Turf Design Build Magazine Magazine - January, 2013

DEPARTMENTS

Irrigation Insider

Start 'Em Up: For little extra cost, adding irrigation startup services can boost revenue for design/build businesses.

Many landscape design/build clients may be currently starting up their irrigation systems on their own. But there's a lot of value - and profit - in offering clients a "startup service" as part of an overall package that ensures everything is operating smoothly. The service comprises more than just turning the system on; it includes a thorough system check, as well as tackling any problems that arise.

TRANSITION THE JOB TO THE EXPERT

"If a client is going to do anything themselves, it's usually the startup," admits Joe Nassar, owner of Nassar Landscaping and Irrigation, Salem, N.H. "What typically happens is for a few years they might get the system up and running on their own with no issues, but eventually something will go wrong when they go to turn it on. That's when we get called in to fix the problem, and we often take over start-ups for that client from then on."

"When homeowners try to do startups themselves they often fall short and see the results later on in the season - or sometimes a ways down the road," adds Bill Ferrara, irrigation manager, SavATree Irrigation Innovation in New York. "Every time we open a system there's at least something that needs to be done - even on a small property. Rotary heads, no matter how high quality, never hold the perfect settings. And even a fraction of a degree can be the difference between spraying the proper area and spraying a fence, driveway or house."

If irrigation companies could get clients to allow them to take over startup services immediately after installation, many of the typical problems that arise can be prevented. "When we do a startup, we go through the whole system very thoroughly so it gives the customer peace of mind," says Brian Mortenson, service and irrigation manager for Superior Landscape & Irrigation in Twin Cities Metro, Minn. "It goes nicely with a midseason check that we also offer where we come back to check everything again. It makes everything worry-free for the client."

When marketing a startup service to customers, explain the value of having a professional take a look at the system at the start of each spring season. Another key selling point is the fact that properties are always changing as plants grow. "The height of shrubs, for instance, are always changing, making it necessary to raise the heads in the shrubs at the start of the season," Mortenson adds. "We always put heads on the edge of a bed, and since beds are constantly growing and getting wider, those heads constantly need to be moved. Heads do leak a bit, and when they leak in the channel of the bed line, that's when moss and mildew can start to form."

A THOROUGH START-UP

Customers need to understand there's more to a startup than just "turning the sprinkler on," Nassar says. Nassar Landscaping & Irrigation's startup service emphasizes an inspection of all issues winter can leave behind. Heavy snow regularly falling on New Hampshire landscapes can wreak havoc on irrigation systems. A start-up also ensures the system is fully functional by examining each zone and adjusting for adequate coverage, diagnosing any repairs, checking for leaks, checking the function of all heads and nozzles, activating the controller (including setting the schedule and testing all valves), and providing information and a quote for any repairs that need to be done. That's actually where the service can become quite profitable.

"Going out to the site and starting up the system isn't terribly profitable by itself, but oftentimes we find broken heads and other repairs that need to be made during the startup, and that can certainly bring in some profits," says Mortenson, adding about half of the company's clients take advantage of startup services.

Even when irrigation systems start smoothly, the service is still providing value to customers, which can boost customer retention. "Whenever we can provide a valuable service to the customer it helps build trust," Mortenson says.

Nassar feels startups not only generate revenue but also help fill a void in the early season when other services haven't quite begun. Still, managing the schedule at this time of year is a priority. "We tend to get everyone wanting their systems started at the same time and that can get strenuous," he points out. "To deal with the sudden increase in work, we really focus on scheduling jobs in a very efficient way so we're not going into a neighborhood more than twice. We also ramp up our crews for startups."

Nassar admits unlike winterizations, which are fairly predictable, startups have a lot of variables. "When we turn on a system there can be valve, wiring or controller issues," Nassar explains. "We offer our customers a time frame of when we'll get to their system, but if we run into a problem at the previous job this can delay things."

This is when customer communication becomes essential. To deal with the backup, Nassar makes sure all his technicians have smartphones. They're required to punch in their start and end times, and the information is synced up back at the office. If a customer calls in for the status of a technician, the office can update them instantly.

For SavATree, the startup service is just the beginning of a season of regular maintenance work. "We recommend a minimum of three maintenance visits along with the initial startup," Ferrara says. "We have some accounts where we go every other week, and there's always some sort of work that needs to be done when we're there. Most of our clients have started to realize we can't just be out on the property once and have the system running at its very best the entire season."