A hot summer approaches

Weather forecasters are warning of below-average rainfall across wide parts of Australia towards the end of 2014. Hardware retailers should be planning their garden watering product selections now, JOHN POWER reports.

As reported by ABC News in mid-June, Australia “may have already entered into the early stages of an El Nino weather pattern, increasing the possibility of drought and lower-than-average rainfall.”1

The prospect of an upcoming drought across most of Australia is a mixed blessing for retailers of watering and irrigation equipment: moderately dry conditions might lead to a boom in sales as customers seek to maximise watering efficiency and effectiveness on their properties; but severe drought leading to water restrictions could hamper consumer investment, scaring customers away from equipment that might be subject to bans or limited usage. For the moment let’s assume watering systems are permitted throughout most of the country, notwithstanding the possibility of local restrictions.

The last major drought, which broke in most parts of Australia some five years ago (except in Queensland, which is still drought affected), taught consumers that gardens are fragile, and effective watering practices must be adopted to avoid widespread loss of plants.

Given the rawness of these lessons, consumers this summer may well be receptive to advice about new-generation, high-quality watering products, designed to reduce water consumption while genuinely preserving precious gardens.

Notable product categories include soaker/drip hoses; timer devices; water-efficient in-ground irrigation systems; flow detection sensors; and high-quality, non-leaky fittings.

Educate your customers

A quick glance at the bestseller lists of sprinklers and related equipment across most of the world’s affluent markets indicates significant consumer uncertainty in this sector, as exemplified by the scattered array of product types and brands represented in shoppers’ baskets. For instance, the bestselling 20 garden sprinkler products purchased via Amazon US last month represented 11 different types of products (oscillating sprinklers won the day, accounting for six sales) from 12 different suppliers (led by Melnor with four sales).

Statistics are similar for Australia, Italy, France and other western markets. Arguably, this generalised ‘hit and miss’ approach to purchases demonstrates that consumers are in need of all the advice they can get about the right watering products to suit individual needs.

Product innovations

A good place to start is with bread-and-butter product lines like fixed sprinklers. Traditional spinning or dome sprinklers tend to be low-cost, low-margin items designed for non-specific use, but there have been many innovations recently regarding refinements to directional water coverage and patterns that might offer a little more excitement to customers.

Noodlehead sprinklers, for example, are proving popular in the US. These static, low-tech sprinklers feature bendable Medusa-like tubes that can be manually pointed at desired areas, and away from footpaths, driveways, walls and similar dry areas. Similarly, products like the Wobble-Tee rotating sprinkler head are designed to throw low-profile streams of water to overcome interference from wind, enhanced by larger droplet sizes to reduce evaporation and increase absorption.

Oscillating sprinklers are also popular, with models from companies like Holman featuring a built-in timer. Many common oscillating models suffer the stigma of being made from mostly plastic components, but companies like Holman offer units with metal bases.

Timers may well be seen as valuable accessories in coming seasons, particularly if customers are reminded of the value of consistent watering regimes to overcome damaging heat and prolonged dry conditions. Gardena offers a good range of units that should meet most gardeners’ needs, from simple timer functions to more elaborate multi-zonal water control.

Various sensor technologies are also now appearing on the market to enhance efficiency, such as rain sensors to prevent scheduled watering if it is raining, or soil moisture sensors to trigger watering only if watering is needed. These kinds of sensor systems, however, can pose problems if water usage is restricted to nominated times and days. It is worth noting that motion sensor technologies are also being applied to sprinkler systems in some parts of the world for use as deterrents against animals – though it remains to be seen whether such uses are adopted in Australia. Postmen and door-to-door salespeople might object!

Another valuable watering solution, particularly during times of restricted water consumption, is the soaker hose. Used in tandem with a timer, these low-flow hoses are designed to deliver slow-release watering to targeted areas or individual plants, though customers may also benefit from a flow or pressure restrictor to ensure optimal performance. Underground seep hoses, though restricted and localised in their coverage, are hidden from view and therefore offer the bonus of discretion – a desirable feature for those wishing to keep their watering habits private. Commonsense add-on sales might include proven brass fittings with tight, non-leaky connections to maximise the water efficiency of overall watering systems.

For customers seeking more advanced underground systems, the turf irrigation industry has traditionally paved the way for consumer-based fixed or pop-up sprinkler systems and management controls. Technical innovations relate to improved nozzle designs for more efficient water delivery, self-cleaning systems and new-generation piping with push-on fittings.

Admittedly, these kinds of technologies appeal to specialised turf markets at the moment, specifically for golf course and sports arena applications, but they will inevitably penetrate mainstream consumer markets via hardware channels in the future. One of the most promising recent developments in nozzle design is known as Matched Precipitation (MP) rotating heads, which are designed to provide standard coverage with vastly reduced water pressure. In addition, new MP designs offer uniform coverage of an area regardless of the arc or radius of water streams – a solution to traditional problems involving uneven water spread and unwanted ‘dry patches’ within a given watering zone. Companies like Hunter and Rain Bird, best known in agricultural and sports irrigation circles, are constantly refining their product selections in this category.

Other innovations, as mentioned, are self-cleaning nozzle designs and push-on pipe fittings. The latter, originally designed for mainstream plumbing applications, are perfectly suited to domestic watering applications. One of the main impediments to the uptake of in-ground water systems has been the complexity of installing pipework. Push-on fittings simplify processes significantly. Once the piping has been cut to size, the installer simply ‘pushes’ it into the appropriate fitting – no adhesives or fastenings required – creating safe waterproof connections. In Australia, SmarteX supplies such systems for both PE-Xb and copper piping through Bunnings stores. Retailers who can offer such systems alongside high-quality in-ground sprinkler fittings will certainly win loyal friends.

Communication is paramount

As mentioned, garden watering systems are a mystery to most customers, who lack insights into the differences between major types of sprinklers, and who need thorough explanations about more advanced timer, sensor or in-ground technologies. However, given appropriate guidance, customers will appreciate being shown the merits and features of different suites of products.

As the cost of water escalates and the threat of dry weather perpetuates, the value of high-quality watering systems should be made crystal clear to customers.

Footnote

1. www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-14/el-nino-weather-pattern-already-partly-formed/5523136

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