April 18, 2017: Now that spring seems like it just might come, the first sunny days we get , the landscape contractors' phones will be ringing off the hook from potential customers. Being as how I'm a retired landscape contractor, I can now reveal the secret inner world of the landscape contractor - how to find a good one, how to get them interested in your project, where the secret locations of Illuminati landscapers meet and their secret handshake. . . . Well, maybe not the last two, if I value my life,

First of all, it's important to understand that there is a difference between landscapers (landscape contractors) and landscape maintenance people (lawn maintenance, pruning, etc). The former is a licensed profession, the later is not. The former can not only plant plants, but can build retaining walls, decks, fences, patios, outdoor kitchens, irrigation and landscape lighting systems, and lots more; the latter cannot. The former has a bond and liability insurance, the latter may or may not.

Oregon has the most regulated landscape industry in the US. That is a GOOD thing for you, Ms or Mr Consumer. Licensed landscapers must pass a licensing exam that test for technical knowledge and business knowledge. Once a candidate has passed, they must obtain liability insurance and a bond before they can get their business license. If they intend to have employees, they must show proof of having worker's comp. What this means for the consumer is that :

1) You won't be getting someone who was a shoe salesman yesterday and then thought they'd be a landscaper today.

2) If you believe you've had poor work done, you have recourse by filing a claim on the contractor's bond. The Oregon Landscape Contractor's Board (LCB) maintains a free claim and adjudication process for the consumer.

3). A contractor's employees are covered by worker's comp. That means if a worker is injured on your property, you won't have to sell your house to pay for their medical bills.

Hire an unlicensed (and therefore illegal) landscape contractor and you get none of the above. They might or might not be cheaper in the short run, but in the long run, you'll regret it.

I would love to tell you that this consumer protection system will be here for perpetuity but every legislative session, for the past several years, the anti-regulation lobby trots forth some bill or another to eliminate the licensing exam, or entrance requirements, or eliminate all landscape regulations. A smart business person knows that good consumer protection is also good business, another sort of business person sees consumer protection as a hindrance to their freedom to do business as they see fit. I'll let you fill in the adjective for that sort of business person.

CONSUMER TIP #1: Hire a licensed landscape contractor.
All licensed landscapers are required to put their LCB number on their trucks. You can look for that when they drive up to give you a bid. You can also do an online license search, at the LCB website, http://www.oregonlcb.com, where you can find their current license status and whether they have any landscape violations from the past on their record.

CONSUMER TIP #2: Find a landscaper early.
Many landscape contractors who have been around a decade or more are often booked for the season (March - September) by April. Perhaps, if your job is small, they may be able to fit you in on short notice between two larger jobs but don't count on it. Best not to wait for the first sunny day of spring.

CONSUMER TIP #3: Get it in writing.
Why do you think they call contractors "contractors"? Answer: Because they should give you a contract spelling out what they will do, when they will do it, if there is a guarantee, and what are the terms of payment. Landscape contractors are not required to give you a contract (sometimes called a proposal) if the job amount is less than $2000. When I was a contractor, I gave written proposals on everything I did, except time and material jobs such as irrigation repair. A contract is a communications tool where both parties can see what is expected of them. Without it in writing, expectations are hazy and unclear expectations lead to client - contractor misunderstanding.

CONSUMER TIP #4: If you want to find a serious contractor, then prepare to be a serious client.
I've been there myself - a tire kicker. "Wouldn't it be interesting to find out how much this would cost or that cost?" Busy contractors (particularly during the season) don't have time to come out to your home to educate you about landscaping. Most will try to "qualify" you over the phone. Qualification means determining if you are a serious customer, and, by serious, I mean someone who has decided that they want a particular project done, but they want to make sure they have the right company at the right price to do it. There's nothing wrong with tire kicking. It's just more courteous to make that known up front. The contractor may be able to answer some general questions over the phone without taking the time and expense of answering them to your face.

