Out with the old

Retrofitting is a new way to save money.

June 11, 2012

Retrofitting old systems with today’s modern technology is an emerging trend and yet the troubleshooting involved has kept many in the industry from tackling these jobs. They aren’t always an easy sell. Customers may be deterred by the initial expense or the idea of change. But the cost savings in the long run are well worth it and with the right sales approach, retrofits can be quite profitable. For Chris Lee, president of EarthWorks, in Lillian, Texas, retrofitting has been a focus. With today’s water saving technology, Lee says it makes perfect sense.

“For me it’s always been a no-brainer,” Lee says. “Technology that can put back exactly the amount of water removed – no more or no less – seems like an obvious choice. The challenge is showing the customer that it’s an investment that’s worth the expense. The focus has to be put on the return on investment. Ten years ago that wasn’t an easy thing.”

Tough sell. When Lee first became interested in the technology, a little over a decade ago, it was quite expensive. That made it an incredibly difficult sell back then. “In some cases we were looking at a $40,000 investment and talking about 10 years to recoup that,” he says. “That’s a pretty hard sell. Even though we knew the technology made sense we realized that maybe the times just hadn’t caught up to it yet. It seemed obvious to us because even back then there were states with water shortages, but for most customers it ultimately comes down to cost. So we knew we had to keep pushing it until the time it would be embraced. We have found that most customers only like to be ‘green’ when it also makes financial sense.”

So that’s what the company did. They waited. But in that time, Lee says they also “fought hard” and pushed for this technology whenever they could. They did succeed in doing a number of retrofits over the years, even though they weren’t easy sells. And one day – that time they had been waiting for finally arrived.

The time is now. “About three years ago, we started to notice a big difference in the cost structure of some of these controllers as they began to partner with weather tracking companies and remove that weather component,” says Lee. “Mobile technology has come so far and contributed to these devices’ success. We had always believed in the technology but we are now finally able to say that the time we had been waiting for is here. The equipment has become economical and people are talking about it. So we started pushing it more than ever.”

Lee says that in recent years the company has started going back to owners and investors of systems they hadn’t retrofitted yet to explain what is faced in the future and why this technology makes sense. “The reality is that the population is increasing, the water supply is shorter, and it’s never going to go back to where it once was – it’s only going to get worse,” Lee says. “This isn’t just about droughts, like many people think. This is about the entire future of our water supply.”

Water is going to get more expensive, adds Lee, and it’s important that people start to realize this hard fact now. “We go to water board meetings all the time and they have flat out said they know the only way they can control water usage is price,” Lee says. “Restrictions have never worked well – people find ways around them. But when you hit them in the pocketbook people start to listen. That’s what is going to happen. Price and conservation will ultimately drive consumption so we’re focusing our efforts on getting people to understand that these changes are really coming.”

The education factor also means explaining the technology and why it works. In the years since it was first introduced, the technology has proven itself. Lee says he can rely on numbers to show customers the evidence that it does work. This long-term data is making the technology an easier sell. “When we are able to show people the cost savings, they finally get it. Some are even mad for not bringing it up sooner,” Lee says. “We were pushing it but nobody was listening until now. So we’re retraining ourselves and going back to everyone. People listen when you say you can save them money in their irrigation budget.”

Building credibility. EarthWorks has even had some success in selling retrofits to customers that do a portion of their irrigation in-house. “Some of the new technology is easy to implement such as new nozzles that regulate pressure in the head,” Lee says. “These are easy to retrofit and they work with existing heads. It’s a matter of screwing the old one off and putting the new one on. We’ve had good success in selling that type of upgrade to clients who do irrigation repair in-house. Their on-site staff can handle that.”

Lee says that taking this approach to selling may seem like it’s taking a financial hit but in fact it’s given his company great positioning by building credibility. That’s not always easy to build in an economy where everyone is looking to make a dollar. Lee says that by doing the “right thing,” and helping companies go green and save money, EarthWorks has been able to build long-term relationships.

“You sell the company some parts that help them retrofit the nozzles in-house and you’re certainly not going to make a lot of money off of that job but you do it in the spirit of bringing them savings and going green,’” Lee says. “That’s a good sales approach and it’s also doing the right thing. You’ve approached them with a low-cost project that they can do in-house and you’ve established your reputation with them. Then when you go back to them with another pitch, you already have that credibility. Or maybe they’ll come to you for a job because they know you care about doing the right thing.”

Believing strongly in this new technology, Lee says that the company makes as much room for education as possible. “Any chance we get to talk about these things we take it,” he says. “We figure the more people we can get in front of, the better.”

And though Lee has believed in the technology since its inception, the company has always made careful and calculated decisions to ensure that the products they’re installing for their customers are products they can stand behind. “When Toro came out with a new controller we installed one at my house, one at the general manager’s house, and one at the owner’s house for a year,” Lee says. “We used it ourselves, knew it worked, and then we presented it to our customers. We could believe in it once we knew it worked. Not everything that comes out we jump on. We watch the data and we test it out. That’s how we operate and that’s why our clients trust us.”

Still, Lee says he’s glad that the smart water technology has finally caught on. “I have always thought it was a genius technology,” he says. “From the first day I saw it, I just knew it made sense. And I figured there would be a time and a place for it, even though it wasn’t right away. As we grew our business we always put the emphasis on our clients’ needs and that forced us to continue looking at this technology. We’re glad that others are finally now seeing the benefit of it as well.”

Read more about Earthworks

Educating the customer

Steady growth