Helping customers save water and money with irrigation audits

By Larry Bernstein

Conducting irrigation audits for your customers will help them save water and money and won't hurt your bottom line either..

With over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface covered by water, it’s easy to forget how precious a resource it is. Sure, we all hear about droughts on occasion, but they’re always in other places, reported by weather forecasters trying to stir up the viewer’s interest. Yet, conserving water is an imperative for all of us, particularly those of us in the irrigation and landscape business. One way to ensure water is being used optimally is by conducting irrigation audits.

Irrigation audits are best performed by certified landscape irrigation auditors. According to the Fairfax, Virginia-based Irrigation Association website, to become a CLIA, one must pass an exam and submit a complete landscape irrigation audit, which is then verified by an IA-certified professional. Obtaining this certification means one is able to quantify and analyze landscape irrigation water use.

Irrigation audits are a key element of site surveys. For many landscapers, an audit might conjure up memories of high school and college math classes rather than images of water conservation. Yet, this is one of those cases where math is integral to the process of ensuring the correct amount of water is being applied.

What’s involved

There are two steps or stages to a water audit. Tim Malooly, president of Minneapolis-based Water in Motion and a CLIA contractor and designer describes what he calls “a stage one audit.” This is a walk-through of an irrigation system by an experienced professional.

He looks for the low-hanging fruit, easy fixes that will tune up the system. Examples of commonly reported issues found in stage one include leaks, broken or maladjusted sprinklers, broken or missing rain sensors and poor scheduling practices. If you stop there, without proceeding to the next stage, you’ve done an irrigation evaluation. Though short of a full audit, it can still greatly increase a system’s efficiency.

The second stage of the irrigation audit is more scientific and math-based. Malooly says, “Stage two is a scientifically measured, defensible evaluation using catch cans configured in a grid to measure how much water is actually being to delivered to the areas being measured.”

A catch can test involves placing small containers about the size of a tuna tin in strategic spots in each zone that is being watered. After the zones have been watered for a few minutes, it’s time to read the catch cans and determine how much water was actually applied versus how much is really needed.

“A catch can test helps you to determine the distribution uniformity, of each sprinkler zone,” says Andy Slack, owner of Buckeye, Arizona-based Slack Landscape and Irrigation Consulting. “It’s the measuring stick for how well or badly sprinklers are performing and is part of the process of determining irrigation efficiency.” According to Slack, it’s ideal to do an audit on each irrigation zone then factor the results into your report with recommendations for improvement and therefore, water savings.

Eric Anderson is president and general manager of Valley Soil Inc., a water conservation company in Temecula, California that services residential, commercial and governmental clients. He says, “When doing a catch can test, we’re trying to measure what a system’s output is so we can manage the results. It can help determine how much water to apply for the plant needs per day while taking physical and environmental factors into account.”

Before doing a water audit, you need some information. First, you’ll need an accounting of how much water has been used over at least the last 12 months. This gives you a baseline for computing how much water is needed. You also need to know the type of soil involved and its infiltration rate and the square footage of the turf and/or landscape. Slack uses AutoCad or Google Earth to measure the square footage accurately.

Russ Jundt is founder, vice president and brand leader of Conserva Irrigation, a landscape irrigation company whose entire focus is water conservation. The company, which was founded in Minnesota and now headquartered in Virginia where it oversees franchises around the country, designs, specifies, and installs new systems and retrofits existing residential and commercial systems with new equipment to make them more efficient. He notes Conserva utilizes 40 years of historical weather data from partner, The Toro Company and a long algorithm it created. Conserva then uses this information to create a baseline of how much water should be used.

Sounds complicated, right? Well, Malooly emphasizes focusing on stage one and the search for the obvious issues. Jundt says, “It’s about having boots on the ground and a professional going through the system and assessing what is going on hydraulically. This should be the first step.” Being more thorough by going through a full audit process offers added benefits.

Offering an irrigation audit

You may be wondering why bother with the catch cans and the other elements associated with a formal irrigation audit?

An audit can be complicated. Becoming certified as an auditor is also complex and takes time, and much of the process of ensuring the irrigation system is working can be done visually. Jundt emphasizes, having CLIA behind one’s name “is a differentiator. It shows a level of professionalism, justifies your existence and quantifies the experience to the consumer.”