CONSUMER TIP #5: It's a dance.
I've always considered the contractor-client relationship, particularly a new client, like a waltz or polka between two people that have never danced together. There's a certain amount of wondering - will they move this way, will they move that way, will they step on my foot? Every dance has two partners, so while you, the customer, are sizing up the contractor, they are sizing you up, too. If I want to waltz and the client wants to polka maybe that's the time to walk away before the dance card is punched. But, if we both want to do the same dance, and it's just a matter of adjusting to each other's rhythm, that's part of the dance and the business.

CONSUMER TIP #6: Beware of parcelled work:
I've scratched my head trying to come up with a better term for this, but it's when a contractor does some of the things or buys some of the materials on a project and you take care of the rest. For example, the client wants to buy the flagstone for a patio themselves to save money and wants the contractor to just install it. Or conversely, the contractor wants the client to get the permit for the irrigation backflow and then they will put in the system.

My experience with parcelled work is that both parties end up being unsatisfied. In the later years of my business, I developed the policy of I do it or get it all or I don't do anything. If you can find a contractor, that'll do parcelled work, great. Just be prepared to spend time to coordinate and communicate with them. You're dancing the minuet now and that's a lot harder. If the contractor is suggesting parcelling out some of the job to the client, I would avoid them.

Well, I could on and on with other tips, but that's enough to get you going. Good luck. There are some excellent landscapers out there, I hope you find one.

Pssst. . . . so here's the secret landscaper handshake. Landscaper Illuminati HandshakeLandscaper Illuminati Handshake

Landscaper Illuminati meeting - undisclosed warehouse, Swan Island, PortlandLandscaper Illuminati meeting - undisclosed warehouse, Swan Island, Portland


August 5, 2012: When you call 811, they dispatch a local utility locating contractor to mark the public utilities. The “public” part of public utilities is typically the service line that runs into the meter or junction box on your property. Gas, electric, cable TV, telephone – these usually have boxes or meters on your house and the utility locator will paint the underground locations running from the street through your yard to those locations – but not beyond.

There are a whole host of other things underground that are not marked: water lines, sewer lines, storm sewer lines, electric or gas lines installed by the owner, irrigation pipe, irrigation valve wiring, landscape lighting wire, septic tanks, and drain lines. To locate these you must hire a utility locate contractor. It’s not a free service, and, even then, they can usually only locate utilities with metal in them, such as steel pipe or copper wire. Plastic materials such as PVC irrigation pipe or ABS drain pipe, cannot be picked up on their locators. I often have to locate a PVC water service line into a house to attach an irrigation system to it. If I can’t put the point of connection near the water meter, where I’ve got a good chance of finding it, then I must dig guestimated holes in the yard hoping to discover it. I once engaged the services of an amateur dowser (water witcher) to find a water pipe. I can’t say I was impressed as I found the pipe only after the third hole I dug.

Locators mark the location of pipe with different color paints. The typical color scheme is as follows:
Orange: Cable TV, Communication (telephone, internet) cable
Red: Electric
Yellow: Gas
Blue: Water
Green: Sewage

A defined paint line on the ground does not mean the utility is buried directly underneath. Locators have a 2 foot leeway either side of the actual location to where the mark may be. The other factor that is not identified in the marking is how deep the utility is. It would be nice if all utilities had a minimum depth that was required by uniform code. In reality, public utilities come in varying depths that is governed by differing codes, construction practices, and what happens after installation, like grade changes. Depth also varies dramatically (they get much shallower)as the utilities near your house. Electric and gas lines tend to be the deepest (2-4’). I once nicked an electric line with a shovel . It was the last shovelful of the day and I didn’t even notice it . When I came back the next day to finish the hole I noticed a charred area at the bottom of the hole where the electricity had been arcing into the ground. I thank god for fiberglass shovel handles.

