Choosing a Contractor
Adapted from materials created by the Carolinas Irrigation Association
Whether you are searching for a professional irrigation contractor to install a system or to service an existing system, any professional you consider should have certain qualifications to do your work. The bottom line is that you are not just buying an irrigation system, but you are also buying the services of a contractor. Your job is to find the professional to do the work that will satisfy you. Use this guide along with questions on the IA Irrigation Consumer Bill of Rights.
Reputable irrigation professionals will carry appropriate insurance policies to protect you and your property. The insurance policies are critical to your future. You could lose your home or business if something happens and your contractor isn’t insured. Expect these minimums from a professional irrigation contractor:
- A worker’s compensation insurance policy. This protects you from potential liability if one of the contractor’s workers is hurt on your property while on the job. Ask for a certificate of insurance before you sign a contract. This simple step will put you on the insurance company’s notification list in case the contractor’s insurance should be cancelled.
- A general liability insurance policy. As a general rule, liability policies should have limits of between $300,000 and $500,000 for residential work and at least $1 million for commercial work. This insurance helps protect you in case of unforeseen disasters such as flooding, landslides or other calamities caused by the contractor’s work. Again, ask for a certificate of insurance.
- Automobile insurance. This provides another element of liability protection in case one of the contractor’s vehicles is involved in an accident on your property. You may want to ask for a certificate of insurance.
Certification, Training, Memberships and Licensing
A contractor should readily provide information about professional certifications, training and required licensing. Licensed and certified professionals are likely to proudly display evidence of their professional activities. If not, you should ask.
- Certification through a reputable institution shows a contractor has demonstrated basic knowledge and skills required to do a job. Contractors with IA certification have taken training and/or passed exams that demonstrate in-depth knowledge of their field. Annual renewal and continuing education is required to maintain IA certification.
- Evidence of training. Contractors should provide evidence of valid training. Even without certification, you are looking for evidence that a contractor can do quality work. Training is offered through professional organizations, like the IA, through equipment manufacturers and colleges or trade schools. IA classes are widely recognized in the industry and are not brand-specific.
- Employee certifications and continuing education. The contractor should offer evidence that individuals in the contractor’s employment have been properly trained in installation and maintenance. Look for certification appropriate to the work you will have done. The contractor should be able to assure you the work will be done by competent, trained individuals.
- Safety training and employee education programs. What programs does the contractor have to ensure a safe workplace and to train employees so they can improve their capabilities? Professional contractors will have programs like this to foster pride and company loyalty. Ask your contractor what the firm does to encourage employee education and safety.
- Business license. A contractor must at minimum have a basic business license to work in any jurisdiction.
- Other licenses. Some states and/or local governments require licensing for irrigation contractors, but many do not. Additional licenses may be required for irrigation contractors to do basic plumbing and electrical work required for the job. Check with your local government for contractor requirements and a list of contractors licensed to work in your community.
Note: Licensing and certification are different. Some jurisdictions require licensing, but licensing doesn’t always involve training or certification. In some cases licenses are issued to contractors who simply pay a fee to the local government. In other areas, training and/or certification are required for licensing. Check with your local government. And ask your contractor specifically whether licenses held required passage of certification exams or training.
- Association and trade organization membership. Belonging to a professional organization implies a commitment to furthering the industry and keeping up with technological changes and standards for irrigation.
References and Portfolios
All professional contractors should be expected to prove to you their track record of accomplishment. Here’s what you’ll find offered as evidence of professionalism:
- A portfolio of past work. You may be shown a portfolio or a professionally produced brochure that displays the contractor’s work.
- References. Expect the contractor to provided references and examples of completed projects. The names and telephone numbers of references will be provided for you to call. These property owners should be able to attest to their satisfaction with the contractor’s work within the budget. Ideally, that budget will be in the same range as your own. In some instances, the contractor may protect the privacy of some clients by asking them to call you. In addition, the contractor should be able to arrange for a tour of properties completed by the contractor. Stopping by a job-in-progress can be informative, too.
How Will You Be Inconvenienced?
Plan ahead for inconvenience. Irrigation installation creates change and activity on your property as well as an efficient system. How will you be inconvenienced? Will your pet have to be boarded? What will have to be moved out of the way during construction and for how long? Find out in advance.
Behavior and Appearance
How the contractor behaves and appears will be a good indication of how smoothly and professionally your job will go.
- Telephone etiquette. Look for contractors who promptly and politely return your calls and arrive on time for meetings. The professional contractor will be on time for the first appointment and every appointment thereafter.
- Professional appearance. The visual image the contractor presents should be appropriate. Neat, clean and professional appearance indicates pride and professionalism.
- Well-maintained equipment. The contractor should arrive in a well-maintained vehicle. Often it will be a truck. Age is not a factor. Pride in appearance is. Look for the company name and logo and an association logo.
Get a written proposal. A professional contractor will provide a written proposal. Every aspect of the job should be described in detail, have a dollar amount attached to it and include warranty terms and a scaled plan. The more detailed the proposal, the better. Remember, the lowest price isn’t always the best. You want to choose the best proposal based on all factors.