Malooly agrees. “Landscape irrigation professionals should become certified and offer water audits because it’s the right thing to do when operating a landscape irrigation business. Water use and water issues in urban landscapes are of increasing importance to society.”

While no one denies conserving water is meaningful and both fiscally and ecologically responsible, a business only exists as long as it makes money. Anderson, who says every landscape contractor needs to become a CLIA, asserts the value of that certification is priceless. Offering a water audit is “a great sales tool,” he says. “It’s a service that has a very good return on investment.”

Malooly and his team at Water in Motion found that one audit client, a public school, was wasting up to 85 percent of its irrigation water. “The system was in such dramatic disrepair due to a lack of maintenance that we advised them to shut it off until it could be repaired properly. We gave them a prioritized list of tasks that needed to be done that, if acted upon, would have enabled the system to approach a 60 percent operating efficiency, which is a common design goal for broadcast irrigation.”

According to Jundt, the typical savings residential customers enjoy after having a water audit is a 40 to 60 percent reduction in water use. Commercial clients benefit even more. Conserva serves more than 300 Target stores. The national retail chain saved more than 36 million gallons of water at 85 of stores in 2017 after performing water audits. That savings is expected to increase to over 150 million gallons at those stores in 2018.

Valley Soil helped a homeowners’ association improve its efficiency from 34 percent to 78 percent using irrigation maintenance best management practices and product upgrades, according to Anderson. Run times were subsequently reduced by 20 percent and runoff was lowered to 0.5 percent.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last 30 years, you know that people are paying attention to the environment and want to do things to “save the planet.” The problem these environmentally conscious people often have is they don’t know where to begin. Recycling is an obvious one, but they may not realize that another step they can take is right in their backyards.

“People want to be green but don’t know what to do,” says Malooly. “We’ve also learned that whatever actions are taken can’t impact a person’s day too much nor cost too much money. From a water use bang-for-the-buck perspective, improving the efficiency of a landscape irrigation system is actionable, measurable and is the right thing to do.”

Slack agrees water audits are, “the right thing to do environmentally. Having one done makes it clear the end user is environmentally conscious.”

Selling water audits

With the environmental and money saving benefits clearly established, getting clients to buy this service should be an easy sales pitch. Yet, that’s not necessarily the case. Often governmental agencies are the ones using this service or provide incentives so that homeowners and businesses will make use of water audits. They are regularly done in partnership with these governmental entities as they encourage people to strive to be more ecologically minded and efficient with resources.

Audits can be done for the smallest residential property up to the largest municipal user. A water agency may note high water usage at a particular property. Then Valley Soil is contacted by the agency that then reaches out to the customer explaining the situation and offering to do an audit. The majority of customers are receptive, particularly when the local water agency grants funding or pays outright for the service.

But water audits are not something to be performed just once and then walk away. Beyond taking action based on the information gleaned from an audit, it’s also essential to commit to doing them regularly, because things change over time: plants grow, sprinklers wear out and so forth. Jundt recommends that property owners have a water audit performed once a year. Conserva regularly tracks its commercial clients, and Jundt says an annual water audit is sufficient for these clients as well.

So, what makes for a successful water audit? Anderson says, “By the time you walk away, the customer should know how much water it’s going to take to keep his plants healthy, plus what upgrades or repairs the system needs for maximum water savings. If you are going to try and manage an irrigation system but don’t do what’s required, it’s like shooting in the dark.”

Installing a smart irrigation system does not mean the end of irrigation audits. All a smart system can do is send an alert if and when a problem arises. Jundt says, “The most important reason you should have an audit is to ensure that the tools of an irrigation system are being used properly. With systems running at night and installed in-ground, many things can happen and go undetected.”

Landscape professionals want to ensure the right amount of water is used to keep their customers’ landscapes looking plush and vibrant without wasting any. Being able to do water audits will allow them to help their customers use water in the most efficient way possible while still maintaining a high standard for their landscape’s appearance. They’ll be happy you saved them money and helped them go green. You’ll also benefit from the added service offering and eco-friendly reputation.

The author is a freelance writer. For more information or to contact him, visit www.larrydbernstein.com or email him at larry@larrydbernstein.com.