Running Water

This father-and-son team are water bearers for thirsty terrain

by Holly Hungerford

Dick and Rick VillamilDick Villamil (right) founded Aquarius Landscape Sprinklers Inc. in 1988, as a way to fill time between jobs. His son, Rick, who was in high school at the time, is now company president and about to take the reins.

“You have to think like a drop of water,” says Rick Villamil, president of Aquarius Landscape Sprinklers in Colchester. 

“The best fertilizer is the footstep of the farmer; you have to get out there and do your inspections on a regular basis,” adds Dick Villamil, Rick’s dad, the company’s founder and vice president. 

The Villamils have been applying both strategies to their work since 1988, when Dick started the company with Jim Wood and Steve Payea. Rick was in high school at the time and began working for Aquarius during the summer, along with many of his friends. The growing business guaranteed summer work for the young crew through high school and college. Upon graduating with a bachelor of arts in communications from Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, Rick stayed on at Aquarius. Today, Dick is in the process of turning the company over to him. 

Born in Warwick, N.Y., Dick earned a bachelor’s degree in botany from Drew University, a master’s degree in ecology from Rutgers, and his Ph.D. in plant and soil science — specifically the movement of water in the soil — from the University of Vermont. From 1974 to its closing in 1999, he taught at Trinity College in Burlington. Summers, he worked as a UVM Extension Service agent. “I spent probably 10 or so years as summer horticulturalist before they had the master gardener,” says Dick. It was there that he became aware of the need for effective landscape watering. 

“I kept a record of all the questions that came in,” he recalls, “and a lot of the problems were watering problems; that was the big thing.” 

“A lot of people were calling up the Extension Service asking how to resolve their problems with dry grass,” adds Rick. “What my father was finding out was that water and proper watering — not too much over watering — were key.” 

In the summer of 1987, just for something to do, since he wasn’t teaching during those months and the Extension Service job was coming to an end, Dick teamed up with his friend Jim Wood, a builder, to do an irrigation project, “and that’s how it all began,” he says with a laugh. Aquarius was incorporated in 1988 with Wood and Payea as his partners. Payea left the company two years later, and in 1992, Wood left, leaving Dick the sole owner of the company.

Jason and Jacques BurkeAs the number of Vermonters living in high-end housing has increased, so has the need for irrigation. Jason Soboslai (left) and Jacques Burke are senior installers.

The busiest months of the year for Aquarius are April through December. During that period, the company employs from eight to as many as 15 full-time people in the field. There are two service trucks on the road at all times, and the company usually has three projects going at once. Since the service area covers Vermont, northern New Hampshire, and northern New York, bad weather at one job site won’t necessarily mean bad weather at all the job sites, making it possible to keep working each day on one project or another. 

During the off-season, when Rick, Dick, and office manager Donna Holmes are the only ones in the office, as-builts are updated, quotes prepared, job sites visited, and parts ordered. Aquarius is also involved with the Vermont Home and Garden Show and the Vermont Flower Show, as both a vendor and an organizer.

At first blush, Vermont doesn’t seem like a place where much landscape watering is needed. Dick argues that fact. “Vermont changed significantly in the ’90s, and I saw this through the Extension Service back in the ’80s. Landscaping became a lot more sophisticated as new people, moving into high-end housing, wanted mature gardens right from the start, so they were over-planting. The interest in lawns went from ‘Let’s keep it green,’ to ‘Let’s have a real lawn.’” 

Over-planting makes the plants compete for moisture, and after about a year, they begin dying off, explains Dick. Enter the need for irrigation. Rick adds that a boom in the landscaping business during that time led to landscapers’ looking for help in specific areas, be it drainage, irrigation, or tree cultivation. Aquarius filled the niche. 

There is an aspect of conservation to the business as well. “Plants don’t need all the fertilizers and pesticides if they are properly watered,” says Dick. 

