Nov. 18 2020 06:00 AM

The irrigation services manager at Environmental Management Inc. has transformed his department by focusing on training and smart technology.

When you think of areas where smart irrigation is a main priority in the landscape, states like California, Colorado or Arizona may come to mind, but probably not Ohio. In fact, overwatering the landscape is more likely a problem here, according to Jerrad Lee, CIT, CLIA, CIC, irrigation services manager at Environmental Management Inc. in Plain City, Ohio.

Smart irrigation matters regardless of geography, which is something Lee learned while working as an irrigation manager for The Brickman Group, now BrightView Landscapes Inc., where he started his career in the industry. His

eight years with this company shaped his view on the importance of using the right amount of water in the landscape, since he had colleagues all over the country who worked in states that were more restrictive about water use. He also learned a lot about the latest irrigation technology in this position and developed a passion for working in the industry.

Two years ago, Lee was looking for a role where he could have a more local impact in managing an irrigation department, and he was hired by EMI. When Lee started with the company, which services about 80% commercial properties, he saw it as an opportunity to go beyond just a basic fix-it approach to truly be a water management department.

Lee says a common industry norm in the Ohio area is overwatering plants and grass, which he says is not only damaging to the landscape but to the community as a whole.

“We have a very water-rich community here. We have the Great Lakes, the Ohio River, we have tons of reservoirs,” he says. “So people don’t think of saving water as they do out West.”

At EMI, his team had never been exposed to a smart irrigation approach, so the challenge for him was to get them to take a step back to the basics. He began by focusing on the fundamentals and the “why” behind the reason things are installed or performed a certain way.

“Still to this day with the techs, I start with the basic level back to adjusting nozzles and talking to them about the different models and the different precipitation rates and so on, and why it’s so important to focus on that small detail,” he says. “Once it all starts to make sense to them, you just see they’re improving and their confidence levels going up. Really, that’s where my joy comes from is seeing that I’m helping them.”

As a result, the team is seeing improved landscapes by managing water better. Initially, Lee saw a lot of plants dying with no good reason as to why except that the ground was soaking wet. He says as they began to cut back on watering, they could physically see those plants start thriving. The company’s integrated pest management program and turf treatments are also working more effectively because they’re not washing the nutrients out of the ground.

Changing mindsets

Irrigation training doesn’t just stop at his department. He’s moved into what he calls a hybrid position, where, in addition to managing the technical side of irrigation, he’s also very involved with the sales aspect of it.

When he started at EMI, he realized the sales team’s view on smart technology needed to change. Until then, Lee says the sales reps were told pressure regulation’s not needed and smart controllers were a waste of money and time.

He says this is common in Ohio since they have an abundance of water, and there are only have a couple of months when it’s dry. What happens is the contractors who don’t know how to use controllers have talked to their clients for years saying they don’t need this equipment, says Lee, so instead, contractors just put in a less expensive system without any immediate issues.

The company’s view on smart technology wasn’t helping their sales, and it also wasn’t helping clients who were wasting money on overwatering, says Lee. Again, his approach was to educate the sales team on the “why” behind smart irrigation technology.

“Yes, it’s more expensive upfront, but there’s a return on investment,” he explains. “Once I started explaining why I use these heads, why I am suggesting this controller, I’m now seeing not just my account managers’ eyes opening up, I’m seeing the customers’ eyes open up.”

Now, Lee often joins sales reps at client meetings, where he says irrigation has gone from being a second thought simply thrown in the contracts to being the main topic of conversation at these meetings. Lee says, “The challenge to me there was changing a sales culture to truly not just having the sustainability in the landscape side of things but bringing that irrigation aspect to it. And now you’re really talking sustainability.”

This entire shift in mindset and approach to irrigation has resulted in tremendous growth. “We’ve almost doubled the size of our department in two years,” says Lee. Right now, he has about six techs, but they’re estimating a need for about 11 next year. He says his department generated $360,000 in revenue when he started. This year, they’ll finish at $575,000.

Getting clients on board

The revenue increase his department has experienced in the past two years is not necessarily because of additional customers, says Lee, it’s because he and other guys on his team have met with their current customers to show them the proof that they can save them money in the long run by using smart technology.

“Customers don’t truly understand what they have,” says Lee. A lot of that is because on commercial properties, the property managers and building techs are constantly changing over. When meeting with clients, Lee brings his computer and shows them how he manages their property, like how he can virtually see their site and make adjustments. “That’s where I’m starting to get the buy-in from the customer is that transparency,” he says.

Lee recalls the first controller he ever sold after joining EMI, and that it didn’t happen because of his sales skills but simply because he was able to educate that client. “When I’m opening their eyes, they see what they have and what the potential is,” he says. “I’ve actually had customers reach back out to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for putting the smart controller in, here’s my water bill.’” This past August was hotter and drier than the previous August, says Lee, and some of his clients used more than 50% less water and the landscape looked twice as good.

“When I’m talking to these clients, I don’t say ‘saving water’ — I say ‘saving money.’ It’s the exact same conversation,” he explains. He brings quantitative proof, whether it’s a water bill or a digital breakdown of a site with a large number of zones, and then shares how much money was saved. “Those kind of numbers open their eyes,” he adds.

Lee says that this kind of transparency and investment in their customer relationships pays off, in many senses. “We’re not only saving them money, but I’m building better relationships with our company, with our clients, where they’re most likely to stay with us longer just because of what we’re bringing to them,” he says.

What motivates Lee is that his work is part of a bigger picture. He explains that in Columbus, they’re starting to have pressure issues on the city mainline because there’s so much construction with homes and buildings being built, and the city infrastructure has not been able to keep up as much. Some systems that ran great just a couple of years ago now need booster pumps because the city pressure has dropped.

“My team and I, we manage a public utility that’s vital to life,” says Lee. “So if I’m able to conserve on just our three or four hundred sites, 30% to 40% of their water, well, that’s not just helping them, that’s helping our community save water. That’s what’s exciting to me.”

Having an industry impact

Beyond his role at EMI, Lee serves as the president of the Ohio Irrigation Association. He assumed the position this past March, right as COVID-19 hit. Since then, the association’s focus has been on sharing information between members about operating during this time and the challenges that have unfolded from the pandemic.

Looking forward, Lee says, “I’d love to see us get more involved with the legislation side of things. It was the Ohio Irrigation Association several years ago that gave irrigation contractors in the state the right to test backflows.”

Lee’s goal is to build off successes like this and what the national Irrigation Association is doing. He’d like to increase participation in events and meetings with state and local representatives, advocating for legislation involving things like 529 savings plans for irrigation education and incentives for consumers to install smart irrigation technology.

Increasing the amount of education opportunities available to local contractors in Ohio, including certification, is also a top priority for him. At EMI, employees are encouraged to become certified, whether it’s through the Irrigation Association or the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

“My favorite time in my professional career was not when I got promoted, it’s not learning what I’ve learned, it’s seeing my team improve,” he says. “We have a wall of fame in our shop with about 50 to 70 certifications for everybody in the company, and it’s amazing to be part of that. We focus and spend a lot of money on training, certifying people, giving them the confidence to do their job.”

Lee has seen, both for himself and his team, how effective training, education and certification are, and he believes this is what will advance the industry and make efficient irrigation practices more widespread.

“I want to start getting the excitement of other contractors to start taking (certification exams) on the local level so that we’re improving the industry,” says Lee. “On a community level, if we’re able to save 30% of the water that we’re using just because we took the time to train other people in the industry, that’s going to help everybody.”

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.