When Pipes Need Repairs
BY GREG MITCHELL AND JUNE TORCHIAYou go to turn on an irrigation system for the first time in the spring and you find a pipe that’s sprung a leak. Surprise!
A break in a PVC line is generally easy to fix. But, just as “routine” surgery can have complications, the “simple” task of pipe repair may not always be so simple.
Often two, three, or more pipes will be crowded together in a narrow trench. Wiring to the controller may share that limited space as well. Or the PVC pipe is “snaked” and twisted in the trench in such a way that the “top” pipe may actually be in the middle, side-by-side, or even on the bottom, just a few feet down the line.
Before going out to make repairs, the first step is making sure that your service truck is filled with the right equipment: fittings, solvents, glues, primers, and the necessary tools.
“Different types and sizes of fittings, 90s, tees and slipfixes (telescoping fittings), should all be on the truck,” said Tom Nowak, owner and president of James River Irrigation in Richmond, Virginia. “You should also carry different sizes of pipe, because generally, you’re going to need to use a little bit of pipe when you make a repair. But mainly, you’re going to be using those fittings.”
The bulk of the piping you’ll find in the ground will be either PVC or poly. But not always. “Sometimes, there’s old galvanized pipe or old copper pipe down there,” says Dan Newberg, owner of Advanced Sprinkler & Landscape Services in Plano, Texas. “We repair a lot of old systems put in during the ’40s and ’50s, and they’re all copper. You need all kinds of different connectors for those types of pipes, especially if you’re connecting to the service line that goes to the house.”
For work with copper piping, stock your truck with sandpaper, flux, solder, and a torch. “When you re-solder copper pipe, you’ll need to sand off the old solder and get a nice clean finish on it,” advises Newberg.
When working with PVC, don’t forget about saddles; keep plenty of those on the truck, too. “A saddle is used when you need to add a head, a pipe, or a junction to a system,” Nowak explains. “With a saddle, it’s not necessary to cut the pipe. It’s a half-round; you just glue it on top of the pipe.” Once the glue is dry, drill a hole through the saddle into the pipe, and screw a new fitting right onto it.
With your truck fully stocked, you’re now ready to go out in the field.
It might seem that such a basic task as digging is hardly worth discussing. But proper excavation is essential when performing pipe repairs. Damage caused by reckless shovel work can complicate a repair, or even surpass the seriousness of the initial problem.
First, investigate; then probe and then, carefully excavate. Commit the minimal amount of time and effort required to positively identify the exact leak source; take note of adjacent pipes, wires or other components. Determine your plan of action.
Once you have a plan, DIG A BIG HOLE. Many of us try to keep the area of soil that we have to excavate as small as possible. But you need to create a large enough workspace around and under the piping so that you can work easily. There has to be enough room for pipe cutters and adequate space in which to operate them. You not only need room for your saw, but the room to make saw strokes. You need to allow space for movement of pipes, so that they can be gently pried, wedged, and propped apart for cutting and gluing.
When making excavations in established landscapes, be aware of the impact your work will have on the property’s appearance. Clients are appreciative of, and impressed by, considerate excavation, backfill, and cleanup. Carefully remove and replace sod, mulch, or greenery and use a tarp for the excavated soil. If you find that you need to expand your excavation, you can simply ‘drag’ the piles out of your way.
Create a ‘sump’ area underneath the repair site. This will allow pipes to drain without the risk of possible contamination. Debris floating into open pipes can cause problems throughout a system, especially if it were to float into the main line. The sump can be pumped or bailed out prior to making the repair. Pipes should be clean and dry before solvent welding (gluing).
Don’t over-apply primer. If too much primer is used, it can pool inside the thin pipe wall, weakening it and degrading its integrity. Also remember that cold temperatures will cause PVC pipe to become brittle and difficult to cut without shattering.
With very crowded piping, it’s often necessary to cut adjacent pipes, in order to gain access to and repair the damaged one. In such cases, always mark and match these pipes for proper reconnection.
Also, in certain situations, adjacent pipes must be reconfigured, or “offset” with elbows in order to gain the necessary clearance around a repaired pipe.
Poly pipe presents some different challenges than PVC. It’s typically connected with barbed insert fittings, which are secured with crimp or screw clamps. One obvious advantage, from a repair standpoint, is that poly pipe is much more flexible than PVC. This increased flexibility allows for bowing the pipe without stressing it, or risking its integrity.
“Generally speaking, poly pipe is easier to repair than PVC, especially in diameters of less than one and one-half inches,” says Eric Ofstedahl, process coordinator at Kage Innovation, LLC, in Woodbury, Minnesota. “The composition of the poly material leaves it more resilient, flexible and freeze-resistant in colder climates.”
