Upgrading an irrigation system to use smart controllers can have a big payoff for clients. Just ask the managers at the Seascape Resort in Santa Cruz, California. In just 12 months, K&D Landscaping in Watsonville, California, cut their client’s water usage by 1 million gallons. That generated nearly 30% cost savings or about $35,000 in water bills in one year, according to Justin White, CEO of K&D Landscaping.
“It’s hard to put an exact number on the dollar savings because of fines the resort was paying, but it was clear the reduction in water usage offset the budget of the entire project,” White says. “It was pretty exciting to provide that report to the ownership team.”
The resort spans 40 acres, watered with a nearly 30-year-old irrigation system operated and maintained by the resort maintenance staff. In 2021, K&D Landscaping secured the resort as a new maintenance client and pitched their newly established water management services.
“The resort’s aesthetic is very important to the ownership group as well as being stewards of the environment through conservation,” White says. “So, the project had to balance those two goals.”
As commercial properties look for cost savings amid inflation and increasing conservation legislation, smart irrigation controllers offer a viable solution. But more than being an option for solving these challenges, smart controllers offer equal benefits to those who install them, according to White.
“Smart controllers have been around for a long time and are maybe a bit intimidating for people to start with,” he says. “But they are probably one of the best tools we have as irrigators to save our clients money and water and also reduce our drive time and labor hours.”
Selling the upgrade
White could see the potential benefits, and the resort management team was on board too, but it took a solid sales process to seal the deal. Resorts, like most commercial properties, are cost-sensitive. White says selling the services started with preparing a financial analysis showing a projected return on investment for the proposed conversion of 16 traditional controllers to Wi-Fi-enabled smart controllers.
“We wanted a controller where we could remotely monitor water usage and the facilities manager could access water usage reports,” he explains.
The next step was conducting a full assessment of the existing irrigation system and plantings. The system had multiple meters, points of connection and controllers across 210 zones. In some zones, only half the valves worked. Other valves only operated manually.
That meant the project would not be a quick controller swap out. Instead, it was a complete irrigation infrastructure upgrade that required installing new wiring, repairing wire splices, changing spray head nozzles and transitioning some zones to low-volume drip irrigation.
“There were some curveballs throughout the project, and we were able to get everything up and running,” White says. “Everything is working great now, but there were some challenges we didn’t expect.”
One of the biggest challenges was making valves functional that hadn’t worked in three or four years. In addition, the system had countless leaks that required repairs and upgrades. White says it took nearly four weeks to unwind what White described as a hodgepodge to get the system functioning properly.
“Once we got everything up and running, we realized that the Wi-Fi connectivity was not great all over the property,” he says. “Some controllers were not receiving the resort’s Wi-Fi signal.”
They chose to use wireless hotspots for the controllers out of the Wi-Fi range. While this client is accustomed to having tourists access their internet service, some commercial properties are concerned about cybersecurity. So, the hotspots can also be an alternative for clients with stricter internet security protocols as it is not linked to the internet connection used for business operations.
Once the system was fully functional, the team discovered that the fixes created the opposite impact they were striving for.
“We quickly realized that some areas were not really getting a lot of water that should have gotten water. So, (with the repairs) we were actually putting more water out as far as the volume of square footage because we fixed things,” White says. “That quickly became a challenge around the promise to save water.”
The team was forced to get technical on programming the controller to ensure they could water a greater square footage area while reducing total water usage. First, White’s team used the newly installed weather system to measure the site’s evapotranspiration rates and determine precisely how much water was necessary. Then, they used the data to make weekly scheduling adjustments on the controller.
“In previous years, the controllers operated on a seasonal basis where they would be turned on in the spring and maybe adjusted once or twice throughout the summer. But basically, they ran for a set rate of time all year,” he says.
The smart controllers were central to decreasing water consumption, but the project included several changes. For example, rotator nozzles replaced traditional spray nozzles. In addition, spray heads with check valves took the place of standard spray heads, and drip irrigation replaced several spray areas. While there are 1,000 to 2,000 heads currently on the property, White says that number will continue to fluctuate as more areas are swapped out with low-volume irrigation.
