Dec. 23 2009 12:00 AM

Offer Cold Weather Opportunities All Year

About two years ago at a trade conference, I was talking with a landscape contractor who, up until that point in time, only specialized in design/build in the residential market. He was a small contractor and felt he didn’t want to branch out, add more staff and purchase equipment.

Either he knew something that we didn’t, at that time, or his timing was impeccable. Two years ago, he decided to begin to offer maintenance to his clients. I ran into him recently at another conference and asked him how his business was. His reply was that he was holding his own.

I asked him how the construction end of the business was and he said that it was slow. I asked him about the maintenance end and his answer was, “If not for maintenance, I wouldn’t be in business today.”

To sum it all up, maintenance has become the key to survival in this market. So I began to wonder why irrigation maintenance service is taking so long to get off the ground.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. There are many contractors in the colder climates who offer winterization for irrigation systems. It’s a service you can offer to existing customers as well as new clients. Some companies mail out letters in early autumn, reminding their clients that it’s time to schedule their winterizations. The letter often includes what it will cost, a deadline by which all winterizations for the area need to be performed, and most importantly, a reminder to customers about the dangers of not winterizing.

This reminder is important, because many clients do not realize how dangerous Jack Frost can be for an irrigation system. Winter ice can wreak havoc on pipes and sprinklers. If water freezes when trapped in a rigid, enclosed space, the expanding ice will stress and possibly crack or break whatever is enclosing it. Neither PVC pipe nor polyethylene pipe, two materials commonly used to construct irrigation systems, are able to withstand that degree of expansion without bursting.

“Water freezing in a PVC pipe can cause the pipe to herringbone—crack into many long splinter pieces—the full 20-foot length of the pipe, and sometimes even go past the bell end and continue down the next pipe,” says Lorne Haveruk, president of D.H. Water Management Services, Inc., Toronto, Canada. Ice can also damage backflow prevention valves, valve chambers, manual ball valves— almost any component of the system that has contact with water and therefore, ice.

The only way to protect a system is to properly winterize it. Rare, indeed, is it to find a system in a cold climate that wasn’t winterized but survives intact until spring. The damage can be both extensive and expensive—the repair costs typically far outweigh the cost of a professional shut-down.

Naturally, running a business is not only about pleasing the customer; you need to make sure you’re turning a profit as well.

Winterizations can help here, too. Just as bears “bulk up” by eating more in preparation for winter hibernation, you can financially “bulk up” before the winter slow season. Winterization fees can help your finances until spring.

But why stop with winter? Why not build a business that can work all year round and make customers happier by providing a higher level of service at the same time? In these economic times, you can augment your month-to-month income by maintaining irrigation systems and offering clients an irrigation service contract.

Maintenance for the long term

With an irrigation service contract, the customer pays you a monthly or annual fee to perform general maintenance duties on his irrigation system on a regular basis. This gives you a stable, reliable income, and helps keep the customer’s system in tip-top shape.

A contract like this might include not only winterization, but also spring start-up, to get the system functioning again once winter is over. Spring is a good time to make any repairs the system might need. A service contract could also include monthly or bi-monthly system “check-ups.”

Sprinkler heads can be prone to all kinds of abuse—children or pets may kick them, lawn mowers may run into them—and any kind of impact can misdirect the stream of water. What once was aimed onto the turf, or a certain shrub, is suddenly delivering more water to the hardscape or fence. This both wastes water and stresses plants.

Worse, because many customers run their irrigation systems at night to prevent evaporation, they will have no idea that their lawn has a brown spot because the sprinklers are watering the patio. All they’ll see is the brown spot, and wonder why it’s there. If you’re coming by once a month, you can nip problems like this in the bud. A simple adjustment to a sprinkler head can save what could amount to many gallons of water, and keep plants healthy.

Monthly maintenance could also include reprogramming controllers to prevent over-watering in November and under-watering in July. This too can save a significant amount of water—in November, the landscape needs only a fraction of what it does in July, but clients won’t make this adjustment on their own.

The benefits to the customer aren’t just about conserving water and saving the environment, however. As an added benefit, the reduction in the amount of water being wasted on his landscape can have a positive impact on his water bill. The less he’s irrigating, the less he’s paying the water company, and he has you to thank for it.

While winterization is important, you shouldn’t look at it as a once-ayear service to perform in autumn and forget about until the next cold snap. Instead, consider winterization as one part of a larger whole— one of many services a distinctive, top-of-the-line irrigation profes sional offers as part of an irrigation service contract.

Basic winterization check lists

Water from the city:

~Turn off the water source.

~Drain the pipes and winterize the backflow prevention valve by removing and draining it.

~Blow out the pipes with an air compressor, using between 40-90psi of pressure. (Remember to open a valve before you turn the compressor on, or you could burst the line or send the sprinkler heads flying.)

~Turn off the air compressor when you stop seeing surges of water, and instead see only a fine mist or just air.

~Wire-tie the main valve into the shut-off position.

~You can even mark it with a tag that says, “ Winterized by __________ on __/__/__.”

Water from a pump station:

~Turn off and disconnect the control panel.

~Drain water from all manifolds and supply lines. Leave all drains open throughout winter.

~Depending on the pressure transducer, either remove the water line connection, or remove the transducer entirely and store it in a heated area until spring.

~Flush both the pilot and main valve with a 50/50 solution of water and an environmentally-safe antifreeze.

~Open the petcocks at the bottom of each check valve and install new corrosion inhibitors on the electrical control panel.

~Open any electrically-actuated butterfly valves (EBV) about halfway.

~Remove any piping that would remain in standing water all winter.

~Drain all standing water from the pump cases by removing plugs, opening valves, loosening bolts, etc.