Should You Get Certified in Backflow?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

Graywater from a system at a Florida residence is piped into the home’s drinking water. “Yellow gushy stuff” coming out of some taps in Maryland turns out to be the powerful—and highly toxic—herbicide Paraquat from an agricultural facility. Propane gas flowing into a Connecticut water main from a storage tank causes a washing machine to explode. “Rusty” water coming out of a Michigan hospital’s drinking fountain turns out to be blood from a nearby autopsy room. These stories are enough to curl your hair.

These are all real-life incidents caused by backflow, usually the result of an accidental cross-connection between a potable water system and a contaminating source. Thankfully, most are not as dramatic as the examples above.

As a contractor who installs or repairs irrigation systems, there have probably been times when you’ve run into backflow or cross-connection problems in the process of doing your work. If so, you may feel confident in your skills, since you’ve had experience with backflow in the past. Or perhaps there’s someone on your crew who’s well-versed in it.

Then again, maybe not. When a problem with backflow occurs and you have very little experience with it, or if you feel you’re in over your head, you call in a subcontractor. It may even be that local ordinances forbid you from even opening a backflow assembly without the proper certification. In either case, you’re missing out on a lucrative revenue stream.

What is backflow, anyway?

Backflow is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when water that’s supposed to flow out flows back in, due to an accidental cross-connection between a potable water supply and a contaminating source. That is what backflow devices prevent, unless or until they fail. The problem is that the water coming back in doesn’t come back alone; it brings “friends” along with it. These unwelcome guests can be very toxic indeed.

When backflow occurs in irrigation systems, the unwanted guests can include animal waste, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and even insects.

No one wants to drink that.

The laws of physics require that you must have more than just a cross-connection to have backflow. Backflow occurs when there is one of two factors at work: back siphonage or back pressure. These are both imbalances in water pressure.

Back siphonage happens when the water supply pressure becomes lower than that of the city’s water system. This occurs when a water supply is interrupted or drained down, such as when a large, sudden demand occurs, like a water main break.

Back pressure occurs when an irrigation or other water system’s pressure becomes greater than the municipal supply’s pressure. Then, water is forced back into the public’s potable water supply from that system.

There’s gold in that backstream

You can make sure that torrents of cash flow back to you by getting yourself, or someone in your employ, certified as a backflow prevention device tester or repairer (preferably, both). To Sean Cleary, director of training and education at the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials’ (IAPMO) Backflow Prevention Institute in Chantilly, Virginia, it’s just good business.

“I tell irrigation contractors that they should have, at minimum, one person on staff who’s certified. From a contractor’s standpoint, if you don’t have your own employees doing the work, then you’re subcontracting that work out to another entity. And when you do that, there’s always a chance that the other entity will make your customer their customer.”

“You’d be hard pressed to find a contractor who’d say, ‘There’s no money in backflow,’” said Dean Ricci, owner of Ricci’s Landscape Management in Hebron, Indiana. “It’s very, very lucrative.”

“There’s so much money to be made in backflow,” said Richard Daigle, owner and CEO of the Irrigator Technical Training School in Ontario, California. “A lot of irrigation contractors who we’ve trained have gone ahead and opened up small backflow divisions within their own companies.”

“It’s a really great source of residual income,” adds Daigle. “Even if you just said, ‘All I’m going to do is irrigation system backflow,’ you’d still make money. And, it distinguishes you from other irrigation or maintenance companies. All a client has to do is write one check for one company who does their sprinklers, their mowing and trimming, and now, their backflow, too.”

Money aside, there are other benefits to getting certified. “It’s an opportunity for a contractor to get more deeply involved in the full range of the irrigation industry,” said John Brewer, former president of FEBCO, now an irrigation and backflow consultant. “It broadens your horizons to understand more about the contamination of water and how to prevent it.”

John Graham is a private backflow consultant, tester and specialist. He is also on the board of directors of the Bryan, Texas-based American Backflow Prevention Association (ABPA).

“The general education that takes place in the process of certification as a backflow prevention assembly tester gives an applicant a broad understanding of basic hydraulics, health hazards, nonhealth hazards, and how we can protect our drinking water supply. That knowledge alone is priceless.”

Backflow is big business

Daigle says that people have no idea how big the backflow business is, because it isn’t limited to the green industry. “Every fast-food restaurant has soft drink machines,” he explains. “On each individual dispenser, there’s a little baby 1/8thinch backflow assembly, and every one of those must be tested once a year.”

Just do the math, he suggests.

“For instance, let’s say there are ten dispensers in one soft drink machine. If the fee is $50.00 to test each one, you’ve just made $500 in less than two hours. And if you can repair them, not just test them, that’s even more money in your pocket.”

“The big drive-through coffee chains?” continues Daigle. “Many of those have 27 backflows at a single location. Then there are dentist’s offices, hospitals…anything with connections to potable water has backflow devices on them.” You can see the opportunity that a certified individual has to make real money in the off-season, when landscape and irrigation work is slow or stopped.

All of these devices must be tested once a year. That’s what the backflow device manufacturers recommend, and what the law usually requires. And these devices don’t last forever. “Wilkins and FEBCO say that most backflows only last about ten years, and then they wear out,” says Daigle.

Backflow is also increasing in importance, especially in the green industry. “As we’re seeing more graywater and rainwater collection systems, the need for backflow prevention increases,” says Graham. “We’re also seeing increased enforcement of regulations governing backflow.”

