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The latest irrigation tools to maximize efficiency and save on labor

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The latest generation of irrigation tools has helped make the jobs of irrigators as streamlined as ever. (Photo: Rachel Houldridge)
The latest generation of irrigation tools has helped make the jobs of irrigators as streamlined as ever. (Photo: Rachel Houldridge)

Riley Marvin, president of Alpha Landscapes in Johnston, Iowa, says that it’s his job to make sure his crews are as efficient as possible. To do this, he is always on the lookout for a better way to get the job done.

“We look for anything that can help them out, we give it to the crew and then ask them for their feedback,” Marvin says. “They’ll tell us if they like it or not and if it makes their lives easier or not.”

Mark Pyrah
Mark Pyrah

Mark Pyrah, president of Peak Landscape in Hillsboro, Ore., says being cutting edge and showing employees that he is dedicated to having the most efficient tools to get the job done, helps him retain employees.

“I don’t think it’s the No. 1 selling point for a company — that will always be wages — but it is a selling point,” Pyrah says of his company’s dedication to technology. “We’re presenting ourselves not just as an irrigation company, but a water management company. We’re promoting that we want our techs to be well trained and grow.”

Landscape Management spoke with irrigation professionals around the nation and asked for feedback on what tools they’re using to get the job done as efficiently as possible.

Reaching peak efficiency

Peak Landscape is a landscape management contractor with locations in Seattle, Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore. Pyrah started the company in 2005. Currently, the company primarily services commercial clients but also offers residential landscape management and tree care. In all, the company has 150 employees.

Irrigators can control entire systems from their own devices with smart controller technology. (Photo courtesy of Matt Coombs)
Irrigators can control entire systems from their own devices with smart controller technology. (Photo courtesy of Matt Coombs)

Pyrah says that just a few years ago his company “wasn’t technologically advanced at all.” That changed when he decided it was time to invest in a new tool: SmartLink from Weathermatic. The most immediate change was that the company was no longer using paper to submit estimates, work orders and purchase orders — the stacks of paper needed to do the work suddenly disappeared.

“We decided to shift and go this direction where SmartLink allows us to increase our efficiency, not just at the level of the tech, but all the way through (the process) from inspection to invoice,” Pyrah says. “Everything is digital now. There’s no paper. Everything goes to the customer, it’s seamless. And I think more than anything that creates accountability between us and the customer. This season so far, we’ve done 300 inspections and we’ve had zero questions on any repairs so far.”

Pyrah says 80 to 85 percent of the company’s controllers are now SmartLink controllers. He and his employees can program, turn off and turn on any irrigation head from a desktop or a cell phone, anywhere, anytime.

The idea of having this much control in the palm of his hand, on his phone, was something Pyrah didn’t believe was possible. That changed for him a year ago when he was sitting in the parking lot of an IHOP, looking at an area of his client’s landscape that was dried out.

Peak Landscape increased its revenue by 30 percent, without adding staff. (Photo courtesy of Weathermatic)
Peak Landscape increased its revenue by 30 percent, without adding staff. (Photo courtesy of Weathermatic)

“I physically sat in my truck, pulled the app open, found the controller, found the valve, turned it on from my phone, and it popped up right in front of me and I said, ‘Oh, here’s the problem,’” Pyrah recalls. “I looked at the program, it only had two minutes on it. I changed the program from my phone and sent it to the controller. I never had to go inside the IHOP, never had to do anything like we would’ve had to do before to go find the valve or anything like that.”

That’s just one example. At the most recent SmartCon in Austin, Texas, hosted by Weathermatic, Pyrah gave a presentation that included an example of a property 45 minutes away that has 17 controllers. Previously he would send a tech to the location who would spend half a day adjusting all the controllers. Now, they do it in a matter of 10 to 30 minutes — all remotely.

“This is a matter of business efficiency and labor savings,” Pyrah says. “We did 30 percent more revenue last year, with the same amount of people.”

Cutting down on clutter

Matt Coombs
Matt Coombs

Matt Coombs knows what pressure looks like when it comes to water regulations. In his previous career, he was a golf course superintendent at a top-100 golf course in what he calls “God’s country” — the Monterey Bay area of California.

Coombs made a career switch eight years ago, and now he is the irrigation manager for Dennis’ 7 Dees Landscaping & Garden Center in Portland, Ore. He maintains between 180 to 220 commercial maintenance accounts — his primary job duty — as well as helping with irrigation systems of about 250 residential customers.

One big difference maker in Coombs’ day-to-day productivity came when Dennis’ 7 Dees bought into Aspire Software.

“When I first started, we were still doing paper invoices and paper job sheets and that was a big time-suck,” Coombs says. “We went away from the paper system and we’re currently using Aspire. From my viewpoint, I really like it. I know from the estimating standpoint there can be some challenges in the invoicing, but from a customer relations standpoint and a scheduling standpoint and parts procurement, generating POs, all the production type of things that we do … we got a huge boost. I’m able to generate work tickets in seconds rather than minutes or tens of minutes.”

(Photo courtesy of Weathermatic)
(Photo courtesy of Weathermatic)

Coombs says it was a task to get all his paperwork submitted previously. He says he had “stacks” of paperwork on his desk. That is now a memory.

