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Old-timers in the arid U.S. West grew up with the familiar click and whoosh sounds of impact sprinklers watering a lawn. In bygone days when water was plentiful, lawn irrigation was a must there, as summer rains are inconsistent or nonexistent.
As water everywhere becomes an issue, irrigation systems in the U.S. Midwest, East and even in the South have become must-haves for many property owners. And this is in regions that in most years get enough precipitation to keep lawns and ornamentals healthy and vibrant. The key phrase here is "most years." Anybody living in north Georgia or much of the Carolinas can tell you about the horrendous 2007-2009 drought that hammered the green industry.
Also, almost every region of the country gets periodic dry spells during the growing season. That's when an efficient, professionally installed and maintained irrigation system can give Mother Nature a helping hand in keeping landscapes primly beautiful.
Not only do sprinkler systems provide a guarantee that turfgrass will still look acceptable when the rain doesn't fall, they also actually save water compared to, say, hand-watering.
While irrigation design and installation, especially on large sites, is probably best left to specialists, system maintenance can be a natural add-on service opportunity for a turf care business. Regular visits make it easier to spot (and repair) potential trouble spots. Armed with education and training, irrigation system maintenance can be straightforward and relatively simple, providing happy clients and a more lucrative bottom line.
In order to provide irrigation maintenance services, you need to have technicians who understand how the systems work. Irrigation education is available from several sources.
The "go-to" organization is the Irrigation Association (IA), which provides educational opportunities and hosts the largest irrigation trade show in the United States. Visit the IA website at http://www.irrigation.org and learn about online education, webinars and seminars in your area.
"Ewing offers training as well as IA," says Warren Gorowitz, vice president of sustainability at Ewing Irrigation in Phoenix, Ariz. "There are lots of training opportunities available for irrigation technicians. The Irrigation Association has several training certifications, including the new Certified Irrigation Technician which is meant for field technicians that install, maintain and repair irrigation systems."
Your local irrigation distributor can also be a valuable educational resource. Most distributors host classes in specific irrigation topics such as sprinkler selection and installation, choosing a controller and much more. Although many of these classes might be sponsored by manufacturers, the knowledge that is shared can usually be applied to most products. Best of all, many of these classes are offered at no charge.
Public entities also sometimes host educational events at no charge or with very reasonable fees. Your local water authority, Cooperative Extension, golf and turf associations and other nonprofits are worth investigating.
"My dream irrigation tech has been trained through IA and many of the other classes taught by associations such as the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association, manufacturers or distributors," says Matthew Johnson, manager at All Year Round Expert Tree & Landscape Management in Phoenix, Ariz. "This would include troubleshooting pressure issues, distribution issues, system balancing, electrical issues and controller problems."
Although that wealth of knowledge may take concentrated effort to achieve, learning to spot trouble before it becomes a major problem is not. "I train my employees in what signs to look for in plant and turf response to over- or under-watering," Johnson says.
Testing the waters
Irrigation systems have components that should be regularly inspected and or serviced.
"Depending on the size of the account, I would have the maintenance crew check different sections of the system each service day," says Johnson. "Typically we check all turf after mowing. Larger accounts may have a foreman or team member with enough irrigation knowledge to make most repairs and then supplement that with a tech to inspect controller functions and proper valve operation."
The backflow prevention device (also known as the cross connection prevention device) will block the flow of contaminated water into drinking water sources should a water line break occur. Most communities that require their installation also require regular checkups by a certified professional. In general, unless they freeze, they do not require a great deal of attention.
Irrigation controllers are considered the brains of a system. Controllers come in seemingly endless configurations and range from simple mechanical clocks (less and less common) to sophisticated genies that use weather data and water flow to start and stop irrigation on their own with little or no human input. These are sometimes referred to as "smart controllers."
To the industry newcomer, irrigation controllers may seem intimidating, but they're actually fairly simple. And providing basic maintenance is relatively simple, as well.
First of all, survey the cabinet or space holding the controller to make sure it doesn't contain dirt, spider webs or other debris. On most systems, especially older systems, it's generally a good idea to check and adjust the program monthly. Is proper date and time showing on the controller? Check to make sure the backup battery is functional. Be on the lookout for loose or worn wires. Look over any rain, weather or moisture sensors to make sure they're connected.
Beyond that, it's a good idea to run the system at least once a month to be sure that all the components are working properly. Turn on each valve and walk the system if necessary to make a careful inspection. Which brings us to the next part of the system, the valves.
Valves and sprinklers
Valves simply turn water on and off. Even so, failures are not uncommon. As with the controllers, be sure that the wires are well connected. Valve boxes should be clean and free of debris and insects. (Be careful when opening valve boxes as they're a great place for nasty critters to hide.)
The sprinklers are the most obvious place that problems can occur. If heads are missing or broken, a "geyser" can result, which wastes huge amounts of water. However, there are other less dramatic ways that water can be wasted. Check to see if heads are clogged and that spray patterns are even.
Look for heads that are tilted or spraying in the wrong direction. Sprinklers often "mysteriously" get turned so they're watering the sidewalk or street. Look for sprinklers that are either sunken into the ground or sticking up far enough to interfere with mowing and trimming equipment. If sprinklers are misting, it means that the water pressure is too high.
Sprinklers can be blocked when trees, shrubs or other plants grow into their spray pattern. Sometimes a simple snip with a hand pruner can fix the problem; other times the entire head might need to be moved. Ideally, they should be identical to the head that is being replaced. Otherwise, it is important that the precipitation rate (how fast the water is delivered) matches the other heads. When sprinkler heads are mismatched, it is virtually impossible to achieve uniform irrigation, which is the key to healthy turf and water efficiency.
Unless the site is completely level, low-head drainage could be a problem. This occurs when the lowest sprinkler head in the system or the zone allows water to drain after the system is shut off. Depending on the size of the system, this can mean that a substantial amount of water is wasted. Fortunately, this problem is easily fixed by simply installing a check valve.
Your goal: happy clients
Performing irrigation maintenance provides enhance client interaction, and could lead to greater sales. "I try to attend meeting with a board of director, property owner or management personnel at least twice per year, especially if there is significant turf. That allows me to provide an update on what we are doing and offering information on how they can improve their property from a landscape perspective," says Johnson.
Adds Ewing's Gorowitz, "Improving the irrigation system efficiency, in my opinion, is the best investment you can make in your irrigation system. Many cities and water agencies are offering significant rebates and incentives to help offset the costs."
If you have been looking at ways to grow your business, maintaining irrigation systems is a natural. Not only will you be saving your clients water and money, but you can also take pride in knowing that you are conserving precious resources.
"What it boils down to is making smart choices with the use of our natural resources and ensuring that these resources will be around for future generations," adds Gorowitz. "We don't have an unlimited supply of water."
Helen M. Stone is a freelance writer on the West Coast specializing in commercial turf and landscape.