March 15 2017 03:03 PM

Spend enough time in the irrigation industry, and sooner or later you’ll hear somebody go off on the IRS because they’ve been audited. Getting audited by the IRS is the financial equivalent of a root canal —without an anesthetic— so people tend to think of all audits as bad things. However, the water audit that a Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor (CLIA) can perform on an irrigation system is actually beneficial.

When those of us in the green industry conduct a water audit on a landscape, we aren’t out to penalize the property owner, but to find and fix any problems with the irrigation system. With the information from a completed audit, we can plan upgrades and repairs that conserve water, and may even save the client money. That’s something any contractor who offers irrigation services can get behind.

Every time you visit a site, you’re on the lookout for broken heads, misdirected sprays and irrigation runoff. However, this is a far cry from a complete water audit, and it’s important to understand the difference between a formal audit and an informal inspection.

If a person has an image in his mind when he thinks of a water audit, he’s probably envisioning catch cans placed in the arcs of sprinkler heads. That’s because catch cans are integral to determining the efficiency of representative zones in an irrigation system, which is a key part of a full audit.

An audit requires you to write down every single detail about an irrigation system’s requirements and performance—every zone, every head, every plant type. Then, you can use this data to calculate what the landscape needs, and whether or not the system is currently meeting those needs.

Knowing how to read an audit is a valuable skill for a landscape contractor to have. It can earn you projects you might never otherwise see. For example, when an HOA in Oklahoma City got its sprinkler system audited for free by the city, it handed the results off to its landscape maintenance company.

At that point, Matthew Harsha, CLIA, co-owner of Land Creations, a local landscape company, got involved because he was the only certified auditor with an irrigation business in the city. “Just because of my niche in the industry, the company sent the audit to me, and asked me to bid the repairs,” said Harsha. By reading the auditor’s report, he was able to see all the problems in the system, and knew what steps he could take to fix them.

To become certified, Harsha took a class offered by the Irrigation Association. He then had to pass a written test of his knowledge, and complete a practice audit in front of an experienced auditor. Kurt Thompson, owner of K Thompson & Associates, LLC, in Lake Wylie, South Carolina, is one such experienced auditor. He has taught auditing for the IA from the beginning.

Thompson says that the numberone thing to do in your audits is “make them repeatable and defensible in your metholodogy.” If you placed your catch cans around a sprinkler in a set way, write it down in your audit, so that another auditor could replicate your pattern.

“People tend to randomize their catch can placement,” said Thompson. “Then, if they go back and try to repeat it, they can be five or six feet off.” Instead, he recommends following a grid pattern that’s simple to replicate.

Do this, because at the end of the day, the person you’ll most likely be defending your work to is the client. The clearer you can be about the process—including what goals the client has at the outset—the better.

Take zone choice. You may have chosen representative zones to test based on a combination of head type and plant type, but if the clients don’t know that, it might seem to them as if they were chosen at random. Most of the time, you won’t have to go into detail and defend your choices, but being able to do so will prove your expertise to them beyond any doubt.

In order to perform a water audit, you need to know the fundamentals of irrigation system design. “You audit a sprinkler system, preferably, before it has even been installed,” said Harsha. “You identify all the different hydrozones and the watering requirements that the plants are going to need. Grass and flower beds need different amounts of water, and those amounts are lessened if they are in shade or partial shade.”

Once you have a complete map of how much water each zone will need, then you have to take into account what the ground will hold.

Matching your precipitation rate to the soil conditions (sandy or clay) and the lay of the land (no slope, slight slope or steep slope) is important. After all, irrigation runoff is wasteful, and in some places it’s even illegal.

Putting down the right amount of water reduces the client’s water bill and preserves local supplies, but more importantly, with irrigation, less is sometimes more. “You want to let the soil dry out,” Harsha said. “That forces the roots of your plants to go deep, seeking moisture, rather than staying shallow.” Deeper roots feed the plants more efficiently, and help it to resist droughts, diseases and pests.

Assessing all these values allows you to design an irrigation system so that the amount of water applied matches the amount lost to evapotranspiration, minus whatever is supplied by the weather. Then, once the system is installed, it can be put through its paces.

Catch cans are placed strategically, to get an exact measurement of the precipitation rate in each zone, which is then used to determine the distribution uniformity (DU) of the system. Having an experimentally-determined DU right at the start of the system’s lifespan is good for a number of reasons.

“I like to call it the report card of how good your system is,” says Brent Mecham, industry development director for the Irrigation Association, headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia. “A system may have great products, but if they weren’t put in correctly, if the spacing and the nozzles weren’t right, then the quality of the system isn’t going to be as good as it could be.”

