By Luke Frank
Several new words have entered the public’s landscape lexicon during the past decade or so: water-conserving; sustainable; natural; green; native; local; xeric; and drought-tolerant. Even words like “efficient” and “certified” have taken on new meaning in water regulations and discussions at federal and state agency meetings, property development boardrooms and city council chambers.
These terms are often used interchangeably to advance a more resource-accommodating approach to urban landscaping — the key word being “resource.” Aquifers and reservoirs are receding, and municipal treatment and delivery systems are stressed by both chronology and demand.
Some call it progress, others call it alarmist. Whatever the case, it brings more attention and accountability to the process of water-resource development and irrigation delivery. Consequently, more understanding, increased precision and higher qualifications are required to work with commercial and/or master-planned irrigation.
What other impacts has this increased attention and accountability on water resources had on landscape and irrigation professionals? Is the procurement process for irrigation business changing? Who has the ear of the client, and have client interests and priorities evolved? Are emerging irrigation products and designs requiring greater expertise and creating an even more specialized market?
The speed of evolution
Change can feel like running through molasses. No matter how diligently you prepare; regardless of how hard you push; you can’t increase your top speed. Nevertheless, looking over our shoulders at the past decade or two, changes in the irrigation business are actually almost dramatic.
“Over the recent years, we’ve really seen a lot of attention in Florida focused on fundamental irrigation,” said Aaron Smith, an ASIC Professional Irrigation Consultant with Masuen Consulting in Oakland Park, Fla. “We have water management districts, water restrictions, plant restrictions, equipment requirements and more. Local codes now specify minimum installation and performance standards, and systems have to operate within very specific operational windows, oftentimes with poor quality water.”
Smith, who has earned every Irrigation Association certification available, sees the contractor’s role diminishing at the irrigation planning and design level. “As system consultants and designers, we’re seeing more of the client than we used to — sometimes at the project development stage, sometimes at the design stage, and frequently at the installation stage,” said Smith. “They’re becoming more interested in the resource and system performance, and the general contractor, civil engineer or landscape architect wants us to detail for the client specific design and management solutions.”
Parry Webb, commercial sales manager for Rain Bird, sees the role of irrigation for large projects increasing in importance, but more slowly than he’d like. “It’s still the general contractor who knows the owner, submits the bid and gets the contract,” said Webb. “The general then contracts with a landscape contractor who may or may not sub the irrigation out to an irrigation contractor.
“Or, a civil engineering firm works directly for the owner or the owner’s representative and subs out the design to a landscape architect, who may or may not sub the irrigation design out to an irrigation consultant or designer. Sometimes, especially in the eastern U.S., the landscape architect will design the landscape and submit the irrigation design as design/build, which will be designed by the landscape contractor,” Webb added. “But, in some areas, you have to demonstrate water savings before you can submit construction documents.”
Such designs involve more expertise with central control and Smart technology, which also can be more expensive.
How much will it cost me?
Are the aforementioned social and environmental forces enough to fund what an irrigation consultant would consider to be a “compromise-free” design based precisely on what the site required to maximize management and control? Yes and no.
“It’s pretty evident there’s more of a ‘green’ movement,” said Smith. “But the costs are a concern, especially in today’s economic environment. More clients are interested in developing a LEED Platinum Project, for example. But when they learn what it will cost, they put the brakes on. ‘Let’s go Bronze,’ they say.”
Webb agrees, in part. “Price is still king — especially in this economy,” he said. “Cost is the number one concern — water use can be a close second, but cost is first. And, unfortunately, landscaping and irrigation always suffer when looking for places to save money. It’s not all bad — a weather station might be downgraded to a rain sensor to improve control. So, there’s better control of the resource, and increased awareness of the technologies.”
Numerous statewide and local codes and regulations also are adding de facto costs with ET and other system control mandates, rainwater harvesting requirements, metering and reporting functions, and the like. These expenses seem more palatable to the client, who wants a qualified system designer to maximize the product.
What am I going to get?
The industry’s response has been to supply this demand. “Central control technology used to be very sophisticated and expensive — you bought all of the features,” said Webb. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen the price go down and many of the features modularized. Systems are more customized, and the client isn’t paying for unnecessary or impractical features.”
Smith points to advances in irrigation software, GPS, ground-penetrating radar and how the industry is accessing information. “Clients are getting more accurate designs, better management and more detailed information about their site and system than ever before,” he said. “We can run reliable sprinkler specifications for spacing and performance in seconds, see pump curves nearly instantly, go to Google Earth and scout the site for general characteristics, use GPS to verify precisely located mains and pumps, and then go back to GPS for as-builts.”
Perhaps a new appreciation for the exacting science behind irrigation design and management is emerging. Is there a new irrigation professional evolving in the wings? Webb believes that there’s more irrigation training going on in landscape architects’ offices.
“It’s not necessarily that landscape architects enjoy the technical aspects, but water resource development and management is becoming more important and valued,” said Webb. “It might be the new college grad with a landscape architecture degree who becomes the in-house irrigation person. Some like it, and some hate it, but it does raise the baseline level of understanding about how irrigation delivers water to plants.”
Smith, who is constantly educating the public and his clients about irrigation basics, also is trying to cultivate a more sophisticated irrigation professional. “At Masuen Consulting we have staff who design irrigation, but aren’t irrigation consultants . . . yet,” he said. “We introduce new employees to our philosophy and then get them started on a specific design element, like sprinkler head selection or placement. Once they prove proficient with that element, we move them to the next. It takes some longer than others, and identifies those who aren’t serious or capable.”
While the irrigation professionals do their weeding, “standards” organizations like the EPA and USDA, as well as influential groups like AWWA the USGBC, are requiring a new, more qualified irrigation and water resource professional. Those with solid irrigation roots can look forward to a seat at the table.
Luke Frank is a writer, editor and publisher in the green industry, addressing water resource development, management and conservation through the irrigation profession. His field experience includes nearly two decades as an irrigation foreman, contractor and manager in the landscape, turf, golf and nursery industries. He currently resides in Albuquerque, N.M., and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.