“I have also used the extra flexibility to reconnect misaligned PVC pipes in the past,” claims Ofstedahl. Special spigot ‘x-barb’ fittings will adapt PVC to poly for this type of application. One downside to poly is that it is somewhat more expensive than PVC. Savings on glue, primer specialty o-ringlet repair fittings and and labor may offset that expense, PVC sleeves for tees, elbows, and however. couplings. Some ‘hot’ glues claim to Fortunately, there are a lot of join pipe securely, even when applied great, innovative products on the underwater, and rubber-and-stainless steel clamps have been available market specifically designed to make pipe repair easier. Probably the most for years. widely-used such product is the slip-fit, or telescopic-type coupling.
This item utilizes an internal O-ring and pressure to seal tightly, while providing full penetration of all glue-joint sockets. Prior to this innovation, repair people resorted to ‘bowing’ pipe, stressing Dawn Industries, in Arvada, Colorado, was one of the first companies it dangerously, and settling for only a fraction of proper socket penetration. tors with Kwik Repair kits for PVC to specialize in supplying contrac- Other repair-oriented products include flexible, glueable PVC pipe, PVC repair fitting that doesn’t or polyethylene. They have the only use an O-ring or gasket.
Also epoxy, resin and fiberglasstape patches and wraps coated with water-activated urethane resin can provide temporary, stopgap or emergency repairs. Some of these patchand-wrap products even claim to work on pipe that’s leaking and under pressure. These products can be ideal for effecting secure repairs quickly with minimal excavation.
Applying these types of products to crowded piping could be difficult, however. In that case, you might try using something like a steel-reinforced two-part epoxy putty. After proper mixing, it molds like clay and can be applied to both metal and plastic pipe.
Compression-type couplings with rubber gaskets are very effective when properly installed; that is, with minimal gaps between the ends of the pipes to be joined. However, compression fittings can be problematic when dealing with crowded piping. And there’s another consideration.
“Some cities won’t allow you to use compression fittings, because they can fail,” says Newberg. “It’s important to check with your city’s building inspection department, first to see what’s code and what’s not.” This is especially important when making connections to the city service line between the water meter and the house or building.
One of the most helpful things to come along in the last few years is the flexible repair coupling. Several companies make these connectors. “They allow proper alignment with little or no deflection,” said Joe Ghering, operations development manager at Lasco Fittings, Inc., in Brownsville, Tennessee.
Deflection is when pipes get out of alignment from settling and backfilling. When pipes aren’t lined up, they can be very difficult to fix correctly, often causing a contractor to have to come back and repair his repair, if possible. “That’s the beauty of flexible repair couplings,” says Ghering.
“They absorb deflection, and are able to move when the ground moves.” They can also bend around odd corners or tree roots.
Flexible couplings were developed for non-constant-pressure applications, such as irrigation systems.
They shouldn’t be used for main line connections or any type of constant pressure situations. However, Beaumont, California-based Dura Plastic Products, Inc., is currently working on a line of constant-pressure flexible couplings that should be out early next year.
Quick-connect fittings that require no glue, clamps, soldering or unions continue to be developed by irrigation supply manufacturers. These work by allowing PEX, PVC, poly or copper pipe to be locked into the fitting by means of stainless steel teeth that ‘bite’ into the pipe. An O-ring creates a seal around the connection.
“The beauty of these is that you don’t need primer or glue,” says Ghering. “All you have to do is dig down to the pipe, cut the damaged section out, and just push this repair coupling right on. You don’t even have to dry out the trench. It’s a huge benefit over the traditional style of cleaning the pipe, drying the pipe, and getting all the water out of the hole. Even if the pipes are still wet, or there’s water in the hole, you can just pop them on.” Not having to wait two hours for glue to dry is certainly appealing.
However, many contractors are still hinky about quick-connectors. Nowak is one. He feels that these types of fittings “don’t work nearly as well as good, old-fashioned glue and primer, and they’re considerably more expensive.” He does concede that “one advantage they do have is that you can pressurize pipes a bit quicker, because you don’t have to wait for a glue joint to settle.”
“We got a lot of feedback from contractors that they like glued-on fittings,” said Ron Pace, sales manager for Dura Plastics. “They feel they’re stronger, more sturdy.”
Through creative use of innovative products, and proven techniques and procedures, irrigation pipe repairs can be accomplished in a routine and professional manner. To say that they’re simple or easy would be less than accurate. However, armed with knowledge, training, and experience, a contractor or repair technician can continue to develop and refine his skills and raise his level of professionalism, for himself and our industry.
Pipe repair isn’t just a spring thing; there’s good money to be made doing it. As properties age, repairs and spruce-ups are required; paint needs touching up, and driveways need patching. Sooner or later, irrigation systems will need to be fixed, too. When those calls come, be armed and ready.