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Win with water

June 6, 2002 -  By

By: Ron Hall

The aging rocker twisted and wailed on the outdoor stage as an exuberant knot of adolescents slid baseball-style in a gummy bog they had created. Ahh, the sweet smell of a rock and rap concert: sweat, mud and spilled beer.

The 3.5 inches of rain released onto the revelers during the weekend rockfest provided only temporary relief to the area’s lingering water shortage. Pulsating, expanding Atlanta metro, with its four million people clustered in a ring of 20 surrounding north Georgia counties, is sucking up the area’s fresh water supply.

The water shortage also has the potential to threaten Atlanta’s reputation as one of the nation’s most attractive and progressively landscaped regions.

The 100-plus communities within the metro area are working (often, it seems, at cross purposes) to make every last drop of water count. It’s a challenge the Green Industry—here as well as elsewhere—can help them face.

Meeting the challenge

Indeed, the lingering water shortages in the Atlanta market have caused landscape companies like The Morrell Group, a division of Omni Facility Services, to focus more intensely on installing, maintaining and managing efficient irrigation systems. They, like increasing numbers of landscape companies across the nation, must deal with landscape watering restrictions that differ from community to community.

But, the way the Morrell Group managers see it, droughts create opportunities as well as challenges for enterprising landscape firms.

Over a recent breakfast in a packed country-style restaurant just north of Atlanta, they shared their thoughts on dealing with ongoing water woes. Meeting LM behind plates of grits and eggs and cups of steaming coffee were:

  • Atlanta regional manager Kirk Talgo, who oversees three operations managers and three field supervisors,
  • Irrigation Director Bert Wood, CLI, responsible for one operations manager and five service crews;
  • Water Management Director Bill Beckley, who supervises three technicians; and
  • Business Development Director Bart Parker.

As the managers’ titles suggest, their company takes a multilayered approach in promoting efficient landscape irrigation.

“Our entire company has to be focused on what’s going on, starting with the designers providing designs with native and drought-tolerant material, our maintenance group that handles just about everything on a site, and all the rest of us,” says Parker. “Otherwise, we’re defeating our purpose as a landscape company.”

As always in landscape maintenance, the employees with the most contact with each property are the crew members who, as part of their duties, monitor the effectiveness of each site’s irrigation.

“We are the ones who are actually managing the irrigation systems on a property,” says Talgo. “We set the clocks and make minor repairs if we can. We also have to keep track of the restrictions from one area to another because they vary depending on the location of the properties.

“A lot of the irrigation systems are 10 to 15 years old and we sometimes have Bert (Wood) and Bill (Beckley) come in and make these systems as efficient as we can make them, either with a redesign or going to other water sources,” says Talgo.

Wood provides the second level of service when a client’s irrigation needs attention. The third level is provided by Beckley, who gets the call when a customer’s irrigation needs exceed the capabilities of other company resources. Often, the customer is having trouble getting enough water for the landscape. Beckley, an expert on computerized systems like the Rain Bird Maxi-Com, often proposes alternative water sources, system modifications or management plans that can save owners of large properties up to $1 million a year in water costs.

“Upgrading an irrigation system is almost always a wise investment considering how much money some of these properties have invested in their landscapes,” explains Beckley. “Some property management companies understand that and some don’t.”

The problem, Beckley believes, is tied to customers’ perceptions of the role of irrigation.

“The irrigation system is hardly ever treated as a crucial piece of a property’s infrastructure or a utility, with some exceptions,” he explains. “Usually, it’s treated as a support system for the landscaping, not as a higher level of engineering.”

Wood agrees that many property managers are unaware of the latest irrigation technology that could greatly benefit their properties as well as save water. For instance, most properties are still watered with systems operated by manual or older electro-mechanical clocks. The tendency is to overwater rather than underwater with systems that rely heavily upon human judgement, he says. “People want to make sure the landscape stays green.”

By contrast, a computerized system with digital controls has the ability to report real-time operations to an irrigation manager. Adjustments can easily be made through a computer monitor or hand-held unit. These sophisticated tools take the guesswork out of irrigation, including optimizing zone irrigation and efficiently watering areas of a landscape that have different moisture needs.

“Basically, it’s like the difference between the AM radio in your ’66 Olds with its two knobs and today’s car audio system with its 20 different preset stations, auto seeking and all the other modern features,” says Beckley.

As impressive as this technology is, people are still in control, Beckley admits. “It takes a person with horticulture, mechanical and computer knowledge to operate it,” he says. Once a property owner or manager makes a commitment to installing such a system, they also have to make a commitment to hiring a knowledgeable person to manage and use it to its full potential.

“If they don’t, it’s like buying a Ferrari and driving it up your driveway to get the mail and then back into your garage,” he says.

Not just technology

Technology is just part of the answer. Taking a more active role in shaping customer water use habits and helping mold water regulations are other parts.

Wood, who also serves as president of the Atlanta Chapter of the Irrigation Association, says that government agencies are quick to implement watering restrictions because they don’t fully comprehend the importance of attractive and healthy landscapes. Healthy, attractive landscapes are a key factor in a marketplace’s economy.

This is particularly true of Atlanta, headquarters of 14 “Fortune 500” companies and dozens of other national companies.

Wood says that a group Green Industry professionals have been meeting at the Ag Extension Office in Griffin, Ga., to stay abreast of water the water issue.

“We chose to become involved and find out for ourselves and have some ability to provide input,” he explained.

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LM Staff

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