A DU of at least 65 percent is required to meet the standards for EPA WaterSense certification, and that can be a serious selling point for clients. At a national level, we are examining our water use more closely, and whenever water gets tight, outdoor irrigation gets a lot of attention. In some parts of the country, having an irrigation system that meets WaterSense standards is proof that a business is trying to be a responsible corporate citizen.

In the past few years, a new trend has emerged in the irrigation industry. Drip irrigation is considered the last word in irrigation efficiency by state bodies and water agencies in the American Southwest. So when the western drought was in full swing, the number of drip installations boomed and contractors were rushing to learn more about them. The Irrigation Association has responded by offering a drip specialization for auditors.

Auditors who have passed the drip specialization test can help measure the efficiency of below-ground, as well as above-ground irrigation systems. Mecham agrees that the best time to audit a drip system is when it’s installed. “That way, you can find the emitters, see the tubing, see the filter, and see where it’s being placed,” he said. “Do you have a valve that is really meant for low flow? At really low flows, they don’t operate the same as during normal flows.”

A professional inspection is important, because a drip system installed with a minimum of training, using components from a big box store, is likely to have a whole slew of problems. Assuming that the system has a filter, emitters can still get clogged, due to root intrusion. Plants will probe the ground with their roots, to access the ‘underground stream’ of water-filled tubing. If the emitter is not intrusion-resistant, the root can plug it shut.

Another problem that can occur with drip systems is when the emitters get placed solely with establishment in mind. As the landscape matures, plants grow and their root systems expand. A drip system that focuses on establishment to the exclusion of everything else will not be prepared to water a plant after five years of growth.

Changing the placement of drip emitters on an installed system is a lot more labor-intensive than swapping out a sprinkler head, so inspections of drip irrigation systems have caused a shift among installers. “I see a trend now, of starting to plan further ahead with drip systems,” said Mecham. “Placing emitters where they need to be so that the plants develop really good, strong roots, and allowing for growth, almost means having two different drip systems: one for establishment, one for management and maintenance.”

That gets to the heart of why an irrigation audit is valuable, because, armed with hard data on an irrigation system, we can say exactly how much it can be improved. Maybe the nozzles need to be adjusted, or a few heads need to be swapped out. Maybe the system needs a pressure regulator, or maybe a major overhaul.

When Betty Sargent, CLIA, and a principal in J.M. Irrigation, LLC., in Volo, Illinois, explains the options to a customer, she uses it as an opportunity to do a little education as well.

“As auditors, we are offering a service to people who are not familiar with irrigation,” she said. “Say you have a customer with a 15-year-old system and you know it will start needing repairs soon. We would break it down for them, so they can plan ahead. They can put a part of their budget aside in a maintenance fund for upgrades and repairs.”

Sargent has a bit of an advantage when talking to commercial clients. She was in facilities management for twenty years, prior to becoming certified as an irrigation auditor. “The clients really don’t want to get too involved with it, so we streamline it for them. We make it simple to understand, and give them simple explanations about how we can fix their systems.” Managers have so many problems to juggle that they don’t have time to understand all of them, and irrigation often gets put on the back burner.

An auditing license is proof of your expertise to the client. Most clients want expertise, but they don’t want jargon. If you have letters behind your name, they most likely already trust that you know what you’re talking about, and will take your word as gospel, even when you explain their problem in layman’s terms.

For our industry, irrigation is always front and center, and auditors are required to achieve 20 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) every two years to help keep it that way. CEUs can be achieved by taking or teaching classes, attending trade shows, writing irrigation-related books and articles, or judging irrigation competitions, to name a few.

Cementing our status as the world’s landscape irrigation experts is going to be important in the next decade or two. Water restrictions are tightening; the price of water will continue to rise, and officials at local, state and national levels see landscape irrigation as the tallest nail, the one that gets hammered down first. Unfortunately, they don’t always realize what water efficiency entails.

When Oklahoma City started requiring irrigation contractors to register with the city, their intent was that a plumbing company should be attached to every irrigation permit and every irrigation inspection. Harsha attended that meeting; there were only two city water auditors. “I looked at them and looked back at the city manager and told him that the only three people in the room qualified to inspect a sprinkler system were the two water auditors and me,” he said.

In the conversation that followed, the chief plumbing inspector admitted that he didn’t know anything about irrigation controllers, let alone what they needed to meet with the city’s even/odd watering schedule. “It was another example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing,” Harsha said.

Educating municipalities and customers on the benefits of professional irrigation is a good thing, but the real joy is the work itself. “From a personal perspective, I love doing audits,” said Sargent. “I enjoy it because I feel like I’m really giving the customer a service that they may not even know is available to them.” If you already love doing irrigation, you may find that an auditor’s license doesn’t just bring more opportunity, it brings more enjoyment. Life is too short to pass up a chance like that.