Some landscape contractors call it the necessary evil. Others say it’s a profit-eating, tedious task that only serves one purpose: good public relations. But there’s a growing army of landscape contractors that like doing irrigation repairs. And, without thinking twice, they’ll tell you to take their testimony straight to the bank with the fat bag of money they made last week doing those repairs.
“Sprinkler repair is probably the most financially-rewarding part of the irrigation industry, if you know what you’re doing and can do it right,” said Jack Burks, founder of Burks Irrigation and Landscaping in Fort Worth, TX. “There’s damn good money in it if you can do one good repair a day. You can certainly take care of a family and have financial peace.”
Fifteen percent of Burks’ business is sprinkler repairs. Three of his nine trucks are outfitted to handle repair jobs, if necessary. He said he easily clears a substantial sum during a good summer just from fixing sprinkler systems.
Sometimes the job will be simple and only require the installation of some new sprinkler heads. Other times, the system is so ancient, the only way to fix it is to completely retrofit or replace it.
The cost to the customer for a job can range anywhere from $50 for the minor problem up to $4,000 for a complete overhaul. Either way, there’s a profit to be made, said one contractor in Tucson, Arizona.
So why do landscapers run from sprinkler repair? A lot of them don’t think there’s money in it and say they would rather be spending their time chasing down big landscape contracts.
Such is the case with Scott Boaz, founder of Boaz Landscape and Irrigation in San Diego, California. But Boaz is the exception to the repair-avoidance rule. The first seven of his 10 years in business were spent completing as many repairs as he could. “It’s a very good vehicle for someone who is just starting to do business,” Boaz said. “It’s valuable stuff you have to know in this business and it’s the best way to learn.”
Those repairs, although he didn’t find them extremely profitable, made his business twice as successful in the end. Boaz feels that the knowledge alone gives him the capability to make more money than the contractor who knows nothing about repairing irrigation systems.
Now that he knows exactly what to do when he’s faced with a repair, Boaz can get in and out of the occasional repair job fast and efficiently. That leaves his day wide open for other work and more cash intake, he said.
Whereas many contractors say the only purpose of repair work is good p.r., Boaz feels that the story’s missing a chapter. Good public relations isn’t anything to take for granted, he said.
“You can get ten good referrals and that does not equal one bad referral. You just have to keep knocking yourself out to stay on people’s good sides. It’s all a matter of keeping everybody happy.”
There is even good money to be made from irrigation repairs in areas where the climate isn’t so temperate. In fact, the snow-covered winters can bring a substantial amount of business in the spring and fall, said Obed Core with AJ Antico & Co., in Waltham, Massachusetts.
“That’s what we target, basically, is service,” Core said. “And we are looking to increase those numbers. As far as we are concerned, our main goal is service.”
AJ Antico is about a $2 million business, and half of those profits come from irrigation servicing and repairs.
In the fall, AJ Antico makes a healthy profit from draining people’s irrigation systems and blowing them out with a compressor. In the northeast, it’s a service that everyone with sprinklers needs done once a year. “It’s a benefit,” Core said. “Up here, we have to drain out the systems. If it’s not done, pipes will freeze and parts will break. And then more expensive repairs will be necessary.”
When the snow melts, Core and his co-workers become even busier. They have to visit all of their customers to service the sprinkler systems and make sure the winter cold didn’t cause any unexpected damage. That, in itself, is enough to make irrigation repairs a profitable business. Core says, “It’s an unbelievable business.”
Although Boaz no longer concentrates strictly on repairs, he does take on an occasional repair job. And he does it happily, he says. By doing so, he’s out in the community, giving the customer an appreciated service while drumming up more business for himself. That’s just another way to make money by repairing irrigation systems. In reality, there are a lot of landscape contractors who want to make money from repairs, but can’t figure out how to do it. Some of those folks keep trying. Others will simply give up on the idea of irrigation repair as a profit center and will, in turn, fend it off like the plague.
