Drip... Mini... Micro... Macro... And All That Stuff

Are you avoiding low-flow irrigation projects like the plague? Do they seem like much more hassle than they could possibly be worth? Join the club. The vocabulary alone — drip, micro, mini, macro — is enough to send you running to the medicine cabinet for relief. And low-flow headaches don’t end with the terminology. Bill Hutcheon, sales and marketing manager for Antelco Corporation, Longwood, Florida, explains, “There is a lot of confusion among landscape and irrigation professionals about low-flow irrigation. They believe that there are too many small pieces, and it’s too much work to install these systems.”

Gizmophobia, or fear of all of the components that seem to accompany low-flow irrigation systems, is not the only reason contractors avoid these products. Many contractors equate low-flow with additional work. They are convinced that selecting and installing dozens, or even hundreds, of small parts must be a hassle. And, they may also believe that the extra labor doesn’t end with all of the gizmos. After all, don’t drip systems require more maintenance than conventional irrigation systems?

Perhaps it isn’t a labor issue. Some contractors resist drip because they assume it’s only applicable for residential projects, and cannot be used for commercial clients. Some guys don’t want to deal with what seems like miles of buried tubing and gadgets. Others may have heard a nasty little rumor about low-flow — that is, it does not hold up as well to high traffic.

Finally, most folks in the business know that conventional systems do a decent job. They may contend that the drought conditions that have forced low-flow on a few unfortunate contractors is a local phenomenon and won’t affect the relatively water-rich parts of the country. Throw a bit of psychology into the mix and you have a downright rebellion on your hands.

Kurt Maloney, director of marketing for Netafim Inc., Fresno, California, says, “Landscape contractors are like everyone else. They’re reluctant to do anything that’s different from what they’re accustomed to because it involves change.”

To be fair, low-flow’s nasty reputation is not completely unearned. Why? Consider the unfortunate contractor who committed to install low-flow irrigation for a large project and installed 10,000 parts, only to find that the system didn’t function.

He placed a frantic call to Travis Komara, president of Salco Products in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and explained the situation. Komara visited the site and immediately saw that the contractor had inserted each part backwards. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time a contractor had made this particular mistake when installing a new low-flow system.

Another common mistake is to punch a hole that is too large for a low-flow part. The result is a rather leaky system. One bad experience (or even a whiff of one) can turn a contractor off low-flow for good. These installation gaffs are not only frustrating, says Komara, but also make it difficult for a contractor to turn a profit on a low-flow installation.

The profitability problem does not begin or end with installation. Low-flow irrigation systems are an entirely different animal than conventional irrigation systems, so they pose some issues for distributors, which, in turn, affect contractors.

In many areas conventional sells well, so distributors aren’t interested in bothering with a competitive product line. The primary reason contractors and homeowners turn to drip is to save water, but water conservation is not an issue in many parts of the country, so distributors suspect low-flow products won’t sell well.

Finally, salespeople may have to spend a significant amount of time educating buyers about low-flow products. That’s not a problem when the contractor is buying $1500 in parts for a conventional system, but low-flow parts are quite inexpensive. An extensive low-flow project may require only $100 in parts, which means a lot of effort on the salesperson’s part for a relatively small sale.

Even when a distributor makes the commitment to carry low-flow products, it must also educate its sales staff. Purchasing low-flow components from an uninformed salesperson may increase a contractor’s chance of a low-flow gaff.

There are a few other headaches with low-flow products. Most, but not all, contractors have a firm grasp on pricing a conventional sprinkler system. But the array of inexpensive low-flow parts can throw a wrench into the pricing game. So, why bother with drip?

Steven Brunengraeber, design engineer with Pepco Irrigation, Fresno, California, answers the $64,000 question: “Usually, the decision to install a low-flow irrigation system comes down to water conservation.”

Traditional sprinklers generally use more water. That means a significant portion, as much as 30 percent, of an area’s municipal water may be used to water lawns, parks and golf courses. In many water-poor areas, including California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and Florida, that figure is far too high. Consequently, municipalities around the country are attempting to solve the problem.
Some of the solutions may sound downright terrifying to the friendly neighborhood landscape contractor. Some areas are passing ordinances making low-flow irrigation mandatory in new construction. Others are enacting drought management plans with severe watering restrictions — not good news for someone whose livelihood depends on keeping things green.

Some municipalities charge for water use; in Boston, the going rate is a steep $6 for 749 gallons of water. Maloney sums it up, “There’s no question that the urgency to save water is upon us everywhere.” What’s the beleaguered professional to do?

