Feb. 17 2011 12:00 AM

There is no better feeling than seeing the happy expressions on your clients’ faces as they stand back and take in the exquisite landscape that you and your crew just installed. It is artistry at its finest, a living portrait of perfection down to the smallest detail. You hand the clients your maintenance schedule, which will be expertly handled by your crew, shake their hand and head off to your next project.

A few months later, the phone rings. Your client is calling to say that his irrigation system has sprung a leak and he wants you come immediately to fix it. You grab the necessary repair tools, rush over to the property, find the leak and make the repair. Your client is happy; he calls all his friends and recommends that they hire you for their landscape project.

Does this sound a little bit like a pipe dream? Sure it does, but I can’t tell you how many times neighbors and friends ask me who I would recommend.

Servicing your clients, especially in emergency situations, creates an ongoing relationship that can only help grow your business. By following these few simple steps, and having the right tools to work with, repairing broken irrigation lines can easily become part of your repertoire and can add to your bottom line.

We’re going to assume that the installation was made with PVC pipe. “The first step in repairing an irrigation system is to find where the leak is coming from,” says Larry Workman, president Expert4PVC, Trabuco Canyon, California. “If you have a stream of water shooting into the air, the break is easy to pinpoint. But if the leak isn’t obvious, you’re going to have to locate the source of the problem.”

The easiest way to do this is to ask your client where he noticed the excess water on his property. You can then simply trace the flow back to the source. If that isn’t successful, check each zone in the system. If only half of the heads are working and the pressure is too low to pop the other heads on the zone, the broken pipe will most likely be somewhere in between.

Once you’ve found the break, turn off the water. Carefully dig around the area where the pipe needs repairing, giving yourself additional room to work around the hole. Drain the excess water and mud away from the pipe, then clean and dry all components thoroughly. Once you’re done preparing the area, you’re ready to repair the pipe.

The best way to repair a damaged pipe is to replace it. You’ll need to have a pipe cutter tool to cut the damaged PVC pipe in the ground, and to cut the correct size of new pipe to replace it. If the pipe is cracked, make sure you remove enough pipe on both sides of the crack so that the new fittings will have a solid pipe wall on which to attach.

Now that you have an empty space between the pipes, you have to determ i n e w h a t m e t h o d a n d what type of fitting to use to attach the new pipe.

Gasket or compression couplers and telescoping couplings are very popular fittings when repairing PVC pipe.

The gasket or compression repair coupling is a relatively simple repair. You need to be careful about how much space is between the pipes once you’ve cut out the broken part. If you cut out too much, you will need additional slips to make the repair.

Once the broken PVC has been cut, take the compression or gasket coupler apart. Separate the cut ends that are in the ground far enough that you can slip the coupler components onto the pipe ends. Slide the nut (like a union coupling nut) on one side of the pipe, the other nut on the other side of the pipe, then slip the gasket over the pipe, one on each side. At an angle, install the large coupler over one side, then slide it over the other side, then bring the gasket and nuts to the coupler. Hold the coupler in one hand and thread the nut, with the gasket to the coupler. By tightening the nut, you compress the gasket, making it a compression coupler. No solvent cement is used in conjunction with this coupler.

Another type of repair fitting that is used is the telescope coupling fitting. “Once you’ve found the damaged pipe, center the telescopic fitting over the break, as a guide to measure the length of pipe you want to cut out,” says David Berg, marketing manager, Dawn Industries. “However, make sure that when measuring and before you make any cuts, that the telescoping is compressed. Cut both ends of the damaged pipe and remove it. Before applying a solvent-cement, position the unit in between the pipe space and retract the sleeve over one end of the line. Apply solvent cement on both the fitting and the pipe, slide the sleeve in place and rotate it. Hold in place for 10 seconds; do the same on the other side, and the repair is complete.”

Although the basic steps sound relatively easy, problems may occur if proper attention isn’t given to applying the solvent-cement correctly. Workman says that solvent cementing, or solvent welding, is so critical that 90 percent of failures in the system are due to lack of quality workmanship in the way the solvent-cement was applied.

