Trust the plan

Fleming Irrigation built a solid irrigation design for a difficult installation that held together even in the face of equipment breakdowns and labor challenges.
(Photos: Fleming Irrigation)

Sometimes an irrigation professional has to trust in the planning done in design and in the team’s expertise. That’s one of the lessons Travis Libbert, president and general manager of Fleming Irrigation, Palo, Iowa, remembered while tackling the challenges of the property that won his team the 2023. Changing the Landscape award for Irrigation, sponsored by Hunter Industries.

Fleming Irrigation, which covers residential, commercial and sports field irrigation installation and maintenance, services about 2,000 customers with four full-time service technicians and 17 total employees. Those technicians have been with the company between 18-35 years.

“I’m extremely lucky to have their expertise and their knowledge as part of our company,” says Libbert, who has been with the company for about seven years.

While Fleming typically doesn’t service irrigation systems that it hasn’t installed, this lot had been kept in play because the property owner was a family friend of the project manager. “It was a really big property and there really wasn’t anybody in our area equipped to take it on,” says Libbert. At the time, they agreed to check the system, and that turned into servicing it.

Fleming kept the system running on the 5-acre lot for several years before the property owner inquired about what it would take to add onto the current design or improve it. After checking the state of things, Libbert and his team came to the conclusion that it would be more effective to redo the entire system than to try to piece together several small upgrades.

The property ranged over 5 acres with multiple steep slopes. The system’s design had to take into account drift from wind and increased drainage needs.

“He had an open checkbook to do this but wasn’t confident that the work could be done, because he hadn’t been happy with what he had,” says Libbert.

The irrigation system had a 2-inch mainline running all residential-style heads, so part of the conversation revolved around whether athletic-style sprinkler heads would make more sense for a 5-acre lot. “What’s going to be the most cost-effective for him, and what’s the best in terms of design?” says Libbert.

The location is very rural, with plenty of space on top of a hill where there’s steady winds. As Libbert did some pricing and testing, he determined that sticking with residential heads gave this design the ability to be more tightly placed to reduce the effects of drift from wind, plus it was more affordable even with more heads. He was able to design a system without needing to do swing joints and a high number of pipe reductions to keep the cost down.

The challenges didn’t stop there. It wasn’t a standard rectangle lot, with several areas that extended from the main range. The system was fed by a well that had high iron content, so irrigation had to be precise not just for water conservation but also to keep iron from building up on any surface it reached that wasn’t soil.

When Libbert meets with a customer, he asks questions about their wants alongside what he sees as the needs of the property and then develops the design. Then, they talk again about how to make the cost fit for the design without sacrificing its integrity. “The spacing and the structure of the design are never compromised,” he says.

That was true of this case as well, Libbert says. “I wanted to make sure everything we did was the best it could possibly be, knowing that he’d had frustrations prior and he’s starting to have some issues. And also, he’s spending a lot of money. I have to be very confident in the work that we’re going to be doing.”

Having a long history of working in the industry in addition to his Irrigation Association certifications helped him make the best choices for this project, he says.

“I have a CIC and a CID,” he says. “That gave me the confidence I needed to get this design put together, and I have the full and utmost confidence in our team to be able to complete any design or concept I work on.”

Libbert’s design also changed out more standard residential 4-inch sprinkler heads for 6-inch heads, to work around the idea that the lot would typically be mown at a taller height than most lawns. In situations like this, “those heads can get lost pretty quickly in terms of their height. They get thatch buildup year over year.” Using a 6-inch head allows his design to combat that much longer. “I think that was really crucial to the design.”

It also included a smart controller, which is the norm for all of Fleming’s designs, Libbert says. From the company’s early days, the drive was to do everything by the book, but also as forward-thinking as possible.

“We do pressure-regulated check-valve heads and smart controllers on every single system that we possibly can unless the customer just absolutely does not want it,” he says. He explains the benefits of those technologies to clients during the design process and how consistent coverage will improve both water use and results for the irrigated areas. It was especially important for a property of this size to be able to get ahead of troubleshooting.

“On a property this large, if a head gets broken off and you don’t see it right away, it’s not going to be wasting as much water as a nonpressure-regulated head would,” he says.

Because of the size of the property and the number of zones he ended up covering, Libbert used two-wire in his design. That choice also helps ease and reduces the cost of potential future expansion of the system. A rain sensor was a necessary installation on the property, as smart controllers typically use predictive forecasting. While that works in many areas, “here in the Midwest, the forecast can say one thing and it actually does the complete opposite.”

