Whether they're installed in a residential backyard, a park or a corporate campus, irrigation systems take a beating. Harsh outdoor elements, wildlife, kids, pets, vandals and even seemingly innocent objects such as snow shovels, lawn mowers, and snow throwers can damage system components. According to Jeremy Mansell, senior technical trainer with Rain Bird’s Service Division, an irrigation system can be compared to any mechanical system that requires regular maintenance.
Irrigation System Maintenance
By Lynette Von Minden
Whether they’re installed in a residential backyard, a park or a corporate campus, irrigation systems take a beating. Harsh outdoor elements, wildlife, kids, pets, vandals and even seemingly innocent objects such as snow shovels, lawn mowers, and snow throwers can damage system components. Even having just one malfunctioning spray or rotor can cause major performance and water consumption problems over time. According to Jeremy Mansell, senior technical trainer with Rain Bird’s Service Division, an irrigation system can be compared to any mechanical system that requires regular maintenance.
“I used to be an irrigation contractor; and when my customers were reluctant to discuss a maintenance plan, I compared their systems to a vehicle that needs an oil change,” Mansell explained. “Everyone understands it from that perspective. If you want any mechanical system to function as efficiently as possible, it has to be maintained properly.”
Spring is an ideal time for contractors to suggest a comprehensive system check-up. During the winter months, a number of problems can occur unbeknownst to the property owner, leading to a particularly nasty surprise the first time they activate their system in the spring. Small animals can crawl into any openings in the piping system, blocking the flow of water. A snow shovel, snow thrower or city snowplow can throw a spray or rotor near the street out of adjustment or remove it completely. A missing nozzle will not only cause a significant loss of water, it will also lead to lower pressure at the other heads, keeping them from popping up and running like they should.
Other issues can arise from improper winterization. Water remaining in the system can freeze and expand, and everything that doesn’t give is going to be broken. There are also potential problems that can take place during the winterization process itself.
“Many contractors run compressed air through irrigation systems to remove any remaining water,” said Mansell. “Some contractors will hook up their compressors at the backflow prevention device to remove air from those lines, which is actually illegal in some areas. This can cause damage to the backflow device itself. The higher temperature of the compressed air can cause check valves and valve diaphragms to warp if run for too much time. This same heat can also damage rotor gear drive mechanisms. When the system is turned back on, the valves will leak, and rotors won’t rotate.”
Although it may seem second nature to contractors, many homeowners don’t consider the impact that adding new garden sheds, fences, hardscapes, trees or planting beds can have on an irrigation system’s overall design. As a part of regular maintenance, contractors should keep their eyes open for any changes that homeowners may have made to the landscape since their last visit.
“Often, after a system is installed, a homeowner may decide to put in a planter bed in an area that’s irrigated with rotors,” said Mansell. “The plants and shrubs in the bed end up getting too much water, and because the entire bed is getting sprayed, weeds spring up in the rock or mulch. Or, they may plant a tree, shrub or ornamental grass right in front of a rotor, blocking the spray from reaching the turf beyond it. Then the turf starts to turn brown. Most homeowners will then simply increase their sprinkler runtimes, which leads to even more wasted water because the rest of the turf doesn’t need it.”
As ludicrous as it may seem, Mansell has even seen entire heads encased in concrete following a hardscape installation. “At this particular site, some hardscape people were hired to come in and pour a pad,” he said. “They had been given specs and a location, and they didn’t question them. They poured the concrete right over the heads. It happens more often than you think.”
Even if concrete or other hardscape materials aren’t installed directly over heads, they can still make a difference in the system’s overall design. Existing rotors or sprays will need to be adjusted so they’re not spraying water unnecessarily onto the hardscape. Some heads may need to be moved in order to ensure greater system efficiency.
For the full article, including tips for upgrades, routine maintenance and communicating with customers, see the June issue of Landscape and Irrigation, avaialble June 2.
Lynette Von Minden is senior public relations counsel at Swanson Russell.