Mark Stuhlsatz is irrigation department manager at Ryan Lawn and Tree in Overland Park, Kansas. He’s also a certified backflow tester, through a course at a local community college. He was an irrigation installer and service technician before he became certified in backflow. “We do all kinds of service and repair on irrigation systems,” said Stuhlsatz. “Backflow is a part of that.”

“It’s a convenience for the property owners, because they only have to deal with us. We come out to shut down their systems in the wintertime and turn them back on in the spring. We’ll do their yearly backflow test at the same time as the spring activation. They don’t have to mess with two different companies, or schedule someone else at a separate time to come do it.”

It could be said that Ryan Lawn and Tree saw the need to certify its irrigation employees in order to stay competitive. “Here in Overland Park, there are quite a few irrigation companies that also have certified backflow testers on staff,” said Stuhlsatz. “So, we make it a priority to have all of our irrigation techs become certified testers.” In fact, out of 30 irrigation department members, 20 have obtained backflow certifications via company-paid training classes.

“When we do our spring startups, we can test the backflow and fire up the irrigation system, all in one shot,” says Ricci. “It’s the same stop, so the backflow is gravy. It takes just ten minutes to test it, and we get an extra $70 to $75. Then, if it fails, you get to fix it, and that’s even more money. It’s worked out well for us.”

Ricci’s company just celebrated its 20th year in business. They do full-service landscaping, and install and service irrigation systems. “We just thought it made better sense to go ahead and do backflow in-house, instead of subbing something like that out,” he says.

“Just considering the inconvenience of not having a certified backflow person on staff—that alone makes it worth it,” Ricci continued. “Here, you have to get the backflow tested and signed off before you can fire up the irrigation system. Now, my tech doesn’t have to wait for some other company to get around to doing that. Time is money.”

No more cross-connections

Graham has been involved in backflow as a tester and program manager for over 20 years, and manages backflow prevention programs for small water systems as a private consultant. The opportunity to make some additional money isn’t the main reason he hopes more contractors will become certified.

“I’ve seen a lot of ‘field retrofits’ out there. Someone says, ‘Let me just make a temporary fix while I go get the right parts.’ Often, these are cross-connections. Once people have been trained, it raises their level of awareness, and they’re less likely to come up with ‘creative’ alternatives to repairing and replacing backflow assemblies.”

“It’s not as if people get up in the morning and say, ‘Today, I’m going to contaminate a water system,’” Graham clarifies. “These mistakes are made by well-intentioned, well-meaning people, who simply don’t understand what they’re doing.”

What to look for in a certification program So how do you go about becoming certified as a backflow tester or repairer? Unfortunately, the world of backflow certification isn’t a unified one. There’s no single, overarching authority that certifies certification programs, stating how many classroom hours you have to have, or what topics specifically need to be covered. Also, what entity recognizes what certification varies by region.

This can be frustrating. For instance, in California, Orange County doesn’t recognize Los Angeles County’s certification. Los Angeles County itself only recognizes its own tester certification, achieved by passing a test it administers. That test must be retaken every two years. In Massachusetts, one can be certified as a tester, but you can’t repair or install backflow devices unless you’re a licensed plumber.

The safest plan is to find out what’s required and recognized in your working area before signing up for any training course. Fortunately, there is no shortage of those. Trade schools, community colleges, and sometimes even water utilities themselves offer certification courses.

IAPMO’s Backflow Prevention Institute offers training and certification as a backflow prevention assembly tester or repairer, in addition to other courses, such as one leading to certification as a cross-connection control surveyor. There are also private entities, such as the Irrigator Technical Training School, that offer training and/or certification. ABPA offers exams for certification as a backflow prevention assembly specialist or tester, but does not offer training programs.

Graham says that one important thing to look for in a training course is third-party certification. This avoids any conflict of interest. “In some areas, the training provider also certifies you. I feel there needs to be a separation of those two things, so that the certifier doesn’t have a stake in the game.”

“Each certification program creates standards that they feel provide an adequate basis of knowledge, so that the person achieving certification knows what they’re doing,” says Graham. “Most require successful completion of one or more written examinations, plus a proctored hands-on test, where you have to go out and actually test the different backflow prevention assemblies.”

In ABPA’s test, the assemblies are set up to fail, so you have to properly diagnose the problem. You have to pass a written examination, plus the proctored hands-on portion, where you will test the various kinds of backflow devices.

The University of Southern California’s (USC) Foundation for Cross- Connection Control and Hydraulic Research in Los Angeles is the respected industry authority that approves backflow devices. It’s Manual of Cross-Connection Control, now in its tenth edition, is the textbook for many backflow certification courses. (USC’s Foundation also has its own tester and specialist courses.)

Why it matters

Finally, we want to emphasize why backflow is so critical. Once water gets on your client’s property, it needs to stay there. Any hose or sprinkler system has the potential to become the means by which landscape chemicals and other contaminants can be sucked back into the main line of potable water, if not for a backflow device.

Most contractors take great pride in their work. Your company may have just completed installation of the most beautiful, efficient irrigation system, in the most eye-catching landscape it’s ever done. But, if someone’s lack of knowledge caused an error leading to cross-contamination, that’s what the customer is going to remember. Don’t let your work literally leave a bad taste in a customer’s mouth.

You can help stop this from happening by becoming certified in backflow testing and repair. Even if you never test or repair a backflow unit, the education received in getting that certification won’t be wasted, if it makes you a safer servicer or installer of irrigation systems.