X marks the spot

The Water Issue - The Water Issue

John Taylor makes sure the water used for his irrigation jobs always hits the target. Because of it, his business is thriving.

July 12, 2016

© Mauricio Ramirez

This is a great time to be an irrigator. Irrigation, and what defines it, is rapidly changing and those who adapt will thrive while those who do not will be left behind. Water is among the most precious resources in the world and water waste will be among the biggest battles we fight in the future – a future that starts now.

Because of this, the definition of irrigation and the role irrigators and landscapers play in the grand scheme of things has to change as well. We must all become stewards of water.

Recently though, there has been a change in the way information is being distributed and our clients are more educated and savvy to the real value of water conservation, return on investment and the smart technology that yields successful results when it comes to landscape and irrigation.

This is really changing things for the better because when the end-user demands the technology, knowledge and experience, the industry will be forced to respond to that demand.

For example, two years ago we didn’t receive a single call about evapotranspiration-based controllers, though we promoted them heavily.

Now we get a handful of calls per month from clients requesting ET-based technology as a result of manufacturers’ direct interactions with clients.

Changing the business model of our company, Taylor Irrigation Services in Houston, to feature conscientious and responsible irrigation has made us learn a lot more about irrigation, soil and plants and the relationship between the three.

It has separated our company from others as we do not compete with most irrigation companies. There are very few apples to apples comparisons when it comes to business model, mission, approach or result.

We do not sell to everyone. One of the ways we build our reputation and brand is by providing value, which means saying no if we are not a good fit.

This change makes us stand out and we’ve found our services are marketable to other irrigation and landscape companies as well. When there is a problem a company cannot get their heads wrapped around, we often come in to help figure things out.

We’ve come close to doubling our revenue every year we’ve been in business so far and it’s our unique approach that’s making that possible.

Courses of action.

We have to change the way we look at landscape irrigation by first changing the definition of irrigation itself. Irrigation can no longer be the practice of gluing pipe together so as to sling water around the yard. Irrigation needs to become the understanding of the relationship between plant, water and soil with our primary responsibility being that of water managers.

The days of making money by throwing water around are numbered, while the potential to make money by saving clients money through lower water bills, reduced maintenance costs, less landscape lost to watering issues and added curb appeal is untapped and growing tremendously each and every day.

You can change your market by simply changing the way you offer your products and services and changing the core purpose of those products and services. I know because I have done it in the fourth largest market in the United States. John Taylor, president and CEO of Taylor Irrigation Services

Once you have committed to being a steward of water, the hardest part is over. You are now on the way to making money and growing your business by using your knowledge rather than using plastic parts. At this point, we can make a real difference by simply looking at products and services with this new mindset. The three key factors when becoming a more responsible irrigation contractor are:

Landscape design. Design the landscape around water conservation by featuring more native plants materials and plants with lower water needs.

Zen rock gardens, water features, fire pits, outdoor kitchens, permeable hardscapes, etc., are all examples of outdoor solutions that require less maintenance and little to no water consumption, and they invite the homeowner outside into the landscape environment.

Landscape preparation. Average companies put most of the client’s money into plants while great companies put that money to work in design, drainage, irrigation and soil preparation because that’s what keeps the product alive, thus allowing it to hold its value and aesthetic curb appeal.

A sustainable plan is the foundation of a successful landscape. Drainage ensures that soil remains healthy. Conscientious irrigation allows the plants to get only the water they need.

TAYLOR’S TEAM: L to R: Installation Foreman Porfirio Guerrero, Sustainable Designer Mary Beth Cappell Bovee, Irrigation & Lighting Division Manager Brad Rippley, President John A. Taylor, Landscape Division Manager Danny Patrick, and Installation Foreman Jose “Chuy” Flores.
© Mauricio Ramirez

Soil preparation is the most neglected component of the entire landscape and failing to prep soil properly undermines everything else on the site.

For example, a contractor can add a sprinkler head and increase the run times on the controller because a plant is drying out, but if the soil is anaerobic and has a layer of sun-fired clay on the surface? Then it may well be repelling water rather than absorbing it.

Featuring native plants and hardscaping solutions is a good way to make an inviting landscape, while using less water.
Photo courtesy of Taylor Irrigation Services

Attempting to correct this sort of issue with irrigation adjustments is not taking care of the real problem which means any value provided to the homeowner is minimal at best.

When prepping soil for sod, we recommend at least adding mycorrhiza fungus because it stimulates root growth and healthier soil conditions.

We find that the average turf root depth in our market is less than 1 inch on established turf, while we are getting 3 inches of root depth after 30 days when prepping the soil properly and using mycorrhiza fungus.

Turf root depth is key to health and sustainability. The deeper the roots go, the more soil moisture they can access.

Smart Irrigation Technology. The technology is out there but so are a lot of old wives’ tales and other misinformation that can get in the way. ET-based controllers, drip technology, high efficiency rotary nozzles, pressure-regulating heads and heads with check-valves installed in them should all be standard components of an irrigation system because they all work. Anyone who says they don’t is not installing them properly or is simply repeating something they heard from someone else.

