Winterizing Irrigation Systems
As autumn rolls on toward the holidays, it’s nearly time to pull out those parkas, boots, scarves, gloves and ear muffs from the attic or closet. I remember, from growing up in Chicago, that there was always a day in late fall when you knew winter was right around the corner. You could suddenly see your breath as you walked along and somehow, it was colder, crisper and damper than the day before. A warm jacket was really welcome.
Autumn is also the time when contractors in the less temperate areas get busy, winterizing their clients’ irrigation systems. It’s important to help your clients understand the need to have their irrigation systems winterized, and equally important to see that this work is performed without error. Getting all the water out of a sprinkler system and certifying it for winter hibernation is a process that must be done right . . . or you’ll regret it.
Even a small amount of H 2 O remaining in the system can cause problems. A larger amount is almost guaranteed to create damage, and might require replacing valves, pipes, and heads. Ouch! You can bet your clients won’t be happy with that outcome. And who will they hold responsible? That’s right— you.
John Eggleston, owner of Service- First Irrigation in Lansing, Michigan, says, “There will be thousands and thousands of dollars in damage if things aren’t winterized properly here.”
The good news is that winterizing is a service you can sell all over your territory and to every last client. Some may need it more than others, but most locations in the upper half of the United States need this service on a yearly basis, and the reverse in the spring. If climate change eventually leads to more severe winters, who knows—it may be that contractors in New Orleans, Miami and San Diego will be offering a winterizing program and snow removal, too.
“An additional benefit to the customer is that there’s actually a certified irrigation guy going to check their system,” said John Eigner, owner of Northern Rain Irrigation in Greendell, New Jersey. “It’s good for the homeowner because we can go in and make any needed repairs so that it’s ready to go next spring. If it’s one head, we’ll replace it right away. If it’s bigger repairs, we’ll do it in the spring, and schedule more time for it to be done properly.”
Here is a quick guide for winterizing your clients’ irrigation systems, with tips that apply equally for single-family properties all the way up to big corporate campuses.
The Frosty Five Our guide has five major areas, all of which can help you prevent frost damage. The five areas are: Check, Disconnect, Drain, Blow, and Educate. Let’s look at them one at a time and see how they can help you work more productively with your clients as the days grow short.
First of all, why bother winterizing irrigation systems? Why not just turn them off and wait until spring before you turn the water back on? It all comes down to one small scientific fact. Water expands when it freezes, unlike most other things. And, like water wearing away a mountain drop by drop, or digging out the Grand Canyon, expanding water is powerful, even in very small amounts.
Because of this unusual property, water left inside a sealed container can do serious damage in a freeze. A “sealed container” can include pipes, fittings, sprinkler heads, backflow devices, and most parts of an irrigation system. As the water inexorably expands, it can shatter pipes, especially PVC, and damage other components. There’s no good reason to let this damage occur, because it is completely avoidable.
While your crew may need some special training, particularly with compressed air, none of this work is rocket science. Winterizing a client’s system should take a little longer than a regular maintenance call, but doesn’t require as much manpower.
CHECK the existing system for damage, leaks and badly functioning equipment like broken or skewed sprinkler heads. Make a list for the owner. Let them know the status of their system. If repairs are needed, this is the time to explain it to them and try to sell them, before the snow falls.
“For instance, if you have broken pipes and you don’t repair them, then downstream you’ll have water trapped in them, so you need to repair them to make sure that the rest of the piping is cleared of water,” said Eggleston. “If you’ve got sprinkler heads that aren’t rotating or nozzles that are missing, most homeowners or site owners will want to wait until spring and do all that work at once. These are what I would call critical versus noncritical repairs. The critical stuff you want to get done now, the noncritical stuff can wait until spring, during the turn-on procedure.”
Winterizing is also a good time to check the controllers and make sure they are correctly programmed. You need to know if the controllers can be shut down completely for the winter months, and if this will affect their programming.
