Ask the Expert: 5 Tips for Overcoming Commercial Irrigation Challenges

From Dave Shane:

Commercial irrigation contracting has always been a fast-paced world of bidding, deadlines, safety regulations, coordination with other trades, and construction and payment delays. Over the last several decades, commercial projects have changed. They are now more complex. Whether that be larger in scope and components or just more complicated due to the need—these projects now have many more moving parts.

In the past, a typical commercial project could have been a soccer field or office building. Today, projects are soccer complexes, office parks, and university campuses—each with their own specs, needs and challenges. Even the small(er) jobs are more complex. Take for example a small green roof, green wall, or even interior irrigation project. Sounds simple enough but these projects need to have rainwater and runoff recovery systems consisting of tanks, filtration, pumps, various sensors, alternate water sources, and sophisticated controls. Creating an infrastructure that delivers water to the irrigated area can be five to ten times the cost of traditional irrigation zones that deliver water to the plant material. And many times, these irrigated areas are often no larger than a typical back yard.

Commercial irrigation contractors are working harder, facing more complex jobs, and trying to maneuver in an everchanging environment that the pandemic has created and exasperated. So, what does this all mean and what’s the solution?

We’ve identified five of the main challenges that commercial irrigation projects/contractors face and tips to successfully overcome them.

1. Challenge: Product, Equipment, and Vehicle Shortages

It’s no secret that the pandemic has caused challenges with the supply chain. We have heard, seen, and experienced this first hand across our industry and our daily lives. Couple that with an all-time-high demand for services and we really start to feel the strain. These issues with supply chain and product shortages have been ongoing and will continue into the future. This means its more important than ever to plan for the unknown, be prepared to be unprepared, and rely on your strategic partners to help you along the way.

Solution:  Prepare Ahead of Time, Get Creative, & Rely on Your Partners

Manufacturers are facing supply chain interruptions and reacting by concentrating on producing their high demand products. Many times, specified products that are used in commercial work are not the products that are traditionally in high demand.  For example, less common products like 6” spray bodies with pressure regulators are in shorter supply because manufacturers are concentrating their limited resources on standard 4” sprays.

This is where we all must get creative to meet design requirements in other ways. It may be as simple as switching to another manufacturer who has availability if the consultant/decision maker agrees. Or, the solution may be more complex, such as using pressure regulators on the zone valves or redesigning the lateral line layout to better balance dynamic pressure losses.

Specifiers should be asking about availability of products before they specify them, to ensure they are available for the project. This is the new “business as usual” and very well may become an industry norm for years to come.

Working with a partner that understands the industry and the challenges of commercial products is critical. Partners like Central know that commercial projects are often bid many months in advance of construction. Inevitable delays can easily add several more months. Our account managers work closely with the contractors on MTOs or material take offs, and can assist with creative product substitutions where necessary.

Better yet, the Central team has been diligently working with our manufacturing partners to stay at the forefront of any supply-chain or product shortages. This open communication and proactive planning allows us to bypass many of the challenges that other distributors have had with in-stock inventory.

2. Challenge: Unstable and Increasing Pricings Across All Product Categories

A byproduct of this “covid challenge myriad”—supply chain issues, freight increases, raw material shortages/price increases, government regulations, and increased demand of services—has been product price increases. We’ve seen staggering price increases, multiple times from manufacturers across all product categories.

Solution: Leverage Early Order Programs for Discounts and Extended Terms

Rely on your partnerships and leverage their programs. The Central team works tirelessly to negotiate availability and the best possible prices. We are strategic with our purchasing so that we can hold lower prices for longer and offer stocking programs with discounts and extended terms. These programs not only help your bottom line but they can also guarantee you receive product when you need it—before the shortages or delays occur.

This is also a good time to evaluate your pricing structure, plus your contracts and quotes to your customers. Due to the volatility of pricing and shipping costs, we now only hold our quoted prices for fourteen days. This is something to consider for your contracts. Quoted prices from January are no longer good in May—costs may have increased 70%+. Many contractors are evaluating their contracts and now adding price increase pass-throughs into them. It’s also a good time to evaluate your overall pricing structure and make sure you are charging enough for your services.

3. Challenge: A Critical Shortage of Skilled Irrigators and Laborers

Many years ago, I started to notice a downturn in younger people entering the irrigation industry. Even as pay increased to attract more individuals, the expected reaction was just not there. People were turning away from trades and outdoor work and toward white-collar positions and other indoor work. Our industry is paying for that now as the average age of skilled irrigators continues to rise and their numbers continue to shrink. This is true for both installers and service technicians.

