Jan. 15 2016 09:47 AM

The New Year is here, and in many parts of the country that signals a quiet time for the landscape contractor. Irrigating lawns and freezing temperatures do not make a good combination, so in northern latitudes, irrigation systems are shut down for the winter, and irrigation work dries up ’til spring.

Whether the frost reaches you or not, it’s a good time to mull things over. Will you want to make any changes to your array of services, or the way you offer them this year? Get it all worked out now and you can move forward with confidence, if not outright certainty.

The success or failure of a spring startup is sometimes decided by the first winter frost. An irrigation system that has been improperly winterized—or worse, not winterized at all—is begging for trouble. It may not wake up smoothly, or wake up at all.

Bill Schumacher is the president of Springtime Landscape & Irrigation in Bend, Oregon. With how cold his winters get, waiting too late to winterize can be an absolute disaster. “We’ll get frost down to 20 inches, and most of the pipes are installed from 6 to 12 inches deep,” he said. “If we have a solid pipe in there, it’ll just shatter and break the sprinkler heads. It’s an expensive mistake.” Schumacher can’t guarantee his work if customers schedule themselves too late in the season; it’s just too risky.

A good professional can make winterization sound pretty simple on the face of it. You just need to get all the water out of the system. Shut the water off, shut the clock off, push air through the pipes, unplug and winterize the pump, clear out the backflow prevention device, and you’re done. Sounds simple, right? That is not to say that it’s always a cakewalk. There are plenty of ways the process can go awry, but that’s the subject for another article.

Starting up a system in the spring is as simple as reversing that process. However, much like the winter blowout, there’s one catch. In the fall, you need to make sure you’re using just the right amount of pressure to clear the system of all water. In the spring, you shouldn’t turn the water on too quickly.

“As it travels, the water compresses the air inside the pipe,” said Schumacher. “If the water travels and compresses more than the air, then the air will shatter the pipes, just like freeze damage.” Pumping the water in slowly gives the air time to escape, while keeping the pipes and heads intact. The DIY crowd will often just flip their water on full bore, blissfully unaware of the damage that they’re causing in the process.

If the property has a backflow prevention device, you should also make sure that it has survived the winter intact. “We have special gauges that we put on backflow devices that we’ll read to make sure the check valves within them are operating properly,” said Schumacher.

Being certified in backflow installation and testing is a great way to get your foot in the door. For instance, every spring in Oregon, all the water purveyors send out form letters asking people to get their backflow devices checked. This kind of market boosting is extra helpful for spring turn-ons, because it’s such a difficult service to schedule.

Jerry Grossi, owner of Spartan Irrigation in Lansing, Michigan, says property owners don’t worry about watering lawns the same way they worry about mowing them. “Unlike lawn care or other landscape work, people seem to put irrigation out of their minds until they’re ready,” he said. “Maybe it’s because of the way the industry has evolved, or just the way human nature is.” Generally, property owners don’t spare a thought for their sprinklers until the warmth of spring is singing in their bones.

The end result is always the same: nothing gets scheduled before April, and then there’s a mad rush while everybody tries to get up and running before June. “We take care of quite a few systems,” he said. “So it becomes a fire drill for a couple of months in the spring while we get them all prepped and ready to go for the summer.”

The spring thaw can do more than start your revenue stream; it can turn that stream into a flood. To make sure his season is profitable, Grossi uses targeted marketing to his advantage, starting sometime around early April. “Let’s face it, if you’re doing a service call for a sprinkler system, the customer has to have an irrigation system,” he said. “But in our market, not everybody has installed irrigation.”

Therefore, he targets his advertising to neighborhoods that have a high percentage of irrigation systems, or groups of people who would necessarily own systems.

General-awareness marketing does have its uses. In those regions where sprinkler systems are ubiquitous, billboards, radio ads and untargeted mass mailings are more likely to be effective. Grossi hedges his bets by doing his own internet marketing. He posts educational articles about irrigation on his website before the season starts. This will catch a few early birds, but the lion’s share of his advertising efforts is timed for when the market is ready.

Don’t expect to start stealing clients away from the competition, though. Once a property owner has a contractor who he is happy with, he isn’t likely to change. Most of the clients you’ll pick up will be new homeowners, or people who’ve just moved to the area.

That said, there are the exceptions that prove the rule. “There are people who do become disenchanted with their current provider,” said Grossi. “Sometimes, providers are changing things around, or they’re moving, or not reacting to somebody.” Making changes to your business does carry a risk, and even the best contractors occasionally lose customers.

Performing spring startups for new clients presents a golden opportunity to cross-sell any other services you provide. If homeowners are new to the area, they might not have thought about lawn maintenance, color installation, or adding hardscape or lighting. Making a good first impression will lend decisive weight to any promotional or informational materials you leave behind.

