March 1 2003 12:00 AM

Between 1832 and 1858, Abraham Lincoln was defeated or rejected for eight public offices, both at the state and the federal levels. Also during that time, he had a nervous breakdown and saw the death of his girlfriend. Many of these setbacks could be attributed to fate, but it’s also likely that Mr. Lincoln’s oratory technique was falling short. Once he adjusted that chink in his political armor, he went on to become the great man in the history books.

“Technique” is a fingerprint. Regardless of whether it’s in politics or irrigation, the method by which we pursue a goal defines who we are — and what we achieve. A technique is developed over years of trial and error. Usually, the person with the winning technique has made his or her share of mistakes, but it’s always beneficial when we can factor the mistakes of others into our own education.
In industry, science and policy make your chosen techniques that much more dynamic. That’s certainly true where irrigation is concerned. What’s a winning technique today can put us out of business tomorrow. Most recently, irrigation contractors have had to approach jobs with a greater focus on conservation.

“We have become more focused on conservation for two reasons,” explains Dwight Elliott of Elliott Irrigation in Birmingham, Alabama. “First is the water itself. Furthermore, there’s now a sewer tax that’s three times more than the water. These things have made us all concerned about conserving water.”

It’s vital to periodically reevaluate the irrigation techniques you use so that you’re constantly moving closer to the utopian goal of zero waste. When it comes to irrigation, ask yourself:

  • Am I giving customers what they expect — and then some?
  • Am I doing so in such a way as to maximize my own profits?
  • Am I being a responsible member of my community and serving as a good example for the green industry?

Whenever you can answer “no” to any of these, it’s time to stop and take a look at how you’re getting from Point A to Point B in your irrigation jobs. The times are changing, and it’s this industry’s responsibility to keep up or, better yet, move ahead.

One thing about Lincoln’s numerous failings: they helped him hone his political technique and become great, and without those early shortcomings, our country would’ve missed out.

Here are some irrigation mistakes to learn by, and in the learning, you can help sharpen your own company to greatness:

• Mistake #1:
Be a one-step wonder
One of the easiest ways for a contractor to overlook irrigation efficiency is by putting too much emphasis on the actual installation with too little on the pre- and post-project “homework.”

Says Richard Tabloff, president of Aquamist Irrigation Systems in Chicago, “The most basic mistake I see contractors make is to walk onto any irrigation job and automatically set the system to water on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then walk away, with no regard to the type of soil they’re irrigating. We’re not really watering the plant. We’re watering the soil. Soil is the reservoir. The biggest mistake is having one standard program for every area.”

Jeff Carowitz, vice president of marketing for Hunter Industries, also underlines the importance of knowing the conditions beforehand. “Learn the appropriate methods for determining the correct watering schedule for each zone of the irrigation system,” he says. “Many systems are set up to apply too much water, which ends up as wasted run-off. Good scheduling should take into account soil types, type of plant material, weather conditions, exposure and type of irrigation equipment being used.”

Once a site’s particular features are understood and the system has been put in place, a bit of fine-tuning will be necessary to achieve the utmost efficiency. Tabloff, for instance, says he likes to go back after ten days and review the yard to make sure the original pattern is performing as desired. This follow-up is also a good time to answer any questions the owner may have.

• Mistake #2:
Live in the past

Tabloff, who’s been involved in irrigation since 1973, says, “Thirty years ago, we didn’t have rain sensors. We didn’t have multi-programming clocks. We had single program clocks — everything watered or nothing watered. Today, with the multi-programming clocks that are on the market, we can dial in everything precisely to meet specific requirements.”
The contractor who wants to be known for the quality of his or her work can’t afford to be techno-bashful. While the most advanced — and expensive — products aren’t always necessary, progressive companies should know what tools will take water conservation to the next level. And if your competitors are using something that you aren’t, it would behoove you to ask why.
Rising water costs over time, coupled with recent watering restrictions, have been the driving forces behind the improved materials and equipment available to the irrigation contractor, says Carowitz. Examples he cites include:
4 rain sensors to shut systems off during heavy precipitation;
4 check valves to reduce water waste and prevent low head drainage;
4 pressure-regulating valves and pressure-regulating spray sprinklers to optimize sprinkler operating pressure; (“Sprinklers operating at water pressures that are too high create too much atomized mist that floats away in the wind,” explains Carowitz.)
4 central control systems that allow large projects to be managed by the contractor on behalf of the owner.

