The Golden Age Of Irrigation: State of the Irrigation Industry

Contractors from across the country agree: now is a great time to be in the irrigation industry.

Business has never been better. Thanks to a healthy economy, steady consumer spending and generally agreeable weather conditions, irrigation contractors are seeing good times that show no sign of slowing down any time soon.

Don Blackwell is just one of many irrigation contractors throughout the country enjoying an outstanding year. "Business has never been better as far as the amount of work we’ve been doing and the price we can get for our work," noted Blackwell, president, Advanced Irrigation, Auburn, Wash.

Blackwell’s business, which concentrates on high-end residential properties, is thriving – even though he’s landing a lower percentage of bids than he did in previous years. "If I went out and did 10 bids, I may have gotten three," he said. "Now I may only get one or two, but I bid higher."

Like many contractors, Blackwell is fetching a good price for his work because people have more disposable income these days, thanks to a booming economy. "The product and market will sustain a higher price," he explained, adding that his metro Seattle market is saturated with affluent technology workers who don’t want to spend their leisure time tending to yard work. "So many people now are realizing that time is the most valuable thing we have," Blackwell said. "I like to say that we’re in the time business."

Increasingly, people don’t want to be "handcuffed to their landscapes," having to address tiresome tasks such as daily watering, which, of course, bodes well for the irrigation industry, he added.

MORE SUCCESS STORIES. Business this year has also been lucrative for Cascade Irrigation Systems, McCordsville, Ind., a company specializing in residential work. According to President Gregory Baugh, the company experienced yet another record year this past year.

Cascade Irrigation Systems has expanded the last several years, growing about 10 to 20 percent annually. And this consistent growth has been just a conservative effort for the company, which has always strived to rein in expansion and "not just grow for growth’s sake," Baugh explained. "We want to be controlled with our growth."

While the prediction of a Midwest drought helped drive sales, a large portion of the company’s recent success is due to the changing perception of irrigation, Baugh noted. Once viewed as a luxury item, irrigation now is increasingly considered a necessity by homeowners, he said.

Matt Dearing, owner, Distinctive Landscape, Vancouver, Wash., whose irrigation maintenance-only business has doubled every year for the past several years, agreed with this theory. Because of irrigation’s increasing convenience and affordability, "more and more people are getting systems put in," he pointed out. "Ten years ago, it was only doctors and lawyers."

"The industry is maturing," added Christopher Pine, former owner, Pinescape and current northeast district manager, Rain Bird, Pocasset, Mass.

"Consumers are becoming more aware of irrigation," he said. "As economic and environmental conditions have allowed for more investment in outdoor landscaped areas in particular, the reality is that efficient irrigation is critical for protection of that investment. Consumers, in turn, are making wiser choices when deciding on a contractor."

In Texas, an ongoing drought has helped boost irrigation sales, which are at an all-time high, according to Gary Prince, owner, Blume Lawn Sprinkler Systems, Hewitt, Texas. "The last two to three years have been pretty much a drought situation, which helps business, of course," he said, adding that increased water restrictions accompanying the drought haven’t placed a significant burden on his company.

As in many sprawling metro areas, an expanding population in central Texas is also bolstering Prince’s business, as is the sweltering summer heat’s effect on these homeowners new to the region. "Once they realize what summers are like, they’re quick to put in an irrigation system," Prince observed.

The reverse phenomenon is true for Badgerland Irrigation, Middleton, Wis. "Due to the transient nature of business professionals, we are seeing an influx of people from warmer regions into our cooler climate," noted Curt Winter, the company’s owner. "These consumers are accustomed to the convenience and benefits derived from an irrigation system."

Similar to the Southwest, dry weather conditions have been a boon for the irrigation industry in the Southeast, according to James Sampsel, regional coordinator of irrigation services, TruGreen LandCare, Orlando, Fla. So far this year, Florida is significantly below its average annual rainfall, facing extremely dry conditions, he reported. Not surprisingly, "business is very good," Sampsel said.

