“Do you do drip?” This is a question contractors all over the country are hearing more frequently as the demand for drip irrigation continues to grow.
Drip irrigation, a method of delivering water slowly, at low pressure directly to or near the root zone of plants, got its start in agriculture. After establishing itself as an efficient way to irrigate crops, it spread to the landscape industry, where it has been gaining popularity.
There are several good reasons why residential and commercial customers should embrace drip irrigation. The first is that it’s simply a highly efficient way to water. Because drip irrigation applies water slowly and directly to the soil, very little is lost to evaporation or runoff.
While water efficiency is one of its biggest draws, drip offers a great deal of design flexibility and can be readily adapted as plants grow and needs change. They can be installed alone or can be used in addition to an overhead sprinkler system.
Drip allows for very precise watering of plants with differing needs, so systems can be tailored to deliver the right amount of moisture for optimal plant health.
This low volume style of landscape irrigation has been in use in some parts of the country for years. It has proven itself in the desert Southwest and other places that have experienced severe water shortages. But as word spreads about the benefits of drip, its becoming a popular option even in places where water supply hasn't been a pressing concern.
If drip isn't already included among your service offerings, you may want to develop your competence in this arena now so you can be ready with a confident "yes" when one of your customers hits you with the "Do you do drip?" question. Better still, if drip systems aren't yet a common sight in your neighborhood, now might be a great time to establish yourself as the local expert on this growing technology.
Consider your customer
As with any new offering, one of the first things to do is consider your customers and determine their likely motivation for adding this new service. With drip, the reasons may vary depending on geography, but water conservation should always be at the top of the list.
"From what I've observed, drip is growing faster than other irrigation methods and there are two big reasons for this," says Dave Laybourn, senior product manager for the landscape drip division of Rain Bird. "The first is water use regulations. The second is the desire to be 'green'."
Regulations have played a big role in demand. "In some cases, regulations come in the form of irrigation restrictions," says Laybourn. "Drip is often exempt from these. In other cases, there are limits to how much lawn area can be installed. Often, the remaining areas must be irrigated with drip."
Restrictions like these are having a powerful impact on the green industry. "People in the nursery and landscape business are trying to outlast the phase two and phase three watering restrictions," says Bill Hutcheon, sales and marketing manager for Antelco Corporation in Longwood, Florida. "They're looking for new, more efficient ways of doing things. The good news is that drip irrigation includes a range of products that are exempt from restrictions here in Florida and most other states as well."
"The pressure that's going to be brought on us by water shortages is going to continue to demand more efficient uses of water," says Kurt Maloney, director of marketing for Netafim Irrigation Inc., in Fresno, California. "Drip irrigation is a technology that's capable of providing that efficiency and it?s one that?s easily incorporated into what landscape and irrigation contractors already do."
Even in areas where regulations aren't pushing the issue, a growing trend toward environmental responsibility is. "People are changing. Our needs are changing and we're becoming more aware of our environmental footprint," says Mark Gile, co-owner of In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes in Bothell, Washington.
When Gile first moved to Washington after living in Nevada for a number of years, he already had experience with drip irrigation. "I came from an arid part of the country where we were going through six and seven years of drought," he says. "Xeriscaping was the norm, and drip irrigation was a part of that. But here in Washington, it was just catching on as people were becoming more conscious about conserving water. This was a perfect segue for introducing drip."
Conservation has always been a focus of Gile's company, so drip irrigation was a natural fit. But as he points out, contractors who don't offer this option are missing out. "With the conservation movement as a whole, contractors can attract the attention of clients by offering sustainable options, including efficient irrigation methods. It can be a good selling point for their company." It's not only a matter of staying ahead of the curve; it's a matter of not being left in the dust . . . literally. "People are demanding this kind of technology," says Gile. "If you're not on board right now, you're going to be left behind."
