As energy costs go up, so does our concern over how to conserve. Among these concerns is our water supply. It seems like more and more municipalities are placing restrictions on the amount of water we can use. Some homeowner groups are thinking of posting bulletins to inform its neighborhood residents that they can only water their lawns on certain days of the week for limited amounts of time, but that’s just one option.
Another way to conserve is through an inspection of an irrigation system after it’s been installed, and even to conduct a water audit. The purpose of an audit is to determine how much water is being used for the landscape. With that information, the owners can find out how they can cut back on usage. Audits are perfect for property owners looking to do their part to preserve the local water supply, and also to save a few bucks on their water bills as well. In the past, water audits have been conducted mainly on commercial properties, but in some places, homeowners can request a water auditor to come and examine the water usage in their own home. In an effort to build awareness, more cities and municipalities are offering in-home water audits for special rates—and sometimes at no cost at all, depending on the region of the country and the resident’s income. The public’s awareness over this environmentally and economically friendly practice is on the rise. But perhaps no one should be more aware of the benefits of water audits than the landscape contractor.
As a landscape contractor, getting certified to perform water audits can allow you to expand your business and the services you provide. Bob Wade, of Wade Landscape, Inc., in Laguna Beach, California, received his certification from California Polytechnic State University in 1989, at a time when the state was in the midst of a three-year drought.
“It was a horrible time for people to waste water,” says Wade. “None of us wanted the water turned off. That’s why I thought water auditing would be a good service to have. I’ve kept my certification and have continued doing audits ever since.” Water audits are a practical way to widen your business palate. With water conservation now a buzzword, water audits will play a more important role, and your company can lead the way in your community. But it isn’t as simple as you might think. It takes some training to get started.
Usually when someone talks about water audits, that person is referring to the actual performance tests; however, there are a couple of steps that must be taken beforehand, and this is where an unqualified person typically bungles the job. By skipping these steps entirely, he could be doing more harm than good.
The first step is to assess the property’s water usage history. “We’ll look at the site’s size and what they have in terms of existing equipment,” says Wade.
“Then we’ll ask to see a year’s worth of water bills.” Perhaps the most crucial step of the process, and the one that is most often neglected by uncertified auditors, is the maintenance and repairs. An irrigation system almost always will require some degree of maintenance or fine tuning before it’s ready to be audited. The most common areas are the sprinklers. Often, the heads will be turned the wrong way, or they’ll be obstructed. The sprinklers might also be spaced unevenly, creating dry spots in certain areas as a result. Before an audit is performed, these issues must be addressed, and whatever corrections are needed must be made. Once this is done and the system is up to par, you’re ready to conduct the performance test. The test works like this: An auditor will lay catch-cans, or cups, on the ground throughout the site and then turn the sprinklers on. After 15 to 20 minutes, the sprinklers will turn off and the auditor goes around from catch-can to catch-can measuring how much water each one collected. In most cases, some catch-cans will contain larger amounts of water than others. This tells the auditor what the variance is between cups, or what they call “low quarter distribution uniformity.”
They’ll then take this variance and run it through a mathematical formula, which gives them the “uniform percentage.” In a nutshell, this percentage gives the auditor an idea of where the system’s drier spots are, thus enabling him to create a water schedule that would allow for uniform coverage of the whole area using as minimal an amount of water as possible. If a property owner’s irrigation system isn’t operating in as optimal a way as possible, then the water audit will have been a waste in and of itself. Although the expense of repairing the system may seem high to the property owner, after a couple of years— assuming the client has stuck to the new watering schedule—all the work that went into fine-tuning the system will have paid off in lower water bills.
“Realistically, you’re shooting for around 70% uniformity,” says Brian Vinchesi, design engineer at Irrigation Consulting in Pepperell, Massachusetts. “If you had 100% uniformity, it would all be even and you’d have nothing to worry about, but you’re never going to get that.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, water audits can reduce the amount of water used by an irrigation system by up to 15%. With rising gas and energy prices, never has the time been riper to take a serious look at water audits.