The worse culprits for being shallow laid are the comm. wires (TV, telephone, internet). I have encountered them as shallow as an inch below grade. The most nerve racking part of installing an irrigation system is when your irrigation pipes must cross or come within 2’ of a marked utility. It means you must find that buried pipe or wire, but you must find it very gently. Ever play the board game Operation? It’s a lot like that except with greater consequences. All it takes is nicking the outer jacket of a fiber optic phone cable and it has to be repaired. I’ve often had to painstakingly dig with a trowel to find the buried treasure, which deeply cuts into production.

As I mentioned before there can be a host of non-public (owner installed) utilities that are not marked and are seldom even governed by any codes. In this category I most frequently encounter irrigation pipe. Trade acceptable practices dictate that irrigation lines be buried 12-18” deep minimum. But I have found many systems that are from 2-3” deep to exposed on the surface. The simple act of planting a shrub can cause an hour repair job. Along with irrigation pipe comes the wiring that controls the irrigation valves which often runs in the same trench as the pipe. Good installers will tape the wire to the underside of the pipe before burial, so that anyone excavating later will encounter the pipe before they encounter the wire. All it takes, again, is a nick in the wire insulation and that wire will short out and your valve won’t work. Finding that short later on in the ground can take hours to chase down.

If dealing with buried public utilities and non-public ones weren’t enough, to add insult to injury, there is the blight of subterranean trash. This scourge on the earth typical takes place in the construction of new buildings. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons (IMHO, the worse offenders) and other trades people on site, including landscapers, are often tempted and often succumb to burying their unwanted construction debris on site. This leaves me, the irrigation/nightlighting installer/repairer to encounter this later in my excavation efforts. I’ve encounter entire buried sacks of lime and mortar (them masons!), 8 foot 2 x 4’s, tar buckets and paint cans, pieces of pipe, an antique round bottomed ginger ale bottle, but the worst is encountering scrap wire. When I’m digging and my shovel pulls up a strand of wire, my heart sickens, my pulse races, the hard-wired fight or flight instinct kicks in. Do I run? Do I find out what this wire is attached to? Do I inquire from the homeowner whether they still have phone service? I am proud to say I’ve never run, nor buried the wire back up and feigned ignorance, but when I find that the wire was some piece of scrap tossed in hole or trench I want to fight. I want to have that scrap wire tested for DNA and have that matched with a list of known debris buriers, so that I may confront them with their deed. Construction people: Please, out of mutual trade respect and world peace, don’t bury your crap on the site! Someone will find it and someone will curse you.

I know there are more harrowing professions than mine. Soldiering, firefighting, bomb disposal, mine clearing, teaching - all carry greater consequences. I would submit, however, that harrowism (that's actually not a word) is a matter of perspective. As I lay beside the trench probing for a wire or pipe with my trowel, you can't tell me the pressure isn't on. One awkward slip of the shovel and my customer is without internet or water for days. Day in, day out, it can be a tough thing to live with.


July 28, 2012: Beneath the ground you and I tread upon lies an unseen world of stuff, some benign and some deadly. We give little thought to this subterranean world as we skip and play on the surface, but for those that must delve into its depths with a shovel it holds terror and apprehension, or it ought to. (Cue ominous music here). Electric lines, gas lines, sewer lines – things that can kill you if you hit them or at least make you wish you were dead temporarily. Let me share with you my world, the world of the irrigation contractor, the world of digging in minefields. (Cue final crescendo here).

When a burglar is breaking into your house or you’re having an attack of angina, who do you phone – 911. When you are about to dig, you call – 811. One digit away from an emergency. I always thought that number was apropos and ironic. It’s the number to the Utility Notification Center(UOC) and every state or region has one. . Call it and they dispatch an underground locator within 2 -5 business days that will mark the public utilities (or at least the more dangerous ones) that run to your house for free. It’s a preventative number. Hopefully by calling 811 first, you prevent someone else from calling 911 later when you’re in convulsions on the ground because your shovel bit into an electric line. I’ve often wondered how many people in emergency situations dial 811 by mistake. It’s probably quite a few because the first automated answer you get when you call says if you’re intending to dial 911 you’ve got the wrong number.

