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Winterizing Irrigation Systems

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IN OUR MOBILE SOCIETY, IT’S NOT UNCOMMON for people to move from a location with year-round warmth, like California, to a location in upstate New york, which has extreme wintertime freezes. Those who prepare themselves for a cold environment with scarves, gloves, and sturdy boots have a great time when the snow falls; those who don’t are chilled, miserable, and sometimes even frostbitten. You can bet that by the second snowstorm, these folks are dressed and ready!

As with people, a similar sentiment can be said about irrigation servicing. Those contractors who work in year-round warmth have it easy. They never have to winterize their customers’ irrigation systems. The rest of us—and that’s the majority—have a special job to do every autumn: get our customers’ systems ready for the ice, snow, and cold.

Winterization service has proven to be a significant profit center for landscape contractors, and every year it seems like more and more companies in cold climates are adding winterization to their repertoire of services.

“Winterization protects the sprinkler system from the damage caused by freezing water. Water expands when it freezes and can cause damage to your backflow device, valves, heads and pipes, so it’s important that winterization be done correctly,” says Douglass Weaver of Weaver Landscape & Irrigation in Wichita, Kansas.

Ice can damage any component of an irrigation system that has contact with water— backflow prevention devices, valve chambers, ball valves, and especially, sprinkler pipes. Again, frozen water expands, and if the system hasn’t been properly drained, the ice will crack the system’s pipes.

“You can have damage to the entire system, although that’s unusual unless it’s a severe winter,” says John Eggleston, owner of Service First Irrigation in Lansing, Michigan. “If you don’t winterize your system properly, you’re going to see costs anywhere from $500 to $1,000.”

It doesn’t matter if the pipes are made of PVC or a more flexible material like polyethylene; customers who don’t winterize their irrigation systems run the risk of having busted pipes and spending a lot of time and money to have them repaired. It would make more sense to pay a company a modest sum to winterize, than to pay a large fee in repair costs.

Therefore, if you have newcomers on your customer list, or are even just aware of someone who moved in from a warm weather state, you can be proactive. Those folks may just assume that because the piping, backflow preventer and valves are insulated above ground, all they need to do is shut off the water supply and switch off the system’s controller. you know how wrong that is— as soon as frost alerts start popping up on weather reports, it’s time for them to get winterized.

There are four steps to winterizing. Your crew members can learn them quickly and execute them with no problem. The last step takes just a little expertise and training. Here’s a review.

Four steps

First: turn off the water. you’re going to have some angry customers and potential legal liability if you forget this step. It’s usually done manually, but sometimes sites have it set up so that the water can be turned off remotely. If the water source is a pump station, disconnect the control panel; if it’s from the city, simply cut off the source.

Step two: check your controller. If you’re working with an automatic system, it’s important to remember to switch the controller to the off position. If the controller is left on, the watering schedule is going to continue as normal, which can ruin the solenoids and cause severe damage to the irrigation system. Do be aware that many controllers are equipped with a “rain mode” function that leaves the timer running, but shuts off all signals to the irrigation system’s valves. If you shut down the controller entirely, it may need to be reprogrammed in the spring.

Step three: open the system valves. If you try to use an air compressor in a closed valve, you risk bursting the line or destroying the spray heads. If the property has gear-drive rotor sprinklers installed above-ground, there’s a risk of having them freeze and rupture if the valves don’t drain properly. Once the valves are open, some water will usually drain out on its own. you can also remove the rotors, shake the water out of them, and store them in a safe place until spring.

The fourth and final step is to drain the pipes. As you know, the most effective way to tackle this is by using an air compressor to blow out all moisture in each valve. This involves taking the compressor’s air hose, inserting it into the sprinkler system’s blow-out valve, and then turning on the compressor. remember, it’s important that the pressure be regulated. If a system is blown out at levels exceeding 50psi, there’s a risk of severe damage.

If the property where you are working has multiple zones, like a homeowner’s association, commercial property, or even a large residential property, you will want to activate each zone until the sprinkler heads stop discharging water.

Then, blow out the system using the air compressor. Remember to stop the flow of air once the heads have stopped discharging water. Compressed air moving rapidly in a dry, condensed space causes friction, which can create enough heat to damage the irrigation system.

Customer service is key

“Cheap Blowouts! Save $$$!!!”

