Time for a tuneup

Reframe the irrigation audit process to encourage customers to improve efficiency.

An audit isn’t something most people would willingly choose to endure. In fact, an audit, defined as “an official inspection of an individual’s or organization’s accounts, typically by an independent body,” likely invokes a sense of dread or fear.

It makes sense that approaching homeowners or property owners with the suggestion of an irrigation audit might be a daunting proposition. But with the right approach, along with information on how irrigation audits translate to a savings of both dollars and natural resources, the conversation should go much more smoothly.

“Any time you get audited, it isn’t a good thing. But in our line of work, it isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing,” says Salina Sutton-Jensen, CLIA, vice president of Sutton Irrigation Auditing in Las Vegas, Nevada. “An irrigation audit makes sure the irrigation system is efficient and effective enough to save water or provide water as uniformly as possible to limit the waste.”

In many states, including California, irrigation audits are required for new homes, commercial properties and other projects. Juan Alvarez, CLIA, with E1 Landscape in Corona, California, says that initially, not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of an audit.

“There are customers that love it and there are some that are a little frustrated, but at the end of the day, every single person I deal with is happy because I help to point out problems or help reassure them that the work on their site has been done correctly,” Alvarez says.

The main function of an irrigation audit is to make sure a system is working as it was designed. That’s an important distinction, says Miguel Maldonado, owner of Brother’s Irrigation and Lighting in Columbus, Ohio, because a system might be functioning, but not at the level of efficiency with which it was designed.

“If you have some leaking gaskets on a head, the head might be shooting 28 feet instead of the 30 feet it was designed to cover, and you’re missing two feet of coverage,” says Maldonado. “The system might be working, but it isn’t working how it was designed.”

Is an audit right for my client?

While irrigation audits can be especially useful to property managers who must be able to account for expenditures like hefty water bills, they can be even more useful to homeowners who might not keep such close tabs on water usage.

“Audits help homeowners, especially those who don’t maintain their own property and might not know what kind of system their home has,” Sutton-Jensen says. “An audit would tell them if they have mismatched sprinklers with mismatched valves, broken nozzles, leaks, broken pipes or broken meters.”

Each customer needs a different level of audit, from a general visual inspection all the way up to the catch can test. Make sure to use the appropriate option.

There are also times when homeowners seek out audits due to a surge in water usage or a suspicion of an issue within the irrigation system. In those cases, audits can be extremely helpful in identifying exactly where the problem lies.

“I had a customer with a leak and they were blaming the irrigation system,” Alvarez says. “I checked every square inch of the system and told the customer how much water output was being used by the irrigation system, and that helped determine the cause of the problem. It had nothing to do with the landscape contractor. It was actually a plumbing issue.”

Maldonado says every client is different and every job is different, so the way to approach clients with the suggestion of an audit or inspection will be different as well.

“The first step is to find out if they have any questions or concerns and to find out what expectations they have,” Maldonado says. “Then I walk them through the whole process. Sometimes they know something is wrong with the system, but they don’t know exactly what is wrong. When you do the inspection, you have to explain everything.”

A visual inspection

Despite its simplicity, a visual inspection of an irrigation system is a quick way to gain an understanding of the system’s overall efficiency and effectiveness, Sutton-Jensen says. Just by watching a system run, you can make many observations. Are any of the sprinklers spraying over the edge of the sidewalk? For rotating heads, where do they start and where do they stop?

“It doesn’t take an expert to see a sprinkler is crooked or that one is stuck up after it is done running, or to notice that one is really deep in the ground or broken,” she says. “You can even tell by the condition of the plants that you might have an issue. If you look at the condition of the turf grass and see a giant yellow spot in the middle, you have an issue.”

Through a visual inspection, a certified landscape irrigation auditor and other irrigation professionals would also notice dry spots or spots that are overly saturated, Maldonado says.

A complete system review

The most involved irrigation audit would begin with a review of the property and the system, followed by a system tuneup.