Even when water shortages and environmental ethics don't catch the attention of customers, simple economics do. Drip'?s impact on the water bill is often the motivating factor, especially for big water customers. New Leaf Landscaping in Durham, North Carolina, has been installing drip irrigation systems since the mid '90s and the company includes a drip system with every planting. Rick King, president and head designer of New Leaf, says the company saw drip as a low-cost way to maintain new plantings in peak health while providing economic benefits for both the customer and the company.
"Installing drip with every planting enabled us to extend our planting season into hot weather," says King. "We started using it when we were installing a project during the heat of the summer and were having trouble keeping things adequately watered. Once we started using it and seeing how easy it was, it became a no-brainer."
"Our customers like how inexpensive it is," continues King. "The City of Durham charges water treatment fees based on the water used. This means if you irrigate, you're essentially being charged twice for that water. With drip irrigation, you're watering only what you want to water. And you'd be amazed at how many fewer weeds you see."
King also says that using drip helps keep disease down on his plantings. "In North Carolina, some of our biggest issues have to do with fungal diseases that attack the leaf. Whenever we can keep homeowners from splashing water on a plant leaf, that's a good thing."
Some customers opt for drip simply as a convenient way to take care of those thirsty hanging baskets and container plantings. "In patio areas, container plants can all be attached to a particular zone," says Hutcheon.
"If you leave on vacation, the system can water your plants while you're away." In some areas, contractors do big business in drip primarily with these patio and container installations.
Becoming a drip expert
Contractors who practice in areas where this technology is not yet common have a golden opportunity to set themselves apart as the source for drip irrigation in their community. By adding it to their other irrigation offerings they'll have a full spectrum of approaches to meet client's needs.
"It's all about setting yourself apart as an expert in your market by adding drip technology to your complete irrigation package," says Laybourn. "There are several ways to do this. You can hold free seminars for homeowners. You can make case studies of two or three customers. It's a matter of getting the public in your area to associate your firm with this new efficient form of irrigation."
Learning to install drip is fairly simple but you need to take the time to educate yourself. There is a plethora of information available to help contractors become proficient quickly. Instruction is available online, through distributors and manufacturers, and through professional organizations.
"For some contractors, drip is still a new thing and they may not be as confident in working with it," says Maloney. "But they quickly find that many of the same principles they've learned regarding traditional sprinkler systems also apply to drip."
"One of the nice things about it is that it's easy to install," says Spaulding. "You're dealing with flexible poly tubing, and unlike sprinkler systems, you can lay it on top of the ground. You don't have to dig a trench. It's also easy to fine tune the system in order to put water right where you want it."
Drip systems start with a valve, a backflow prevention device, a pressure regulator, and a filter. Flexible poly tubing brings water to planting areas where several types of emission devices are used to distribute water to plants. The type of device used depends on the application.
Drip emitters offer the most precise delivery of water, bringing water directly to the base of individual plants. They are installed directly into the poly tubing or are fitted into spaghetti tubing that runs from the mainline tubing to plants.
Dripline and drip tape consist of flexible tubing with emitters pre-installed or embedded inside the tubing at regular intervals. These are used to evenly irrigate an entire area versus applying water to individual plants. Some of these products can be installed for subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) and are used for turf applications.
Microsprays or microsprinklers are like miniature sprinklers that apply water to small areas from risers or stakes a few inches off the ground. These are best for ground covers, dense plantings, or other areas that will need more coverage than individual drippers provide.
While drip installation is not difficult, you do need to educate yourself in order to avoid mistakes that can lead to trouble. "Make sure to attend a training class that focuses on installation and maintenance," says Laybourn. "You can avoid a lot of problems by following two big rules.The first is to be sure emitters stay where you want them to. A big source of trouble is emitters that are not staked well and not where they should be. The other rule is to make sure the system goes in clean and stays clean."
Delivering the goods
The word is spreading about drip irrigation. Popular media has brought it to the attention of a public who is eagerly looking for ways to practice environmental responsibility. Consumers know about it; they know it works; and they want it. Are you prepared to deliver?