It’s a bit ironic, really; a lot of very successful landscape contractors began their careers pushing lawn mowers. But after they established their businesses, a lot of them stopped, dropping the maintenance part of their operations to focus on the more glamorous, and very lucrative, design/build side of things. That’s fine, as long as the economy stays strong and people have money to pour into improving their properties.
But, as we all know, the economy waxes and wanes, and sometimes, crashes entirely. When the housing market began to unravel in 2007, landscape contractors who did mostly residential design/build suddenly found themselves without customers. Many small companies folded.
The companies that survived are the ones that continued doing the unglamorous mowing, trimming and blowing. Why? Because homeowners and businesses facing hard times will put off installing that dream water feature or outdoor kitchen, but they can’t jettison basic upkeep. Those ongoing maintenance contracts provided a continuous revenue stream that kept the companies afloat through the recession.
You may have discovered this with your own business, that the maintenance division is the backbone that supports everything else you do. What if there was another revenue stream that followed this same logic, something that can’t be neglected, and that every homeowner and business needs? That something is irrigation system maintenance and repair.
Large landscape installations and design/build projects may be exciting, but they are ‘one-and-done’ jobs that end. Ongoing contracts for irrigation maintenance services, on the other hand, are the gift that keeps on giving. Irrigation maintenance, like landscape maintenance, is consistent and recession-proof.
“It’s our hidden secret,” said Russ Jundt, founder, vice president and brand leader of Conserva Irrigation, a national franchise network of full-service irrigation companies. Think of it as an annuity that keeps paying dividends, instead of a lump-sum windfall that eventually runs out.
Right about now, you might be thinking, “But I don’t know anything about installing sprinkler systems.” You don’t have to, to be able to keep existing systems running. Don’t be scared—after all, you learned how to do design/build, you can learn how to replace a sprinkler head or fix a section of broken pipe. It’s really not that hard. Or, if you’re so inclined, you now can become a franchise dealer for Conserva, and they will teach it all to you.
Is there a market?
Of course, before taking on any new service, you first need to know if there is a demand for it. Will the outcome be worth the time, effort and investment you’ll be putting in?
Well, try this statistic on for size: the EPA estimates that there are at least 13 million residential irrigation systems in the ground in the United States, with more being added every day. That number doesn’t even include the millions of commercial irrigation systems. Whether new or old, all of these systems need periodic service, maintenance and repairs. There’s your answer.
You won’t have to look very far to find your market; it’s right there, in your existing customer base. Chances are good that if someone is paying for landscape services, he has an irrigation system. Your customers already know and trust you, so it’s not a big leap for them to turn to you for this as well. Someone’s got to fix their sprinklers when they break. Why let someone else get that business?
If you ask Jundt if the investment is worth it, his answer will be a resounding ‘Yes!’ He says, “Offering irrigation services adds a substantial revenue stream to a contractor’s business.” He ought to know; his irrigation service franchises are selling like hotcakes all over the country.
No more subbing out
Before entering the irrigation industry, Jundt worked in underground utility services, where disrupting irrigation systems was a regular occurrence. In these instances, subcontractors were hired to fix the irrigation system problems, whether they were broken sprinkler heads or equipment that needed to be relocated, such as valve boxes or wiring.
Jundt said that it was difficult to find reliable providers who would show up on time, if at all. “Most companies are interested in the bigticket jobs, such as large installation projects, as opposed to repairing a few lateral lines,” he said. Once he entered the irrigation field, he discovered the same dynamic. He continually runs across landscape contractors who complain about unreliable subcontractors.
Consider this scenario: your company is working on a design/build project, adding a patio and landscaping to an existing backyard. During the project, it becomes apparent that portions of the irrigation system will need to be moved or altered.
Will you have to depend on a subcontractor to perform these services, and wait for him to show up, potentially holding up the completion of your project? Even if he shows up on time, can you guarantee the quality of his work? And who will get the blame if he does something wrong? Look in the mirror— that’s who.
Every contractor has stories about subcontractors who made mistakes that messed up entire projects. Wouldn’t it be better if you could do the work yourself? For one thing, if you and your crew—whom you trained to uphold your standards—do the job, you know it’ll be done right. You, not someone else, will be in control of the process.
You might already have a relationship with a great irrigation contractor whom you know does quality work. You still have to pay him. But if your company does all the work, you keep all the profits.
A one-stop shop
Gene Barrow, co-owner and vice president of Barrow’s Landscaping in Yuba City, California, doesn’t like to tell his customers, “Sorry, we don’t do that.” So he offers his customers irrigation system installation, repair and maintenance, along with a full array of landscape services, including landscape design, installation and maintenance.
Barrow believes that providing these services makes his company a well-rounded one. “It enables us to keep our customers in-house, so they don’t have to turn to other places for those services,” he said.