The proposal should be broken down into subsections with quantities, sizes and brands specified. All preparatory and finish work should be included as should the amounts and the brands of irrigation equipment. Compare proposals point-by-point.
Look for a contractor with the greatest ability to provide outstanding site management and consistent quality in all phases of the job. Your proposal package should contain copies of licenses, insurance policies and a list of references. Request that proposals follow design specifications and meet requirements of your local water board.
Bonding is rarely necessary except in certain government or large commercial projects where either law or financing conditions require it.
Your contract is a guarantee of professional work and a statement specifying mutually agreed upon standards. Insist on a written contract for your protection no matter what the amount. After the contract is signed, any changes you and the contractor agree to make in the work or materials to be used must be in writing. This written “change order” must also include any additions or reductions in the total job price. Here’s a list of basic elements you’ll find in most irrigation contracts.
- Specific costs of materials to be installed
- Specified start date and an estimated completion date
- Statement regarding payments arrangements such as down payment, progress payment and balance due
- The name, street address and telephone number of the contractor
- Complete description of the work to be done and materials to be used (including quantities and brands of irrigation equipment)
- Guarantees of work and materials
- Statement that the contractor will do any necessary cleanup and removal of debris after the job is completed
- “Notice to Owner” explaining the state’s mechanic’s lien laws and the ways to protect yourself and your property
- “Notice of Cancellation” informing you that you have three days after signing the contract to cancel it
- Statement requiring the contractor to provide proper lien releases for suppliers
- Validation of any required license and certificates of insurance, not just copies
- Statement that the work will meet the standards specified in the contract
Expect to be told that the contractor will want to know about any problems or concerns today, tomorrow or a year from tomorrow. The contractor you want to hire will still be here years from now.
When the Job’s Done
Expect quality workmanship and a well-organized project from beginning to end. In addition, a professional will estimate a completion date in such a way that the project may well be done ahead of the set date. A professional will compensate for unforeseeable events.
Even though in work clothes, company employees should have pride in their appearance and their firm. Work crews may be uniformed or easily identifiable in some other way.
When the Job Finishes
Expect to be told that your irrigation system is fully guaranteed for parts and labor for a full year. This is the industry standard. The same language should also be in your contract.
Expect a final walk-through prior to final payment.
Expect full instructions on how to care for the system and how to use the mechanical components of your system such as controllers and timers. Do not expect seasonal reprogramming of timers or periodic adjustment of nozzles once they have been properly set and/or adjusted upon job completion unless it’s part a separate maintenance agreement.
Water use and management are important issues. More communities are moving toward rewarding or requiring new irrigation systems to include more water-wise features. The contractor you hire must be sensitive to the realities of water in your area. The contractor should know how to manage water and install an irrigation system that will provide you with the look you want while minimizing your use of water. Don’t settle for a contractor who isn’t top-notch in water management.
How to Spot a Nonprofessional Contractor
- A nonprofessional won’t be listening to your needs.
- Nonprofessional telephone communications. Coarse telephone manners and failing to return calls indicate the type of response you will get on your project.
- Failure to show up for meetings on time. Maybe your work won’t get done on time either.
- Unprofessional appearance. Inappropriate clothing and/or dirty or poorly maintained vehicles. Even smaller contractors who get out in the field regularly will take the time to tidy up before an appointment.
- Disorganized bids that fail to include specific details. Bids should be legible and easy to understand.
- Someone who gives you unrealistic prices. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Belittling another contractor’s work. A professional should never belittle another contractor or his or her work.
- Suggesting that you don’t need a permit. In the event a permit is needed for your project, sometimes nonprofessional operators will try to get your okay to forego obtaining the permit. Don’t give your permission. Even though permit inspections are often lax, the contractor should obtain all required permits.
- Offering to do construction work that is outside of the scope of the work for which the contractor was hired.
Bidding that fails to meet design specifications. To cut costs, some contractors will substitute brands, sizes or quantities that may not conform to those specified in the design. You may be told this will save you money, but more often than not it compromises the integrity of the design plan – something you have already purchased to insure you have a professional irrigation system. Any deviation from the plans should be clearly identified as an additive or deductive alternative.
Unwillingness to accept site inspection by the plan designer. Site inspections should be readily accepted.
The sales pitch. If much of what you hear from the contractor sounds like a sales pitch for things you don’t want or that don’t meet your needs, back off. A true professional will spend more time listening than selling. The contractor who does the best job listening to and proposing solutions to your needs is often the contractor to hire.
The Nice Guy. Sometimes it seems like an easy choice. You select the contractor that you think is just a nice guy. Beware of the nice guy if he or she doesn’t meet the criteria for professional operations set forth in this guide. The real definition of a nice guy is the contractor who provides you with a quality, professional job for a fair price.
Disclaimer: The information in the Consumer Handbook, including How to Hire an Irrigation Contractor is meant to be instructional and to provide information to assist the consumer in choosing a professional irrigation contractor. The information is believed to be accurate. The Irrigation Association and The Carolinas Irrigation Association assume no responsibility for any damage that arises from any action that is based on information that is found in this publication. Questions regarding civil law and the civil court system should be addressed to an attorney.