variety and are performed by the contractor, as opposed to the tax audits performed by the Internal Revenue Service.

Irrigation audits are designed to provide contractors with extensive insight into an irrigation system they maintain in order to increase its efficiency and eliminate wasted water and money.

"A lot of people call it auditing, but it’s really just trying to irrigate properly," explained Mike Barry, a water conservation specialist with the city of Chandler, Ariz.

Based upon a successful audit, contractors should find themselves armed with the necessary information to develop an irrigation schedule for a property that will improve system efficiency and save. the customer money. "Scheduling is the most important factor for budgeting," recognized Barry. "Troubleshooting is good, but the time you spend watering is the bottom line."

PICKING YOUR SPOTS. Not every system is a suitable candidate for an irrigation audit. Contractors generally consider certain variables such as the overall application of the system and its present condition before performing an audit.

"The first thing to do is to make sure you’re working with a decent system," warned Charles Evans, vice president and certified landscape irrigation auditor for Evergreen Landscape, Austin, Texas. "Otherwise, you end up doing the audit only to learn there’s such unequal distribution that the system needs an overhaul."

"Systems irrigating large turf areas are the most important to audit because of the amount of water they put down," commented Ron Kirkpatrick, supervisor of the southern region and a certified landscape irrigation auditor, Landtrends Inc., San Diego, Calif. "More targeted systems, such as drip systems, deliver water more directly to the plant material, so it’s easier to measure their efficiencies and they won’t waste as much water."

And, as long as the audit and subsequent system maintenance are performed correctly, the system shouldn’t require another audit for quite a while.

"Once the system mechanics are set up, an audit is performed, and the necessary improvements are made, another audit shouldn’t be necessary," Kirkpatrick said. "That should get the system operating within 60 to 80 percent application efficiency unless the landscape changes significantly."

Getting Certified

    While any irrigation contractor can offer services called "irrigation system audits," the Irrigation Association offers a Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor program that trains and educates contractors about the auditing process. In addition, a formal certification such as this allows contractors to differentiate themselves as offering customers the most professional level of service.

    The IA doesn’t require any specific amount of field experience for contractors to be certified, although such experience is recommended.

    The certification process contains two steps: successfully completing a landscape irrigation auditor training course sanctioned by the IA and passing a written certification exam offered by the IA. In addition, contractors desiring the CLIA certification must agree to operate by the IA Code of Ethics.

    "I think it’s really important for any company offering irrigation services to have someone in the company certified," asserted Ron Kirkpatrick, supervisor of the southern region, Landtrends Inc., San Diego, Calif. "Becoming certified really opened up my eyes to what was going on in the field other than just punching in times on the controllers."

    Contractors are then required to obtain a minimum of 20 continuing educational units in order to maintain their certification. For more information regarding the CLIA certification, contact the IA at 703/573-3551.

Just because a system has been professionally maintained for a couple of years doesn’t mean it can’t benefit from an audit. "A lot of irrigation maintenance practices are followed because that’s the way things have been done for years, and contractors think they always know what they’re doing," noted David Schultz, water conservation coordinator and certified landscape irrigation auditor, City of Glendale Water Conservation Office, Glendale, Ariz. "These audits validate whether or not we do know what we’re doing."

SYSTEM ANALYSIS. The process for executing a water audit may not be the cost complex process for an irrigation contractor to employ, but it certainly is thorough.

"The process involves checking all of the mechanics of a system," explained Kirkpatrick. "I try to get a site map and I go through the system mechanically starting with the point of connection. I check to make sure all of the heads are on straight and not leaking, check the backflows, get the flow rates and pressure -- all of the system’s vital information."

After checking the system’s mechanics, a key part of the audit is the catch can test. "The catch can test lets me get a good idea of how good the coverage is in terms of mean coverage so I can make sure the same amount of water is falling near the head as further away from the head," Kirkpatrick pointed out. For this part of the audit, Kirkpatrick recommended testing all of the same type of heads together, although he said another popular method is to group heads based on the area of the landscape they irrigate, such as testing all of the turf heads together.

Toby Wigmore, a certified landscape irrigation auditor and owner of Greensleeves Landscping, San Diego, Calif., pointed out that the irrigation system isn’t necessarily the only part of the property worth auditing.

"Contractors should also look at the water requirements of the plants on the site," Wigmore recommended. "Sometimes, the system works fine, but there might be a big area of turf that has the greatest water requirements that could be changed to shrubs to save water."

MONEY MACHINES? For many contractors, becoming certified in water auditing represents an opportunity to generate new revenues. Very few contractors who have obtained the certification, however, have found that to be the case.

"One of our intentions was to increase revenues through water auditing," recalled Kirkpatrick. "But that didn’t work out for us."

"We thought it would be a selling tool for us," admitted Evans. "Water is a real concern in our area, and we went through water rationing until some processing plants were installed." But Evans encountered two problems in attempting to charge clients for an audit. "The city of Austin is doing water audits for free for anyone," Evans noted, encountering the same obstacle Kirkpatrick found in Southern County, Calif.

In addition, there is always the challenge of educating consumers about the monetary value of wasted water. "Customers don’t know how much money they’re spending on irrigation because they don’t have submeters for irrigation," Evans added. "Those people that have the meters, want audits, but then they think the dollar amounts we say we can save them are too high until we convert their applications to inches per week and compare them to the recommended rates."

Even so, the time consuming nature of performing audits has led Evergreen to find a simpler solution. "We have the city do audits for us," Evans said.

Evans added that although he wasn’t aware of any contractors making money through water auditing, he has heard of a couple of unique approaches toward pricing this service. "Some contractors charge a fee to perform an audit and guarantee they’ll save the customer that much money in water savings," he related. "Also, some contractors will do the audit for free if the customer will agree to let the contractor have a certain percentage of the money saved."

SEEING THE BENEFITS. Although water auditing hasn’t provided much financial benefit to Landtrends, Kirkpatrick remains a proponent of the certification and recommends it for other contractors.

"Financially, it didn’t pan out like we had hoped it would," he said, adding that he has performed four system audits this year. "But, it has proven educational for us and allows us to better protect our clients’ water rights when we do perform an audit or whenever we’re maintaining a system."

Evans noted that the CLIA certification could always be used to the company’s advantage. "Any credential you possess can be of use as a selling tool as long as the customer understands what it means," he said.

Wigmore is confident that the true value of a CLIA certification won’t be fully appreciated for a few years yet, and his reasoning echoed the thoughts of other contractors. "There is definitely going to be more of a demand for this service in the future, with some people predicting that water prices will double within 10 years," Wigmore commented. "The problem we have now is trying to prove to customers that they can save money over time because of a water audit, but I think people are going to start excluding contractors from bidding a job if they can’t perform a water audit."

The author is Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.

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