Nov. 20 2020 06:00 AM

Get certified to build your business and develop your team.


Credibility is a wonderful thing. It’s not something that comes overnight, it is an asset that is gained after experience and education, both formal and on the job, and hard-won accomplishments. In the professional and business world, credibility is everything. Credentials help broadcast your reputation. Some of the credentials available to you as an irrigation professional include certifications from the Irrigation Association of Fairfax, Virginia: certified irrigation technician (CIT); certified irrigation contractor (CIC); certified irrigation designer (CID); certified landscape irrigation auditor (CLIA); certified golf irrigation auditor (CGIA); certified landscape water manager (CLWM) and others.

We asked some irrigation contractors that have some of these initials after their names what being certified has meant to them and their businesses and how the time and effort they put into studying has paid off.

Walter Mugavin, CIC, CLIA, owner of Aqua Mist Irrigation, South Hackensack, New Jersey, says that having IA certifications and the knowledge he gained through studying for them has given him more gravitas.

“We deal with about 13 different engineering firms and some landscape architects, and being a certified professional brings us a better level of respect from those other professionals,” he says.

Mugavin only does large commercial projects and says certification gives him an edge in the bidding process, especially because some plans require a certified contractor.

“I encourage people to do it just for their own education and edification, because you need to be able to talk about irrigation and be 100% knowledgeable,” says Mugavin. “When I go in front of a bunch of engineers and they throw questions at me, I know the answers, and that’s all because of the studying I did for the certifications.”

In the last year, certification helped Doug Heller, CLIA, owner and president of Northwest Iowa Sprinkler, Milford, Iowa, land two large jobs, he says.

“One was an $80,000 residential irrigation system installation, where the designer required that the installer be IA certified,” he says. “Irrigation designers are increasingly being asked to make sure that installers are IA certified.”

Jeff Hewett, owner of Sprinkler Solutions of Florida Inc., Plant City, Florida, encourages all of his techs to get certified and is himself in the process of obtaining a CID.

“Being certified gives you credibility,” says Hewett. “You can talk to a customer intelligently so that they understand that you’re not just a ‘Chuck-in-a-truck’ who mowed their lawn yesterday and today is fixing their irrigation. Every certification you get does nothing but build your business and make the industry stronger.”

For Carlos Medrano, CLIA, maintenance department manager at CoCal Landscape, Denver, a family firm owned by his father, “IA certifications are important to our company. They convey professionalism and give you accreditation when you’re bidding on jobs and going after contracts.”

He encourages his employees to become certified as CITs and CICs. “CLIA is a good one, too. We don’t do a lot of audits, but having that knowledge makes you a better water manager.”

Studying for certifications also enhances your professional development. It’s done that for Andrew Gray, CID, CLIA, owner of Andy’s Irrigation LLC, Portland, Oregon. “It’s definitely helped my career,” he says. “The training I received through the IA has explained a lot of the reasons why we do the things we do in the irrigation business. I’m far better able to translate the new system technology that’s coming out to a homeowner or even to a landscape architect, many of whom are not CIDs. A lot of the drawings I’ve gotten from landscape architects I’ve really had to just scrap and start over.”

He recently finished a job for a chain of hospitals in which each system installed had to be redesigned because the landscape architects he was working with weren’t trained in irrigation design or the importance of irrigation efficiency. They didn’t know about different techniques that can be used to save water, like using check valves or installing drip instead of spray for shrubs.

Gray says his redesigns cut the client’s water bill by 40% “just by using the right components. When you’re talking about 30 million gallons a year, that was a pretty significant savings.” He credits his ability to do that to his certification studies. “Thanks to the IA, I understand how these controllers work and the metrics they use. It’s helped me be a better technician and a better business owner.”

He adds, “I strongly recommend getting certified to anybody that’s not an absolute beginner. If you’ve got a couple years in, you can really gain tons of knowledge through the IA classes because they have great instructors and great content in the classes.”