New England is perhaps the exception to the industry’s widespread success this year. "This year has been undoubtedly slower than the last few years," Pine noted. "The wet weather has affected consumers’ desire for irrigation and the contractors’ ability to install the systems they have sold. We have had an excessive amount and frequency of rainfall coupled with lower than normal temperatures. Last year was a stellar year because of the opposite weather pattern, however, so the differences really are quite pronounced. Personally, I turned my system off during the third week of July and have not run one cycle since."

Pine also observed that in areas where upscale residential development continues, irrigation remains strong, however, since most new homes are now built with irrigation systems included. "In some areas, the commercial markets have remained strong as well," he said. "Without a doubt, though, irrigation maintenance is way off from last year because of the weather."

Insights From The
   Irrigation Association

    The last three years have been terrific for the landscape/golf irrigation industry with many companies growing 15 to 20 percent a year. The strong economy, dynamic weather conditions, acceptance of installed automatic irrigation as a normal part of home ownership, and the drive to conserve water have all contributed to the industry's expansion. Technically, the industry has created ways to do more with less water by developing such innovations as more accurate low-flow nozzles and controllers that take the guesswork out of watering.

    The irrigation field, which has always been entrepreneurial in nature, is now experiencing the mergers and acquisitions common in other industries. This is particularly true in the distribution and landscape construction sectors. There are seven irrigation distribution companies, for example, that are now multi-regional in coverage with one that is almost national in terms of store locations.

    The future looks bright for landscape irrigation as technical creativity and recycled water use further stimulate an already favorable situation.

    – Tom Kimmel, executive director, Irrigation Association

INDUSTRY DEVELOPMENTS. The dynamic irrigation market shows no shortage of trends. With water an increasingly strained resource, expanded regulations governing its use are on the rise in many parts of the U.S. On the East Coast, for example, water for irrigation will be increasingly difficult to get, especially in New Jersey and Massachusetts, according to Brian Vinchesi, design engineer, Irrigation Consulting, Pepperell, Mass. He added that irrigation system efficiency is

a growing concern and measures such as mandated system audits to ensure efficiency are on the rise.

Prince also sees more regulations on the horizon, especially regarding backflow prevention devices. Within the next few years in Texas, he anticipates a mandate to switch from a double check valve to a high hazard variety, which should increase his company’s costs by about 5 to 10 percent, he said.

In addition, Florida, as with many other states facing water shortages and booming population growth, will likely see increased reclaimed water use, according to Sampsel.

Thanks to lower pricing and improved ease of operation, heightened reliance on computerization is yet another trend surfacing across the industry.

Technology, such as irrigation scheduling systems and weather stations, is trickling down from more sophisticated setups into simpler applications such as small commercial and residential properties. Using technology to increase system precision is consistent with the trend of holding users more accountable for water usage, Sampsel pointed out.

The issue of water conservation is here to stay, Pine agreed. "As professionals, we need to realize the importance of conserving water because of the public’s misconceptions about our intentions," he said. "Unfortunately, too many times it is assumed that landscape irrigation is wasteful and should simply be banned or severely restricted without considering alternatives or weighing the benefits. There is the potential at any time for varying restrictions to be placed on our industry that can have a great deal of impact on our future."

As water conservation becomes increasingly critical, contractors must take it upon themselves to act as industry ambassadors and educate the public, Winter advised.

"It is incumbent on irrigation professionals to learn as much as they can and educate the public about efficient water use of a properly designed system," he urged. "Without that focus, and as water conservation becomes a larger issue, and it will, irrigation contractors run the risk of having their systems classified as wasteful or as an unnecessary luxury. It makes more sense to get the word out now than to fight the uphill battle of preconceived notions."