“People think they’ll save time by not applying a primer first, but this step is crucial and doesn’t add any significant time to the application process,” says Fabio Castellani, director of international sales and marketing, Weldon in Compton, California. “The solventcement is applied immediately after you apply the primer. In fact, the cement must be applied while the primer is still wet, so there isn’t any real difference in the time savings; however, adding the primer will take a bit more time for the solvent to cure, or form maximum bond strength.”

The primer prepares the pipe for the solvent-cement to break down the surfaces of the PVC fittings, so when you join the pieces, they weld together to create a chemicallyfused connection. That way, they become a strong single unit instead of two separate units held together.

Once the solvent has dried, turn the water back on to the system. Check the pipe again for any other leaks, and if there are none, carefully backfill, repair the turf and you’re done.

Repairing polyethelyne

If the pipe you need to repair is made of polyethylene, the repair method will be a bit different. Like a PVC pipe leak, you need to first find the location, and then expose the pipe to be repaired. But unlike PVC, you can’t use solvent-cement because it won’t work on polyethylene material. Instead, you’ll need to use specially designed devices that connect the poly-pipes to each other.

“There are several types of fittings for polyethylene pipes,” says Berg. “Saddle tees, barbs, spikes, combination insert tees, couplers and threaded adapters are all options when fixing polyethylene pipes.”

To repair a polyethylene pipe, start by holding the fitting up to the damaged pipe to measure how much pipe needs to be removed. Then cut the pipe, and place the clamps on the pipe before making a connection. Then slide the barbed ends of the fitting into the open pieces of pipe. Position the clamps over the fittings and crimp closed. When bending the pipe to attach the fittings, be careful not to kink the pipe by bending it too much. Any kink in the pipe will significantly reduce the integrity of the pipe.

Greg Mullins, irrigation group leader with Landform Services, Fairfield, Ohio, says he likes using barbed couplers because he feels that he can make a better connection with the insert fittings.

“In some cases, insert fittings are the only option for the site because of all the different sizes and configurations that are available,” he says. “First, I cut out the damaged section, then use two couplers and crimp the clamps down on each end of the connections. Poly-pipe is easy to cut and since you don’t use any solvent cement, you don’t have to wait for it to dry.”

Whichever connecting device you choose, it’s a good idea to lubricate both the polyethylene pipe and the fitting so the device will slide easily into the pipe.

Whether you’re repairing PVC or polyethylene, once the repair is completed, your job is not done. It is crucial that you find out what caused the pipe to break, or you may receive another angry phone call sooner than later.

Pipes break for a variety of reasons. Tree roots can puncture a hole in an underground pipe. Above ground, the sun’s UV rays can cause damage, and sometimes it’s just a matter of time and normal wear and tear. There are also just plain system failures. For example, cold weather can make some materials brittle or aggravate a defective part, causing a leak, but whatever the cause, you have to do more than just take care of the immediate problem of a leak.

“Just replacing the leaking or broken pipe would be like replacing the weak link in a chain,” said Workman. “The next weakest link could become another problem, so you need to check the entire irrigation system to prevent another failure. For instance, if the break or leak was due to water hammer surges or other extreme pressures, the total system—including all fittings—may have been “bruised” and eventually will cause another break. Water hammer effect can be especially damaging to irrigation pipes,” he says.

Water hammer happens when you shut off the flow of water suddenly, sending a pressure or shock wave down the water l i n e t h r o u g h t h e water, shocking the pipes and creating the ‘ h a m m e r ’ n o i s e . These shock waves travel faster than the speed of sound and can exert very great instantaneous pressures. Over time, water hammer can damage pipes and fittings eventually weakening pipe joints.

The easiest way to fix water hammer is to lower the water pressure for your entire irrigation system. If your system is connected to a smart controller, you may be able to rid water hammer by changing the order in which the valves operate. Simply find out which valve uses the least water, then re-set the controller so that the valve that uses the least water is the last valve to run.

With a bit of training, and some practice, irrigation pipe repairs on PVC or polyethylene can be made quickly and easily. Hopefully, emergencies will be few, but on the rare occasion when you receive that frantic phone call, you’ll be prepared to say that help is on the way.