Everyday carry

Irrigation contractors address the tools they need in the field and what essential equipment and devices you should never be without.
A technician working in the dirt with the words "EVERYDAY CARRY."
(Photo: Controlled Irrigation and Backflow)

Among outdoor enthusiasts, the term “everyday carry” refers to the valuable and essential items these individuals require on their persons every day. An outdoor enthusiast, for example, may have a compass, a flint and steel, a reliable map, a good wristwatch and a pouch of granola.

Whether out on an installation job, troubleshooting a repair or providing routine maintenance irrigation professionals require their own “everyday carry.” What are these essential tools, and is there a significant loss if they are left behind? We reached out to certified irrigation contractors to learn about the essential everyday carry implements they must have to complete the job quickly, correctly and efficiently.

Flat-screen assistants

In the field, today’s irrigation technician is at a loss without their tablet device. Smaller than a laptop but larger than a cell phone, its portability and touchscreen interface make the tablet a digital job site pocketknife.

“[A tablet] is by far the most important tool we carry out on the job site,” says John Newlin, CIC, CIT, CLIA, owner of Cleveland-based Quality Sprinkling Systems Inc., who’s been equipping his irrigation technicians with tablets for the better part of the last 20 years.

Standard equipment like screwdrivers, wrenches, shovels and wire cutters are all must-haves on the job, but are often replaced. (Photo: Controlled Irrigation and Backflow)

It’s the field service management software installed onto the tablets that makes these digital devices so worthwhile, Newlin says. This specialized business software simplifies scheduling, billing and communication with irrigation service teams and customers. “It’s how we run our business and how we communicate,” he says. “The tablet takes us to the job. It times us in and times us out. It tracks what parts are used and what services need to be billed.”

Equally as important are the manufacturer- and product-specific apps installed on each tablet, which a service technician utilizes to troubleshoot product-specific issues and assist with installations. In addition, customer service portals, which link technicians with manufacturer reps, augment the apps’ convenience, Newlin adds. “This is essential when a technician requires extra help troubleshooting a problem in the field.”

The tablet also provides technicians with another critical advantage: access to YouTube. Most manufacturers and distributors serving the irrigation industry post problem-solving videos to the popular video-sharing platform. Newlin trains his irrigation technicians on how to locate this troubleshooting information on the online video platform to address problems out in the field.

“My service techs are all well-versed on how to use YouTube out in the field,” Newlin says. “I advise them not to call me [with a technical issue] unless they’ve first sought the answer to their question on YouTube.”

Old faithfuls

It’s a foregone conclusion that a wide assortment of screwdrivers, wrenches, multigrip pliers, clamps, shovels and wire cutters are on every irrigation technician’s essential tool list. Coincidentally, these must-haves also rank near the top of the irrigation contractor’s “most-replaced tool” list.

“I don’t know where they go or how they get lost, but I always seem to be replacing screwdrivers and wire cutters,” says Steve Smith, CIC, CIT, owner of Smitty’s Sprinkler Systems, Centennial, Colorado. “My [technicians] will come in mid-season claiming they need new pliers,” he says. “Where are the five pairs I sent you out with at the beginning of the season?”

Honorable mentions

Here are additional tools and accessories irrigation technicians should always carry:

  • caution tape: You dig a hole or a trench, but you’re forced to leave the job site, leaving behind a potentially dangerous situation. Tape off that hazard and alert passersby not to fall in.
  • PVC cement: The primer and glue are vital to connecting plastic pipes, connectors and joints.
  • surgical gloves: Heavy-duty latex or nitrile, these gloves protect hands and fingers while providing touch sensitivity for delicate work. Buy in bulk and grab a variety of sizes.
  • disposable boot covers: These booties are vital when your crew must walk in and out of residential and commercial buildings.
  • remote control receivers: These are vital when servicing older systems. While most remotes are manufacturer-specific, the time they save a technician makes them a worthwhile investment.

There are other must-have tools to aid irrigation technicians, including several handheld devices specific for use with irrigation systems. A multimeter, or volt/ohm meter, is the most basic. This electronic measuring instrument combines several measurement functions, such as the ability to measure voltage, current and resistance, into a compact, handheld unit. Typically, an irrigation technician places a multimeter lead on the common wire and one on the zone wire’s tip to test the line’s resistance. If the reading is above a specific range, the wiring is most likely cut or has a bad connection. If the reading is below this range, a faulty solenoid is a likely culprit.

Underground cable and valve locators can help avoid damage to the surrounding landscape during installation and maintenance. While they can be expensive, they can save time and money. (Photo: Smitty’s Sprinkler Systems)

Other requisite detection tools include quality underground cable and valve locators. A high-frequency pulse allows technicians to trace hidden irrigation wires and connections whose locations have been forgotten and lost over time. Similarly, a valve locator transmits a signal along the wire to locate irrigation valves. Both tools are reasonably accurate at their jobs and, more importantly, avoid costly damage to the surrounding landscape from excessive probing and prodding. “These tend to be expensive [tools],” Newlin says of the electric locators. “But when you need it, you need it. And you’re glad it’s with you.”

Irrigation technicians need a fault finder nearby, as well, says John Castanoli, CIC, owner of Central Lawn Sprinklers Inc., Elk Grove Village, Illinois. This electronic device senses the slightest nick or break in the insulated wire and alerts an irrigation technician to replace or repair it. “You don’t need them all of the time, but they are essential tools,” he adds.

