The benefits heavily outweigh the costs and time

It isn’t a question of having the expertise as much as it is advertising your expertise. After all, Sherrie Schulte says, most landscaping professionals who want to get certified in irrigation installation already know a lot about the job, they’re usually not doing it to obtain the knowledge. Schulte, the certification and education director for the Irrigation Association (IA) in Falls Church, Va., notes that to get the Certified Irrigation Contractor award from the association, a person would already have to have three years in the industry.

“I think one of the benefits to becoming certified is getting an edge on your competition,” Schulte says. It tells potential customers that you have put in the time and money to insure you will complete an irrigation project correctly, thus giving your company instant credibility that can be advertised. She notes that the certification is for the individual, not the company.

The interesting thing about an irrigation certification is that although it may come from the IA, which is the single nationally recognized clearinghouse of irrigation certifications and information, there are many types of certification available from many organizations. It has become quite common, for example, for metropolitan or regional water districts to certify companies as competent irrigation installers or auditors, and various landscape contractors associations also have irrigation certifications or recognize other associations’ certifications. Universities are another source of irrigation competency validation, as is the Environmental Protection Agency. Irrigation supply companies may have their own certificate for installers, as well as promote the acquisition of IA or other certification.

As can be seen by going to the IA’s Web site, www.irrigation.org, and looking at their programs, it offers several irrigation certifications both in the landscaping and agricultural fields. Sticking to landscaping, one can become certified as a contractor, auditor, golf auditor, landscape water manager or designer. In the designer category, one can also be more specific. There’s certification available for designers in golf, commercial and residential irrigation.

Schulte notes that you do not have to be an IA member to get one of these certifications, though it does lower the costs by nearly half. She says that the upfront application and registration for nonmembers is $475, with an additional cost of $55 for the irrigation manual, as well as $95 for the turf irrigation manual. Classes on the above topics normally cost $280, but there can be added fees if associated with a conference, for example. The hours required for study and testing can vary widely. “That’s going to depend on the person and how long they have been in the industry,” Schulte says.

Still, the process of becoming a certified irrigation contractor can be a valuable learning tool, Schulte says. The training includes subjects such as irrigation design, scheduling, installation and maintenance, federal laws and codes, as well as some business knowledge. The information is specific, and has been formulated and vetted with the help of industry veterans so it is pertinent to what a landscape contractor needs to know. IA certification information is now commonly written into the irrigation codes and regulations of municipalities around the country, so certification gives contractors instant knowledge of what a city might require.

Acquiring irrigation certification can improve technical expertise, but the main reason is to differentiate yourself from the competition.
Photo Courtesy of the Irrigation Association.

Schulte says that in the area of commercial irrigation projects nowadays, having an IA certification may be necessary, or at least beneficial, in bidding for work. In addition, some landscapers also get more than one certification, especially if they are installing and maintaining irrigation systems. The audit certification, in particular, is often handy to have in this age of water shortages and conservation.

Irrigation designer certifications are handy for design-build firms, but they require more effort. Schulte says three tests must be passed before a landscaper can become a certified irrigation designer, and the study material includes subjects such as hydraulics, pumps and soil/water relationships. To be further certified in either golf, commercial or residential design, one must go into topics such as sprinkler head layout, electrical wiring and valve sizing.

Some of the IA’s certifications are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency’s new WaterSense program. This is developing into a national efficiency program like the agency’s successful Energy Star certification system for appliances, but it also offers “partnerships” to landscape irrigation professionals who qualify. Qualification comes through prior certification by the IA or a number of other certification organizations (see the list at www.epa.gov/watersense). The agency advocates using certification as a promotion for a company, with the benefit of being able to use the WaterSense logo and other EPA promotional materials. The ultimate goal is to improve irrigation efficiency nationwide.

Another source of irrigation certification is through the various landscape contractor associations around the country. Possibly the most prominent is the Water Management Certification Program offered by the California Landscape Contractors Association. Started in 2007, it focuses on increasing landscape water efficiency through auditing and the use of advanced technology. To be certified, a landscaper must pass a written test, and must also successfully manage a single property for one year on an established water budget. There is also an Expert Water Manager certification, which has additional requirements.

In an age where new technology is very important, having irrigation certification can be important to a company’s clients.
Photo by Don Dale.

Metropolitan or regional water districts have become very conscious of water conservation, with proper landscape irrigation design and installation being a big part of that effort. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which covers water-scarce Las Vegas, has a Water Smart Contractor Program that does not provide training, but asks landscape contractors to sign an agreement to adhere to specifications for sprinkler and drip irrigation installations, as well as follow conservation maintenance requirements. In return, Water Smart contractors are listed on the agency’s Web site and are allowed to use its promotional materials and logo. Another incentive program by the Central Utah Water Conservancy District will give rebates to contractors and auditors for the cost of obtaining IA certification.

A number of universities have irrigation training programs that provide either class credit or foundations that can be used as preparation for other certifications. Texas A&M University, through its School of Irrigation, holds a number of classes as wide-ranging as Irrigation Controllers and Irrigation CAD Design. Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., offers classes such as Landscape Water Management through its Irrigation Training and Research Center, and the Louisiana State University offers irrigation certification through its AgCenter. Often, universities work with Natural Resource Conservation Districts to provide irrigation training. And, any university with a good turfgrass management program offers training in irrigation efficiency as part of its degree program.

One private irrigation company certification program is the Rain Bird Certified Irrigation Professional program. Set up by the Rain Bird Service Corporation, it requires participants to have three years of industry experience and 1,200 hours of installation experience as a background. Participants must take a prequalification test and a weeklong, hands-on training workshop.

For those who need encouragement to become certified, John Newlin is good at providing it. The owner of Quality Sprinkling Systems Services in North Ridgeville, Ohio, he has been an IA Certified Irrigation Contractor for many years. “The biggest reason I got certified was to differentiate myself from the competition,” he says. In addition to the advertising value, he did learn through the IA classes that he needed to know more about certain aspects of the irrigation industry, and he took extra classes specifically to gain that knowledge. It not only helped him in his business, it enabled him to pass the certification test on the first try and encouraged him to become a certified auditor as well.

The confidence and the certifications also encouraged him to take his business in “a lot of different directions,” including to branch out into the lawn health care industry and also get into low-voltage landscape lighting. The knowledge he gained also gave him a leg up on the competition in the sales and installation of irrigation controllers, a complicated segment that involves new technology. Customers want competent installers, and Newlin’s certifications give him credibility.

The bottom line, Newlin says, is that although price point is a major factor in the installation phase of a project, quality work and credibility are more important on the service side. That’s where accreditation comes in handy. He’s also signed on as an EPA WaterSense partner, explaining that there are still so few WaterSense partners in Ohio that he really stands out.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.