Additionally, select turf areas and planting beds with high water use plants were removed and transitioned to native plantings. White notes that the management team liked these alterations, given that the resort sits on the ocean coast and fits into the native scene of the area.
“The weekly adjustment, along with the added efficiencies in the system, really made for an overall water savings,” says White. “The landscaping ended up being a lot happier because it had the right amount of water instead of what would have typically been overwatered. As a result, things greened up nicely and plant health improved overall.”
White adds scheduling as an additional noteworthy challenge to consider when working on a property with public access, especially a busy one. Crews had to be invisible around guests and work had to be completed within specific hours to avoid disturbing them.
“It is a very active resort, and we needed to be there and get the work done without being seen,” he says. “We had to work different hours and maybe not as long of days as we like to get the work done.”
Breaking into water management
K&D Landscaping is a $15 million company with about 110 employees all dispatched out of one location. The company has offered irrigation services for years and is a nearly $2.5 million operation staffed by eight employees, and it added water management services in 2020. White emphasizes the importance of establishing the service as a separate division that features a new logo that retained the company brand while differentiating water management through smart irrigation practices.
“One of the biggest benefits is the savings to the contractor,” he says. “Whether you’re the maintenance contractor or the water manager for the property, you save a lot of money in time and fuel by not having to send your technicians out to the property to address the controller, whether it rained or something happened.”
With the proper programming, smart controllers will adjust the watering schedule based on those events. Not only does that save the client a lot of water, but White says the biggest cost savings are in labor.
“With the labor shortage, it’s a huge benefit,” he says. “We’ve actually started offering free upgrades to some of our clients because it’s cheaper for us to put in a smart controller for free than to manage a conventional controller. That’s been really impressive for us to see.”
White also sees the upgrades as a way to retain customers in a competitive market. Providing clients with the newest, latest and greatest technology demonstrates that you are looking out for their best interests.
“It just gives them a good feeling that they’ve got the right partner on board,” he adds. “They’re probably less apt to go out and shop your number, whether for maintenance, irrigation or water management, when you’re providing them with ongoing proactive solutions, versus just waiting for a sprinkler to break so you can go get a billable hour.”
The company sees this as such a strong benefit that they were willing to take a hit on the project’s renovation price. It was an opportunity to demonstrate value through extensive cost savings and conservation solutions to a new maintenance client.
“We didn’t need to make much money on this project. We were more concerned about covering our costs and upgrading the system so it’d be easier for us to manage,” he says. “But if you’re doing a one-time install that you don’t maintain, or you just don’t offer the maintenance services, you want to make sure that you bid these projects carefully. Let the client know upfront it may cost more than expected.”
For example, he suggests adding a buffer to proposed budgets, as much as 20%-30% because without fail, you will encounter unexpected issues that impact the price. He also recommends building the quote around time and materials as well.
“When you go in with a higher-than-expected number and come in under budget and can tell them they have a credit coming back, it is a lot better than trying to convince them you need to get an extra $10,000 or $15,000 to cover the costs,” he says.
White says the combined water reduction and cost savings at Seascape resort solidified his company’s relationship with the new client not just as their water manager but as their maintenance provider as well. For other contractors out there, he says these scenarios, where irrigation systems are managed in-house, are the ideal properties to target with water management initiatives.
“Historically, the maintenance staff has so much on their plate that irrigation programming is quite low on their priority list,” he says. “If you’re able to get in and convince them to take over their water management or to do a smart controller upgrade there is a lot of meat on the bones on those type of properties.”
Since K&D Landscaping’s big push on water management in 2021, only about 10% of their clients have opted in. But White is undeterred and is experimenting with different payment plans and options in 2023 to try and increase that number. His goal is to have 80% of clients utilizing the water management services by 2025.
“I think smart controllers are an underutilized part of our tool belt that we can all use a little more, including my team. We’re going to audit all of our maintenance contractors right now,” White says. “We’re just basically offering free smart controllers for them because it’s going to save us that much money this summer in programming costs.”