Ecouraging education

Each of these contractors has fostered a culture of continuous learning within their companies. “If my guys want to advance their education, I’m all for it,” says Hewett. “Once they get the CIT, I ask, ‘Where do you want to go next? Do you want to learn how to audit?’ Then I look at, do I need to give them an extra hour or two a week to sit and study?” Every week, Heller makes time for education, whether that’s 15 minutes or half an hour. “Every week I try to train them on something new,” he says. “Some of my 20-minute presentations come directly from my certifications.”

Mugavin uses the off-season downtime of about 10 weeks to focus on training sessions, he says. “We bring the guys in and go over what went right and what went wrong last season, look at new technologies and better methods of doing things.”

Building a culture of education has helped Heller’s company grow and improved his team’s expertise, he says. “It answers a lot of their questions and makes us better at troubleshooting. Also, it means that I don’t have to be the one who has to do everything.”

Encouraging education with employees also helps them develop a curiosity to pick up more new techniques and industry knowledge, Mugavin says. “There are always new irrigation technologies, new products and better methods of installation. The more the guys know, the more they can do and the more we can accomplish as a company. You can never stop learning.”

Incentivizing learning

These contractors have various means of motivating their employees to get certified. For Heller it’s the perk of a free trip. “I took my guys to the Irrigation Show,” says Heller. “I said, ‘I’ll pay for the hotel, the food, all the expenses.’ They didn’t have to do anything other than go to the classes and hopefully get a certification out of it.”

Gray used a similar incentive last year. “I took one of my guys to the IA Show in Long Beach. Every expense was covered, and he was paid for all the time he spent.” When he passed his CIT exam, Gray gave him a raise. He says that this employee has stepped up and taken on more projects since getting certified. “It really opened his eyes,” adds Gray. “I felt like he learned more in that week than in the whole previous year.”

At Medrano’s company, techs can also look forward to a fatter paycheck as a reward for passing a certification exam. Hewett and Mugavin also say they’ll provide some sort of benefit or extra bonus for employees who become certified.

Another benefit of certification is in the area of employee retention, always an issue in the industry. Creating a culture of education within your company where workers know you’ll help them get certified and then reward them for their success helps encourage them to stick around. Gray thinks so, saying, “It shows that I’m interested in their professional career development.”

Medrano says it’s also helped his company keep good workers. “Labor’s a big problem, and getting qualified people to stay is hard. We’ve found that putting a goal in front of them and rewarding them once they achieve it really helps.”

Getting certified in 2020

Michael Temple, LEED AP, CGIA, CIC, CID, CLIA, CLWM, technical program director at the Irrigation Association, says “IA certifications really serve to distinguish you from your competition, and that’s attributed to the way they’re developed. We follow a rigorous process that includes a job task analysis, subject-matter expert panels and surveys. A lot of effort goes into ensuring that a certification is valid and that the training materials are current and relevant to each certification.”

“That’s what separates our certifications from others out there, just that process and the commitment to ensuring that we are offering the highest quality certifications we can,” continues Temple.

Many irrigation professionals look forward to taking Irrigation Association certification exams at the organization’s annual Irrigation Show and Education Week. But because of COVID-19, the 2020 show, slated for San Antonio, Texas, was canceled. So, how does one go about getting certified this year?

Look to the virtual IA University. “From November 30 through December 4, all of our certification classes will be available online,” says Temple. “And we also just kicked off our Industry Insights webinar series, something that we typically do at the show.”

The online training will teach the skills needed to design, install or maintain an irrigation system, as well as business skills for company owners. The classes will be followed up by in-person paper-and-pencil certification exams December 7 through 18 at a network of sponsor SiteOne Landscape Supply locations.

These contractors agree that getting certified by the IA has benefitted them in many ways. Water conservation will only keep growing in importance, as will the knowledge needed to design, build and maintain more efficient systems. As Gray says, “Water is a resource we have to try to protect. I’ve gotten certified, and it’s helped me get better at what I do.”

The author is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at pouncerspy@gmail.com.

For more information about IA University’s online courses available Nov. 30-Dec. 4, visit www.irrigationshow.org.