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Questions To Ask Before You Jump In

by Doug Pushard

A portion of my business is inspecting and repairing systems put in by others. Additionally, as I speak to other installers around the country, I find I am not alone in this respect. A good portion of these malfunctioning systems had design or installation flaws. After the fact, it is impossible to know why these installers made poor decisions, but some fault has to be due to inadequate training. I wondered what questions a consumer should ask of potential RWH design, installation and maintenance professionals.

To that end, I reached out to John Hammerstrom, past President of the American Rainwater Catchment System Association (ARCSA) (www.acrsa.org) to provide his views on the subject.

1. Are you Accredited or Certified?

According to a recent industry study, less than 50% of RWH installers and designers surveyed were trained to design or install systems. This is amazing given that ARCSA has been providing several levels of training for more than six years, including a Level 100 introductory workshop and Level 200 and 300 for professionals. The classroom training, along with exams and hands-on experience can be applied toward Accredited Professional (AP) and Rainwater Harvesting Master (RWHM) status. In addition, Watershed Management Group (www.watershedmg.org) has a “Water Harvesting Certification” and North Carolina State University (www.bae.ncsu.edu) has a Low Impact Development (LID) Certification program. For sales or related business professionals who will not be designing or installing, ARCSA has recently added a Level 150 program.
Although training will not guarantee a perfect system, it is far better to seek a partner with meaningful training than to be the guinea pig of an installer with unknown credentials.

2. Have you installed a system like this before?

This is a simple, but often-unasked question. Rainwater systems can be very complex, owing to unique circumstances of end-use requirements, local rainfall, roofing and gutters, available construction materials, local geological conditions, rainwater-quality challenges and budget. Rainwater systems can vary in thousands of ways and, aside from simple rain barrels, are not likely to perform well with a simple installation of a generic, one-size-fits-all design.
For tanks alone there are many material and size options that make this single decision complex. Add to that the myriad choices of filters, conveyance materials, fittings, gauges, etc. Other variables include whether it is to be an wet or dry system and whether it will be above or below ground. Your RWH designer and installer should be well versed in all of the available solutions that can deliver a long-lasting, high-performing and yet cost-effective system.

3. Can you provide references?

Most reputable installers and designers will have satisfied clients, and should be proud to share their names with prospective consumers.

4. Do you warranty your systems and if so for how long?

Your warranty should be clearly stated in any contract you sign, with beginning and end dates. Tanks will normally have at least a one-year warranty and most will have several years; pumps are typically warrantied for one year. An excellent warranty will also address labor and other materials with varying duration.

5. Do you sell maintenance contracts for after the warranty?

This varies greatly across the industry and may or may not be important to you. At some point your pump will wear out or a part may freeze. Most systems will require periodic preventive maintenance as well, such as filter changes, water-quality testing, leak checking and disinfection-system upkeep. Some vendors do maintenance work while others steer clear of it. Nevertheless, it is important to know up front if your installer will also be your maintainer, and to identify the maintenance solutions early.

6. Do you provide documentation, including user-level operational information with your system and if so can I see a sample copy?

You are having a watering system installed, whether active or passive, and some type of documentation should be provided when your system is completed. These should be “as built” documentation, reflecting what was actually installed. The documentation may be needed to comply with local code, and should be passed on to the next property owner.

7. How long have you been installing systems?

This may or may not be important to you, but it is good to know nevertheless. Some relatively new, yet excellent rainwater system designers and installers have significant background in related fields that are closely related to rainwater harvesting. Thus, a designer/installer may not have installed many rainwater systems, but may be a master plumber who has deep experience in pumps, controls and the like.

8. What is your background and what else do you do (if anything) besides install rainwater systems?

Installers may also have side businesses because, although the nationwide growth of rainwater harvesting is impressive despite the slow economy, in many markets rainwater harvesting alone is insufficient to support a business. Some examples of related side businesses include pool or hot tubs, installing irrigation systems, plumbing or installing gutters. Using a professional with wide water-system experience may save you money because they deliver multiple skills to your project.

9. Do you have a checklist that will help me define system Requirements, Options, Resources, Challenges and Costs?

All businesses are run differently, some with more processes than others. However, due to the complexity of rainwater systems and the sheer number of decisions and parts that need to be ordered and installed in even a simple system, most installers will have some type of checklist to help both of you determine the scope of the job and available options, the rainwater resource in your area, specific challenges to your design and installation, and the related costs. This list will not prevent a mistake from happening, but it is apt to prevent a delay in the installation due to a required part not being ordered, and will help both the designer and consumer understand the unique issues related to your job.

10. Can you provide a Return on Investment (ROI) calculation?

While the simplest of ROI calculations would indicate that rainwater harvesting can’t compete with the very low cost of most centralized utility water systems, the primary variable in that calculation — the price of utility water — is becoming more expensive. There are jurisdictions where the ROI calculation is easy, such as in rural areas where rainwater harvesting is competing with the cost of drilling deep wells, or where the utility water price has already risen to make rainwater harvesting clearly competitive. A rainwater system may also have intangible value for you, beginning with quality. The non-profit Environmental Working Group has identified more than 200 contaminants in the nation’s tap water for which there are no standards — they are unregulated. The value of a reliable, secure, onsite water system can be compelling to some. Added value may come from installing a rainwater catchment system that doubles as a stormwater mitigation system. Bottom line: Ask your installer to discuss the merits of your system relative to your needs and values.

11. Are you bonded, licensed, insured? Have you ever been party to a lawsuit involving your business?

While not wanting to pry into personal matters, it is fair to ask if your designer or installer has been sued for related practices. There are very serious safety issues associated with installing and maintaining rainwater harvesting systems, and your installer should be licensed if required by local authorities and may also be required to be insured and bonded for your protection.

12. What are the standards you use for design and installation? Do your systems comply with the ASPE/ARCSA Design & Installation Standards? IAPMO Green? IGCC?

These national standards provide clear guidance for the design and installation of rainwater harvesting systems, and should be well known to your designer and installer. While the ASPE/ARCSA document has nationwide value and relevance, states, counties and municipalities also have at their disposal either the Uniform Plumbing Code-related IAPMO Green Plumbing and Mechanical Code Supplement or the International Plumbing Code-related International Green Construction Code (IGCC). These documents have been already been adopted by some jurisdictions and may be more broadly adopted as governments work through their code-adoption cycles.

13. Are there any grants, rebates or other offsetting incentives available?

There are precious few incentives in the nation, but ask nevertheless. Even a small rebate helps offset the cost of a system.

14. What are your safety practices?

Along with the insurance discussed above, you will want to know if the designer and installer are knowledgeable about relevant safety practices, not only for the original installation, but also for your use of the system for the next decades.

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