CEO Gary Klinefelter of Edina-based IrriGreen has won innovation and green-tech technology awards and earned patents for the water-saving software built into his IrriGreen Genius rotating sprinklers.

Independent researchers at the International Center for Water Technology at Fresno State University in California concluded last year that the Genius dispenses at least 40 percent less water while achieving the same soil moisture as conventional systems. Anecdotal tests with individual homeowners put the savings at closer to 50 percent.

Patient Minnesota individual investors have pumped in about $2 million to get the six-year-old company up and running and available through 30-some distributors who do business with housing contractors throughout the country, most recently Coast Water Technologies with 20 warehouse locations that make it among the largest in Florida.

But superior innovation and technology don’t necessarily result in a roaring sales engine.

Klinefelter, an electrical engineer and veteran software executive at the former Fargo Electronics, recalls that the one-time CEO of that company once mused: “Pioneering doesn’t pay.”

“We’re trying to introduce Wi-Fi and electronic sensors and [one] electronic sprinkler head to an industry where people are used to shovels to dig and put a lot of sprinkler heads in the ground,” Klinefelter said. “We’re one level removed from the consumer.”

Building contractors tend to prefer installing traditional systems for as little as $2,500-plus compared to at least $3,500 for an IrriGreen system. The savings is realized by the homeowner over several years in dollars and the satisfaction for some that they saved precious drinkable water in an era of rising water and sewage costs.

Klinefelter, who declines to discuss the company’s revenue, said IrriGreen needs an institutional investor to provide capital that would permit IrriGreen to market to growing ranks of “green-oriented” homeowners in need of a new or replacement system. Or it would be open to being acquired by a major manufacturer or distributor in the housing or hardware trade.

“We’ve looked for strategic partners,” said Klinefelter, who introduced the product to the market in 2014, removed it in 2015 to develop a mobile-device-control system, such as an iPhone or iPad, that’s easy to use for homeowners.

“Our shareholders have been patient and gracious and that has sustained us,” Klinefelter said. “We think we have the software and technology to really grow this firm, but we need a strategic partner.”

Lowell Kaufhold, owner of CPS Inc., a Denver-based distributor of housing-contract supplies with 13 locations in water-scarce Colorado and Wyoming, said there is growing interest among contractors in the area in installing the IrriGreen product, but it takes education and time to understand a disruptive technology with a long-term payback that may not be the cheapest to install.

Similarly, President Matthew Phillips of Coast Pump Water Technologies, which has 50 warehouses in Florida, said the IrriGreen system can reduce water use by 50 percent, is installed in half the time and uses fewer sprinkler heads and less pipe than traditional systems.

“IrriGreen’s smart sprinklers install with just one computer-controlled head per zone and no lateral lines and that saves labor,” Phillips said earlier this month after agreeing to distribute IrriGreen’s system. “The system waters to the exact shape of the lawn. That saves water.

It’s been an exhausting but validating five years, if not enriching, for Klinefelter and his several-person staff. They operate from a small, inauspicious office-and-storage space in an Edina office park. An IrriGreen trade show exhibit in the storage area demonstrates how one sprayer can concentrate water in a 60-foot circle of fake turf. With one computerized “smart” sprinkler head per zone, instead of six to nine ordinary rotors, IrriGreen requires less digging, pipe, wire and valves.

Although water prices remain relatively cheap in some regions, some municipalities do limit watering during the summer.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that the U.S. is depleting aquifers around the country as agriculture and huge lawns compete for clean water with human consumption and other uses. EPA says 7 billion gallons of water are used on landscape every day nationally and 50 percent of that is wasted through evaporation and overwatering.

Even in relatively water rich Minnesota a crisis looms.

Certain suburbs, such as Eden Prairie, restrict water because of serious drawdowns of their wells. And local governments can be forced to expand their water-treatment facilities because of growing population and demand.

Richfield joined a growing list of suburbs last year that restricted lawn watering.

The seven-county Twin Cities region uses about 113 billion gallons of water each year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. And usage jumps sharply during the summer; about 568 million gallons a day, compared with about 265 million gallons daily during the cooler months.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.