John Taylor stresses conservation and ROI in earning EPA WaterSense recognition.
“Irrigation is understanding the triangle relationship between the water, the soil and the plant,” says John Taylor, owner of Taylor Irrigation Service in Houston, Texas. “The bulk of irrigation is made up of code, evapotranspiration and hydraulics, the kind of things that are not common knowledge. Irrigation is a scientific and mathematical equation.”
Taylor, 43, is a licensed Texas irrigation designer and contractor, a certified water auditor for Texas A & M, an EPA Water Sense auditor and a state of Texas and city of Houston backflow inspector.
Last year, Taylor won the U.S. EPA’s WaterSense Partner of the Year Award for changing his company’s business model by designing and installing irrigation systems that conserve as much as 50 percent less water than traditionally installed systems. He used EPA WaterSense-compliant design techniques and products such as ET-based controllers that feature the EPA WaterSense logo.
Taylor, a decorated non-commissioned United States Marine Corps officer, attended Craven Community College in New Bern, North Carolina, after his military service, where he majored in fine arts and minored in literature. It was during that time that he worked to make ends meet for a contractor who refurbished clay (Har-Tru) tennis courts at tennis clubs and country clubs in the area. He learned to repair and renovate irrigations systems working at those facilities.
Taylor Irrigation Service
President: John Taylor
Headquarters: Houston, Texas
Markets: 30-mile radius around Houston
Services: Irrigation design, installation, repair, maintenance, backflow and audit
Employees: 16 peak season
“I fell in love with the different daily challenges in irrigation,” says Taylor. “It’s so fast-paced. When you’re overseeing an entire company, you’ve got techs and installation crews in the field where problems pop up on a daily basis that your techs have never seen before.
“I have to take care of customers, smooth things over and put out fires.There are constant fires, especially with repairs, as it’s all underground, and so I have to play detective.”
Taylor has worked in landscape irrigation throughout the U.S. Northeast and in Florida, gaining experience, helping streamline operations and getting to know vendors, general contractors, laborers, managers and governing bodies in the process.
“I quickly learned that there aren’t a lot of guys in this industry who understand what’s going on in the field, the installation aspect, the repair aspect and also the design and business side,” says Taylor.
In 2007, Taylor founded Taylor Irrigation Service in Jacksonville, Florida. He relocated to Houston in 2010, taking everything but his customer list with him. He sold his customer list to another local company.
He made the move in part because of the Texas drought. Houston is the fourth-most populous city in the United States. Water demand, including year-round irrigation, wasn’t keeping up with supply. “This is the perfect place to focus on water conservation,” says Taylor.
“We offer what we consider a high-end ‘smart’ system,” Taylor says. The system involves an ET-based controller, drip irrigation in beds and rotary nozzles for turf areas that use up to 60 percent less water by creating much heavier drops that reduce misting, making irrigation water less likely to be blown away from its intended target by the wind and, thus, more efficient,” Taylor says.
“The soil has a chance to take it in before it runs off, which is a major issue with Texas’ clay soils,” he adds.
At properties lacking ET-based controllers, soil sensors or cycle-and-soak features on the controller, it’s common to see the property watered for an hour a day with spray heads, he says.
“They’re putting about 1.6 inches of water on their turf every day and more than 10 inches in a week,” Taylor says. “St. Augustine, the predominant grass planted in the Houston market, requires 1 inch per week in the hottest portion of the summer. They’re overwatering by about 10 times.”
Taylor is not wedded to any particular manufacturer when it comes to product choices. Instead, he picks and chooses products that perform best for each particular property.
“We’ve used many products and there are a lot of universities testing these products and publishing the reports. We stay on top of that,” says Taylor. “We’re committed to what’s most water efficient and creates the healthiest landscape environment while reducing water consumption and water waste as much as possible.”
Taylor’s systems also use deep-root watering stakes rather than bubblers on trees because the bubblers waste water, Taylor says.
The system is designed to keep water moving under 5 feet per second to reduce misting. Pressure regulators and check valves are used in the bottom of the heads to ensure the system is operating at optimum pressure and losing as little water as possible.
The smart system includes one-year maintenance “so we can find what we didn’t consider when we designed the system,” says Taylor. “A landscaper may change something. We want to see our system work over the course of each season and make adjustments as needed so that when we step off the property one year later, the client has a system fully capable of taking care of itself and using as little water as possible.”
Dedicated irrigation companies are a “rare breed”, Taylor says, adding that most irrigation services are part of an umbrella of services for larger landscape companies.
He contends that doesn’t necessarily provide value to the client, adding that most landscape companies typically open an irrigation division because they don’t like to subcontract the services, preferring to control the schedule.
“That’s not providing value to the client, that’s providing value to the company,” he says. “Those companies think that setting the schedule is worth whatever losses they take on the irrigation side of the house because their maintenance division is very strong.”
He emphasizes the importance of “experienced, knowledgeable” irrigators by pointing out that depending on the particular study, between 45 and 70 percent of all of the water consumed in the country is irrigation-related. A Texas A & M study concluded that the average Texas landscape was over-watered by 200 to 300 percent.
Another challenge is there is nowhere in the country where someone can get an irrigation degree, “which is strange with water being the biggest battle of the future in this country and irrigation playing such a prominent role in that,” says Taylor.
The only institution he knows that offers such a degree is Walla Walla Community College in the state of Washington, which offers an Associate in Applied Arts and Sciences degree in irrigation technology.
“We’ve got to get that turned around so we start producing irrigators who are intelligent, college-educated and can solve these problems in the future,” Taylor says.
