Lawn care and landscape company highlights the importance of the issue
PHOTO COURTESY OF VALLEYCREST.
Those in the lawn care and landscape industry have long been in the business of “managing” water. In the past, that often meant “managing” to get as much water onto the landscape as possible to create the lush look that customers were looking for. More recently, water management has centered around “managing” to deal with drought or government or utility-imposed restrictions on irrigation.
Really, though, what’s needed is a more proactive approach: actual management of water resources, says Richard Restuccia with ValleyCrest (www.valleycrest.com). By combining basic best management practices and new irrigation technologies, along with the use of native or water-conserving plants, it is possible to provide customers with the attractive lawns and landscapes they desire while reducing water usage, he explains.
Restuccia recently became ValleyCrest’s first “director of water management solutions.” It’s a position that was created just last December, and one that not long ago would have seemed out of place in the green industry. But it’s a sign of the times when one of the country’s leading providers of lawn and landscape services decides to highlight the importance of water management.
Prior to joining ValleyCrest, Restuccia spent a decade working at Rain Bird, and says that his tenure with the irrigation manufacturer was really devoted to sharing information and promoting products aimed at improving water management and water efficiency: Maxicom central controllers, new nozzle designs, drip irrigation systems, etc. After that, Restuccia and a colleague discussed the possibility of starting their own independent water management firm. When they sat down to create a business plan, they looked at various challenges and sources of competition such an enterprise might face. Ironically, getting the water conservation message out to the landscape maintenance industry was identified as one of those key challenges. “We decided that if there was anyone who could make a huge impact on water management, it was the landscape maintenance providers,” he recalls.
Adjusting irrigation systems helps maximize efficiency, conserve water and still maintain appealing garden settings for workers at commercial properties.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF VALLEYCREST, _ JAY GRAHAM, GRAHAM PHOTOGRAPHY, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
That led Restuccia to the realization that, “to really be successful in saving water, and making a big impact, it would have to be [working] with a landscape maintenance provider.” With that in mind, Restuccia joined ValleyCrest as a sales leader in the western U.S., talking a lot about water management with clients. And soon he was tapped to address that issue for the company nationwide.
Restuccia says the move has helped put ValleyCrest on the cutting edge of the landscape profession, and marks an example of the industry itself preaching the importance of water conservation – a message that typically has come from utilities, government agencies and conservation groups. “It wasn’t just last year that we started doing water management,” he stresses. “ValleyCrest has been on top of this issue for years. I think we have been, and are, the leader in water management, we just need to do a better job of telling people that what we’re doing.” (On a related note, in early June, ValleyCrest created a water management blog (http://valleycresttakeson.com/watermanagement/) to highlight some of the ways the company has “taken on” the challenge of conserving water.)
Leading the way in water conservation practices requires Valley Crest to spend resources on personnel, technology and training, but being on the forefront of this issue also offers business advantages. “It is the right thing to do for the environment, and we understand that. We also think it’s the right thing to do for our customers. If we can save water for our customers, that’s great,” he says.
While smaller landscape maintenance firms may not have the personnel or resources to devote an employee to focus only on water management, there are steps that can be taken to help clients save water and money. Those working in the landscape business are, in essence, selling trust, says Restuccia. That trust, along with the fact that lawn maintenance providers are regularly on site and already know the basics of the irrigation system, makes them well-positioned to make necessary fixes and recommend changes.
One of the most common problems with irrigation systems is overwatering, so perhaps the first important addition that can be made to most otherwise well-functioning irrigation systems is the installation of a smart controller, says Restuccia. “Most clocks are set originally for the worst case scenario: the hottest day of the year. As a result, there is overwatering,” he explains. “With smart controllers, the clock is being adjusted daily based on weather conditions, whether it’s satellite feed-in or a directly connected feed-in or soil moisture sensor. As a result, you water much, much, much more efficiently.”
At least in the landscape irrigation business, “SWAT” stands FOR “Smart Water Application Technologies.” While weather-based smart controllers have become accepted and valued components of landscape irrigation system, soil moisture sensors – water content actually in the soil – also hold tremendous promise in conserving water. The Irrigation Association states that, “SWAT began with efforts to test climatologically-based controllers that use weather information to help mediate irrigation usage. In addition to this approach to smart watering, there is a well-established scientific concept that direct measure of soil moisture is also a valid way to support and control irrigation efficiently.” That group is currently working on a testing model to evaluate the performance of various soil moisture sensors on the market. More information regarding this program and specific brands/models that have been tested can be found on the Irrigation Association’s website: www.irrigation.org.