There is a federal “Call, Before you Dig Law” as its colloquially known. As a contractor that digs, I am required to call on everything I do that involves digging. Even homeowners are required to call if they are excavating more than 12” deep. That’s something as simple as installing a mailbox post or planting a tree. If you don’t call and hit a utility line, you can face a substantial fine. If you do call and they mark the utility’s location and you hit it, you can be fined. The point is that you need to know the location of what’s underground and not hit it, and there is lots of stuff underground these days. The world beneath our feet is rapidly becoming a world of rampant subterranean urban sprawl. . . . Don’t get me started on that!

Throughout the years, I have had my share of utility mishaps. There was the time years ago, when I was planting a tree with a group of high school students in front of the county central educational district office for an Arbor Day ceremony. The district superintendent and my own principal would be there to get the photo op of watering the tree after planting. On digging out the hole, we severed the mainframe computer feed cable that connected all the schools in the county to the central office. Without data, school bureaucrats were paralyzed for several days. Needless to say, Arbor Day ceremonies were drastically dampened by that event.

Or there was the time that I was installing an irrigation system and cut a cable TV line. . . to the neighbor’s house. I hadn’t noticed it, at the time, but when these two adorable little twin girls ran out from the adjoining house in their Saturday mass dresses sobbing great crocodile tears, followed by their mother saying that their cartoon show had suddenly cut out and what was the problem . . . well I knew something was amiss. Their grief stricken accusatory faces made me feel such shame and remorse. It was as if I had strangled their pet rabbit. I am still haunted today by that image. I often wonder what happened to those little girls. Did they grow up to be happy well-adjusted young women or did they grow up scarred and fearful that at any moment their view of life could be suddenly shattered by some stranger in muddy work clothes? It’s a tough thing to live with.

I can’t speak for other landscape professionals, but I have developed a fear of digging over the years, which can be a very disturbing fear if that’s your business – digging. I thought maybe there’s actually a clinical disorder about the fear of digging. I went online and the closest thing I could find was a fear of dirt – rupophobia, but this had more to do with obsessive cleaning than digging. If there are any clinical psychologists out there who would like to pioneer the research of a new disorder, they could be the first champions to find a treatment for “subterraphobia” – fear of what lies underground (I actually just made that up but it oughta be in the lexicon). I could see exposure therapy and hypnotherapy and forums such as SA (Subterraphobics Anonymous) being developed to combat a disorder that for so long has been hidden and in shame for irrigation professionals. It’s time to bring subterraphobia out of the trenches and into the light of day.

Ah, you may say, surely having those utilities marked, as required by law, should be sufficient to treat this fear. But, not all underground utilities are marked and not all marked utilities are exactly where they are marked. What is marked, what is not marked, how accurate the location marked is, and still more personal utility trauma stories (right now this is the only therapy I have available) will be covered in the next installment, Digging in Minefields, Part 2


January 26, 2012: So how much does it cost to run a home’s landscape lighting system? Well, that depends on the home and the system size. Before I set out on my mind numbing math calculations, I’ll need to set up the parameters. The system we’ll be looking at is a modest – moderate home lighting system of 15 halogen luminaires. They will be a combination of 10 path lites and 5 spotlights. Let’s say the total wattages of all the lamps in the luminaires is 300 watts. Watts are a unit of electrical energy. We pay for our electricity in Kilowatt hours (1000 Kwh). Our system comes on when it gets dark and it knows this because we have a photoreceptor cell hooked to the transformer that measures when it gets dark. The transformer is what is hooked into our home electrical lines and steps down the 120 volt current to low voltage (12volts) to run our lights. We set the clock on the transformer to turn off at midnight, because, unless we’re using it for security lighting, we’ll be in bed by then (or at least I will) and cannot further enjoy the lighting.

The lights are scheduled to come on every day of the year. They’ll be on longer in winter and shorter in summer so, on average about 5 hours a day. . . .HEY!!! GET BACK HERE! SIT DOWN! Yea, I know this is boring, but stick it out. Trust me, you’ll be a better person for it. . . . .

