Profitable research

Features - Irrigation

A Houston-based irrigation company develops a scientifically-based program to boost and maintain plant health and grow the bottom line.

March 5, 2013
Lindsey Getz

Like many other irrigation companies, Gallion Irrigation, under the Gallion Services umbrella, has put its emphasis on water conservation and water saving technologies through the years. But the founder of the Houston-based company has gone a step further than that and actually invented his own products. He’s also invented a system, MicrobeMagic, that uses a biological water conservation soil restoration program to reduce lawn watering requirements. The result has been green lawns with less watering, keeping Gallion’s high-end residential clients happy.

“We’re able to put water and air back into the soil at deeper soil depths and save the water through capillary forces,” says Gallion owner/founder Gene Barnes. “Through our treatment process the average grass root depth goes from about 2 inches to 10 inches, significantly decreasing watering frequency requirements.”

About 12 years ago, Barnes started the research that would lead to his current findings. The business has always done a lot of high-end residential estates where the clients are focused on getting good products for their money. They want green grass and an efficient irrigation system. “In Houston that means the system must be designed to be micro-climated so as to not overwater the plants,” Barnes says.

“It’s such a fine line. We originally designed our system to be micro-climated and as efficient as possible and yet we were still overwatering due to scheduling miscues. We began looking for ways that we could get water into the soil and extend the time between watering events, thereby reducing over saturation. That goal is where all of this began,” he says.

Years of research.
Since Texas is such an agriculturally-focused state, Barnes had resources within his reach. He began dealing with Texas A&M Extension to do some testing and study the problem. “We started working on a method to take the soil and actually change its structure,” he says.

“Changing the soil structure would allow more oxygen to get inside. After all, oxygen is the main component of a good water conservation system.”

Top-notch training

Employees at Gallion Irrigation are asked to do more than just get the job done.

Everyone wants good, hardworking employees. But Gene Barnes, owner and founder of Gallion Irrigation in Houston, also wants employees who are knowledgeable. He wants his irrigation designers to be Irrigation Association (IA) certified and he wants all of his irrigation employees to have a good understanding of soil types and make up.

That’s because he learned this valuable information later in his career and he says it changed everything for his business.

Barnes wants employees to have a technical background so that he’s sure they understand the equipment they’re going to be using, he says. He also wants them to have a good understanding of the biology behind the work they’re doing. Understanding the reasoning behind the work helps the employee to be more efficient.

“You might have a very tight soil so you need a low precipitation rate for that sprinkler,” Barnes says.

“If you understand what a tight soil is, because you sat through the IA classes and learned about it, then you can work on to a job site and know right what to do.” It took 20 years for Barnes to start going to IA meetings but he says that once he did, it was a huge transformation. He doesn’t want others to wait as long. “I thought I was a pretty decent contractor but the IA opened my eyes,” he says.

“It changed my life. The IA made me such a better designer and contractor and I had a better overall understanding of the makeup of the soil.

“The training you get through the IA is top-notch and we want all of our employees to experience that.”

Once he had a concept, the next step was figuring out how to implement it. Part of that process included learning more about the biology of the soil.

“We learned that we had to be able to put the microbes back into the soil,” Barnes says. “Because of compaction, which happens from mowing every week and overwatering, the open pore spaces were becoming closed down and not accepting water. In the natural world, those pore spaces take decades to come back via microbial action.”

Barnes wanted to find a way that he could take that long-term process and speed it up. He purchased a fracturing machine, which is typically used in the golf course industry. After seeing how the machine worked, he created his own, giving him the ability to inject compounds directly into the soil.

“We failed many times over the years when it came to putting just the right compounds and components into the soil together but I kept data about everything,” Barnes says.

“Ultimately we were able to produce the right microbes, which could make it through the machine and into the soil. This was the single most important breakthrough in the advancement of our process.”

The big question, Barnes says, is where the water goes after it hits the soil. Figuring that out was part of the solution.

“What we’ve done with our process is allow the soil to absorb and take in water so much better that even an inefficient irrigation system can be sufficient with proper scheduling,” he says.

Greener grass with less watering.
About three years ago Barnes really began to see fruits of his labor. All of that hard work and research was paying off in the form of healthy, green grass.

“Those large turf jobs we’ve been doing went from watering every other day to having to water only every four to six days – even in the middle of July in scorching Houston heat,” Barnes says.

The crux of the entire idea, says Barnes, has to do with root zone depth and soil types; multiplying those two numbers together producing the plant’s available water supply. “This is all about math,” Barnes says.

“It’s not slight of hand. Everything that we do is based on many years of scientific research and equations of soil science. After many years of research, we learned to take all those hard components needed in the soil, put them in a liquid form, and inject them into the soil. The result is a thriving lawn.”

Now Barnes won’t take any new jobs without doing a complete soil analysis. He knows that’s the key to success. In fact, this part of the business has become so successful for Gallion that Barnes has started to put more focus on it.

He’s not taking on a lot of new construction jobs these days and is actually beginning to move away from the design/build business.

“When you’ve been in business for 30 years, you have a lot of long-term customers and you get a lot of service calls,” he says.

“We’re selling what we know. We can go out to Mrs. Smith’s residence and analyze the problem and leave them with a solution which is providing an important service for the customer. We are good at solving problems and clients are willing to pay well for diagnostic work. Any time one of our service trucks goes out and comes back, it’s brought revenue with it. “When you send a construction crew out, we’re not always sure it’s going to bring in revenue.

“Our biological water conservation and soil restoration program is where we will continue to put our focus and the Instant Deep Root Watering process is the future of our company.”

Photo supplied by Gallion Irrigation