So, what goes into making a good startup great? “Being thorough in your assessment of the heads,” said Tom Derner, owner of Aqua Pro Lawn Sprinkler Systems in Waterton, Minnesota. This is your big chance to find any problems in a system before it gets used all summer, so some extra care is worth your while.

Some irrigation setups will be easier to check than others. If a system is only a few years old and has a smart irrigation controller, remote control of the zones and pressure-regulated heads, then your work may be all but done. It’s unlikely that any parts have worn out yet, and so you’re more likely to find heads that need adjusting than need replacing.

For these straightforward jobs, after they’re hooked up and flowing, all you have to do is run each zone and see how the heads look. Make sure nobody backed into a sprinkler on their way out of the driveway, or the grass hasn’t grown to cover a head so that it can’t pop up. Even the best system can’t account automatically for the natural growth that comes with time.

That doesn’t just apply to grass, either. If the arc of a sprinkler just barely cleared the boxwoods last year, it may be running straight into them now. Tree limbs are longer, shrubs are bigger and taller, and they can deflect water away from where it’s needed. Every head needs a good looking over to make sure that it’s not sending water onto walls, sidewalks and patios.

Don’t forget that you may want to shut a system off when you’re done. If the weather is expected to provide enough rain for a healthy lawn over the next few weeks, or even months, irrigation may not be necessary yet. It’s a simple step that’ll conserve water, save the lawn from overwatering, and save your clients some money. Especially if a property has a Wi-Fi-enabled smart irrigation controller so it can be managed remotely, it’s a total no-brainer.

Unfortunately, not all systems are trouble-free, or designed with the latest and greatest technology. Maybe the irrigation system was put to bed last fall with a bunch of issues that the property owner was waiting ‘til spring to fix. Maybe their heads are 10, 15, or 20 years old and near the end of their lifespan. Even a good system won’t last forever.

If a system is really dysfunctional, it can be difficult to judge just how wrong things are. In these cases, it’s good to be able to conduct a fullblown water audit. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell the performance until it actually gets to dry out. If needed, we can do a water audit test on the system, just to see how bad it really is,” said Derner. A thorough testing with catch cans will help you provide the customer with an idea of just how much their system needs your help.

Some contracts for irrigation maintenance will specify a small dollar amount of repairs that the contractor can perform without seeking the client’s approval. This can save you valuable time during the spring rush, but it’s a limited solution. Some customers want to sign off on everything themselves, and in some cases, that budget only extends to a stop-gap solution.

Take the case of a zone with four heads near the end of their lifespan. If two out of the four heads in a zone are down for the count, the other two are living on borrowed time. Derner tells his clients, “Instead of having these other two fail in the middle of the summer, why don’t we just replace the whole zone? Then it’s new again.” This way, he can offer a warranty for the zone, and even if he didn’t install the system originally, he knows that part of it won’t cause trouble.

The most troublesome systems aren’t necessarily the old ones, but the ones that were installed by amateurs. “Worst-case scenario when taking on a new client is finding a homeowner-installed system, because they’re built so poorly, they don’t even make sense,” said Derner. “You feel bad, because you’re thinking, ‘I wouldn’t even turn this thing on.” The customer may not know what good irrigation looks like, and doesn’t realize the hurt their system is putting on their water bill, let alone what it’ll cost them to keep it going.

It can be hard sometimes to convince a client to spend money upfront for a re-install, even though it’s in their own best interest. Derner tells his clients how their maintenance costs and water bills will outstrip the price of installation, eventually. “I say, ‘It will pay for itself to replace this thing, but at the point that you’re now in, you just don’t have a working system.”

Here’s where having a water audit is handy; you can estimate their savings right in front of them. “Then we’ll usually give them two estimates. One to repair the system, maybe upgrade it, and one to replace the whole thing,” he said.

It’s not always the property owner’s fault, though. Some business owners think that landscape irrigation is as easy as it looks, and they try to jump into the industry without learning how to do it properly. When their experiments fail after a season or two, they’re gone, and the property owner is left with a mess. Derner wishes that proposed irrigation designs were more policed, to help people avoid getting taken to the cleaners.

He may yet get his wish. Water scarcity is a regional problem, but a persistent one, and one that’s chained to the ever-shifting patterns of the climate. The value of high-efficiency irrigation as a conservation measure is being recognized by more and more states and municipalities.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and irrigation contractors—as well as landscape contractors who install irrigation systems—are the ones with the training and background to do it. This spring is going to be rife with growing things of all kinds. With a little forethought, your business can be among them.