OTHER INDUSTRY TRENDS. As part of water conservation efforts, drip irrigation is one segment of the industry that’s expanding, according to contractors. Baugh, for one, has noticed increased drip use on residential properties. "As cities put these (water) restrictions on, people are realizing the value of low-volume watering devices," he said, adding that in his business, drip irrigation use has grown about 100 percent over the past

three years.

Blackwell has experienced a similar situation with his residential clients, many of whom are installing drip in their yards because they "want to do the right thing and not waste water," he said.

From his vantage point on the East Coast, however, Vinchesi said he doubts drip will ever become overwhelmingly popular with homeowners, because it is simply too high maintenance compared to conventional irrigation systems, he said.

In terms of other trends, Vinchesi noted that commercial irrigation projects are growing in size. "We’re seeing more projects at the $1 million level while before they were generally less than half a million," he said, adding that this trend is largely due to a lack of labor.

On larger sites in particular, property managers facing a labor shortage "don’t want to have to go around and hand water every plant," Vinchesi pointed out.

From construction contractors to tree care professionals, seemingly "everybody is getting into the irrigation business," Blackwell observed of another industry development, adding that he’s now competing with just about every kind of company for irrigation jobs. "Increasingly, there’s a lower and lower percentage of people who do just irrigation."

Many of these fly-by-night irrigation contractors hurt the industry with their low bids because they "lower the common denominator," Blackwell said. "Bids are measured off of the lowest guy, no matter how slimy he is." Often, the job comes down to the fact that "you were $5,000 and Billy Bob Irrigation was only $2,500," he said.

These "low ballers" probably help the industry in the long run however, by inadvertently drumming up increased business for their more professional counterparts, Blackwell concluded. "Inevitably, these guys come and go," he said. In the meantime, "they help us grow our service industry."

Pine supported this assessment. "I feel that years like this, as much as nobody wants to hear this, are good for the industry because it helps to shake out a few contractors who really aren’t good for the industry," he explained. "It gives the good contractors a chance to slow the pace of constant growth and regroup."

THE ONGOING CHALLENGE. Finding qualified employees is one of the most serious dilemmas the irrigation industry faces today. "Labor is our biggest problem," Blackwell observed, adding that many high school and college age workers simply aren’t aware of

the various job opportunities the irrigation industry offers.

Sampsel agreed. "I don’t think the average graduate knows what irrigation is all about," he said. "We have a definite need for individuals interested in this field who want to make a career of it."

More often, contractors are resorting to creative measures to attract and retain workers. For one, Vinchesi sees a heightened use of foreign labor, especially workers from Central and South America, he said.

Constant networking is also essential, according to Baugh, who noted that he found his two full-time employees through his church. "You just have to go through a lot of people

to find someone who cares about their job,"

he said.

A BRIGHT FUTURE. The industry’s good times should continue if the predictions of many contractors from across the country ring true. Sampsel, for example, envisions consistent expansion for his company in the next few years. "I see nothing but exponential growth," he said, observing that the residential irrigation repair segment of TruGreen LandCare will likely continue to be a consistent profit center.

Raising prices periodically fits into this scenario as well, Sampsel added. "You have to generate a profit. That’s what’s necessary. You can’t stay in business and not make a profit."

Baugh agreed with this approach. "There’s always room to increase pricing," he said, adding that he has never reached the "upper limit" of what he could charge, though it doesn’t matter with most of his customers, he said. "Most people don’t really care what I charge, just so I do a quality job."

Advanced Irrigation intends to raise its prices on the service side of its business next year since customers are always willing to pay more for expertise in this area, according to Blackwell. He said he has a positive feeling that "the next few years will be just as good for business as this past year has."

Winter echoed this outlook. "There are many reasons to be optimistic about the growth of the irrigation industry," he observed. "Despite periodic fluctuations, new construction continues to be strong. Today’s consumers want to enhance the value of their property and relieve demands on their precious free time. By staying in tune with our customer’s current and future needs we can ensure our own long term prosperity."

The author is Associate Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.

October 2000
Explore the October 2000 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.

Share This Content