He initially focused primarily on landscape and irrigation installation work. In 2008, he began offering irrigation maintenance services, partially to increase cash flow in a rocky economy, but also, to serve more of his customers’ needs. He says that being able to provide both landscape and irrigation services has been key to keeping his customers happy. They know that they can come to him for everything their yards may need.
Keith Gonzales is the operations manager for commercial garden management at Dallas, Texasbased Southern Botanical, a commercial and residential landscape service company that offers full irrigation service, maintenance and installation. Irrigation services comprise about 20 percent of its business. He says that offering irrigation services helps strengthen his company’s relationships with clients.
Through regular irrigation inspections and maintenance, he’s able to provide his clients with detailed information and recommendations about their irrigation systems. “If we see ways to improve on what our clients already have, or to bring them something new that will make things better, we want to let them know,” says Gonzales. “It builds that trust.”
Providing regular maintenance to a client’s system means that you’re consistently at his property, touching base with him. Customer loyalty grows when they see you on a regular basis, working hard for them.
Where to start
Once you decide to add irrigation services, how should you begin? One of the best ways to ease into things is to offer your current clients irrigation-system maintenance packages. A typical contract says that four times a year, you’ll check for breaks or leaks, reposition sprinkler heads that are out of alignment or need to be re-aimed because of vegetation growth, and adjust the controller for the season.
In the colder climates, irrigation service contractors offer spring startup and winterization services. In the fall, they’ll use compressed air to blow water out of the system and shut it down, so it doesn’t freeze come winter. Sometimes, they will dismantle the backflow device and bring it indoors. In the spring, they will turn the system back on and reinstall the backflow, if necessary.
Sometimes these contracts include one or two midseason inspections, to ensure that things are running correctly.
In warmer climates, winter shutdowns aren’t necessary, but other maintenance opportunities present themselves. Systems that run yearround require more maintenance and inspection than ones that hibernate for several months. Constant use causes faster sprinkler head wear-out, and more chances for heads to become damaged or misaligned from lawn mowers bumping them.
As conservation awareness grows, more cities and municipalities are now mandating rain sensors. These, too, require maintenance at times, such as cleanouts of ‘tipping buckets’ that get clogged with debris.
They also can break, as can irrigation controllers and valves. There’s also money to be made changing out old timer-driven controllers for smart, weather-based ones.
Jundt suggests that before you start, find out what the going price is for irrigation services in your area. You don’t want to price yourself out of business, nor give it away at a price that’s too low and ultimately, unsustainable.
Educating your team
Once you decide to start adding irrigation services and maintenance to your company, your next step is to make sure that you have the knowledge necessary to effectively perform these services. Jundt advises putting thoughtful design and preparation into this, saying, “You can’t just pop onto a property and announce that you’re now going to do irrigation.” Some contractors choose to hire already certified, experienced irrigation technicians, if they can find them, or opt to educate their existing employees.
Fortunately, there are plenty of options for learning irrigation repair, maintenance and installation. The Irrigation Association (IA) provides numerous training opportunities, both online and in-classroom, from basic to advanced levels. The IA also has webinars, reference manuals, books and a library of technical papers. Some of the major irrigation manufacturers have their own training schools, and many wholesale supply houses also hold classes.
Having the people who work for you become certified certified yourself), means that you’re able to put initials behind names, which inspires confidence on the part of your clients. It demonstrates that they were willing to put in the hard work to get those credentials, and that you were willing to pay for it. It speaks volumes about the quality of service you provide, and puts you ahead of the competition.
Save money, water and the planet
Water-use efficiency is a growing concern; as an irrigation services provider, you’ll be on the cutting edge of that trend. The terrible droughts in California and Texas may be over, but others will come.
Gonzales has found that many residential clients are very conscientious about water use and conservation, especially when they live in areas that have been placed under water restrictions. Sometimes this involves penalties, or at minimum, higher rates for going over certain limits.
Gonzales stays on top of those ordinances, and looks for inefficiencies in the systems he maintains so he can suggest improvements.
Being able to save his customers money on their water bills and, at the same time, conserve a precious natural resource, is a win all the way around, he figures. And, by helping that client, he’s strengthened the loyalty to him and his company.
The need for smart, efficient irrigation is going to keep growing in importance worldwide. Staying educated on the newest irrigation technologies is one more thing that will set you apart from the pack, and bring added value to your clients.
New year, new opportunities
Irrigation service and maintenance is an untapped goldmine of opportunity for the landscape contractor who’ll take advantage of it.
Yet there are still some who are afraid to dip their toes into these waters. They’re turning their backs on what can be a rich stream of income, as well as a great avenue for strengthening relationships with their existing clients, and attracting new ones.
The start of a new year is a great time to take stock of your business, and see what opportunities you may be missing out on. Consider adding irrigation to your company’s array of services, and watch the way it grows your business, sets you apart from the competition, improves customer loyalty and, most importantly, makes you money.