By Luke Frank
Hunting season is almost upon us. Every year, we clean and tune up our gear knowing that on an old irrigation site there’s a 50/50 chance things could go our way. Whether we like it our not, there’s a decent chance for some kind of an irrigation system failure, and often the bigger challenge is finding — not fixing — the problem.
What will be the prize this year? A compression fitting on zone three that was installed about eight years ago when a trencher nicked the piping? An electrical splice hastily executed last summer and buried outside the valve box? Who’s going to have to find it and how fast?
I’ve always felt badly for irrigation crews, regularly dispatched on mapless treasure hunts. No clues; no markers; no direction just find it and fix it. They’ve had to fumble around in the dark for as long as we’ve had…well…darkness.
I guess it’s just part of the training. After all, you can throw just about anything at a seasoned foreman. Eventually, he or she can find a 30-year-old old irrigation drain somewhere on the east end of a 10-acre park; or the original six-inch asbestos main from an old nursery buried three feet deep. But it takes a lot of time, patience, inspection, reflection, and, perhaps most of all, shoveling.
Get your as-builts in gear
Why would anybody not have a “map” to their site? I would expect every property manager to have some idea where specific site features could be quickly located, just out of good, old-fashioned CYA and paranoia. Minimally, a property owner and an irrigation manager should have an accurate map of the irrigation (and landscape) project, detailing exactly when and where irrigation features are installed, modified, upgraded and removed.
Irrigation as-builts are worth their weight in gold, and the more current and accurate, the better. You can usually recognize a site that doesn’t work off an as-built. You see long trenching scars in the turf from exploratory surgeries. Grass around some of the valve boxes looks different from the rest of the landscape.
GPS as-built drawings
If you’re managing a large turf site, Global Positioning System (GPS) might be the way to go. GPS refers to a network of satellites that can provide accurate positions anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. It’s become a pretty hot product in the golf industry, because you can catalogue so much detail about the entire course — from turf and tree species to bunkers and water hazards to landscaped areas and parking lots.
The same can be applied to a network of campuses or municipal parks. In addition to locating details of irrigation piping and electrical runs, individual system components (to the year, make and model), and repairs, you can document the exact square footage, linear footage and acreage of your site and all of its features. The square footage information can be used to calculate chemical and fertilizer requirements.
GPS as-builts record with astounding precision the location of every single irrigation head, valve, pipe and fitting, electrical and control line, drain and air-relief valve. Even on a five-acre site, such information saves time and money.
Get it on paper
We’re all stuck with what we inherit. There are too many large landscape sites out there without any drawings or documentation whatsoever. One of the biggest challenges when arriving at a new site is not having enough documentation of the existing system, so out come the tape measures and measuring wheels. But they can’t tell you what parts of an antiquated irrigation system have been altered over the decades. Even if you have blueprints, system changes rarely are recorded.
If you can’t go GPS, at least get started this spring with some kind of baseline project map and inventory record. Audit as many zones as you can and record their performance, too. Flag where on the site you’re seeing repeat offenses be it a bad thrust block or a weeping valve.
Stop working in the muck wearing a blindfold, feeling around for system repairs and upgrades. Hand-trenching across turf to locate irrigation lines or equipment is about as inspiring as breaking granite into sand.
I always marvel at a crew of three or four guys up to their waist in a hole guarded by a couple of trucksters:
“What are you guys lookin’ for?” I ask.
“Ah, a crusty old isolation valve that we can’t get to close.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Dove into it first thing this morning,” they admit.
“Good luck,” I say.
“Thanks, looks like we’re gonna need it.”
If you’re going to send them on a treasure hunt, at least give them some clues.
Luke Frank has been an editor and publisher in the green industry for the past 17 years, addressing water resource development, management and conservation through the irrigation profession. His field experience includes 17 years as an irrigation foreman, contractor and manager in the landscape, turf, golf and nursery industries. He currently resides in Albuquerque, N.M. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.