The Florida Freeze


Rare weather offers business opportunities

Cold-damaged Robellini palm and Chinese Fan Palm at a residence hit by a cold snap earlier this year.
Photos courtesy of Judy Benson, Clearwater PSI.
Examples of the damage caused by the cold snap in Florida earlier this year.
Bougainvilleas and seashore paspalum turf.
Bougainvillea and seashore paspalum turf with cold damage.
Variegated Schefflera arboricola.

When Florida experienced a sustained cold snap earlier this year, it sent temperatures dipping into the freeze zone, even in the southern part of the state. Citrus and other agricultural crops were threatened, as were the lush landscapes of many residential and commercial properties. The unexpected weather presented a challenge for turf, landscaping and irrigation specialists, including Judy Benson, owner of Clearwater PSI, a water and turf management company in Longwood, Fla.

Frozen backflow devices presented one of the biggest challenges for her clients.

“There were a huge number of systems that no longer had the backflow prevention working,” says Benson. “In some instances, that made it a very immediate concern, especially those that rely on a single meter, meaning their irrigation water was also tied to the same line with their residential water. We wiped out the manufacturers of their parts, as well as their complete units.”

Many property owners wanted their landscapes renovated or fixed immediately, but Benson says she is a “conscientious contractor” who does not want to put a bandage over the problem only to have the landscape damaged by another freeze in subsequent weeks.

While the freeze has presented many opportunities for contractors to help with landscape renovations, “it’s starting to become a very tight supply and demand market,” Benson says.

She says client service calls as a result of the freeze have created an opportunity to educate them on impending codes and statutes.

“There is an opportunity at this point to speak with property owners to see if they will renovate their irrigation and landscape to meet these new codes and statutes,” says Benson.

“It takes a little more planning and a longer amount of time to speak with property owners to give them good information that they feel comfortable with in order to get them to take hold of the idea,” Benson adds. “Some are readily interested in it, others just want their landscape set back more to what they had earlier.”

Benson says the balance comes in looking at the whole picture. Current statutes, what’s good for the environment and working with property owners to give them the aesthetics they’re interested in achieving.

She also favors using technology to the greatest extent possible in servicing clients. She has an e-mail alert system for those signed up for her company’s newsletters. When an extreme weather event occurs, “We can send out weather alerts to try to get a head start on freezes and exceptional weather patterns,” Benson says.

“We’re utilizing all of our tools to help property owners prevent some damages that are avoidable just by bringing it to their attention,” she says.

Kurt Thompson of K. Thompson and Associates in Pensacola, Fla., provides environmental services consultation and training for contractors, manufacturers, distributors, developers, golf courses and water purveyors.

Cold weather caused damage to this palm tree.

While Thompson’s work takes him nationwide, “When you think about Florida, for the most part, people don’t think about a cold snap happening, so they’re not prepared to take advantage of the situation on the business side.”

Thompson says the cold weather can have an adverse effect on backflow prevention devices and pumps, neither of which are typically winterized in Florida.

“The resulting damage from the type of freeze we had is a great service opportunity for contractors to go out and replace the broken components or the entire device,” says Thompson.

“Taking advantage of these freezes is the way to go to find service work,” Thompson says. “There is a potential for sprinkler heads to be damaged from water that remains inside of them, but it’s not likely in Florida, as it would be in the Carolinas and Georgia where the coldest days are below freezing for two or three days in a row.”

Even in his home base of Pensacola, there was 15 straight days where it got below freezing, but it didn’t stay below freezing for 24 hours.

“That’s where you start to get damage for sprinkler heads, which creates a service opportunity,” he says. “When water freezes, it expands. The backflow prevention devices are made out of cast bronze and they split. Sometimes the internal components break, sometimes the drive of the body breaks. Same thing with the pumps. The centrifugal pump, even though it’s made out of cast iron, can crack when the water expands quite a bit.”

HOA entrances open to cold and wind received extensive damage during the recent cold snap in Florida. Here, Robellini Palms, Gold Mound (Duranta), a Hawaiian Ti plant, Blueberry Flax, native muhly grass and Floratam St. Augustine all show signs of damage.

Another avenue for creating positive bonds with customers is to provide pre-emptive servicing in advance of an anticipated sustained cold weather event, says Thompson.

“You can drain these pipes. You don’t have to get every drop of water out of it, but can leave enough room in there so that whatever little water is left doesn’t freeze when it expands,” he adds.

Ultimately, service providers can “leverage a one-time service call into an annual service contract going forward,” says Thompson. “If somehow you can get the word out that you service devices, you can get service work out of this customer base.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.