Pick up a few new clients this season? Inherit a nightmare or two along with them? I think my favorite was a vest-pocket park with an eight-zone controller mounted on a giant cottonwood. The power cord and station wires twisted around the trunk and disappeared into the ground below. It’s amazing what’s out there, and how “out-there” some folks are.

If you weren’t able to get to a full system evaluation when bidding on new jobs, you should conduct one now. A very deliberate, comprehensive site walk-through will help you to document an irrigation system’s strengths and weaknesses; identify adjustments, repairs and upgrades; and flag imminent disasters. Plus, you’ll save time, money, water and plant material.


Start with the brains — the controller

* Look for an owner’s manual and warranty.

* Record the controller’s general condition, the number of active and potential stations, percent-adjust feature, multiple runtime capabilities, weather/sensor input devices, and any other control features of note.

* Note whether or not programming is different for individual stations based on days, start times, run times and any cycle-soak programming.

* Check the wiring at the controller for loose connections, cracking insulation, etc.


Go to the veins — stations, wiring and piping

Now it’s time for a more intensive, station-by-station system evaluation. Hopefully you’ll have an irrigation system as-built to follow.

* For each station, note the type of emission device used, what plant material it is targeted to water, and whether it is properly zoned.

* Check that heads or emitters on each zone are compatible with the plant type, various microclimate exposures, and significant slopes that can affect sprinkler distribution.

* Look for rotors, spray heads and/or drip on the same zone and make that correction. Each zone should be comprised of the same make and model of heads or emitters.

* Check that the plant material being watered within a zone has compatible watering needs. Areas in direct sunlight should not be zoned with those in shaded areas.

* Ensure that all emission devices are compatible with the plant material they are intended to water. Drip doesn’t work well for turf, while large rotors aren’t really the best application for annual beds.

* Inspect any cross-connections, ensuring that any and all backflow preventers are up to local codes. Alert the property owner of any apparent leaks or damage to the devices.

* Check that the rain sensor is installed in an unobstructed location, away from potential damage or vandalism from animals or people. Ensure the sensor itself is in good working order, removing any animal, plant or building deposits that might affect performance.

* Check the condition of the valves and whether or not they’re in a protective enclosure.

* Dig into the valve box. Look for weeping, leaking or malfunctioning valves.

* Check the condition of the wiring and splices. Look for visible breaks, poor connections or damaged insulation.

* Use your volt-ohm meter to check for any significant wiring problems.


Look for the stains — unhealthy markers in the landscape

Irrigation issues generally will present themselves pretty quickly. Poor coverage uniformity may have less to do with sprinkler spacing than excessive or inadequate pressure, clogged or damaged nozzles, improper sprinkler alignment, damaged heads or risers, and so forth.

Look at the site history — water stains on driveways and parking lots, sidewalks and walkways, fences and walls, light poles and mailboxes, etc. There are ample clues that point to long-term water waste. Disease problems, hot spots in the turf, damaged foliage, moss, salt crust or standing water also are pretty good indicators of over- or under-watering. Also, check for deficiencies at the site — such as soil compaction, thatch build-up and pests — that can be improved by cultural practices. Solutions can range from aerifying and topdressing to installing or rearranging hardscape features to better route equipment and pedestrian traffic through the site.

Finally, watch the irrigation system operate through a set, looking for the obvious:

* Spray patterns blocked by plant material or hardscape features;

* Spray patterns misdirected onto fences, sidewalks, etc.;

* Sprinkler heads installed below or significantly above grade;

* Sprinkler heads not perpendicular to the surface;

* Sprinkler heads not rotating;

* Clogged or worn sprinkler heads and emitters;

* Uneven pressures;

* And differing precipitation rates.

Congratulations on your new clients. No doubt they have great expectations about your

abilities and resources to make them look good — regardless of their abilities and resources. One of the quickest ways to a healthy landscape is an irrigation system that performs. Conduct that initial inspection and make the obvious adjustments. And, if you come across a sprinkler head mounted on a bird feeder, take a picture for me before you make any “adjustments.”


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 lukefrank@comcast.net.