Having these tools at your command can make a difference in how the public perceives you: fly-by-night contractor or experienced irrigation professional.

Says Elliott, “When we service a commercial system, we try to use a weather station and, if not, a rain and a freeze switch. And our water pressure here can go as high as 200psi, so we always use a brass high-range regulator on all our systems. We also suggest a water meter on the tap. This helps us in measuring for a rebate on the sewer tax, but it is also an important tool for making sure there are no leaks on a system.”

• Mistake #3:
Forget about the rain

Of all the aforementioned technologies, a rain sensor may be among the most valuable in reducing water waste. After all, irrigation should be thought of as a back-up for natural climates, not the other way around. If cash was falling from the sky, you wouldn’t need to go to work every morning, and likewise, if water is descending from the heavens, why should a client pay for extra water to go onto the lawn?

“Proven rain sensor devices,” says Carowitz, “can be purchased for around $25 and pay for themselves in water savings in less than one season. In some parts of the country, these devices have been deemed so effective, they are now required by legislation.”

• Mistake #4:
Believe that design will take care of itself

If you pay reverence to only one phase of the installation process, let it be in the design. Otherwise, no amount of technology will dig you out of the hole you’ve put yourself into.

Says Tabloff, “The first thing that comes to mind is the proper spacing of the sprinkler heads. You have to start with a good design. Today, we have what we call matched-precipitation sprinkler heads, where you can equalize the amount of water over the entire yard. That’s the big difference between people watering with hose-end sprinklers and with a central water system. We can get an even application over the entire yard. You cannot do that with a hose-end sprinkler. It’s almost impossible.”

Again, this is where homework pays off. You should fully understand the watering needs across the spectrum of a project, and the system design should reflect this.

• Mistake #5:
Don’t call yourself an educator

Imagine such a scenario: you carefully diagnose a particular site and spend considerable time on the design of an irrigation system. The system you come up with will meet the project’s watering needs at the highest level of efficiency. You revisit the project to fine-tune the controller and walk away, patting yourself on the back for a job well done. Months later, you learn that the client’s water bill is as large or larger than ever, because that client began to question whether or not his lawn was getting adequate moisture, and he reset the schedule himself.

Your clients need to understand a bit about water conservation and irrigation, and it’s your job to fill them in. No, you don’t have to take each and every customer from irrigation-ignorant to irrigation-savvy, but you do need to know the whys behind what you do, and you need to be able to convey that — to a reasonable degree — to your customers. Otherwise, you’re just expecting them to trust you.

“Many irrigation companies don’t explain to the homeowner the application rate of the sprinkler system,” explains Tabloff, “how fast the water is being applied.”

Knowing, for example, that their soil requires two inches of water per week and their system’s application rate is an inch of water an hour, it’s simple mathematics for customers to see that they need to run the system for 120 minutes over the course of seven days.
Education of your clientele serves a marketing need as well, because if they see that all those new gizmos and gadgets you’re offering serve in the long run to reduce their water consumption, they’ll be more apt to pay for the technology.

A lot of the manufacturers you work with, as well as the organizations you belong to, will be able to supply brochures and other written materials. These can go a long way toward educating your customers, so make the most out of them.

• Mistake #6:
Be reactionary

If you aren’t at least reading up on the latest trends in irrigation, you can bet there’s somebody who is: the Powers that Be. Irrigation will get more efficient; it’s just a matter of who will be driving the developments.
Tabloff has seen very high irrigation standards in his region recently, but those came at a price. “In the Illinois area,” he explains, “because licensing is required here, a lot of the people with less of a reputation have gone out of business because the state just made it too difficult on them.”

As much as possible, be proactive. Attend the conferences. Join the associations. Read the magazines. Keep abreast of the trends and constantly ask yourself, “Can I afford to add this technology to my company? Can I afford not to?”

Great men and women, be they presidents and kings or innovative business leaders, have a good number of mistakes behind them. A mistake, though, is nothing more than a chance to back up and try again. If you’re just stepping into the world of irrigation, or even if you’ve been a player in this game for years, you can develop your company’s irrigation techniques based on common mistakes like the ones above. Then, expect great things.

March 2003