Irrigation: Getting Ready for Spring
|By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano|
When was the last time you had a good physical? A really thorough, front-to-back, inside-and-outside check of all your systems, to see if everything’s working right, or if something needs repairing or replacing? Your customers’ irrigation systems need yearly physicals, too; they’re called “spring startups.” As their irrigation contractor, you’re the one who’s going to prepare, and in many cases, repair those systems for the new season.
“Spring startup is a really great opportunity to give a customer’s irrigation system a good evaluation, going beyond the basics of turning things on,” says former longtime irrigation contractor John Eggleston, now an irrigation business consultant at Service First Irrigation in Lansing, Michigan. “It’s the time to look things over and say, ‘Let’s look at upgrading your system with something higher efficiency—multistream rotors, smart controllers.’”
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves let’s start with what should have happened last fall. If the winterization was done properly, spring startup should be a gentle March breeze.
“Even if you did the blowout yourself, at spring startup, you still have to run the whole system to check it out,” says Rolland Kuhr, owner of Naturescape Designs in Jackson, Wyoming. “Things can still break. Maybe the blowout wasn’t perfect. A drip system, for instance, isn’t easy to blow out; it’s often hundreds of feet of half-inch diameter line.”
So, Kuhr goes through every valve and station, making sure the head coverage is proper. Often, sprinklers need to be moved to accommodate bushes that have grown bigger. He checks to see that everything’s working right, and if anything is broken. He watches the rotator heads to see that they’re turning exactly as they should be, and if anything needs adjustment. Then, he reprograms the controller.
Terracare Associates, LLC, headquartered in Littleton, Colorado, is a $45 million-per-year company. It turns on several thousand systems each year, between March 15 and April 15. Spring for them starts with spring cleaning. The company’s 60-plus certified irrigation technicians clean out their trucks and get them stocked and organized.
“Tailgate meetings are very important,” said Brent Trujillo, vice president for Terracare’s Colorado operations. “We go over all of our safety rules and procedures, plus any changes from the previous year, and make sure everyone has the proper P.E. (protective equipment).”
Before the techs head out to the properties to which they’ve been assigned, they’re given ‘startup sheets,’ with counts of all the equipment on each site—how many controllers, backflow preventers, sprinkler heads. Also listed is exactly which types of sprinklers are on what zones, whether they’re rotors, popups, drip emitters or sprays. Any work done previously is also outlined.
The startup sheet is very important. It documents what’s wrong with a system as soon as it’s started up, so the property owner can be informed.
The techs go down the list, zone by zone, for every controller. If things are not in sequential order, they make them so. They turn on every single zone, watch everything work, and document any repairs that need to be made. All of the company’s techs are certified in backflow, so if there’s an issue, they can fix it right then and there.
Most of Terracare’s commercial clients preauthorize a threshold dollar amount for repairs, usually $300 to $500. This way, the crews don’t have to wait while turf and plant material suffers.
When asked if his techs have ever run into botched winterizations, Trujillo says, “Absolutely. They happen on commercial properties, too.”
When Terracare takes over a new property that has extensive damage from a poor winterization, the tech takes pictures to document the damage and writes up a written report. But he won’t touch anything; he’ll wait until the management company or property owner contacts the previous irrigator. “It’s very important to get the other contractor involved before we attempt any repairs,” said Trujillo.
In cold climates, it’s common practice to remove backflow preventers for the winter and store them indoors. “We like to remove those for the winter, because the tolerances inside them are so small, it doesn’t take much water to absolutely destroy one,” said Dave Carter, an irrigation technician at Signature Landscape in Olathe, Kansas.
Come spring, the first thing Carter, or any of the other Signature techs, will do is reinstall the RPZ (reduced pressure zone) backflow preventers. (A few years ago, the city of Olathe started requiring everyone to have RPZs.) After that, he’ll flush the lines and pressurize the mains. Then, he’ll run through all the zones on the controller with a remote-control device. He’ll check every sprinkler head to make sure it’s working properly and has no leaks or breaks. If any of them do, he’ll make note of whatever repairs are needed.
Most of Signature’s commercial customers also pre-specify dollar amounts that can be spent on needed repairs. Others get itemized estimates of what it’ll cost to get things up and running. Once a customer approves a proposal, the repairs are done before any flowers go in.
Scott West, the owner of Eagle Irrigation in Hamilton, Montana, has an extra step to perform each spring, since he services irrigation systems for a number of large ranches. Most of these properties draw their water from ponds, lakes or rivers via electric pumps.
When West does a startup for one of these ranches, he has to prime the pump, i.e., fill it full of water. It’s a detailed process, and you have to know what you’re doing, according to West.
After a pump is primed, he makes sure there’s a foot valve installed in the suction line. He says ranchers— inveterate do-it-yourselfers—often neglect this step. “They’ll just stick a pipe in the water, and the pump will work—for a while. But you need a foot valve to keep the system charged and primed when the pump cycles off.”
If needed, he’ll install an inline spin filter. They’re called that because muddy water enters the filter and cyclones around, allowing debris to ‘spin out.’ The filtered water is then pushed out into the irrigation system, and the dirty water is sent back to its source.
Spin filters aren’t cheap; they cost around $200 to $300, but they’re worth it, says West. “A lot of my customers had stuck valves and clogged heads until I put in these filters.”
When to start?
That’s a tricky question. It’s one of the frustrations of being an irrigation contractor in a cold-weather climate.