Proper watering, he adds, also helps conserve water by putting it exactly where it needs to be — instead of on roads or driveways or areas that don’t need that irrigation, and at the best time of day to make the most of the watering and put the least stress on the client’s water system. 

An Aquarius system can include timers, rain sensors, freeze sensors, flow sensors, and remote controls. Some systems can even be hooked up to computers so the owners can monitor them from anywhere in the world with Internet access. Should they wish to literally keep an eye on the system, sprinkler cams are available.  

Aquarius serves customers large and small, commercial and residential. Since July 2008, small residential jobs — those that run about $5,000 or less — have declined by about 75 percent, says Dick, but people are still interested, and the company continues to design new residential systems. 

Making it easier for homeowners to get the system they want in a down economy, Aquarius offers a do-it-yourself option: Homeowners learn what needs to be done and then do part of the installation themselves. Company employees visit the site to fine-tune the installation and continue to service it. 

“This came about because we noticed, with the large box stores, there were a lot more weekend warriors,” says Rick. Aquarius has been offering this option for seven or eight years, and it is available to commercial and municipal clients as well. 

Ted Ryan, park supervisor for Colchester Parks & Recreation, has worked with Aquarius for about 15 years. One of the things he likes about the company is that it has allowed town volunteers to work on a project, thereby decreasing the cost and saving the town money. “I’m happy with the work Aquarius does,” he says. “The price is right, and Dick knows the business inside and out.” 

Over the years, the company has designed and installed systems for most of the Colchester athletic fields. Larger projects include the landing hill at the ski jump in Lake Placid, N.Y.; the Wyeth manufacturing plant in Chazy, N.Y., where all the landscaping is watered using the plant’s grey water; and various state and city beautification projects. Each client is given a customized owner’s manual at the end of the job detailing mowing, liming, lawn care, and shrub care, and the company services all its systems should a problem arise.

Away from the sprinkler business, Rick enjoys sailing in the summer and skiing, snowboarding, and playing hockey in winter. He has been married to South Burlington native Jennifer Parot for six years. They have two children, Annabella, 4, and Richard James IV, 2, nicknamed R.J.

Family is very important to him, he says, as he mentions he was a stay-at-home dad for two winters and is particularly close to Jennifer’s family. “I felt like I fit right in,” he says of meeting them for the first time.

Rick developed a particularly close relationship with Jennifer’s brother, Shannon, says Dick, who recalls Rick’s saying, “You know, it’s really nice to finally have a brother.” Rick still struggles when he talks of Shannon’s death two years ago, at age 29, from complications due to Crohn’s disease. 

Dick and his wife, Beverly, a retired nurse, love to sail in the summer, ski in the winter, and spend time fishing, looking for worms, or otherwise exploring nature with their grandchildren (who include Rick’s two and Moira, born to their daughter, Kara, last winter).

Donna HolmesThe busiest months for Aquarius are April through December, when the company employs as many as 15 full-timers. In the off-season, Donna Holmes, office manager, is the only employee in the office with Dick and Rick.

Dick is the former representative for Essex to the Chittenden Solid Waste District and the Winooski Valley Park District. He was superintendent of fruits and vegetables at the Champlain Valley Fair for 10 years and was appointed by former Gov. Madeleine Kunin to the Whey Pollution Abatement Authority, which he eventually chaired.

As he moves into his new position as company head, Rick is looking to the future. “I’d like to have a retail front where I can offer the different brands and also education,” he says. “The average joe — the weekend warrior — is going into these projects without any education. I’d like to have a retail front with a classroom out back and offer monthly, or maybe weekly, classes.”

He’s also thinking about moving somewhat away from installations and expanding service, such as providing seasonal service at the beginning and end of the irrigation season, and increased design services and sales. 

As Aquarius moves into its next stage of life, Rick wants to be sure his father’s legacy continues. “It’s one thing to have a company,” he says; “it’s another thing to have a legacy.” •