Protect your clients’ systems from freezes and scale back watering schedules.

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Some regions of the U.S. experience only occasional freezes during the winter. The frigid conditions may last for only a few hours or through the night. Even so, it’s still important to protect your clients’ systems by making sure even a temporary freeze doesn’t damage expensive components.

Protecting your customers’ turfgrass and ornamentals by reducing watering times and frequency is equally important. Most plants and grasses adapt to cooler temperatures and shorter days by curtailing plant growth or going dormant. So, scaling back watering is necessary to meet plant needs without wasting a precious resource.

“I work in the southern fringe of central California near the ocean, so it almost never freezes here,” says Jess Stryker, landscape architect and owner/author of Irrigation Tutorials. “We consider anything below 60 degrees much too cold. We pull out the parkas and throw a log on the fire.

“However, throughout most of Southern California, like other temperate regions, we can get hard freezes during the early morning hours,” Stryker continues. “Any freeze can cause damage to an irrigation system, so precautions need to be taken.”

Stryker says most customers in temperate areas don’t think it’s necessary to wrap insulation around outdoor hose bibs or water pipes to keep them from freezing. They often don’t feel it’s necessary to remove water from underground pipes because it doesn’t freeze that deep.

Gary Krause, who owns Krause Landscaping and Design in Jacksonville, Oregon, offers irrigation services for clients experiencing different degrees of freezing and wet or dry spells because of elevation. “We can easily get dry spells in the winter,” he says. “I see the impact of climate change with more frequent dry outs and warm spells, so seasonal irrigation adjustments are becoming more and more critical.”

When it cools, reduce watering

Reducing watering in the colder, wetter months provides several paybacks, including lower water bills for the customer, healthier root zones for plants, fewer soft wet spots in the landscape and conditions that help alleviate insect infestation and diseases, says David Shoup with Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California. “Many modern irrigation controllers have a seasonal adjustment feature that allows the irrigation system to be adjusted to a percentage of the summer irrigation schedule with a single setting,” he says. “Turning the system down to 33 percent will adjust a zone run time of 30 minutes to 10 minutes, for example.”

Shoup also advises reducing the number of watering days per week. “With less evapotranspiration (ET) in the cooler months, a percentage adjustment of sprinkler run times alone may lead to undesirably short run times,” he says. Changing the program day schedules to offset this one or two days a week may suffice in cool months, while summer conditions might require more frequent irrigation.

Despite temperate conditions throughout winter, Stryker recommends that the main shut-off valve for any irrigation system still be made “freeze proof” by being placed below the frost line, inside a heated room or wrapped with insulation. “It doesn’t do much good if the shut-off valve freezes and breaks,” he says.

He also recommends draining the water from all gear-driven rotor sprinklers, as well as insulating any above-ground piping, valves and backflow preventers. “The insulation stays in place all year, so contractors need to perform this service only once, but it sets up the client for ongoing pre-season maintenance each year in early spring,” he says.

Krause performs most of his irrigation weatherization services in the fall. Ninety-eight percent of Krause’s irrigation customers are residential, providing 44 percent profit margin versus 5 percent with commercial. “Weatherization services are made prior to holiday lighting, so it is a good way to wedge in extra income for us,” he explains.

Photo: IRRIGATION OTTO

Stress your knowledge and experience

Krause finds that many homeowners don’t program their controllers correctly. “A lot of people are cost-conscious and resist paying for irrigation maintenance until something major goes wrong. We notify our customers if we find any problems that need fixing, but they often decline until it is too late.”

Hunter’s Shoup believes weatherization services may or may not be possible to bill separately, but it’s a great way to maintain customer contact in the off-season. It’s also a good opportunity to make add-on sales and solicit references for new customers. “A seasonal tune-up helps ensure proper system operation when contractors have time to deal with it, instead of during the busy summer months,” he says.

Craig Otto, owner and operator of Irrigation Otto, a full-service irrigation provider based in Minneapolis, and an instructor for Tucson-based Rain Bird, finds weatherization pricing all over the board. “You need to sell your knowledge and capabilities,” he says. “What trained and certified contractors can offer versus their fly-by-night competitors is their service. Convince them (clients) that you will be there for any problems come spring.”

Krause finds that many landscape companies use untrained employees to make adjustments to irrigation systems. “I hired an irrigation specialist from another landscape company who didn’t even know how to calculate precipitation time or rates for various times of the year,” he explains. “I had to provide him with all the formulas that he should have known. He also never learned how to space sprinklers. He told me the owner didn’t want to take the time to train him.”

Otto hasn’t seen much change in weatherization products and techniques over his 25 years in the irrigation business, but finds most new systems have seasonal adjustment features on them. “Smart controllers are becoming more popular and even mandated in some municipalities,” he says.

For the past five years on all new installs, Krause has been using nothing but smart controllers. If new customers won’t agree to smart controllers for their systems, he won’t take them. He sees smart controllers as valuable tools for conserving water.

Krause typically knocks down the watering schedule 50 percent in the fall. He also turns the irrigation system off after the first frost. When spring arrives, he returns to the site to restart the system and adjust the heads.

Shoup recommends the use of program backups now available for many irrigation timers. Program backup saves a controller’s setup – water days, start times and run times. “Making a backup program allows you or your crew to restore the controller easily to the original setup when warmer weather arrives again,” he says.

“Anyone who offers weatherization for irrigation systems can look at this as an upsell, as well as helping water conservation,” Krause says. “Every opportunity that contractors get to repair or weatherize irrigation systems is an opportunity to sell the homeowner on water conservation. It’s every contractor’s moral responsibility to do that. The client will save money and contracts will have an uptick in sales.”