5 hours/day x 365 days/year = 1,825 hours of lighting

1 hour on = 300 watts of power used

1825 hours of lighting x 300 watts = 547.5 Kwh (Kilowatt hours)

Total electrical cost to run the system for a year = 547.5 X .11/Kwh *= $60.23/year or $5.02/month

*(I got the $/Kwh by taking my monthly electric bill statement and dividing it by the Kwh used for the month)

Total cost to maintain the system (replace bulbs every 2 years)based on a 10 year cycle:
by owner ~ $45/yr (Electric + bulbs =~$8.77/month)
by contractor ~$90/yr (Electric + bulbs + labor =~$13.77/month)

WAIT A MINUTE!! Sit tight we’re almost done!

Now, what if I used low voltage LED lights? How much less would that be? The lower wattages of LED bulbs will equate to about 120 watts instead of 300. The other variable will be the cost of maintenance because we shouldn’t have to replace our bulbs for perhaps 10 years. All the rest of the equation is the same. I know you’re getting antsy and you have stuck with me this long (but I had to threaten you to do so), so I’ll skip the detailed calculations and reveal that the monthly cost of electricity ($2/month) + bulbs (based on a 10 year life @ $45/bulb + Labor= 7.25 month) = $7.63/month Now let’s say that the cost of installing that LED system was $1000 more. With the energy savings of LED we can pay for that in 13.5 years . . . .just about the time we’ll have to replace the LED bulbs. The savings and hence the difference between them cost-wise is in the added frequency of bulbs and labor to change out and the increased electrical cost. You had to sit through that and the conclusion to that isn’t all that dramatic . . . .BUT (and notice that’s a big “but” I’ve spelled there) that is contingent on electrical rates staying the same and the chances of that happening are worse than the chances of this article winning a Pulitzer.

For my money, I’d go with LED. In fact, in my own system I have both a run of LED lights and a run of halogen. In 8 years time I’ll tell you how they’ve fared.


January 22, 2012: Landscape lighting (low voltage) has been gaining in popularity. I have installed several systems, including one at my home, and find it gives a whole new dimension to appreciating your landscape. It extends your time outdoors in the summer and, in the depths of winter, the shining lights shatter the darkness and cold and give a glimmer of hope that spring will someday come. The luminaires sing out to me “You’ll make it! Don’t move to Arizona yet!”

But this is not about the benefits nor techniques of landscape lighting. It’s about the advantages and disadvantages of the three major types of “lamps” (that’s professional code for light bulbs) that are used in landscape “luminaires” (you non-lighting laymen would call that a lamp) Those three major types are solar, halogen and LED, short for light emitting diode.

SOLAR: Solar lights operate from a small photovoltaic cell that when hit by sunlight produces energy to charge a small battery. The battery, in turn, operates a small LED or incandescent light. The advantages are no power cost, no buried wires or transformers, easy to install – all attributes that have made them very popular with the homeowner DIY (do-it-yourself) market.

For something so sustainable I hate to be negative, but I would never recommend to a client solar lighting unless they like the “glowstick” look of the lighting. Most of the solar lighting products on the market are of extremely cheap quality. Unless they’re put in full sun for 8 hours a day their light output and duration are very poor. In the Pacific Northwest don’t expect to get much out of solar lights for the 7 months or so of the rainy season. The quality of the fixtures are even worse. The cheap plastic or aluminum used breaks with ease. I’ve busted at least a dozen of them by tripping over them while doing landscaping work. A far greater percentage of low voltage luminaires pass my klutz test than do solar luminaires.

If one has a sunny location, uses high quality (higher cost) lamps and luminaires, and doesn’t need high (or even decent) light output or color quality, then solar may indeed be viable.

For the remainder of this discussion I’ll focus on low voltage (12 volt) lighting and the pros and cons of halogen lamps vs LED lamps.

HALOGEN: Halogen lights have been around for a long time. They are a form of incandescent bulb, like what Thomas Edison invented. The only difference is that halogen bulbs have halogen gas sealed inside and that allows the incandescent filament to glow at higher temperatures and for longer periods of time (about 2000 hours).