Building the 30+ zones for the design with about 600 sprinkler heads started with finding the microclimates around the property, Libbert says. “That may be a slope or a shade area. It may be a rockier area or a clay area.” Pressure regulation played a large part in making certain each area received the correct amount of water needed to thrive. Watering on a hillside could be better angled to use the water more effectively. The original design had stretched multiple zones to reach some of the more outbound areas, causing overwatering in others to get proper coverage elsewhere. While that might not seem like a high priority in Iowa, Libbert strove to build a system with smart usage.

“We all know how irrigation can be looked on as kind of wasteful,” he says. “If we’re educating our customers on what proper water usage is, we can be good stewards of that water and create healthy landscapes that benefit the environment as well.”

Hitting the ground

The soil on the property was so hard that it caused breakdowns on all three of the company’s plows, requiring quick repairs and at times tough digging work by hand.

With the design in place, the installation challenges started. A moderate drought for the last few years in Iowa left the heavy clay soil much more solid than typical, says Libbert. His team used vibratory plows to dig, as they typically try to avoid trenchers if possible. That hard soil proved to be too much for all three of Libbert’s plows, as each broke down during the process. In the end, he had to commandeer parts from each of them to make one working machine to push forward. At points, the team was digging with pickaxes.

Given the tough work and ongoing heat, labor was also a strain for Libbert. His installation crew has a lot less experience than the service crews, and he needed extra help for this project. “There was kind of a revolving door, and I totally get it because of how hard this job ended up being,” he says. “It pushed us much longer than what we wanted to actually be on-site for. I was planning on being on-site for three weeks.” He estimates that they finished at close to double that time frame.

As time went on, he had to rotate his crew members to other projects to be able to keep other customers happy. At some points, he had only two crew members working on the property to keep it moving.

“I had to do it in a way where those two guys don’t feel like I’ve abandoned them, and they were empowered to be in charge of this,” he says. “At the same time, we didn’t want the homeowner to see a two-man crew there and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you have everybody here working this job?’ It was really just about communication.”

Libbert’s project manager had a strong relationship with the homeowner, who was understanding of the struggle with the soil. The project manager kept in regular communication throughout the project, with updates on progress and notes about the challenges that had developed. Libbert would connect with the homeowner every few days as well to discuss any questions. “I feel like the honesty really helped lubricate that situation,” he says.

Libbert also changed their plan of attack in response to the situation, segmenting the larger install into smaller systems. As they completed an area of the system, they would cap the main line and begin running it. A small benefit of that approach allowed the homeowner to see the property come to life, which was encouraging to see what effective irrigation looked like.

“The homeowner couldn’t have been a better, more understanding person,” Libbert says. “We created a really good work relationship with him and just a relationship in general.”

This project brought an additional challenge for Libbert, as it was one of his first as the president of the company. He had stepped up from the position of project designer in the previous year to take on the role of company owner. That experience helped, as he was confident in how the plan had been put together, even if the practice was facing hurdles. In his first time out as the leader, he felt comfortable communicating with his team and with the homeowner, but one of the real tests was handling the equipment breakdowns and making sure his crew members had the tools they needed to do the job.

“It was a lot of juggling, making sure all of my other teammates felt like they were getting the same support my installation crew was getting,” he says. “I had to make sure all of their needs were met from a management standpoint.”

His project manager was instrumental in bringing it all together to keep everyone’s stress levels lower in a challenging situation, he says. Libbert himself remembered to stay level-headed when his team would bring him issues and deal with each as they came up.

“If you panic, everyone panics,” he says. That strategy sometimes called for one-on-one conversations to make sure everyone was heard and also to make sure his crew members were getting good information on what the route forward would look like.

“I was also really lucky that my four service technicians have so much experience in this industry,” he says. He was able to rely on them to see and address obstacles on the site while he focused on other priorities. The previous owner of the company had even stayed on as a project designer after stepping down, providing another source of experience.

Wrapping the project up was really more like putting the final pieces of a puzzle together, as much of the system had come online in segments over the previous few weeks, he says. “When we finished, we looked back on the areas that we started on and even from just a couple weeks prior, everything’s green. We don’t have any of the bullseyes the customer had previously and the cutlines have healed themselves.”

“I think for the guys it made it worthwhile to see all their hard work go from the challenges they had at the start to see it heal and clean up, then green up,” he says. While he doesn’t have hard numbers, Libbert estimates about a 30% water savings overall for the customer with the new system.

“The client, I don’t think he could be happier. This was no small project for him as well,” he says.

Libbert himself has learned to more easily roll with punches and make the best choices for the project on the fly, he says.

“Trust your intuition to make the right decision, and your training and your knowledge,” he says. “And trust your employees. Empower them to make the right decisions because they’ve been trained properly as well.”

Kyle Brown is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Lighting magazine and can be reached via email.

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