Drip, drip, drip. Brunengraeber explains, “The water shortage isn’t a problem that’s going away. Low-flow irrigation will eventually be forced on landscape contractors.” And in some parts of the country, the low-flow business is booming. Even in relatively water-wealthy Indiana, distributors report an increasing volume of low-flow sales.

The reality is that a low-flow mandate may be coming to your neck of the woods, and regardless of mandates, some conservation-minded homeowners are beginning to ask for low-flow systems. It might be time to bite the bullet and get on the bandwagon. You just might find out that low-flow isn’t all that bad. In fact, it can actually make good business sense.

For example, despite the initial pricing conundrums, smart contractors can figure out how to turn a profit on a low-flow project. And ultimately, the decision to add low-flow to the product line can give your business an edge, because customers may view low-flow savvy contractors as a step ahead of the competition.

Low-flow irrigation products may give your business a boost in other ways as well. Low-flow can yield healthier plants, and everyone knows that healthy plants are good for business.

The ABCs of low-flow irrigation and water conservation
Low-flow, low volume, or drip irrigation systems are defined as those that use less than ½ gallon of water per minute (30 gallons per hour). But there is a seemingly endless assortment of products that fall into this niche. The beauty of all of these low-volume systems is that they are exempt from municipal water restrictions.

Consider Westchester, New York, which has a three-tiered drought management plan that designates conditions as emergency, severe emergency and extreme emergency. The watering restrictions associated with these conditions could spell disaster for a landscape contractor. But there is one small exception to the regulations. Unlimited low-volume irrigation is acceptable even during extreme emergency conditions. That’s because it saves 30 to 70 percent more water than conventional sprinkler systems.

The figures may sound like hocus-pocus, but they are based on sound science. In their efforts to water the root zone of the plants, conventional systems may overspray their target. And, even when the precious liquid lands in the right spot, wind, evaporation and run-off may interfere with its journey to the root zone. So the conventional sprinkler must throw out more water to get the job done.
Low-flow irrigation employs a different approach. It is a source-based application; these systems bring water to the root zone.

Debunking low-flow myths
Although many contractors have steered clear of low-volume irrigation, the need to conserve water will eventually make it a fact of life for landscape and irrigation professionals. If the mere thought of burying hundreds of low-flow gizmos sends shivers up your spine, relax. Many of the nasty rumors and myths about low-flow products are false.

For example, some of today’s low-volume systems are relatively easy to install. That’s because vendors recognized the hassles of gizmos and introduced new laborsaving solutions. Komara says, “As technology catches up, it will make the contractor’s life easier, but there are still considerations with low-flow. It’s not a no-brainer.”

Low-flow irrigation can actually cut labor on both the installation and maintenance end. How? It can reduce the number of weeds in flower beds because it puts water at the root. That means less disease, mold, mildew and weeds, which, of course, translate into a better end-product with less labor in the long run.

Still, low-flow products are not maintenance-free. They require a different type of maintenance than conventional sprinkler systems. For example, sprinklers don’t require cleaning or flushing of lateral lines. But these are fairly simple tasks; homeowners can easily check and clean filters on a regular basis.

For most contractors, the first few low-flow projects may require some extra effort. That is, as with most new gadgets, there is a learning curve. Dave Palumbo, irrigation specification manager for Rain Bird, Glendora, California, explains, “A large portion of the learning curve is due to the fact that most contractors’ trucks are fully-stocked with sprinkler equipment, so it may be more time-consuming to get started on the first few low-flow jobs. Once you get started and have a few jobs under your belt, the labor issue becomes six of one versus half a dozen of the other.”

Low-flow newbies need to know how to select, use and install products. While they may be interested in adding low-flow systems to their repertoire, there may be a fair share of confusion because they don’t have any experience installing low-flow systems. Some vendors have devised a solution in the form of a software-training tool that shows contractors how to select and install the appropriate products for certain applications.

For contractors who are hesitant to invest in software training, there are other options. Contractors should purchase low-flow products from an experienced distributor who can explain the ins and outs of low-flow irrigation. Some experienced distributors offer training and workshops for contractors; they are well worth the time because they can prevent time-consuming and costly errors.

And yes, low-flow systems are applicable in both residential and commercial projects. Palumbo asserts, “If the right product is selected and installed properly, low-flow irrigation can hold up to the heavy foot traffic typical of commercial projects.” Again, this boils down to reaching a certain comfort level with low-flow irrigation. Contractors need to recognize that some products are geared to residential projects, and others are more appropriate for commercial projects.

Have the water-savings and potential for additional business convinced you that it’s time to jump on the low-flow bandwagon? It could be a great business decision. Be sure to educate yourself, and develop a decent understanding of low-flow irrigation before undertaking this endeavor. Next month’s issue will explore drip emitters and dripperline in detail.

June 2003