The best tip I have for hiring a contractor is for you to provide the plan and have them bid on it as designed. That gives you the quality you want plus it allows for accurate comparison of prices between contractors. It’s a bit of work, but I strongly suggest that it is worth the effort. Most contractors are not the greatest designers, lots of them write to me about the website, glad they found it so they can feel more secure about their designs!
If you don’t design it yourself (or have it designed) then I suggest putting together a list of requirements for the contractors, such as:
Head to head coverage
No 1/2″ pipe
No flows over 7 feet/second
List all products to be used
Manual flow controls on all valves.
Maximum spray head spacing of 17 feet.
Maximum rotor spacing of 35 feet.
No spray on sidewalks or streets (except wind drift).
Pipe at least 10″ deep.
Pressurized mainlines at least 18″ deep.
Filter (100 mesh screen) on mainline supply.
One year written warranty on parts and labor.
If poly piping, all fittings clamped.
Wire splices watertight.
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Be clear up front with the contractor in what you want as a result. Don’t tell the contractor how to install the system (you could be liable if something goes wrong), tell them what result you want to see. Leave the “how to” up to the contractor, you tell him what you want to see as a finished result. Here’s an example of being specific: If you want the pipes 10″ deep, specify that you want the top of the pipe 10″ deep, not the trench 10″ deep (with a 10″ deep trench much of the pipe will be 8″ deep due to various factors such as dirt that falls into the trench.) Installing the pipes in shallow trenches saves lots of time and money for the contractor. It also significantly increases the chance you will accidentally break a pipe.
Be sure to ask for results that have a clear definition. For example, “full coverage” is a popular term with contractors but it is also a non-defined term, what exactly does it mean? I don’t know and I’m an expert! If you want good coverage without any dry spots ask for “head-to-head” coverage or “100% overlap of sprinklers” (they both mean the same thing.) If the contractor says he will give you full coverage, or no dry spots that is very easy to deliver. If there is a dry spot the contractor will just increase the watering time so that the water from adjacent areas floods into the dry spot. That is not a good solution, it just wastes lots of water.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of capital to get into the sprinkler installation business. Unfortunately this means a lot of landscape contractors are seriously under capitalized. They go out of business at a very high rate. You can’t always tell who’s in trouble either. I hired a contractor who had been in business for decades in the same location and had several stores. A week later he packed up and fled the country, taking with him all the remaining company assets, leaving all his jobs unfinished, and taking thousands of dollars of deposits with him. So you need to take steps up front to protect yourself. In particular if you are in the USA you need to understand the lien system and how our laws work when it comes to home improvements such as a sprinkler system. You must be extremely careful!
This is general information, your actual situation may call for higher or lower values.
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You should not put more than 10% down prior to start of work. In California the law prohibits down payments to contractors that exceed 10% of the total job cost. Some other states have similar laws. But even if they don’t, protect yourself.
Generally you can make a payment of up to 40% when all materials are delivered and you have them in your possession. The materials are usually valued at about half of the total cost of a installed irrigation system.
The remaining payment should not be made until the contractor is finished.
READ THIS! This applies to the USA and may apply in other countries.
Get a signed lien release from the contractor before making any payments over 50% of the total cost. It is critical to get a release of lien from the contractor to protect your house value. The law allows the person who sold the contractor the sprinkler materials to file a lien on your house and collect from YOU if the contractor doesn’t pay his bill. They can still collect from you EVEN IF YOU ALREADY PAID THE CONTRACTOR! You can be made to pay twice! That is the law. As soon as building materials are delivered to your property they are considered to be part of your property. By law, the supplier can’t repossess building materials, they become part of the property as soon as they are delivered. So the law protects the supplier by allowing the supplier to place a lien on your home for the value of the materials. The supplier can then force the sale of your home to pay the lien. You MUST protect yourself against this by having the contractor provide you with a lien release prior to final payment. A lien release just says that in exchange for payment the contractor will not allow a lien to be attached to your home. Standardized lien release forms are available at many office supply stores.
Many smaller contractors don’t have a clue about liens or how to make a lien release, especially if they are not licensed. If you are dealing with a small contractor such as this I recommend you obtain the contractor’s material list and purchase the materials yourself from the supplier. Then have the supplier deliver the materials directly to your house. This avoids the problem of liens by the supplier.
You can’t fully protect yourself from bad contractors. Most of my projects are competitively bid, so I have no control over who is selected to do the installation. I often have to work with bad contractors, and a good number of them have gone bankrupt on my projects. What do I do? First, I watch them. I check to be sure that they are giving me what I ordered. What about the ones who walk off the job or go bankrupt? That’s why you don’t pay them everything up front. Always hold back at least 10% of their money until you are completely happy with the job. If they do go belly up and take some of your money with them you may have some protection. If they are a licensed contractor most states require that they have a “bond”. Contact the state license organization and find out the name of their bond company. Then contact the bond company and file a claim against their bond. Don’t wait around to do this, file a claim ASAP as most bond companies pay claims “first come, first served” and once the money runs out you are out of luck. Last results is the court system, but don’t expect much. You can’t get any money from them if they don’t have any.
Finally, educate yourself. Read through the Sprinkler System Design and Irrigation System Installation tutorials on my website. Take notes. Yes it will take some time. But even simply reading them will teach you a lot and greatly reduce the chance you will get a bad sprinkler system.