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By KYLE PARKS
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000
Desperate to save their lawns after weeks without rain, Tampa Bay area homeowners are deluging lawn sprinkler companies with requests to install or repair automated systems.
But as Florida's drought gets worse, sprinkler companies can't keep up with the demand. Some homeowners are being told they'll have to wait as long as a couple of weeks for service, and they aren't pleased.
"We've had people yell at us," said Debby Willing, general manager of Able Sprinklers Inc. in Pinellas Park. "It isn't raining, temperatures are up, and they discover their lawn is dying."
Since the beginning of March, many of the area's sprinkler companies have been working seven days a week installing or fixing systems that cost from $800 to $3,000 to put in.
During a drought, a sprinkler system with an automatic timer can be a yard-saver because if homeowners using hoses to hand-water neglect a spot or forget to water regularly, the yard can turn brown in a flash.
The harried sprinkler companies say they love being so busy. Business at Able Sprinklers, for instance, has tripled in the past two weeks.
"It's like anything else; people wait until there's a problem," said John Joseph, who owns Joseph's Irrigation in Tampa. "Everybody waits until it gets cold to check their heat, and they wait until it gets hot to check the A/C. The same with sprinklers."
But as municipalities start to consider tighter watering restrictions -- such as those that Tampa put in place Thursday -- some fear people will overreact and make the problem worse by sneaking in more waterings or hiring unqualified installers.
In Florida, sprinklers are a big business. For instance, John Williams Sprinklers Inc., one of Pinellas County's largest sprinkler companies, has nine employees and $600,000 in annual revenues.
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As many as one in three Tampa Bay area homes has a sprinkler system. Some are hooked up to city or county water, while others take water from wells or use reclaimed water.
Charlotte Arthur of Pinellas Park is getting estimates for a new system now. "The grass is dead, and I hope a system will help bring the lawn back," she said.
And in a concession to the dry weather, she's thinking about xeriscaping part of the yard -- putting in native landscaping that doesn't require as much water.
Arthur hasn't decided yet what type of system she wants. Since she can't get reclaimed water, her choice is between city water and a well.
If homeowners install a well, they can choose shallow 20-foot wells or, in many places, a deep well of 100 to 200 feet. Right now, owners of the costlier deep wells should be happy because many shallow wells are going dry.
"Many wells around here are fading away," said Steve Rowan, who owns Quality Lawn Sprinklers of Pasco County Inc. in New Port Richey. "Sometimes, all you're pulling up is sand out of a shallow well."
With that in mind, many sprinkler companies are advising homeowners to dig deep wells, even though they add as much as $1,500 to the cost of a system. "It can pay for itself over time when you aren't paying the city for water," said John Williams, who owns John Williams Sprinklers.
Homeowners are required to follow the watering rules in their city or county. Most local governments follow the Southwest Florida Water Management District's minimum guidelines, which limit waterings to two a week. The only exceptions are for homes that use reclaimed water or have new landscaping or lawns.
But a number of municipalities are starting to consider tighter restrictions.
On Thursday, the city of Tampa cut watering to once a week, the first such move related to the drought. In a decision that could threaten business at Tampa nurseries and turf providers, the city won't automatically exempt new lawns or landscaping.
Though the water supply is lower in Tampa right now than in other parts of the bay area, Swiftmud officials say widespread tightening of restrictions may be the only option if it doesn't start raining.
Some sprinkler companies say such restrictions could backfire, though.
"People will end up watering more if it goes once a week because they get nervous and sneak around more," said Harry St. Pearre, who owns Creative Sprinklers in Riverview.
The sprinkler companies also worry that with so much concern about lawns, homeowners will ask anyone from their painter to their yard service to put in or repair a sprinkler system.
"At times like this, all the unlicensed people come out of the woodwork," said Williams of John Williams Sprinklers.
And if there's a problem, a customer has nowhere to go for help if the county's licensing board has no record of the contractor.
"People should call the county to check on someone's licensing," Williams said. "But a quick clue is their truck. If you are licensed and insured, that's usually on your truck."
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