Second-guessing the weather is a lot like timing the stock market. Just because things look sunny today doesn’t mean they will tomorrow. A lot of us live in parts of the country where it’s said, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.”
Trujillo says Littleton gets cold temperatures later in the spring than the rest of Colorado. This brings with it a huge freeze potential. A line break can cause water to gush into the street. And in freezing weather, this can cause a lot of slip-and-fall issues. That’s a liability his commercial customers want to avoid at all costs.
So what’s an irrigator to do? You have to schedule and route all of your customers, and you’d like to make sure they all get turned on before things get too warm. But start too early and Mother Nature can pull a fast one.
“You want to make sure your temperatures are staying above freezing, for the most part,” said Trent Nickelson, operations manager at Horticulture Services Company in Woodbury, Minnesota. “A little dip for a few days probably won’t hurt anything. Start time is different every year, so you have to kind of gauge that. Usually, it’s sometime in April.”
Terracare subscribes to a weather service. A daily report tells them if temperatures are going to drop below 32 degrees that night. If that’s forecasted, the techs will hit their routes, wrap and back-drain backflows, and shut controllers off.
West really starts watching weather patterns around April 15th. He waits until it’s been above freezing for a good solid week to week-and-a-half before starting; this usually happens around May 1. Then, he’ll begin his startups. “The last thing I want to do is turn things on and then have the temperature drop down to 20 degrees.”
However, he says that after a long winter, Montanans can get ‘spring fever.’ “They can’t wait to get out there and plant tulips, so they’ll start pushing it,” says West. “But you can’t push Mother Nature. I’ve had things break, people calling me up, saying, ‘Oh, man! Why didn’t I wait a couple of weeks?’ because it just cost them several hundred dollars.”
Upgrade and upsell
Spring startup is a tremendous opportunity for a savvy contractor to look over a client’s system and upsell him. Inform him about new technology that can save him money and use less water. Suggest changing out high-top spray heads in shrub beds for drip systems. We’re calling it an upsell, but it’s really a reevaluation at a time when water efficiency is more important than ever.
Eggleston points out that many areas of the country are past the big building booms that happened 20 or 30 years ago. Now those aging irrigation infrastructures are ripe for facelifts.
“People don’t seem to realize that irrigation components, like shingles on roofs, wear out. Distribution uniformity starts to go away after ten or twelve years. And nowadays, there are much better components to use as replacements.”
Even though you’re running around trying to get everything turned on, take a few extra minutes per site and thoroughly evaluate it. Everything doesn’t have to be done all at once; tell your client about critical items that should be addressed now, such as leaks or broken heads. Then, give him a list of things to be upgraded later on. You can schedule some of this other work for after startup, when things calm down.
Reactive vs. proactive
Eggleston says that a lot of contractors are ‘reactive’ in the sense that they have a tendency to wait until a customer calls. “They’ll say, ‘I’m going to send letters to all my customers, and let them know that we’re getting ready to start turnons, so they should call me and schedule something.’” (If the customer is anything like me, that piece of paper or email gets put aside and forgotten.)
“Then, all of a sudden, it’s hot and dry, and people are calling, saying, ‘Why haven’t you turned my system on?’ Your response, of course, is, ‘Well, I sent you a letter telling you to call me, why didn’t you call me?’” A better approach, says Eggleston, is a ‘proactive’ one. Inform the customer that you’re going to be in their neighborhood on March 22, and you’d like to stop by and turn his sprinklers on. Then ask, “Which is better for you, morning or afternoon?” These predictable, seasonal services can be planned, scheduled and routed, unlike the many emergencies we need to handle, like breaks or heads blowing off. It’s an area of profitability that’s missed by many contractors, according to Eggleston. Instead of letting the customers dictate how we’ll run our businesses, we should be telling them, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’
Give your business a spring startup, too
Come to think of it, when was the last time your irrigation operation had a good, thorough “physical?” Spring startup is a great time to take stock, not only of your customers’ systems, but of the way you do things.
Eggleston says that this is the time to take a look at your inventory, and see if every item adds value for the customer. Are you carrying ten boxes of some part on your trucks, when the most you’ve ever used in one day is four?
So, before he starts his company back up every spring, he evaluates his personnel and decides who to keep—and who to let go. For those he keeps, he thinks about how he can make them better at their jobs. He considers training programs, both in-house and outsourced.
He also reevaluates his equipment, his rolling stock, and his processes and procedures. Says Eggleston, “If you’re going to be successful in this industry, you have to do all of that. But I see a lot of contractors still doing things the way they did 20 years ago.”
Have you heard the phrase, “There’s an app for that?” Well, it’s true. Anything you’re still using paper for, such as work orders, can probably be done via a smartphone or tablet, with an application created expressly for landscape and irrigation contractors. An additional benefit: if it’s not on paper, it can’t get lost or misfiled.
There’s also software that can route your technicians efficiently to cut down on drive time. There are so many new and innovative things available nowadays to streamline operations and increase profitability—and many of them are even free.
One more tip before we close. “Always look in the valve boxes before you reach inside there,” says Carter. “Snakes, rats and mice like to make their homes inside. In some parts of Olathe, we have copperheads and rattlesnakes. You don’t want to grab one of those by accident. It could ruin your day.”
No kidding! Not to mention hornets, yellow jackets, black widow and brown recluse spiders, and other creatures that may have set up housekeeping, trying to escape the cold.
Spring startup can be an exciting time of year—fresh starts as well as irrigation startups. Handle it right, and you could be opening up the spigot to nice, warm flows of cash.
Are you prepared?