That doesn’t have to happen, said the ones who are making a profit from repair. There are a few things you can do to get the ball rolling. The contractors who are pulling a profit from repair said the keys to making money are as follows:
KNOW YOUR TRADE
The first step is to educate yourself: learn everything you can about sprinkler repairs. There are a lot of contractors who are competent and outstanding in their fields; but there are also a lot of people who don’t know a thing about sprinkler systems, says Burks.
For instance, in Texas a contractor needs a license. And to get that license, he has to take
a minimum 32-hour course.
In fact, most of Burks’ repair jobs are born from poorly-designed sprinkler systems. Other people’s lack of knowledge opened the door for his expertise, he said. “Lack of education is a serious problem. Anybody can repair a pipe or put a head back on but when you get into the wiring portion of it, that generally leaves about 99 percent of them in the dark.”
With the ultimate knowledge about repairing sprinkler systems, a contractor can usually assess and diagnose the problem on the phone. That allows him to have the proper tools and equipment, so he can plan to go in and get out in virtually no time. Sometimes, a 15-minute job will pay $65, said Suzie Brill of Southern Irrigation & Lawn in North Charleston, SC. While that quick money can be a blessing, it can also be a thorn in the side, she said.
EDUCATING THE CUSTOMER AND CHARGING WHAT YOU’RE WORTH
“People don’t want to pay for the service,” Brill said. “They don’t want to pay you for your knowledge.”
But it’s not knowledge alone that they’re paying for, said Greg Tolson, founder of Tolson’s Irrigation Repair in Tucson, AZ. Repairs are Tolson’s main focus and landscape jobs are a secondary part of his business.
Tolson said he has found a trick to help his customers feel better about paying the price to have their system fixed. He politely and respectfully reminds them just what they are paying for.
“Part of it is letting the clientele know you are a service company, just like the guy who does their air conditioning,” Tolson said.
Repair customers are paying for a service that requires time and expensive equipment.
There is the cost of fielding phone calls and scheduling, the price of dispatching trucks at a moment’s notice, the cost of labor, equipment, vehicles — not to mention worker’s compensation and liability insurance.
All of those things add up, and the contractor doing repair work should charge accordingly.
“A lot of guys charge at a rate similar to construction,” Tolson said. “You can’t do that and pull a profit.”
MAKE IT A FOCUS
By making repairs a focus, people like Burks and Tolson have made quite a nice living gracefully fixing irrigation systems. “If you’re in the contracting business and do repairs as a sideline, it can be a headache and a real problem,” Tolson said. “We focus on repairs and that’s the way it has to happen.”
Whereas Tolson’s business is mostly sprinkler repairs, Burks’ repair work is a secondary part of his day-to-day job. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a focus, he said. It has to be taken as a serious side to the business that can make money, and it can’t be considered an annoying branch of the landscape tree that would be better sawed off.
“If you have an irrigation business, in my mind you’re obligated to take care of people’s problems,” says Burks. “And it’s very profitable. There are a lot of weeks we open the mail and there’s enough money in there to make payroll.”
The thing about repairs, Boaz said, is that there are a lot of little jobs to take care of and not just a handful of big projects. But if you do it right, you can keep the downtime in between jobs to a minimum and make more money. “For repair work, I wouldn’t drive 40 minutes to get in there and repair some sprinkler heads.”
Also, there isn’t a whole lot of time for planning and scheduling because when a person’s sprinkler system is down, he wants it running again as soon as possible. That’s where dispatching and geographic planning comes into play. “It’s all in geography,” Burks says. “You don’t make your money driving down the road, but you have to be accessible to make your money.”
“There is a huge demand for irrigation repairs, and, if handled properly, can be very profitable,” according to Brill. “It’s work that will always be available and there aren’t a lot of people doing it.”
Southern Irrigation & Lawn in North Charleston is one of the only businesses in that area that does irrigation repair. “Most of our competitors don’t want to touch repair work,” Brill said. “So we do most of what there is.”
And, hey—if everybody else prefers to stay away from repairing irrigation systems, that’s fine with people like Tolson. That means there are a lot more green slices in his money pie.
“I don’t want to change their minds,” he said. “Have the customers call me.” •