The good news for landscape contractors is that getting certified to perform water audits is easy. Universities and colleges as well as the Irrigation Association offer courses on water audits. These courses cover all steps of the auditing process, from placing the catch-cups to calculating the system’s uniformity to devising a watering schedule.
Becoming a certified water auditor can not only expand your business, it can also open other doorways. Wade, for example, became a partner for WaterSense, an EPAowned program designed to promote water efficiency by attaching its brand to water-savvy products. “Being a WaterSense partner allows me to attend so many conferences where I’ve an opportunity to expand my business,” says Wade.
Cities will often require certified auditors to assess the water efficiency levels of their parks. In regions of the country where water conservation is practiced on a wider scale, water audits for commercial and residential properties alike are in high demand.
Having that certification can help you earn a new level of prestige. “Licensed water auditors have a much faster road to getting referrals,” says Wade. “You essentially put yourself on a list that says to people, ‘If you want an expert, this is who you call.’ There are so many bad practitioners out there, and a lot of people are distrustful of what the outcomes of their water audits might be. Having that certification proves to people that you know what you’re doing.”
However, if you’re seriously thinking of doing water audits, don’t be ready to put all of your eggs into one basket. Most experts in the industry agree that turning to water audits full-time simply isn’t possible right now. “I don’t know anyone who makes a living off of just doing auditing,” says Vinchesi. “There’s not enough places right now that require water audits. Give it several years and it might be possible, but right now, it’s mainly something that you can add to your services.”
“The problem is that most customers aren’t willing to pay for repairs upfront,” says Tim Wilson, founder of H2O Stewardship in Eagle Mountain, Utah. “Those repairs could be costly. And what you have are licensed water auditors trying to pitch their water audit, and many of them go about it in the wrong way. They’re saying to the owner, ‘Give me this amount of money and I’ll help you conserve water.’ But the owners don’t usually care about conserving water; what they care about is saving money!”
Wilson, whose book, Site Water Management Property, offers contractors solutions on how to better their water auditing practices, says the problem most people face when trying to sell a property owner on the idea of water audits is that they don’t lay out a comprehensive plan for return investments. “I think the auditing program would be so much more successful if the water auditing courses spent as much time on business accounting and return on investment as they did on teaching their students about catch-cans,” says Wilson. “They need something they can show to the property managers, which proves that audits really work; so they can say, ‘Look, here’s the numbers.’”
So how do you offer property owners a clear outline as to how they’re going to see a return on the investments they make after they agree to have their property properly audited? You can pull the data from past water audits and use it as a springboard to sell new ones. Show your potential clients testimonials from your former clients; by referring to success stories you’ve had in the past, you can show property owners the proof they need.
Once you’ve gathered all the data you need, catalog it. Try using programs such as Microsoft Excel that are useful for cataloging data. These sheets can break your previous audits down into easy-to-read figures that property owners can understand.
It might pay for you to look into other types of software. If you invest in water-scheduling software, all the calculations—distribution uniformity, net precipitation rate, the amount of water needed per week, evaporation and transpiration, etc.—will be done automatically by computer.
When attempting to show a property owner the benefits of a water audit, try showing him whatever water-scheduling software you might have at your disposal. If he sees how little effort is involved in implementing the watering schedule, he might be more willing to agree to a water audit.
One pitfall property owners should avoid is not following up after the water audit was completed, because sometimes they will find that their staff stopped following the new watering schedule. Since the schedule has to be implemented and updated continually, it’s easy for staff to slip back into old habits.
Although there’s a good deal of debate as to how effective water audits are today, where they’ll be tomorrow is a story we’ve yet to write. The fact is, as awareness over water grows, so will the need to conserve our water, and more cities will require water audits.
“The only time you’ll see a real market demand for water auditing is when cities require it,” says Wilson. “And we’re sure to expect that number of cities to rise in the next few years. Property managers aren’t going to run audits because it’s the right thing to do. They’ll do it because it saves them money— bottom line. That’s what we have to remind them of.”