The benefits of halogen are that they are cheaper luminaires and lamps than LED. The luminaires (fixtures) are at least half the cost of LED and the lamps (bulbs) cost $5 as opposed to $40 or more for an LED lamp. I recently priced out both a halogen and an LED option for a small 10 luminaire lighting system for a client. The halogen priced out at $1800 and the LED at $2800.

Halogen lights also have a higher light output than LED’s . For example when installing a spotlight where you can use either LED or halogen as the lamp in it, a typical halogen 35 watt lamp used puts out 2100 lumens (lumen = unit of light amount – “brightness”), while a typical 4.5 watt LED bulb is about 350 lumens. In short, halogen makes a lot better reading lights (or brighter spotlights) than comparable LED’s.

On the other hand, halogen are higher wattage bulbs which mean they use more electricity. The bulbs last 2000 hours and typically have to be replaced every 1-2 years. Performance of halogen lights is critically dependent on getting just the right amount of voltage to each light, 10.5 – 12 Volts. That means careful layout and sizing of the wires running to the lights and the ability of the installer to understand and calculate voltage drop. A little too little or a little too much voltage at a light means they burn out very quickly. Don’t try this at home unless you understand voltage drop.

Synopsis: PROS – reasonable initial cost, excellent light output and color ranges. CONS – Higher energy usage, higher maintenance cost in replacing bulbs.

LED: LED is a much newer technology. One might say it’s just getting out of it’s pioneer days as a landscape lighting technology. LED lamps work by electricity flowing through a semiconducting diode. What is that you ask? . . . I don’t know, but instead of a filament glowing red hot, like in an incandescent bulb, there are a bunch of electrons that get all excited and moving around and they throw off a luminescence. Granted that’s not the best technical explanation, but dagnabbit! I don’t make these things I just install them out in the landscape.

LED’s produce little to no heat and use much lower wattages which means electrical savings and a lot more landscape lights per transformer used. The lamp ratings on LED’s are from 20,000 – 50,000 hours of life. There is really no way to be sure of the upper hour rating because LED’s haven’t been long enough out in the landscape to verify it. Still, it’s a lot longer than halogen.

LED’s can operate on a larger voltage range than halogen. If you only get 8 volts to a 12 volt LED, it doesn’t burn out as a halogen would.Iit just doesn’t shine very brightly. Wire runs and sizes are still important for consistency of light quality, but not as critical to whether it actually works or not.
As LED’s become more accepted, their price will come down. That’s part of the impetus behind the 2007 federal light bulb efficiency law (or “light bulb socialism” as some folks like to call it) that started into effect this year. The standards require manufacturers to phase out the production of low efficiency incandescent bulbs (you can get high efficiency incandescent instead) and linear fluorescents to encourage production of LED’s and CFL’s (compact fluorescents, those squirrelly looking bulbs). Similar or stricter legislation is in place in the European Union, China, Russia, Canada, Brazil to name just a few countries. The legislation was very controversial and the Republicans successfully blocked funding for its enforcement. . . And it’s about time somebody stood up for our incandescent rights! No dagnabbit government’s going to tell me how to stop wasting my energy dollars. If they want my low efficiency incandescent bulb, why then let them come to my home and pry it from my cold dead hands!! . . . Oops, I guess I’m getting off topic.

LED’s see a reduction both in color quality and intensity sometimes within a couple of years. “Warmer color” light (think reddish-yellow color) relies on lamp coatings that degrade over timeand cause the lamp to shift to “cooler colors” (think bluish-white). Warmer colors are usually more desirable in landscape lighting.

Synopsis: PROS – Longer lamp life, lower energy usage, more lights can be run from a single transformer, more flexibility in wire runs and sizing. CONS – Higher initial cost, lower lumen output, less flexibility in luminaires and lamp colors

In the soon-to-come Part II. I’ll look at an energy cost comparison of LED to halogen.

F & P