So many of us have seen these sloppy hand-lettered signs as we drive our routes. It’s infuriating, because it makes the public think that anyone can take on a winterization project without much experience or training. We know that’s simply not true—that a mistake in the process could leave the customer with a destroyed sprinkler system and a hefty repair bill.

Because anyone can purchase an air compressor, business owners like John Eggleston have noticed a number of people standing on roadsides with signs advertising “Cheap Blow-Outs.”

“When the economy soured and people were laid off, we saw an influx of people who would rent an air compressor and offer winterization services for half the price of a legitimate contractor—someone who’s been out there a while, knows what he’s doing, and how to do it right.” The guys on the corner don’t have a business, they were just trying to make a quick buck.

As in any business, there are checks and balances.

Quite often, those people doing winterization at a discounted rate will make all kinds of foolish errors.

Eggleston points out that if these roadside advertisements themselves aren’t enough evidence of a warning to consumers, then the abundance of calls to Service First Irrigation regarding broken backflow devices from bad service should be. It’s important that property owners are confident that the contractor they hire is experienced enough to do the job correctly.

While discounted blow-out offers might seem alarming for those of us in the business, legitimate contractors don’t have to worry too much. We already know how to keep customers loyal. “The more successful contractors run their business, rather than let their business run them,” Eggleston says. “A legitimate contractor is going to have a clientele that understands and trusts that the contractor will take care of them.”

It’s good business to be the kind of landscape contractor who is proactive when it comes to winterizations. Start notifying customers ahead of time, whether or not they are on a contract. When you stay in constant communication with your customers they won’t even think about shopping around, because they’ve either already bought the service or know that you are their go-to person. When you do contact them about a new service— maybe even winterization—they’ll know that you are acting in their best interest, and not trying to sell them a bill of goods.

The key to keeping your clients is maintaining a close and personal relationship through communication.

Return calls promptly. Be responsive. In turn, customers will feel like the competition isn’t even worth the bother of researching.

Another thing you might think about offering is year-round service. Many companies are now offering an irrigation service contract that includes winterization and spring start-up as part of a package deal. This is sometimes called a “preferred customer program,” or a “preferred maintenance program.” It guarantees business throughout the year.

According to Tom Derner of Aqua Pro Sprinklers in Watertown, Minnesota, “Our Preferred Customer Maintenance Program is a huge benefit to both our customers and our company. Customers love it because it saves them money and offers preferred scheduling times in both the spring and fall. It eases the task of scheduling winterizations. They are just given a date in the fall and they are already prepaid, so things run very smoothly. One of the biggest benefits of the program is that it brings in cash flow early in the spring when it’s most needed.” Offering a plan like this guarantees the customer’s business in the spring, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee their business throughout the year.

Other companies, like LMS Irrigation Systems in Minneapolis, Minnesota, extend the range of a preferred customer program—from seasonal service, to service throughout the year. Alongside winterization and spring start-up, their package includes periodic tune-up visits, and discounts on other services, like repairs or controller reprogramming.

Customers don’t always think about the range of problems that a sprinkler system can have or develop. Offering a monthly or bimonthly ‘check-up’ service lets customers know that they don’t need to worry if problems ever arise.

For example, say you have a customer with several athletic and energetic children. Chances are, their sprinkler heads will be prone to lots of abuse—both front and side yards. rough impact from just about anything can redirect the stream of water to the wrong location. The results are brown spots where the sprinkler was supposed to be watering, and a panicked customer with an expensive water bill.

This is a perfect customer for a preferred customer program. Frequent service checkups can catch problems like this early. If the customer has his contractor to thank for saving him some money on the water bill, it’s likely that the business relationship will continue.

Twenty years ago, an irrigation system was a privilege for the wealthy. Today, that privilege has vastly extended its reach, and the customer base continues to grow. Because of this, contractors have the ability to access a reliable means of revenue throughout the year, by offering a frequent service that keeps hold of their clients through outstanding customer service practices, and benefits.

If you’re in that cold weather zone, make sure your customers’ irrigation systems are ready for winter. Don’t let them feel like they’ve been caught in an ice storm without gloves or a hat. They’ll thank you for looking after them, and your bottom line will be just a little better. everyone wins, and no one—neither you, the customer, nor their irrigation system—gets frostbitten!

 
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