Choosing The Right Irrigation Contractor For Your Renovation Project

By Kenne James, Senior Marketing Manager, Golf Irrigation International Business, The Toro Company

Selecting a contractor for an irrigation system renovation can be a complex task, but making a good decision will help prevent trouble for years to come.

There are three key steps to an irrigation project:

  1. Determine the system design
  2. Choose a system manufacturer
  3. Select a contractor to install the system

Each step is essential for the success of your renovation, but the importance of choosing the right contractor cannot be underestimated. The finest irrigation equipment may be useless if not properly installed.

Getting Started

When selecting a contractor, ask for advice from irrigation distributors and manufacturers. They can be good sources of input about contractors.

Also, it’s very helpful to hire a professional irrigation consultant, particularly one who specializes in golf courses. Consultants offer valuable assistance in determining the irrigation design and selecting equipment, but more importantly, they oversee the bidding process, provide impartial evaluations of the contractors and help manage construction.

For budget reasons, it may be tempting to undertake an in-house installation, but first consider these factors:

Does your staff have the necessary expertise?
Are professional licenses required?
Would additional employees be needed?
If your staff does the renovation, who performs their normal duties?
How will it impact your club’s payroll?
Will special construction equipment be required?
How would the installation affect play and revenue, and for how long?
After evaluating the options, you may realize that a do-it-yourself installation is impractical, or not as economically attractive as hoped. If you hire a professional contractor — which most courses do — the selection process can be affected by the source of your funding.

Publicly Funded Courses

In a government-funded project, the renovation contract is typically awarded to the lowest approved bidder. Nevertheless, use some precautions in the bidding process to avoid awarding a contract to an unqualified installer.

First and foremost, include an “experience-requirement” clause in the bid documents. This may call for a contractor to have a minimum level of golf course irrigation experience (e.g., five years), and to have successfully completed a certain number of installations.

If, after these steps, the low bidder is still a questionable contractor, you have other options. Examine the bid to ensure it fully complies with all requirements; if not, you may have grounds for rejecting it. You could even consider asking the low bidder to voluntarily withdraw, which some contractors will agree to when their ability is questioned. As a last resort, reject all the bids and have the project re-bid at a later date.

It makes no sense to proceed with a renovation that has a clear risk of substandard installation. However, any action you take should first be reviewed by appropriate legal counsels.

Privately Funded Courses

Bid specifications for privately funded facilities often include a clause that the project will be awarded to the contractor of the facility’s choice. Contractor selection on private bids has two steps. First, a select number of contractors are invited to bid, and then the successful bidder is chosen from that group.

You should limit the number of bidders, and all of them should be acceptable candidates. Too many bids tend to impede the selection process.

Choose Equipment First

Selecting an irrigation system manufacturer before accepting bids can further streamline the process. By making the product decision first, you simplify bidding when all contractors are specifying the same equipment. Also, without the contractor influencing system choices, you and your course have the flexibility to buy irrigation products you prefer.

Pre-Bid Meetings

Holding mandatory pre-bid conferences will allow you and your club’s committees to meet the bidding contractors and discuss your expectations and timetables. If you retain an irrigation consultant, he will usually arrange your pre-bid meetings.

Gathering input from several qualified contractors also serves to expose hidden problems in your irrigation design or timeline, and allows the bidders to suggest solutions. Take notes during the meeting and copy them to all attendees.

Evaluating Qualifications

Allow time to familiarize yourself with the bidding contractors’ qualifications. Items to consider include:

Experience – Check each contractor’s background and references. If irrigation contractors in your area are required to be licensed, obtain a current copy of each bidder’s license.

Also, find out if the contractors are certified. (A list of certified Irrigation Association professionals in your area can be found at the IA website:

Reputation – This is different from experience, because a contractor may have years of experience but a tarnished reputation. With so much interaction among you, your club’s managers and other suppliers, you want contractors who are flexible and easy to work with. Also assess the contractor’s reputation for quality of work and ability to stay on schedule.

Company size – Make sure the contractor has enough workers to accomplish your installation on schedule. However, bigger is not necessarily better. Large companies running multiple crews often have quality-control problems. Ask contractors about conflicts they may face with other jobs during your installation, and stipulate that your project leader or foreman should not change for the duration of your renovation.

Equipment – Verify that the contractor owns or has access to all of the equipment necessary to properly install your system.

If possible, visit the contractor on an installation job in progress somewhere else. The opinion of another superintendent in the middle of a renovation will be extremely insightful.

Final Interviews and Selection

Once bids have been evaluated, schedule an interview with the contractor or contractors that you and your club prefer — even if not the lowest bidders. Include any club members or personnel responsible for managing the renovation.

During the meeting, confirm that the contractors can schedule sufficient time for your project, and that they believe the completion date is realistic. Ask if they anticipate any problems, and how they plan to solve them.

Other items to discuss include performance and maintenance bonds (if applicable), compliance with bid insurance requirements and construction/building permits.

Haste Can Make Waste

A speedy installation may have disadvantages, especially if interruption of play threatens to reach unacceptable levels. Furthermore, the faster the pace of construction, the harder it is for you to oversee the installation and assure its quality. You’ll want time to fine-tune the irrigation system while it’s being installed . . . or you may regret it later.

For example, you should pinpoint quick-coupling valve locations, make allowances for possible future expansion, locate mainline drain valves or route pipe around a bunker scheduled for renovation, and other potential modifications.

A new irrigation system, properly installed, will provide a reliable turf management tool for many years. Time spent now to choose the optimal design, a high-quality product and the right contractor will pay great future dividends in system performance, reliability and lower maintenance costs — and ultimately, will improve your golf course and please your ownership.