Reactivation, inspection, tuneup, evaluation, system turn-on—no matter what terminology is used, irrigation systems are routinely evaluated for proper operation and condition. In northern climates, where the systems are shut down completely and purged of water to prevent freeze damage, the inspection and evaluation process is often done in the spring, when the system is being reactivated for the growing season.
Traditionally, this process has been fairly simple, with the water being re-introduced to the system and each component visually inspected for damage or wear and either repaired or replaced only as necessary. Like most tasks in the landscape irrigation industry, this procedure is overdue for an upgrade into the world of landscape water management. For simplicity, this article will refer to this service as an inspection.
Each system inspection should begin at its water supply. The supply may be a connection to a potable or reclaimed municipal water system, a well, a river, lake, or other body of water, or a “harvested” water supply such as captured rainwater. Each component of the source should be inspected carefully and any worn or damaged parts should be replaced or repaired.
These include suction lines and filtration systems, pumps and pump system controls, system shut-off valves, meters, pressure regulation devices, chemigation and treatment systems, and backflow prevention units. Some of these, such as backflow devices, are subject to various local codes and regulations and may need to be serviced and/or certified by a licensed professional; in some states, this may require a licensed plumber. Others, such as pump and chemigation systems are often complex, and should be examined and maintained by properly trained individuals.
Similar to shingles, siding, gutters, and many other materials, the sprinkler heads, emitters, and valves in an irrigation system have a useful lifespan. Much like shingles, each component in a system may last slightly longer than another, but it usually is not cost effective for only a few to be replaced at one time.
Imagine the overall labor cost if one was to replace shingles a one or two at a time. Not only would the cost be prohibitive, but by the time the entire roof was recovered, the owner of the building would be exposed to additional problems such as rotted sheeting or interior damage.
Evaluating the age and overall condition of all of the components is one of the steps that should be part of any inspection. The “average” life of these components will vary greatly depending on local conditions and maintenance, but typically will be between five and 20 years. A budget for replacing a certain percentage of each should be established and become part of the expected maintenance of a system.
Beyond normal wear and tear, the sites in which irrigation systems are installed also change over time. Plant materials may have been replaced or removed, hardscapes and structures could have been expanded or added, or other modifications to the landscape may have taken place. Any periodic inspection should include checking for plant growth that may affect the performance of a component, such as making sure the sprinkler heads are straight and level, and the nozzles are not plugged. Blocked nozzles, overgrown landscape plantings, and sunken or crooked heads are all items that will reduce the effective distribution of water from a sprinkler, resulting in higher water costs or stressed plants.
Another often overlooked aspect is the verification that sprinklers are nozzled properly for matched precipitation rate, and are installed at the proper spacing, typically “head to head.” Turf and other plant materials will actually grow over sprinklers and prevent them from popping up, especially on smaller spray heads.
For instance, if there is a line of heads with a spacing of 15 feet, and suddenly there is a gap of 30 feet, chances are extremely high that there is an overgrown head that needs to be located and exposed, properly cleaned or replaced.
Drip and micro irrigation components should be visually checked, and their filters inspected and cleaned to minimize clogging. Control systems must be inspected to make sure they are operating the zone valves properly, and the programming checked and modified as needed for the current seasonal plant water requirements.
Many controllers offer options to pre-program monthly percentages, so you may have the capability to set up a changing schedule to help manage the site’s water use and plant health. Some maintenance professionals will provide a written suggested watering schedule, based on historical regional plant water needs; others simply set a base program and leave it up to the site manager to choose weekly or monthly modifications.
The proper operation of any and all sensors should be verified as part of this process and may include simple sensors, such as a rain or freeze shut-off device, or might be as elaborate as a weather station. Some of these sensors are wireless, and require the sensing unit to be located and checked, and to install new batteries as needed.
Today’s irrigation system control technology is progressing at light speed, and includes many cost-effective “Smart” systems that can often save a customer substantially on their water bills. The return on a client’s investment in a “Smart” control system can often be realized within just a few seasons, but will not happen unless the rest of the system is brought to, and kept in, proper operating condition.
Some systems link directly with the Internet and allow for remote monitoring and modification of the system’s performance and schedule. The diversity and complexity of control systems requires that a substantial effort be made on a regular basis to stay abreast of new options.
Battery-activated zone valves are sometimes utilized to gain control of zones where the wires have failed, or to add irrigation when the controller is ‘maxed’ but the site requires additional irrigation. These valves need to be located and the batteries changed at this time to make sure they will operate throughout the season. Failure to locate and check these zones can result in unhealthy plant material as well as unhappy customers.
Some irrigation systems, such as golf course and athletic field systems, may have valve-in-head sprinklers installed, and each of these will need to be checked for its operation. Often there are a multiple of these heads that are set up to operate simultaneously, and the inspector should make sure all are activating properly. This is important not only for the obvious coverage issues that may occur if they are not all coming on, but can also result in damage to pump systems and piping components, due to pressure and water hammer problems.
Many of these units, especially on older systems that are located in lightning prone areas, may use hydraulic control systems instead of electric circuitry. Hydraulic control systems have some unique maintenance requirements, but the keys during the inspection process are to look and/or listen for leaks in the tubing. Then you need to inspect and clean the filter that is typically installed on the supply line, providing water to the controller. If the filter becomes clogged, the system cannot maintain pressure to the valves and the zones will not shut off.
Another thing to check for is a clear discharge from the discharge line while the system is operating. A plugged discharge will not allow the zones to turn on. If you maintain systems that have hydraulic control systems, you should verify the type of system it is, then acquire the appropriate training required to inspect, evaluate, troubleshoot, and repair it.
In general, a good idea would be to obtain or create an inspection checklist, to make sure all system items are inspected and evaluated properly. This checklist can be a simple Excel spreadsheet type document that lists all the items to be inspected and evaluated, or you can make it as comprehensive as you wish.
You can include the capture of site inventory items that can be used later for up-selling. For instance, perhaps you also offer landscape lighting maintenance, or some other service like gutter cleaning. Your checklist could provide a place to identify these or any other items you wish to capture, to help you compile a targeted database to market to for those services.
Since all irrigation systems should be inspected and evaluated regularly, they offer the savvy maintenance contractor almost unlimited opportunities to upgrade, renovate, or rework existing components. This would be in addition to the more common repairs and replacements that are often the limits of the work done during such inspections.
Again, a basic checklist allows you to document all the potential work that should be done on a system, as well as other up-sell information. This information can then be used as a sales tool to provide additional work, which can be scheduled at a later date if desired.
Typically, especially in climates where all the systems are winterized and reactivated in a short time frame, only the bare necessities are addressed, in order for your technician to get to the next system scheduled to be “started up” in a timely manner. Often in our industry, large amounts of work are condensed into a few short weeks, leading to rushed work and many missed items of needed work.
This spring, do yourself and your clients a favor, and take advantage of the opportunity to truly evaluate their systems. You want to make sure the systems are working at maximum performance. This is what your customer pays for, and this is what he comes to expect.
Not only will doing so provide you with a source of additional work that your customers actually need, but it will also help you manage your workload better.
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Eggleston is manager of Service First Irrigation.