If the controller will lose its settings when it’s powered down, you may want to make a note of the schedule in your client’s file, so you can reinstate the program during the spring turn-on. Or write them on an index card you can tape to the inside of the nearest system box or breaker panel. Make sure that the controller is completely off, and not just in “rain” mode.
DISCONNECT your water supply at the source and cap it. If there is a shut-off valve at the feed end of the system, make sure it is completely closed. Even a little water can cause damage.
On larger properties, you may need to consult with a facilities or groundsperson to get irrigation water turned off, but it’s worth the extra few minutes to make sure. Make a note of the physical water source and who controls it in your client’s file; this will help speed this process along and make it easier to get the juice flowing again in the spring.
DRAIN the entire system completely, so that no water remains in it. Make sure you drain from the lowest point or points. Systems that run up hill and down dale can be very challenging, but since water always moves downhill, you know where to look for your drain points. Don’t worry about getting every last drop, because we’re going to address that in the next step.
BLOW the whole system out with compressed air to remove any final water and reduce moisture as well. It’s a good idea to let the air stream go on for several minutes until you know for sure that all the water has been blown out—and this can take some time if the system is a large one. A tank of compressed air will work for a smaller or home system, but a construction-grade compressor will be needed for larger and commercial systems.
Keeping pressures less than 50 psi is a good idea, since you don’t want to damage any pipes, joints or valves. Too much air pressure can blow the sprinklers right out of the system and damage drip components. Make sure that all valves in the system are open before applying compressed air.
EDUCATE your clients about the importance of winterizing their irrigation systems. Explain about how water expands and the issues with damage from winterizing without draining the system. Commercial clients will understand, but to homeowners it may seem like an unnecessary expense; many think that just shutting the water off over the winter is enough.
You might want to bundle the fall service into a year-long contract, or you might work out super-saver-specials and discounts to get people in the habit of winterizing, and make the process that much easier next year.
Because winterizing is an unusual task and only takes place once a year, it’s a little more difficult to work out just what you should be charging. Eggelston says, “You really have to look at each individual site and estimate how long it’s going to take. And then you use your service rate and add a charge for having the compressor there.”
“Obviously, it’s going to cost something for having the compressor, so you have to charge for it,” said Eggelston. “If somebody is charging $75 an hour to do a service call, then winterization’s going to cost a hundred, because you need an hour to do the work and a $25 charge for the compressor. Winterization is typically going to be more than a normal service call.”
Other services may also be needed, such as mulching beds and planters, aerating turf and feeding assorted plants and trees for the dormant winter phase. If scheduled properly, all this can be done with one winterization call.
In many parts of this country, landscape professionals work in climates where winter never arrives or freezes are limited. These include cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada, San Diego, California, and Phoenix, Arizona.
Joy Diaz, executive vice president, CMO and co-owner of Land Care Inc., based in North Las Vegas, has a slightly different perspective. “If we get a freeze, we’re wrapping the palm trees, wrapping the backflows in burlap,” she said. “But we won’t ever completely turn off the water like they do back east. Our freezes are very limited, and you never know from year to year.”
“It also depends on the type of contract we have with our clients,” she added. “Some of our clients are renters, so we have to confirm that they still live there, and will the renter want us to come over and change the clocks for the winter.
It’s more a matter of keeping a sharp eye out for something that’s cracked or leaking. We do our best to keep everybody informed and educated but, as far as a specific pattern of saying that starting November 1st we go and shut down everybody’s irrigation system—no, we don’t do that here.”
There’s no question that winterizing an irrigation system during the autumn of each year is a precaution that must be done to protect the system from damage.
However, every client may not see it that way; that’s why education is so important. No one expects their car to run forever without regular servicing, but everyone thinks that their lawn sprinkler system will work for a hundred years without a hitch—no maintenance needed.
In getting your clients to understand the importance of proper winterization, you just might fall into a whole new world of autumn business.