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Think Like an Irrigation Consultant

Jeff Gottesfeld | Irrigation
Irrigation is a proven revenue stream—no pun intended—for those in the landscape business. However, irrigation isn’t as simple as locating the water supply, tearing up the turf, laying pipes, attaching rotor heads, and accepting a hefty check as you ride off in your pickup into the summer sunset. To be an effective irrigation installer who provides an essential service—a service where one job leads to another and a reputation is made as well as money—you need to think like an irrigation consultant.

We asked three highly respected irrigation consultants how irrigation installers—and those thinking of becoming installers—can think like a consultant. Also, why thinking like a consultant can grow your business.

Ivy Munion has designed irrigation systems for 25 years, and owns the ISC Group in Livermore, California. Dave Pagano, of d.d. Pagano in Orange, California, is one of our industry’s heavyweights, while Ventura,

California consultant Jess Stryker’s wide-ranging website—www.irrigationtutorials.com—is for rookies and seasoned vets alike.

These pros offer nine specific ways that you should be thinking about the work, clients, equipment, and your company to make every project profitable.

Start with the water 

To think like an irrigation consultant, you should start with the water.

You want to think not just about the placement of pipes, sprinkler heads and valves, but about the cost of water and access to it. Costs are heading higher and, as experience in many parts of the country has shown, access is not guaranteed.

“When we plan any project,” Munion explains, “we operate on the assumption that drought restrictions are in place, even if the area currently has plenty of water. That way, if restrictions are enacted, the customer is covered and ready. We always look to see if there’s a way to use recycled water for irrigation, since it’s less expensive. If there’s a storm drain catchment in place, can we use it? If not, can we put one in? If recycled water isn’t available, a separate water meter for irrigation can be a money-saving option, since the customer won’t have to pay sewer costs.”

Take the land into account 

Irrigation takes visualization, says Stryker, and a professional irrigation consultant always takes the land into account when planning a new project. “Walk the site before you design,” he advises. “Look for abnormalities. If it’s a plot that’s lain fallow for some time, keep your eyes open for places where weeds are not growing. That can be a clue that you’ve got a soil problem, or maybe even an old concrete patio a few inches under the topsoil. It might even be some kind of contaminant that needs professional removal.”

Stryker also wants you to pay close attention to trees. “Here on the West Coast, most trees can tolerate normal irrigation quite well…but not oaks. I get uptight about oaks. If they’re growing without irrigation, keep them that way. Their roots are prone to rot.”

Finally, he urges installers to think carefully about sprinkler placement. “It’s just silly to put sprinkler heads hard against a building or hard against a fence. Water damage is just too likely.”

Be usage specific

Munion stresses that it’s not just terrain that needs to be considered when creating an irrigation plan; the same terrain might have two different end-uses, which means two different kinds of irrigation designs.

“Say, you’ve got a lawn to irrigate that’s outside a hospital or an old-age home. How you design that system is very different from how you’d design a system for a playing field. For both, you’d think about the potential kinds of accidents that could arise. Some sites need to be more risk-averse than others. For example, with the old-age home, you’d want to be sure that there were the minimum number of things over which a resident could trip and fall,” Munion explains.

Condominiums, office parks, public buildings, residences, playing fields, schools, and shopping centers will all have different usage patterns for the terrain that’s being irrigated, even if it’s the same type of terrain. Munion urges the contractor to think through the usage before creating a design.

Plan to expand

“When you start a project,” Pagano cautions, “you need to know if you’re designing a phase of a project or if you’re designing a whole project. That affects everything.”

“If there’s going to be future expansion,” he emphasizes, “you must take that expansion into account as you create your design. To think like a consultant, think about your sources of water. Will you need to introduce a new water source, or is your original source sufficient once you expand the system? How big will the expansion be? And when is it planned for?” Pagano creates irrigation plans with a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years, typically. If the owner is talking about expansion a quarter of a century from now, don’t worry too much about it.

Know the equipment

Irrigation is an arena of significant innovation and product development. Thinking like a consultant means reading trade publications, attending conferences, finding out what’s just come to market and even what’s in the development pipeline.

For example, a simple, battery-operated soil sensor from The Toro Company’s Irrigation Business Division has just been introduced. The sensor communicates by radio line-of-sight with just about any sprinkler timer, via an add-on that attaches to the timer unit.

This precision soil sensor measures soil moisture content, salinity, and ambient temperature to regulate irrigation. The goal, says associate product manager Peter Lackner, is to provide a simple way to make sure that turf isn’t over-watered or under-watered.