An electric valve actuator is a vital detection tool for finding faulty irrigation valves. “It sends a pulse to the solenoid to activate [the valve] manually,” Smith says. “But it will also tell you if you have an open line or a shorted line. So, it’s a good troubleshooting tool that tells the technician how the valves are operating or if they’re not.”

If you’re servicing two-wire irrigation systems, then a milliamp clamp meter should be within arm’s reach, Castanoli says. This device measures the small pulses created by decoder activity on two-wire irrigation circuits without undoing wire splices. Unlike conventional meters, clamp meters don’t have to be inserted into an electrical circuit to measure current. Instead, they conveniently clamp over a wire.

“A lot of the [irrigation] controllers now have sophisticated testing cycles built into them,” Castanoli says. “But if you’re doing two-wire work, then you need a milliamp clamp meter [to troubleshoot problems].”

Technical innovations to old tools have made them even more valuable to irrigation technicians. For example, with more reliable and longer-lasting rechargeable batteries, cordless power tools have found a lasting home with irrigation contractors. Unencumbered from power and extension cords, reciprocating saws more easily clear tree roots and cut pipes on-site. Likewise, cordless drills are more versatile for hanging irrigation controllers or powering pumps, freeing technicians from having to first hunt for power sources.

Speaking of pumps, both mechanically operated and hand-cranked pumps rank high among the essential must-haves in an irrigation contractor’s equipment inventory. Many factors, from excessive rainfall to servicing locations below surrounding water tables, contribute to flooded trenches and valve boxes that must be drained before servicing. While pumps may not be required on every job, Smith says they are worth their weight in gold to technicians. “There’s nothing worse than bailing out a valve box with a Big Gulp cup from your truck because you don’t have a pump on your truck,” he says.

For many veteran irrigation contractors like Castanoli, a well-stocked truck is the No. 1 tool a technician needs in the field. “I learned early on that going to the [irrigation] supply house to get what you need every day was a huge waste of time,” he says. “It’s important to have the truck stocked.”

This includes an ample supply of repair couplings, reducing bushings, fittings, wire splices, wire nuts for waterproof connections and an array of solenoids that match the major irrigation brands. “A well-stocked truck holds everything you could need to complete that job on time,” says Mark Dzierzbicki, president of Controlled Irrigation and Backflow Inc., Highland, Indiana. “That means you also need procedures to ensure those items used are being restocked in a timely manner.”

It’s essential to show up to the job site with the proper inventory of spray nozzles and sprinkler heads, the correct sizes of pipe and pipe fittings, and the saws and replacement blades to cut them. “The truck really needs everything,” Castanoli says. “There’s nothing worse than going to a call and not having a product, a tool or a part that fixes the problem and gets the client’s system up and running. The [added] cost of leaving and returning to the [job] site is very difficult to recoup … so, it ends up costing you.”

The ultimate tool

A portable tablet, an assortment of electronic sensing devices and a well-stocked service truck are all essential to an irrigation technician’s ability to perform effectively and efficiently. However, most irrigation contractors consider their technicians and laborers their most valuable in-the-field tools. A physical tool or device, they say, is only as functional as the individual operating it. Therefore, technicians and workers must be trained as experts on the equipment they enter the field with and how to install and troubleshoot various brands of irrigation systems properly.

“People are your greatest diagnostic tool,” Smith says.

The Irrigation Association has numerous resources for education and certifications, including national and regional venues for in-person training and online classes. “I’ve never heard anyone say they were too educated or had too much education on a topic,” Newlin says.

In addition to employees being your best performing tools, they’re also your greatest assets in the field, Dzierzbicki says. Not only do they get irrigation systems up and running and troubleshoot problems, but they also represent your company and the professional values you stand for. “From the moment the guy gets out of the truck and meets with the customer, they’re a reflection on you,” he says. “It’s how they look and speak, how they open and close the service call. There are so many things you need to train and teach them, in addition to [the mechanical], that makes them effective as service technicians.”

Even after 22 years, Smith says he’s still learning. “The irrigation industry is constantly evolving, so we need to keep learning and making sure we’re staying up to date on the latest technology.”

Quality vs. Quantity

Anytime technicians are tearing into the ground, tools of all shapes, sizes and uses will take a beating. Likewise, it’s not unusual to accidentally bury a screwdriver or set of wire cutters while refilling a valve-box hole. So, this prompts the question of whether to invest in quality or quantity when it comes to tool replacement.

Nearly overwhelmingly, irrigation contractors say they will spend the extra money on quality tools. “This question of quality vs. quantity has really evolved in this industry for the better,” says Mark Dzierzbicki, president of Controlled Irrigation and Backflow Inc., Highland, Indiana. “You spend $3 when you should have spent $30 on a particular tool and never considered the bad day you’ve created for the technician who’s in the middle of a service call when that cheap tool fails.”

“You always buy the best product you can,” says John Castanoli, CIC, owner of Central Lawn Sprinklers Inc., Elk Grove Village, Illinois. “When a tool fails on you, it’s a real problem, and you don’t want to hear at the end of the day that a broken tool was the reason a job didn’t get finished.”

However, another school of thought says it’s more cost-effective not to overspend on everyday tools constantly getting replaced. “It’s my experience that guys don’t lose the high-dollar items that they love because they really cherish these tools for their usability in the field,” says John Newlin, CIC, CIT, CLIA, owner of Cleveland-based Quality Sprinkling Systems Inc. “We rarely see those bigger, costlier items get broken, lost or stolen. So, it makes more sense to find the best deal on those screwdrivers and pliers you’re constantly replacing.”

Mike Zawacki is a Cleveland-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience covering various aspects of the green industry.

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