Oct. 12 2020 06:00 AM

Help clients get the most out of their systems with an irrigation audit.

Industry professionals learn how an irrigation audit is set up at an Irrigation Association event. The audit will show the effectiveness of the system across the test patch.

Irrigation audits are all about ensuring your clients’ irrigation systems are functioning properly and ultimately saving them money as a result. Although there’s no doubt it’s a desirable service, you’ll have to first overcome the hump of helping clients understand what it’s all about.

Mark Brotton, CIC, CLIA, APLD certified landscape designer, ARCSA-AP, EPA WaterSense Partner and owner of Living Water Irrigation & Landscape LLC in Santa Fe, New Mexico, admits he does not perform as many audits as he’d like and thinks it’s because most people don’t understand the value. He equates it to a car tune-up: By making sure everything is running efficiently, you can save money and prevent costly problems.

Photos: Stephen Smith

“We have found that irrigation audits have the most perceived value at golf courses — or really large properties — where if you can add 30% or more to your efficiency, you’re talking about millions of gallons of water,” Brotton says. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the pocketbook and how much money they’ll save.”

Mark Ballenger, CLIA, CGIA, CID, EPA WaterSense Partner and president of Ballenger & Company Inc., Tampa Bay, Florida, says sometimes speaking with clients about audits means clarifying the meaning. Although an irrigation audit is something that could save money and protect our natural resources, it is common for the term “audit” to indicate a negative understanding, such as its connection to the IRS and financial audits. That is why Ballenger says BCI will refer to it as an “irrigation evaluation.”

“People want to hear about things that will be a return on investment, so that’s the best way to talk about this service,” he says. “We talk in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. When considering landscaping as an investment, clients must consider how effective the irrigation system is in keeping plants and turf looking their best with a precisely calculated amount of water.” That particularly resonates with HOAs and master-planned communities. Ballenger assists in promoting this understanding with board members and other interested constituents. To be fiscally and environmentally responsible when it comes to establishing dues for their communities, the client should find in favor of these evaluations.

Performing an irrigation audit

In terms of performing the audit, Brotton says with his certified landscape irrigation auditor credential from the Irrigation Association, he was trained to perform a visual audit first when starting the process. That visual inspection will be an overview of the system as a whole, making sure that everything is in working order and up to date with local codes. Brotton says one of the first things he’ll check during an audit is whether a timer is old and needs to be replaced.

Another essential part of the irrigation audit is the proper placement of catch cans along the edge of each zone, adds Brotton. Spacing and test run times need to be consistent for both the sprinkler type and the arc.

“We’re then reading the water volume in milliliters through a formula to come up with the distribution uniformity — or DU — which is a measure of how uniformly water is applied to the area being watered, expressed as a ratio,” Brotton says.

As you examine those results, keep in mind that a properly efficient irrigation system is not overwatering the rest of the lawn to make up for areas that are under-watered, he adds. The DU will tell you the precipitation rate as well as what’s coming out of the sprinklers.

“On top of that, we’re testing with different tools to evaluate the pressure,” Brotton continues. “A comprehensive audit is looking at all of this data, running it through the formulations, and ultimately producing an efficiency percentage. A really bad system is operating at 40%-50% efficiency. Our goal is to get up to around 90% plus or minus efficiency, knowing that a man-made system is not as perfect as rain.”

When talking to clients after an audit, Randy Bodine, president of Bodine’s Landscape Services Inc. serving the Opelika and Auburn market of Alabama, says the efficiency percentage is what clients ultimately care about most. When it comes time to discuss the irrigation audit results, this is where the focus should be.

“To be perfectly honest, the client doesn’t care about how we achieve the efficiency percentage. They just want to know what the number is,” Bodine says. “That’s something they can wrap their head around. But they’re trusting you to run the numbers. That’s why you’re the expert. As a certified landscape irrigation auditor, you have the ability to quantify what’s going on in their turf — how dry and how wet it is — and that’s valuable.”

Of course, Bodine says you may need to educate clients on why all of this matters. Water savings equating to money savings is certainly the part clients may grasp most. But Bodine says that clients should also recognize that in addition to wasting water, they may be making their turf more prone to disease.

“Areas of the turf that are oversaturated are going to be more prone to fungal growth,” he says. “When you run the system and achieve an evenly watered lawn, that adds up to a healthier lawn too.”

The importance of being certified

Becoming a certified landscape irrigation auditor or certified golf irrigation auditor is no small feat. It includes passing a three-hour exam with 125 equally weighted, multiple-choice questions; complying with the Selected Certified Code of Ethics; and remaining in good standing with the Irrigation Association with continuing education units. But those who have earned this credential say it has helped to create credibility and increase job opportunities.

Ballenger says the CLIA and CGIA certification designations support professionalism within the green industry. These designations have “opened doors” and indicate the depth of dedication and knowledge required to perform these types of audits.

“Just like a professional engineer or a landscape architect, these credentials make a difference, and I include them on all proposals,” he says. “Prospective clients may not know what the designation indicates. However, once we meet and discuss the benefit of an audit and its return on investment, their understanding regarding being certified within the industry indicates to them the level of professionalism needed to complete each evaluation.”

Bodine takes the time to educate clients on what the credentials mean because that helps sell the job.

“I’m in a market where there are only a handful of CLIAs in our entire state, so I’ve explained what it means for me to have earned this credential,” he says. “I think that once people understand these aren’t just credentials you pay for — and that not just any irrigation contractor can earn it — it does go a long way in how they view you.”

People do notice, adds Brotton. Even if they don’t know what the credentials stand for, clients tell him they chose him because he was highly credentialed.

“For me, becoming a CLIA was a steppingstone on my path toward pushing myself to be continually improving,” Brotton says. “But I also think it’s good for the industry as a whole. Everyone should have a similar process on how they perform audits, no matter what part of the country they’re located in. We should all be able to go to the same site and come up with the same data at the end of the day. That ability to quantify data and to come to the same solution is what will set us apart from others who are not true experts in the field.”

Looking ahead

Although there has traditionally been a lack of understanding about what irrigation audits mean, Bodine sees that changing as resources become more rare.

“As water becomes more precious, the importance of irrigation audits will only grow,” says Bodine. “It’s as much an economic issue as it is an environmental one, as water isn’t cheap anymore. People are more concerned than ever with wasting it. We have a lot of great success stories of clients who have gained the cost of their audit back in water savings in a single year. It may cost $5,000 to do an audit, but if you’re saving them $15,000, they can easily see the value. The more people understand this, the more it will become a line item on the budget.”

Ballenger adds that he has three people on staff who are irrigation auditors, and even when they’re not going out and performing actual audits, that credentialing and expertise is helping in the office. That alone has made it worthwhile.

“We do a tremendous amount of design work, and if you can understand what a system is supposed to do from the end result, including how it will function and how it needs to be maintained, then that can really help on the front end when you’re doing the design,” he explains.

Bodine says that he sees a bright future for irrigation auditing and believes interest will only grow.

“There are very few things in life where there is no downside, but an irrigation audit is one of them,” he says. “The customer saves money, it’s good for the environment, it keeps the turf and plants looking great, and it can be a successful service for irrigation contractors to perform and to establish themselves as the expert. It’s really a win all around.”

Lindsey Getz is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at lindsey.getz@yahoo.com.