SOUTH FEATURES


Smart Watering

Clint Allison has grown a healthy and sustaining business based on providing cutting-edge irrigation services
By Jackie Ingles


Rainscapes, Inc.


Founded: 1996
Headquarters: Knoxville, Tenn.
Owner: Clint Allison
Markets: East Tennessee
Services: Irrigation system installation (residential and commercial), seasonal irrigation services (winterization and spring start up), maintenance
Employees: 15 full time; 2 part time
Website: www.rainscapes.com
With severe heat and drought settling over much of the country this summer, doing its best to suck the life out of all living creatures (turfgrass and landscape plants included), Clint Allison, president of Rainscapes, Inc., Maryville, Tenn., can understand why turfgrass irrigation comes under scrutiny. It's right out there for everyone to see.

"It really puts the spotlight on the use of water. We have to be on the front edge, demonstrating that we're working hard to make every drop count. The irrigation industry has encouraged the message to conserve water, especially the last several years," he says.

"We realize that as an industry, we're responsible for using millions of gallons of water, and good stewardship must start with us. I think it's an opportunity to showcase how much water we can save," he adds.

"It's hard to justify watering lawns and landscapes when utilities are hurting for water, but by being proactive, hopefully, we can prevent being shut completely out of the debate."


IMAGES COURTESY OF RAIN BIRD.

Allison says education involves more than demonstrating to the public that the industry uses water wisely. It also involves educating the public to the many benefits, societal and environmental, offered by well-maintained turfgrass.

These include the role of turfgrass in reducing dust in the environment, improving air quality and limiting soil erosion. Turfgrass offers many positives to communities beyond just looking attractive.


Clint Allison says that the installation and maintenance of irrigation systems are best left to professionals. Homeowners don't have the experience and, rarely, the tools to do it correctly.
"We look at smart irrigation in two different ways. One, we are looking for the best way to keep landscapes healthy and looking good with a minimum amount of water," says Allison. "We also view it as a sustainability issue."

With those two goals always in his mind, Allison has managed to also grow a healthy and sustaining small business based on providing cutting-edge irrigation services.

"We're fully invested in the servicing, repairing and improving the performance of sprinkler systems. We believe this is an area where we can develop long-term relationships with our customers and work to save millions of gallons of water at the same time," says Allison. About 65 percent of his business is upgrading and installing new sprinkler heads and smart controllers.

Constant improvement


Different areas of a landscape often require different sprinklers. Here a technician installs a micro-sprinkler along a roadway.
Rainscapes uses Rain Bird Sprinkler Systems about 90 percent of the time on new installs and whenever possible on upgrades. "I believe manufacturers are making some great products for water savings. Smart controllers, drip irrigation, rotary nozzles and sensors are all better now than when I got started in this industry 25 years ago."

Allisons says that his company can save a client 30 to 70 percent in water savings and clients can recoup their costs quickly. Smart irrigation control systems typically include either a stand-alone field controller or an add-on device that interfaces with a conventional clock-type controller. The weather or soil moisture-based technologies incorporated into these devices allow them to function somewhat similar to a thermostat. Programmed and maintained correctly, the devices permit irrigation to occur when needed rather than on a preset schedule, saving irrigation water. These smart technologies can also measure rainfall and will adjust the amount of watering to comply with rainfall amounts received on the property, he says.

In addition to new technologies, Allison is a proponent of recycling grey water sources (recycled water that was used as bathwater, dishwater or laundry water), using condensation discharge (water from air-conditioning units), and collecting rainwater for irrigation.

"The only problem that I have with rainwater collection is with what happens in situations like this drought. If it doesn't rain, the barrels don't get filled," he says. Much of this summer was a prime example of that.

"Water doesn't always have to be bought from a municipal water supplier," adds Allison. "We have recently installed projects that use water from ponds, lakes, streams, wells, air-conditioning units' wastewater, rainwater and non-potable water supplies. Often there are multiple sources from which we can obtain water."

