Licensing, certification, or nothing?

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Currently the states of Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Texas require some form of irrigation contractor licensing or sertification to legally install a turf or landscape irrigation system.

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April 14, 2010

 Brian Vinchesi Currently the states of Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Texas require some form of irrigation contractor licensing or certification to legally install a turf or landscape irrigation system. These programs vary from the easy to obtain to the difficult and from old to relatively new. So, is this something the irrigation industry needs and should consider promoting in other states?

However, there are pros and cons to having a profession regulated, so let’s discuss those.
The irrigation contracting business has no barriers to entry, meaning that anyone who wants to be in the business can be. In most states it is as simple as buying a shovel and the necessary materials to install a system. Distributors extend credit and before you know it, you have a new competitor in the business. Additionally, there is the experience argument of “I have been doing this for 20 years – I don’t need to take a test or get a license to prove it.”

Certification/licensing usually require some sort of documented experience so someone cannot just jump right into the business. In some cases, especially Connecticut, it is relatively difficult to enter the irrigation contracting business. These programs also require passing some kind of test. Others require specific education courses be attended before the test can even be taken. The better programs require annual CEUs (and fees) to maintain the certification or license. Some programs also have a consumer protection component that gives the end user the ability to complain to the overseeing authority about poor systems and have the contactor fined or their license or certification revoked.

Certification/licensing is rarely enforced well – if at all – in most states and this frustrates those that are conforming. Others don’t like the fees, studying and taking tests, while others feel that licensing and certification raise their costs and makes their employees a commodity item that requires higher pay. Some states require only one person in the company be licensed/certified, others require all the employees be licensed/certified, and still others that all work be “supervised by a licensed individual,” which is certainly subject to interpretation.

There are also advantages to licensing/certification requirements. They raise the bar of professionalism and hopefully price; they protect a valuable natural resource through better system installation and design and may reduce the competition. It shows that the contractor knows the proper irrigation design, installation and, in some cases, auditing techniques. It demonstrates a certain level of competency.

The irrigation industry is currently at a crossroads. There is also the Irrigation Association’s national (voluntary) certification program, but not recognized by any state as a requirement. However, both North Carolina and New Jersey use the association’s certified contractor exam for their licensing and certification programs respectively. The IA’s certification programs are one of the few programs that qualify for the EPA’s WaterSense Partner program, which requires EPA WaterSense partners to design, install and audit the irrigation system on a WaterSense certified home.

The significant water use of irrigation systems has caught the eye of regulators and they do not like what they see. Something needs to be done to improve the quality of irrigation system installations. This has resulted in irrigation restrictions and significant watering restrictions in various parts of the country. It has also, in some localities resulted in the mandating of specific irrigation technologies that to date may not be proven to work or that contractors are not familiar with how to install. Their efforts are hard to fight when there are no education requirements or entry barriers to the irrigation contracting business.

Licensing and certification programs don’t guarantee better irrigation systems, but they are a step toward raising the industry’s professionalism and credibility. Doing nothing will get the industry nowhere.