Additionally, licensing for irrigators is spotty throughout the country, says Taylor, who is licensed in several states.
“Texas is the toughest license I’ve come across,” he says. “The Texas state exam takes a whole day and it’s hundreds of questions. You have to do a design. There are hydraulics and code. But in Louisiana, where I’m also licensed, the state test was 20 questions and the hydraulic questions were a bit cartoonish.”
Some states have no licensing requirement. “It’s different from state to state, which is strange because the fact that water is a precious resource is not different from state to state,” Taylor says. “Wasted water through irrigation systems is not different from state to state.” The Irrigation Association is trying to create national standards, he adds.
Taylor Irrigation employs nine to 16 people, depending on the season. Taylor prefers to hire someone with experience. A college education helps, he adds.
“I want thinkers, problem-solvers. If given the choice between someone who has a lot of irrigation experience and someone with outstanding communication skills and is open to learning, I’m more inclined to train someone from scratch,” he says.
More organic, less water
Taylor says organic approaches yield positive water conservation results.
“One thing a lot of people don’t understand about irrigation is that there is salt and chlorine in city water which makes it safe for all of us to drink,” Taylor says. “But salt and chlorine combine to kill the microbes in the soil. When there are no microbes, there’s nothing to feed the creepy crawlies and when there are no creepy crawlies, there’s no free aeration. When there’s no free aeration, you’ve got anaerobic soil conditions that make it tough to keep anything alive.”
Over-watering intensifies those conditions, Taylor adds.
“There needs to be a change on that property immediately, but the roots for all plants grow based on how they’re being watered. If you change something too quickly, you can start to destroy everything on the site. Just because you’re watering properly doesn’t mean the landscape is going to immediately respond.”
With an organic approach of humus and compost, “we’re seeing longer root depths and healthier turf and that definitely changes how we have to approach watering turf and plants,” says Taylor.
Healthier landscapes help irrigators do their job, he says.
“The average Houston home has root depths of between 1.5 and 2.5 inches on their St. Augustine turf,” says Taylor.
If a plant’s root depth is 1.5 to 2.5 inches and it’s 106 degrees with the heat index, someone is likely watering it two to three times per week in contrast to a root depth of 10 to 15 inches that’s being water once a week or every other week, Taylor says.
“Those St. Augustine roots can get as deep as 18 inches if they’re cared for properly. As landscape companies make that change, the business of going organic is not just healthier for the environment and for the landscape, but long term, it reduces water consumption quite a bit,” he says.
“As much as water consumption falls on the heads of irrigators, it could be said that builders and landscapers play a more crucial role in how much water is being consumed because they have a direct connection to how much water needs to be used,” he says, adding that some builders use inexpensive irrigation systems that waste water.
On the other hand, Taylor Irrigation can provide a water-saving irrigation system to a high-end landscaper only to have a client renovate the entire property from 50 plants in the front bed to three beds holding a few hundred plants, causing an increase in water consumption.
“When we design a system, we’re not just spewing water around the property,” says Taylor. “We are figuring out how much water these plants need to consume to stay healthy and we’re giving that amount. The more plants, the more water needed.
“The design is crucial in understanding what plants belong on your property depending on where you live, what the climate is like, and what the weather patterns are like in your local area.”
Microenvironments are important, Taylor adds. “There are a lot of water-needy plants out there and a lot of plants that do very well without water,” he says. “The choice between the two shouldn’t be a choice about what looks better, what should factor into that choice as much as anything else should be the water associated with that.”
Water source is a key factor in irrigation. Taylor envisions a time when irrigation, at least in some regions of the country, will have to rely more on reclaimed water or rainwater harvesting to justify the upfront costs of such systems.
“The states and water purveyors need to implement programs to help push that along,” Taylor says.
Taylor says in the lectures he gives nationwide that while water sustainability is important, so, too, is what he calls “irrigation sustainability.”
“It’s only a matter of time before the government steps in and institutes changes,” says Taylor, which could put some companies out of business or change revenue streams. “If you don’t understand that relationship between soil, water and plant, you’re not going to make it,” he adds.
Taylor believes the term irrigator needs to be replaced by the term water manager.
“To create water managers, we’ve got to have educated irrigators who understand that triangle (i.e., water, soil, plant),” he says. “The irrigation industry is going to change dramatically over the coming years. There will be a golden opportunity for companies that can change with that, but there might not be a place for those who want to hold on to an old definition of irrigation and what constitutes a beautiful yard.”
Client education is his biggest challenge, Taylor says, which he hopes to change by emphasizing the problems caused by over watering. He is ramping up his use of social media, including Twitter, to communicate to educate and empower clients to reduce water and get their lawns looking better.
“Fifteen years ago as we tried to implement smart technology, I found that we did it wrong,” he says. The message didn’t resonate with clients who still chose price over value when it came to their irrigation systems. Taylor is now all about selling on value and the return on investment rather than price. “The system can cost 35 percent more upfront, but you’re going to make that back in one and a half years and everything past that goes into your bank account courtesy of Taylor Irrigation,” he says of his approach.
“Everybody wins: The state wins by reducing water waste, the water purveyors win with less wear and tear on their infrastructure and fewer worries about water supplies, the property owner wins by reducing water consumption and bills, and the irrigator wins by doing the job and being the hero.”
Programs such as EPA’s WaterSense wins by helping to promote information and facilitate conservation, he adds. “Water conservation is a win on all sides,” Taylor says. “We’ve got to make it a focus of what we do day in and day out.”