Learning the ropes

After receiving his bachelor's degree in agricultural-ornamental horticulture and landscape design from the University of Tennessee, Allison worked as irrigation manager for McGinnis Farms (now John Deere Landscapes) for three years and then went to work for Duck Irrigation in Knoxville. "I learned a lot working for other people, and in 1996 I started Rainscapes." Two decades later he bought Duck Irrigation, which he describes as a good fit in spite of some early challenges. Rainscapes picked up new customers and some fine employees, too.

"We have 17 employees, 15 of which are full time, and we have five employees who are certified backflow technicians. There are lots of laws regulating backflow (contaminated water flowing in the wrong direction back into fresh water supply) in Tennessee and we follow every mandate," says Allison.

"With more than 3,000 clients, we keep busy. We would like to look at growing more in our existing market before looking into other areas."

His company operates in a 60 to 70-mile radius of Knoxville, serving clients in Chattanooga and Crossville, as well.

"We don't charge landscape companies or designers for giving quotes. We'll typically measure the area, note the grade and layout, consider the trees, shrubs and plantings, estimate the number of stations (water set to run at the same time, usually four to 13 stations) and consult with the client and landscape company on which system to install," explains Allison.

"Designing an irrigation system has the most effect on the efficiency of a system. Poor spacing or improper placement of equipment creates flaws that simply cannot be fixed with improved technology. Sometimes we can improve the systems we see, but we have also encountered systems that were so poorly done that it was more cost-efficient to start the project from scratch. Today's irrigation is much more advanced than just sticking a sprinkler in the yard. Sprinklers and controllers from as recently as five years ago are primitive compared to some of the new products offered today. Most manufactures have drastically improved the efficiency of the products they carry."

After the install, Rainscapes offers a maintenance agreement that can be purchased by the type of service to be done, such as spring start-up, winterization, backflow testing and seasonal maintenance.

"A lot of people think they can winterize themselves, but it takes special equipment that most people don't have. A busted pipe from winter freezing can be very expensive to repair. And spring start-up is essential, so that the systems can be checked out and the controllers set to optimize the proper distribution of water," says Allison.

He says his firm began offering maintenance agreements at several service and price point levels. The customer can choose to have one, two or five regular maintenance visits, plus spring start-up, winterization and backflow testing. His pricing is based on the number of irrigation zones, as well.


Installing an irrigation system is both an art and a science, but mostly science. In almost all cases, sprinklers and rotors need adjusting in the process.

Not a big seller ... yet

"We hope these new plans will entice more customers to purchase a maintenance agreement to keep their systems in good working order," he says. "Until now only about 20 percent of our new installs have purchased a maintenance agreement. We want them to protect their investment, even though the warranty on products is excellent. Everything needs regular service if it is going to last," Allison adds.

Although the majority of Rainscapes' business (65 percent) is with homeowners, the company has installed irrigation systems for the University of Tennessee Intramural Fields, Blackberry Farm, Ruby Tuesday's Corporate Offices and many other businesses in Tennessee.

"We are the only irrigation company in eastern Tennessee that has been certified by the Irrigation Association," Allison says. He has also earned the U.S. EPA WaterSense Partner Program certification.

Being good stewards of various water supplies and utilizing the technological advances in design and manufacturing are important parts of sustainability. That includes maintaining their lawns during an extended drought.

When the turfgrass is being stressed by drought, Allison advises clients to allow the grass to grow longer than they normally would and go easy on mowing and the fertilization. He recommends the use of extended-release nutrients.

In addition to writing his own blog, he makes sure his company is represented on all the various social media outlets, including Facebook, where they constantly promote proper irrigation techniques.

"It's more difficult, with the drought and all, to make the case. But it also gives us a bigger platform to reach a wider audience. Social media is where the public is nowadays and so that's where you'll find us, too. We've got to make our case by giving sound advice on conservation and demonstrating our concerns everyday."

Jackie Ingles is a writer, editor and freelance partner with her husband, Mike. She lives and works in Columbus, Ohio, and can be contacted at duckrun22@gmail.com.