He also points out that using a smart controller in conjunction with a rain sensor will eliminate the possibility of sprinklers coming on while it’s raining. “As I talk with people, I point out that it’s usually hard to get people passionate about water management, but all you have to do is turn on your irrigation while it’s raining and all of a sudden you’ll see people get really passionate about conserving water,” says Restuccia. “Using a smart controller along with a wireless rain sensor will help you save your customers water and money.”
Long gone are the days when golf courses could employ a “night waterman” to roam around turning irrigation heads on and off as needed, as smart controllers serve as an extra set of eyes, and hands, to control the irrigation system without the need for constant human intervention and adjustment. “No contractor can charge enough to go touch a controller every day, and the return on investment just isn’t there [for the property owner]. But, now we have a tool – the smart controller – that adjusts daily, is reasonably priced and, in most cases, you can pencil out a calculation to see how quickly it will pay for itself,” explains Restuccia.
Another step landscape maintenance companies can take to help customers save water is to recommend the removal of plantings that simply require too much water to thrive in a given environment. This is an area where the green industry has already made great strides, says Restuccia. “We’re definitely saving water by picking plants more wisely, and we’re also seeing some nice designs with sustainable landscape plants,” he points out. “In the past, I don’t think that people felt ‘sustainable landscapes’ looked very good, but now, people are discovering very interesting, nice-looking plants to use, based on where they live. And, that’s really helping to move the industry forward.” Landscapers who take the time to research, learn about and recommend to their customers these more attractive, drought-tolerant plantings will have an advantage in the marketplace.
There are reasons beyond environmental concerns to invest now in water-conserving irrigation technology and plantings, says Restuccia. “I think that, in the future, people are going to be allocated a certain amount of water for their property, and if they go over that amount, they’ll have to pay tremendous fees,” he explains. This approach of using water budgets and financial penalties would essentially force changes in plant choice, as well as reductions or changes in the amount and type of turfgrass used, he notes. Landscapers who help their clients modify landscapes now will be in a much better position than if the property owner decides to simply remove turf or landscape plantings altogether in response to rising water bills. Restuccia says he’s even seen landscape maintenance bids from HOA or commercial sites that require an estimate of the amount of gallons of water the landscaper feels will be needed to maintain the grounds – a factor that’s considered when awarding the bid.
For landscapers who need help in identifying ways to conserve water for customers, “Many water agencies around the U.S. will offer customers free water audits. These water agencies are great resources,” emphasizes Restuccia. “If landscape contractors are able to partner with those water agencies for those audits, that will be very beneficial for their customers.” This is a particular opportunity, he notes, for smaller landscape contractors who might not have the time, manpower or experience to conduct such a water audit by themselves, but who can help arrange an outside audit that will benefit their clients. In addition to helping the property owner save money on monthly water bills, there are sometimes rebates offered by water agencies to cover the cost of the equipment needed to improve irrigation performance.
A certified irrigation specialist can analyze which areas of a landscape use the most water and create a customized plan that achieves the highest level of water conservation through improved scheduling and reduced maintenance.
In addition, “Landscape contractors really should, at least on a monthly basis, do a ‘wet check’ of the irrigation system. A lot can happen in a month, and you might see things like rotors that have gotten out of adjustment, spray heads that are clogged and so on,” Restuccia advises. It’s another opportunity for landscape companies to set themselves apart from the competition by doing a little extra work to save their clients money.
The landscape industry as a whole also needs to be proactive in helping to conserve water, or risk the effective elimination of landscaping by way of regulation. “We as an industry have so much to gain by helping people to conserve water,” says Restuccia. “If you look at the numbers, you see that more than 50 percent of the water used in urban environments goes to landscape uses. If we, as an industry, don’t police it and take care of it and innovate, then the regulators are going to have to create laws to do that.”
As a member of the Irrigation Association’s government regulatory affairs committee, Restuccia has heard first-hand from legislators about the opportunity the green industry has to take control of water conservation issue. “What I’ve clearly heard from the offices of all the members of Congress I’ve met with is that they want the industry to drive and lead water management. [The lawmakers] don’t want to do it, and they have no plans to do that because they have faith in the industry,” he states. “This is our chance to take control and lead, and make an impact.”
An extensive water management program may include conversion of conventional irrigation controllers to ET-based technology, which can result in rebates from local water municipalities and significant water savings.
Instead of being nagged about conserving water, or regulated into submission, there is evidence the green industry itself can step forward to lead the way.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.