“(Aspire) really boosted my productivity in the office,” Coombs says. “Whereas before it was a task trying to get all the paperwork submitted and the stacks of papers on my desk … now everything’s kind of virtual.”

Another big change for Coombs and his team came about five years ago when Coombs’ manager met with Weathermatic at a trade show. They converted their entire book of business to the Weathermatic SL series smart controllers, which include a wireless rain sensor and allows them to communicate with their controllers from anywhere.

“If you’re within 1,000 feet and you’ve got a couple of fresh batteries installed in the rain sensor, you’re probably going to get some pretty good weather data,” Coombs says. “(The SmartLink) kicks in automatically and there isn’t a lot of programming aspect to it. You can set it and forget it.

“That’s been really great for our efficiencies for the bottom line,” Coombs continues. “Our customers on the water-saving side are saving gallons by not programming once every couple weeks and just letting it ride regardless of what the weather looks like. These smart controllers are making these daily adjustments based on the weather data. They’ll go up or down if it freezes, they’ll turn off if it rains. You can set all the parameters.”

Coombs adds that there is a learning curve on how to fully understand how the Weathermatic controllers work, but that the company has excellent customer service.

Bridging the generation gap

Collecting data and monitoring stations remotely has become easier than ever. (Photo courtesy of Weathermatic)
Collecting data and monitoring stations remotely has become easier than ever. (Photo courtesy of Weathermatic)

Jorge Villegas has been working for Keesen Landscape Management as the company’s director of irrigation for five years. Keesen has been in business for 50 years and provides landscape maintenance, primarily to homeowner associations and retail properties. Villegas has 30 employees he manages across four branches.

The smart controller from HydroPoint is the tool that has made the biggest impact on his ability to get the job done efficiently, he says.

“As we collect all the data from zones or properties, we input that data into a computer control and then it’s easier for me or for my irrigation managers because we have a mobile device that we can turn stations on,” Villegas says. “We can pretty much keep an eye on the property and manage the property correctly, through that smart controller.”

Villegas says Keesen Landscape is investing in him to stay up-to-date on certifications so he can pass that knowledge on to his crews. Villegas says his staff is split down the middle when it comes to using the latest in technology — half embrace change and want the latest and the greatest, while the other half are “old school” and not as eager to try new tools.

Training his employees is a big part of his role at Keesan. It’s the “old school” employees he worries the most about because for the younger members of the crew, using HydroPoint is almost second nature.

“I’ve got new irrigators here who are in their 20s and 30s, and they know how to use a mobile device,” Villegas says. “I don’t have to train them because they know how to look into things and if they can’t figure that out right away, they go to YouTube and they just jump right in there. There’s so much material on there that when they have an issue, they’re able to figure it out. They don’t have to call me anymore because they know how to do it.”

All eyes on the future

Russ Jundt
Russ Jundt

Russ Jundt, president of Conserva Irrigation, says his company is always striving to find the newest technology to help them get the job done easier. He points to two initiatives at the company: Conserva University and ShopConserva.com, as examples.

Conserva University is an online tech training program. The comprehensive coursework includes 22 modules and 44 courses. Jundt says the program gets a tech fully operational and trained in 30 to 60 days (read more in the June 2022 issue of LM.)

ShopConserva.com is a one-stop shop that enables Conserva franchise owners to shop for all their irrigation products online and have them packed up and shipped to their office in two days or less. This eliminates the need for techs to drive to the distributor. It also allows for better inventory control, as well as helps to identify purchasing trends attached to the truck or driver.

But what Jundt is really excited about is a pilot program underway using augmented reality lenses/glasses in the field. Techs can wear these glasses and the franchise business coaches can see what the techs are seeing.

“They’re super cool and super-efficient,” Jundt says. “They allow for greater learning across our network of 350-plus technicians. The glasses give (coaches) the ability to interface with the tech and give them instructions. We can also record teaching moments — and disseminate those moments across our network.”

More than software

(Photo courtesy of Weathermatic)
(Photo courtesy of Weathermatic)

Alpha Landscapes and owner Riley Marvin are always looking for tools to save labor. Alpha Landscapes specializes in commercial landscape and commercial construction work, servicing central Iowa. The company generated $11 million in revenue last year and has around 50 employees.

Irrigation installation is a relatively new service for the company. Previously Alpha was subcontracting the work, but when Marvin saw he subcontracted over a million dollars in irrigation installation, he decided to bring it in-house.

At a recent trade show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Marvin saw a tool he knew he wanted for his team: the Poly Trolley. The Poly Trolley holds the roll of poly pipe and feeds it to the irrigation crew as they install it, eliminating the need for one employee to “manhandle” the pipe.

“If we didn’t have one of these, we’d have someone standing there unrolling, manually unrolling the roll of poly pipe as a plow bolts it into the ground,” he says. “It eliminates a person’s worth of labor while we’re pulling in pipes. It’s something that makes life easier.”

Photo: Seth Jones

Seth Jones

Seth Jones is is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. A graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Seth was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. He has more than 23 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories.

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