I often hear contractors often talk about not bothering to bid some projects simply because of a lack of crews, project managers, and skilled installers. Several have told me they would add another installation crew or some service techs if skilled people were available. Even unskilled laborers are harder to come by. Even more so now than just a few years ago as labor shortages are hitting just about every industry in the U.S.

Solution: Keep the Employees You Have, Always Be Recruiting, and Think Outside the Box

When we look at a shortage of workers the first thing you need to evaluate is your current team. What are you doing to ensure that you keep the people you have so that you do not add to the labor shortage for your company or the industry as whole. You have probably heard of the Great Resignation—nearly two-thirds of employed adults are looking for a new job, that’s nearly double what it was a year ago. If you were to lose ten, twenty, thirty, or sixty percent of your staff, how would that impact your business? It’s critical to keep the staff you currently have by investing in their careers and creating a culture that fosters growth and development.

Next, you should always be recruiting. All. Year. Long. Many companies will only look to hire when they need to fill a position. You should always be recruiting, talking with individuals that may be a fit for your company, or for positions that are hard to fill. Build your talent community. Maybe you do not have a position for them currently but keep a dialogue going with them as you never know when you might need to fill a position.

How are you looking for talent? Are you actively looking and hunting for prospective talent or just waiting for them to apply to a job listing? Do you have an employee referral program? Are you using social media? How is your application process? How long is your process until an offer is made? Is it too long? Too short? Take some time and evaluate your hiring process and how current employees were found. Perhaps you’ll realize that an employee referral program or social media helped you find the right employee.

4. Challenge: More Complex Irrigation Controls

Specifiers are embracing new technology, especially in control systems. Their clients are looking for more water savings, even while creating more elaborate landscapes, and simpler maintenance over the lifespan of the system. Advancements in product technology has increased the required skill level of installers and service techs.

Some commercial designs and specifications are starting to resemble those in the building automation industry. Systems now commonly include several types of sensors, such as water level in a tank or cistern, pressure, soil moisture and flow, control of alternate water sources and automatic filtration backflushing based on pressure differentials. Programming is becoming more conditional – if x and y happen, do z, but only between 1am and 5am on even days.

Integration of irrigation controls into building management systems is also becoming more commonplace. The teams – often subcontractors – who manage the HVAC, power and lights in commercial complexes now want to at least monitor the irrigation system and receive the same alarm notifications the landscape team receives. They often want more control, including the ability to turn irrigation on or off.

Solution: Embrace Technology and Leverage Training Opportunities

Technology is moving at warp speed. As challenging as it is to keep up with the changes, it will be more difficult and detrimental in the long run to ignore it. Technology has the capacity to make things easier. Remotely monitor a job site, change programming from your office, know exactly what head is broken. Technology can save you money, time, and labor. It’s time to embrace it.

If you need to get up to speed on these more complex controllers, lean on your partners. Central has subject matter experts across every category that can help train you and your team on the newest controllers. If you have questions or need help, reach out to your local rep. Finally, take advantage of online training with manufacturers and industry associations such as the Irrigation Association or Irritech. There is a tremendous amount of no or low cost training available.

5. Challenge: Higher Customer Expectations

I often hear stories from contractors of clients expecting more work in less time or on shorter notice—as if they are oblivious to the pandemic conditions we all face. Even more, contractors are asked to manage systems after installation, not just to provide service. Water management is a different skillset and industry from installation and service. Many say they would like to offer water management services but are faced with the same issue of too few skilled individuals.

All these issues cause projects to take longer than expected. Other trades facing similar problems often cause delays for the irrigation contractor. The adage about time being money is so appropriate here—delays in completion cause delays in payment and in moving on to the next project.

Solution: Regular Communication and Setting Expectations

We all know that a high maintenance client can be a challenge to work with but that doesn’t make the day-to-day interaction any easier. My recommendation when dealing with clients with high expectations is to overcommunicate, be prepared and organized, and set their expectations. While these conversations may not always be pleasant, it gives you the opportunity to explain why something cannot be done in the time frame they expect, it allows you to showcase your expertise and solidify why you were hired, and enables to you set the tone for the project.


Commercial contracting has always required hard work, resolve, and risk-taking. In 2021 and beyond, it still does and will—along with a healthy dose of patience and optimism for the future—while constantly navigating around roadblocks and predicting the where, when, and how of the next roadblock. Strong partnerships and open communication with those who work hard for your business are more essential than ever.

About Dave Shane

Dave has more than three decades of experience in the irrigation industry in both distribution and manufacturing roles. He specializing in commercial project solutions with an emphasis on controls to meet complex requirements. He is an excellent resource for any technical questions about irrigation systems and finding the right solutions for efficient irrigation systems.