Make the sale.

How do I sell this? This is the question I get asked most at my lectures. The sentiment seems to be, “I’m having a tough enough time selling my irrigation systems and services at the rates I’m at right now. How in the world am I going to sell them at the price I would need to be at if I used the technology you are talking about? How am I going to compete with the other guys?”

Regarding competing with the other guys: Stop. You’re not competing with the other guys any longer. Let them continue down the path of wasting water because their days are numbered.

The best way to beat those guys is not to compete with them at all, as it cheapens your product, hurts your brand and is a disservice to both the client and our industry.

The moment you stop competing with those kinds of companies and contractors, you actually set yourself free to grow. You can change your market by simply changing the way you offer your products and services, and changing the core purpose of those products and services. I know because I have done it in the fourth largest market in the United States.

Let’s look at it another way. Suppose you offer an irrigation system installation for a potential client and the cost of that system is $4,500. Let’s say I also offer an irrigation system to the same potential client for $6,500 but my system will save the client $1,200 per year in reduced water consumption.

If the life of the system is 15 years, the client can save $2,000 up front with your system or they can save $18,000 over the next 15 years with my system. In less than two years the client saves the extra $2,000 they spent with my company and the system itself is paid for in less than five years.

Our ideal client and property provides a return in under three years on our smaller homes. Larger homes and properties can often provide a return in a single year.

Stop selling plastic products and start selling value-based solutions. Start selling return on investment. Quantify the results expected by looking at water bills prior to estimating and then sell ROI rather than fancy equipment.

Become the client's advocate and provide them with as much value as possible because that's what all clients want.

Dealing with skeptics.

We recently tackled a few projects for a builder in the Houston market. Because most builders often put the bulk of their budget inside the house rather than outside, this was a great opportunity for us, being a higher end company. The property owner at one of the sites initially turned down our proposal as it exceeded his budget.

We met him on site and in walking through the differences between our design and technology versus the standard stuff, we secured the contract. A lot of what we offer can sound like bells and whistles because most people are familiar with some very old, outdated technology.

Many clients, and rightfully so, will feel that these extras are frivolous, an upsell or that they are just not needed which undermines the sale. During our follow-up walk-through, when the property owner first saw his system in operation, his remark was, “I am so glad I spent the extra money with you guys.”

He was most impressed with the lack of run-off or over-spray on the sidewalk, which is such a simple thing. Taking the time to show the client that smart technology serves a very important purpose can seal the deal, but if it is seen as an upgrade or option then don't be surprised when they opt out.

Stop selling plastic products and start selling value-based solutions. Start selling return on investment. Quantify the results expected by looking at water bills prior to estimating and then sell ROI rather than fancy equipment. John Taylor, president and CEO of Taylor Irrigation Services

For example, many people sell drip technology for the efficiency associated with not losing water to over-spray or evaporation but, in my opinion, the biggest benefit is that as the bed plant material grows over time, drip technology continues to provide one uniform layer of water while spray heads become boxed out and impeded by the density of the plants.

The water that builds up where those heads are impeded brings root rot, algae and fungus that can ultimately lead to pests, eye-sores and lost landscape. When you walk a client through this process and point out real-time issues on neighboring landscapes, it starts to make a lot of sense, which is a win for any contractor on the smart technology path.

Where the money is made.

Follow-up is where we really earn our money. We say two things all of the time here. First, just because we have the final payment does not mean we are disappearing. Second, it is easy to be a great company when all is well but we really build our reputation when the client has a problem. We include one year of free irrigation maintenance on every installation we sell. We do this for a few reasons.

Because we promised a healthier, more sustainable landscape as well as water conservation, we need to hold ourselves accountable for that promise. That can only be done if we are available to the client post-installation. We use ET-based technology and because of that we need to monitor it and adjust accordingly. Just because it is working well the day we leave the site does not mean it is doing what it should in the summer, the fall or winter.

Including the free maintenance accomplishes two things. First off, it ensures we are available to the client which gives them peace of mind. Second, it allows us to fine-tune the system over all four seasons to ensure that we have learned everything about the system and the property we can.

We do provide follow-up on water savings for our complete renovations. If there was an existing system, then we compare water bills and send quarterly reports and updates.

It is important to note that much of the savings are found in the seasonal bell curve proper controller settings create. So don't be worried if the water bill is the same, or even higher, during the peak usage months.

Strong communication, forecasting what to expect and follow-up are all incredibly important and they build your brand.

As we head into a new era where water, the most precious of resources, is scarce and being wasted at alarming rates by our older, outdated products, we must all change.

Sustainability is now the name of the game and if we do not get a handle on the problem in front of us, the next sustainability issue we face will be the sustainability of our industry.

The author is president and CEO of Taylor Irrigation Services in Houston.