Sprinkler heads themselves are evolving, according to Paul Lierheimer, marketing manager for the Contractor Division at Rain Bird. “We’ve focused a great deal on reliability, so the contractor doesn’t have to go back out to the jobsite to repair something that never should have failed in the first place. For example, our improved wiper seals keep rotors free of grit. They used to look like O-rings; now, they’re more like a sleeve, and do a better job of keeping the casing clean.”

The new I-35 low-pressure nozzle from Hunter Industries is called on for use by designers when they know they may have low water pressure, according to Steve Hoveln, product manager for rotors.

They are designed to operate at 40 psi. The I-35 nozzle is designed to be paired with the Hunter I-35 rotor. With a triple-nozzle port, they are retrofittable into all existing models of the I-35.

Pagano always makes time for salespeople. Meeting them and talking to them is one way to stay up to date on the latest products for the industry. You should think like a consultant instead of merely an installer.

Budgeting: be ready for “value engineering”

“Budgeting is always a problem,” Pagano concedes. “If you’re dealing with a client who has numerous projects, and who uses products from the same manufacturer in all his projects, it’s hard to even think about cost reduction by substituting one piece of equipment for another. That standardization is important to the client, even if it means that things may be a bit more costly.”

Conversely, irrigation is often the first budget-cutting resort of project managers who see construction coming in more expensively than planned. The first thing that money comes out of is landscaping,” Munion points out. “When that happens, you’ve got to pick your battles and do your best to limit cost controls to those things that aren’t so crucial. Go in with what you think would be best to do, but have a backup plan of what you believe is worth fighting for.”

Stryker tries to build a ‘slush’ factor into his budgeting, too. “The fact is,” he says, “you don’t know what you’re going to find when you start trenching. I’ve been surprised too often by pipes and electrical wiring.” These are things you can’t anticipate, but which can add to the cost of the installation. If you can give yourself a little financial wiggle room, you’ll be glad you did.

Prep for when you’re done

However, your job isn’t done when the job is done, Stryker emphasizes. While you’re working on your next job, the system you leave behind must operate effectively and efficiently. “Go out there yourself and walk the customer through it,” he instructs. “Tell them who to call for help; give them all the owner’s manuals.”

One of the best things you can do for your customers—and for yourself, if you ever need to retrofit or repair the installation—is to have excellent documentation for the project.

A software suite called Intuitrace, from the Logan, Utah company Juniper Systems, makes creating such documentation easy.

Intuitrace combines office-based software with on-site handheld GPS-assisted mapping and photography to create a clear, concise, and detailed map of your project. With Intuitrace, you can document every pipe and every valve.

Stryker also urges that your design takes into account usability.

“Put your controllers someplace where they’re not going to get splashed by a functioning sprinkler. And if at all possible, put them someplace the customer won’t have to run to in the middle of a rainstorm.”

Go green

A landscape irrigation designer is always thinking about sustainability, because he or she knows that our natural resources are limited.

“I am so green that my name is Ivy,” Munion jokes. “I’m always thinking sustainability. If I don’t have specific instructions to go green, I’m always thinking green, even if I’m not working on a LEED project per se. If there’s a way to integrate drip irrigation so that I can fertilize perennials and annuals with natural compost tea, I’m going to do it.”

For Munion, sustainable doesn’t just mean natural. It means local. “It’s not always possible, but when I can, I like to use locally manufactured components. I’m also one of the loudmouths who put pressure on the manufacturers to provide for recycling irrigation equipment. Brass and copper are already recyclable. So is clean PVC pipe—100% recyclable. I give public kudos to those manufacturers making the effort. It’s part of being an irrigation professional and not just an installer.”

Act like the pro you are “We’re the pros,” Pagano reminds. “To be a professional, you need to act like a professional.”

Pagano says that a consultant understands for whom he or she is working. That is, the customer. “You’re the customer’s advocate, the customer’s ally, and you stand on the same side of the desk as the customer. It’s more of a challenge for those in the design/build business, because those folks end up on both sides of the desk.”

Whether a consultant or a designer, it is your responsibility to stay current on new equipment and trends. What you don’t want to have happen, Pagano explains, “is for your customer to call you and ask what you think of the latest Rain Bird so-and-so...and you have no idea what he’s talking about.”

The message of these experts is clear: at every stage industries of an installation, from conception to completion, thinking like a consultant instead of a mere technician will raise your game. If you think like a professional from start to finish, you’ll be a professional. The results—in both great work and referrals to new customers—will be rewarding.

 
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