A water-wise business

The Water Issue - The Water Issue

Don’t let your irrigation division get hosed. Here’s how two companies’ irrigation divisions successfully manage the service.

June 28, 2018

© Graham Hutchings

It’s inevitable. Parts break. Components wear out. Accidents happen and a kid, dog or mower can knock an irrigation head out of whack. Not to mention, “Nothing lasts forever,” says Scott Maxwell, branch manager at Gelderman Landscape Services in Mississauga, Ontario. “Just because we install a new irrigation system on a property today doesn’t mean that three weeks from now a head won’t get broken off or a controller messed up if there was a power failure.”

Irrigation repair and maintenance is more lucrative than installation, he says. It’s also more of a need-it-now service, while system installation is a capital expenditure that property managers and homeowners carefully consider.

“Irrigation repair and maintenance is more profitable overall because it’s a continuous, year-after-year need,” Maxwell says.

Steve Glennon, president, CEO and COO at Cagwin & Dorward in Novato, California, says irrigation renovation work is common in his region. “Oftentimes, a property will have an irrigation system that is 25-plus years old, and with the water shortages in California, we are converting a lot of overhead spray irrigation to subsurface drip systems,” he says.

The hourly rate for repairs and conversions like this is higher than brand-new system installation. “Repairs is technical – anything that involves electrical, troubleshooting, valve repair and maintenance, mainline repairs,” Glennon says. Specifically, the repair labor rate is $65/hour, while new system install starts at $45 to $50/hour.

“It’s much easier to dig a trench and put a mainline in than it is to dig one up and try to find a leak, and then fix it,” Glennon says.

While repair and maintenance work is more profitable, the two services work hand-in-hand. Irrigation installation customers often bite at an annual maintenance contract, and that’s recurring revenue for the landscape business. Again, nothing lasts forever.

“I like to relate an irrigation system to a car,” Glennon says. “When you have a brand new car you expect very few repairs – maybe just routine maintenance. It’s the same with a brand new irrigation system. You shouldn’t really anticipate or need to have many repairs at first, but you definitely have to proactively manage the system.”

“Just because we install a new irrigation system on a property today doesn’t mean that three weeks from now a head won’t get broken off.” – Scott Maxwell, Gelderman
Service and repair.

Having three types of irrigation service contracts at Gelderman Landscape Services gives clients a decision to make about how often they want their system reviewed. The basic service includes spring start-up and fall shut-down. “There is nothing in between,” Maxwell says, calling the package a “set it and forget it” option that appeals to some homeowners. However, this is not to say that repairs won’t be needed during the season. That’s a separate line item.

The second “silver” package includes the start-up and shut-down, along with a mid-season check in July. “We go through the system and make sure the heads are spraying properly, and adjust or repair any heads,” Maxwell says.

The final package is comprehensive, involving the start-up and shut-down, and monthly irrigation system reviews to adjust heads and controllers. The mid-range option is most popular, Maxwell says. But properties with extensive irrigation systems might choose the monthly checkup so they can stay on top of needs and avoid big repair bills down the road.

Another service Gelderman Landscape Services is promoting is irrigation audits. “Right now, some of our municipalities are offering rebates for water savings, so we have been promoting through e-blasts and our website ways that clients can save water,” Maxwell says.

Switching out dated controllers and heads to a smart controller and water-saving components can reduce water consumption by 30 to 50 percent, Maxwell says. “The ROI, depending on the size of the system, is typically two years,” he says. “So, it’s a no-brainer for people to make the choice.”

Glennon says irrigation audits and system conversions are very popular in California. Cagwin & Dorward will assess water consumption when it picks up a new account. “We have properties with irrigation systems that are 25 or 30 years old, and we do an irrigation check and find out the system is a complete train wreck,” he says. “Every irrigation system has a life span, and those older systems are still functioning but not efficient.”

Sometimes, improving water savings means repairs and converting old technology to new. Other times, it means upgrading the system altogether.

“Water in California is extremely expensive,” Glennon says. “We’ve seen properties in certain water districts where the cost of water for the landscape is more than the cost of the landscape maintenance services.”

© kalpis | Adobe Stock
Team water.

At Cagwin & Dorward, separate crews perform irrigation installation or repair work. “We’ll typically assign a crew to a job and they do everything from the demolition of existing plant material to soil prep, irrigation, new planting, mulch, etc.,” Glennon says of the install team.

Repairs require technical expertise and are performed by irrigation specialists. The repair/maintenance division is a completely different business unit, Glennon says. Irrigation specialists work in the landscape maintenance department, while installation crews are part of the landscape construction business unit.

“It’s a different type of work, so we have different crews,” he says.

When an entry-level irrigation crewmember expresses interest in more training, the company will partner this person with an irrigation specialist for about a year for training to become an irrigation specialist.

When Cagwin & Dorward recruits from the outside for irrigation specialists, Glennon says the company looks for experience. “We want to know they are qualified and that they have performed a similar type of position,” he says.

At Gelderman Landscape Services, irrigation team members are cross-trained to perform installation or repairs/maintenance because installation jobs come in waves while service is an ongoing need. The company has one specialist who always runs installation jobs. “But the crews are versatile so they can do either job,” Maxwell says.

Waterlogged with service.

Aside from finding qualified labor, which is a challenge in many trades, Maxwell says one of the toughest parts about performing irrigation repairs – the more profitable of the two irrigation services – is response time to service requests. Why? Because it’s not unusual for problems in the system to be visible only after a bout of dry weather. Then, everyone is calling. “When it’s dry, we see the irrigation system issues – and if it’s really wet and the irrigation system is still running, it can be hard to tell if there is sprinkler head damage because everything is green,” Maxwell says.

So, a call for service comes in and the property owner is upset. There’s a brown spot. There’s a problem. Gelderman Landscape Services focuses on communication with a dedicated email address just for the irrigation/water division. “That way, clients can email directly to them and we respond quickly to let them know we received the email and to update them with a service schedule,” Maxwell says.

The company also issues activity reports that are emailed following service calls. The app-based system allows irrigation technicians to release the report after a repair is completed. “So, clients know a job was done,” Maxwell says.

Clients want to know they’re being heard and their problems are going to be addressed. So when something’s wrong with the irrigation system and the team can’t get out that day, they at least understand their property is on the schedule. Maxwell says, “Using this type of communication has been huge.”