Recognizing, Preventing & Fixing: A Damaged Irrigation System


Most contractors know that 50 percent of the water used in many households goes to irrigating their lawns and ornamentals. A damaged irrigation system means that much of this valuable water is wasted either through over-watering, runoff or evaporation.

Irrigation systems are made up of many different components, any one of which could fail and result in water waste and perhaps even damage to plants or nearby structures. It’s inevitable that each component is going to have an issue somewhere at some time along the line.

Whether installed in a residential backyard, a community park, corporate campus or shopping mall grounds, irrigation systems take a beating from Mother Nature and also by humans. Even a single malfunctioning spray or rotor can cause major performance issues and water consumption problems over time.

In a contractor-installed environment, homeowners are inevitably going to go out and try to fine-tune their systems on their own. There will be confusion over the timer settings and they will end up pushing a lot of buttons that will throw off or even shut down the system.

Hunter Industries has identified the top five factors for irrigation system damage consisting of a breakdown of the components within the system. The list includes: program repeats on controllers, matched precipitation rates on rotors, valves not closing, controllers not starting the cycle and rotors not fully popping up. With this list in mind, let’s take a look at each component, how it gets damaged and what measures can be taken to repair it.

Top 5 components that get damaged

Damage to the valves is usually detected when the system is unable to be turned on or off. Valves can stick and not close and certain zones can’t be turned on or won’t shut off. This problem can be attributed to debris in the valve, a rip in the diaphragm or even faulty wiring or burnt out solenoids (see wiring). Examine the diaphragm and spring. The diaphragm should be clean and free of wrinkles, tears and perforations. The seal should be clean and free of nicks, dents or abrasions. The valve body may need to be cleaned of debris, pebbles or dirty water. The seal seat should be clean and free of nicks, grooves or abrasions.

Rotor heads.
Sprinklers will break down over time. Gear drives and seals fail and stop turning. Most will last from three to six years if untouched. When heads stick up in the lawn, mowers will get them (in winter, snow removal equipment can be the culprit) and when they stay down, there will inevitably be dry spots there. Lawn mowers and wet soil can also cause newly installed sprinkler heads to “tilt” resulting in uneven coverage. Installing heads on swing pipe allows the head to “float” in the soil and moves the head out of the line of mowers and other equipment that may cause the head to settle or shift. Otherwise, reposition the head and pack the soil around it carefully.

Clogged or broken nozzles occur as a result of debris entering the irrigation system, a dirty water source and normal wear and tear. Nozzles affect precipitation rates, the speed at which water is being applied to a specific area. For dry areas, install a larger nozzle. For wet areas, install a smaller nozzle. You can help prevent nozzle damage by flushing systems at the beginning of the irrigation system, installation screens on sprinkler heads, replacing clogged nozzles and improving system filtration.

Control panel.
Lightning or homeowners adjusting the panel incorrectly can damage a system’s control panel. The age and quality of controllers can also be factors. A common reason for a controller to repeat a cycle is too many programmed start times. Sometimes the cycle can’t be started at all. This could be a programming issue, an electricity/voltage supply to controller station issue, rain sensor wire problem or main irrigation water supply closure.

Electrical wiring.
Electrical problems happen when the signal from the controller to the valve fails to connect and shorts out. Wire is sure to break over time if it is exposed to the elements. Or rodents or underground construction or utility work may be to blame for the damage. The wire needs to carry 24 to 28 volts for solenoids to work correctly. Solenoids fail for multiple reasons. Shorts in a solenoid can be detected with an ohms meter. Tracking the wire can be time-consuming, and in some cases the break is just a fracture and the signal can pass through indicating no break in the wire.

Broken pipes leak. Workers using shovels or construction equipment can damage pipes. Other causes include excessive hard freezes and thaws, tree roots growing through pipes, improper installation, high pressure and normal aging. Leaks from valves and pipe may be large and obvious. Smaller leaks will not be so obvious and may require some detective work.

The client mindset

“Homeowners don’t often give much thought to their irrigation system like contractors hope they would,” says B.J. Jones, senior marketing manager of Toro Irrigation. “Once it’s running, they forget about it. If they pull up into their driveways and see green grass and everything around it is lush and healthy, they are not going to think twice about it. They don’t want to stop their life to look at irrigation issues.”

Robert Maxvill, president of Aquamax Sprinkler System, which is based in Dallas and has 30 employees, says most of his sprinkler systems are programmed to come on early mornings when the homeowner can’t observe water flow.