“A system tuneup would make sure the system is aligned, make sure heads aren’t overspraying onto the sidewalks, little tuneups like that that we know a lot of homeowners don’t necessarily maintain,” Sutton-Jensen says. “Mismatched sprinklers, broken sprinklers, misaligned sprinklers, heads spraying on an angle — those things all have to be repaired and fixed before a full audit.”

Once issues are fixed, Sutton-Jensen says a full irrigation audit will include taking pressure readings, checking all nozzles, checking sprinkler types and reviewing every station on the controller to make sure it is operating as it should. A full audit will also determine distribution uniformity and precipitation rates, two key factors in determining irrigation schedules.

Native cacti or succulents should be watered at a different rate than an ornamental shrub or tree, but Sutton-Jensen says most homeowners don’t have the knowledge to properly program controllers.

“A lot of the information going into smart controllers is information you get from doing an audit,” Sutton-Jensen says. “Those are only as good as the information put into them. Garbage in, garbage out. You can’t save money or water if it isn’t programmed properly.”

Making the most of a system

As systems age, they are destined to require maintenance and adjustment. Because irrigation audits uncover leaks and inefficiencies in an irrigation system, they often translate directly to dollar savings.

While much of the savings comes from using less water, there is also a savings that results from keeping plant material healthy.

“When controllers are programmed, you aren’t accounting for the maturity of a plant,” Sutton-Jensen says. “A plant is getting bigger but someone isn’t paying attention to adjusting the watering device, and the plant dies, or growth is restricted because it doesn’t have enough water.”

While much of the savings comes from using less water, there is also a savings that results from keeping plant material healthy.

Although there is no set rule on how frequently audits should be performed, Sutton-Jensen says it makes sense to visually inspect irrigation systems with season changes, which correlates with changing the settings on controllers.

In climates where irrigation systems are exposed to brutal cold and sprinkler heads get broken or moved by heavy snow or snowplow trucks, Maldonado says it is especially important to inspect the system when repressurizing it in the spring.

“Every year something breaks in the winter, so it’s important to do inspections if you want to keep the system functioning properly,” Maldonado says.
As an irrigation auditor, Alvarez says that he is an unbiased third party who has no relationship to the contractors on-site, which means he is in the ideal position to point out inefficiencies in design or installation.

That separation gives auditors the ability to see the system for what it looks like at the time, including its flaws, says Sutton-Jensen. Besides, a fresh set of eyes is always helpful on any project.

“We don’t have money invested because we didn’t install or design the system,” she says. “We come in, we do our job, we tell you like it is. At the end of the day, we are there to fix the problem.”

For older systems, an irrigation audit might also result in some recommendations to support water conservation.

“If the system is big enough to put a rain sensor on, that is something we would suggest to help a client save some water,” Maldonado says. “We would also suggest a smart controller to save some water, if a client doesn’t have one.”

A partnership

It makes sense that irrigation auditors and irrigation contractors or designers might be at odds, as auditors are tasked with revealing issues or inefficiencies in a system.

“Some contractors want to do the work, get paid and leave as fast as possible,” Alvarez says. “If you have a good auditor, it is extremely helpful. I am really thorough with the system and I can tell if the contractor did a good job or a bad job.”

“We aren’t out there trying to make everybody look bad. We want to be a valuable resource for them to help them because our bottom line is we want to save water, save our precious resource.”
– Salina Sutton-Jensen, Sutton Irrigation Auditing

However, that knowledge and attention to detail can also prove extremely valuable to those contractors and designers who choose to welcome it.

While it doesn’t account for a large portion of her company’s business, Sutton-Jensen says that as a certified landscape irrigation auditor, she has consulted with landscape architects and irrigation designers to ensure that systems will work as designed.

“We have gone over blueprints before the system was installed, and in the long run, it saves so much money to look at blueprints before paying contractors to install them,” she says. “With a set of plans early enough, we can catch major mistakes before it even gets installed.”

Though she acknowledges that some contractors may look at irrigation auditors as a threat to their credibility, Sutton-Jensen doesn’t view her role in that way.

“We aren’t out there trying to make everybody look bad,” she says. “We want to be a valuable resource for them to help them because our bottom line is we want to save water, save our precious resource.”

Lauren Sable Freiman is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached at laurensable@gmail.com.

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