Dec. 1 2006 12:00 AM

Irrigation,Short-term,service,Maintenance,stump removal,contractor,successful,designed,winterization,clients,water,freeze,sprinklers,PVC,pipe,system,damage,valves,maintenance,flush

There’s a stump removal contractor in Georgia who says he tries to run his business like a Fortune 500 company. He prides himself on being polite, professional, and punctual. He returns messages left on his voice mail promptly, and if he’s called before 10 a.m., he can deliver same-day service. After every job he performs, he sends the customer a note, thanking them for their business.

When customers review him on a website that helps homeowners find qualified service professionals, they say things like, “One of the best service providers I have ever used in any field,” “I would not hesitate to call him again and recommend him to my neighbors,” “A real pleasure to work with,” and “A .”

This contractor knows that building a successful, profitable business is about more than doing good work—you also have to go that extra mile to provide customers with stand-out service. In the world of irrigation in particular, your work isn’t going to sell itself—to homeowners, one irrigation system looks pretty much the same as the next, no matter how well you’ve designed and installed it. What will sell is the overall level of service you provide.

There are several ways to offer superior service. You just have to put yourself in a customer’s shoes. What’s a customer looking for in an irrigation contractor?

If a client is going to be sinking a significant amount of money into an irrigation system, one thing he probably wants to know is that the system is going to function, and function well, for a long time. You can assure him of this by offering to maintain the system for him. The maintenance could be either for a short period of time, such as by preparing the system for winter, or for a long period of time, such as by offering him an irrigation service contract.

Short-term service
When irrigation professionals install a system and walk away, they’re missing out on an important business opportunity. For example, winterization is a great add-on service. When you’re bidding on a property, specify that the cost includes the first year’s winterization free. The customer will be impressed you’re thinking that far ahead; your competitors probably didn’t bring up winterization.

Mentioning this service also shows potential customers that you’re responsible, and that you care about protecting the customer’s investment. You stand behind the system, and want it to last just as much as he does, so you’re going to do your part to keep it from being damaged. Making this kind of good impression will help you win the bid, and performing the first year’s winterization free almost guarantees that the client will be willing to pay you for the following year’s winterization. He’ll be happy with your service and your attention to detail.

Of course, winterization should not stop with new customers. It’s also a service you can offer to existing customers. Some companies mail out letters in early autumn, reminding their clients that it’s time to schedule their winterizations. The letter often includes a fee, a deadline by which all winterizations for the area need to have been 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 finding 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 isn’t 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 pad your finances until spring —just like fees garnered from other seasonal service offerings, such as snow removal or holiday lighting.

But why stop with winter? Why not pad your finances all year round and make customers happier by providing a higher level of service at the same time? Irrigation contractors don’t have to rely on installations or seasonal preparations to make a living. You can give yourself a steady stream of 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 system “check-ups.”

Sprinkler heads encounter 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 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-a-year 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 professional offers as part of an irrigation service contract.

Sources: John Eggleston, ServiceFirst Irrigation, Lansing, Michigan; Bob Emmerich, Watertronics, Inc., Hartland, Wisconsin; and Lorne Haveruk, D.H. Water Management Services, Inc., Toronto, Canada.

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.