Sprinklers can break down over time and can also be damaged by mowers or snow removal equipment.

Busy Bee Lawn Care & Sprinkler Repair, a small irrigation shop with a dozen employees in Columbia, South Carolina, specializes in irrigation sprinkler systems that need repair. Ashley Brooks, its owner, says his technicians frequently encounter timers set to water-wasting schedules. In many cases, property owners are to blame.

“One of the most common problems is when two or more programs are enabled resulting in over-watering,” says Brooks. “Other issues with the Toro Timer occur when the current time and date are not properly set. As part of Busy Bee’s annual system startup in the spring, it sets the timer and encourages homeowners to keep their hands off.”

Jones says customer education is vital when it comes to efficient irrigation. He stresses that contractors need to let clients know that system failures will happen and most of the time they can be easily fixed.

Something like a mainline break is hard to predict until it happens, but regular observation and inspection of irrigation systems is what the contractor will do for you. They will catch the majority of problems before they happen. They notice things that homeowners won’t. But, they need to set up a schedule with you for good continual monitoring of the system to know how it’s operating. It’s imperative for correcting issues before they manifest into something that becomes more damaging.

Your damage prevention plan

“The key is to make sure the sprinkler system is checked regularly whether by the contractor or its owner,” says Maxvill. “Most controllers now have a setting for a test program which can be set for one or two minutes. This will allow each zone to come on for one or two minutes so you can check to make sure coverage is good, you don’t have any leaks, broken heads or clogged nozzles. Contractors can offer maintenance contracts so the sprinkler system can be thoroughly checked for problems every three months or so. Homeowners should be encouraged to still test their controllers once a month during irrigation season.”

On its larger accounts, H2O Irrigation, a Boston-based shop with $1 million revenue and 10 employees, installs central control systems to monitor its clients’ irrigation system flow rates. “With these systems, we can see changes in flow indicating leaks in the system,” says president Kyle Desmarais. “The systems can also detect shorts with solenoids.”

Damage repair challenges

Brooks of Busy Bees identifies the biggest challenges that his repair specialists face. “Working in extreme hot and cold conditions, and coming in close contact with mud, dirt and bugs are definitely challenging,” he says. “Then, being able to go from that dirty job to the job of presenting yourself neatly as a salesman is quite a trick. Coupling that skill with salesmanship, responsibility, accountability and brute force make irrigation techs quite a rare breed.” Also making Brooks’ list is keeping up with the schedule when each job takes an unknown amount of time and pricing jobs correctly.

Maxvill identifies broken pipes and electrical shorts as some of the most serious issues his techs face with damaged irrigation systems. “The amount of water running through the sprinkler pipes is high in quantity and supports the flow of water throughout the entire system,” he says. This loss of water can really cost the homeowner large sums of money and impacts the customer relationship if it’s perceived that it’s the contractor’s fault.

And about wiring, Maxvill says: “Locating wiring problems underground can be especially hard. Because the electrical equipment we use is subject to electrical interference from cable, phone and electric lines underground, a wiring problem may never be found, and a new wire may have to be run to replace the broken one.”

Burnet says damaged heads are one of the most difficult observations to detect. “We all see those gushers that can wash out a lawn, but it can go undetected for a long time. And it’s such a simple fix. It can be just a matter of swapping out a head or the guts of a head or replacing a nozzle. “Dripline systems are a second challenge,” he says. “You may not recognize that they are running. Most often you can’t tell unless there’s a wet spot on the ground. Clogged emitters or blown out emitters will spray water.”

On average, Jones says, contractors are dealing with systems that are 10 to 15 years old. But contractors can also run into homeowners who have had the same controllers for 30-plus years with only heads and valves replaced over the years. Replacing parts on irrigation systems as new as five years old is standard procedure. “That’s the usual time that homeowners think about actual proactive repairs to their irrigation system,” he says.

Recently customer demand for retrofits have come into play when it comes to efficiency standards either through cost incentives or municipal mandates. Jones observes that in Southern California where Toro is based, retrofitting old systems are popular because water agencies there offer free water-saving sprinklers and nozzles. But most requests for new irrigation systems happen only when entire landscapes need to be replaced. “That’s when its best to offer a total new irrigation system,” says Jones. “Otherwise, it’s difficult to convince homeowners that an entirely new system is needed when they have experience just one or two components needing replacement over the years.”