March 1 2002 12:00 AM

Some landscape contractors are wary of installing irrigation systems. However, more and more clients are demanding that they deal with one contractor who will be responsible for the whole project. A contractor remarked, “I’m tired of leaving money on the table. I’m going to learn to install irrigation systems.”

So you get into irrigation through a circuitous route. You begin by repairing breaks in the pipe, replacing broken fittings, sprinkler heads and even valves. You begin to realize that it’s not that difficult, and proceed to install entire systems. However, until you try it, this could be you.

You’ve just been called back to a property where a new irrigation system that you subbed out was installed. The owner walks you over to a corner of the lot and points to a sodden area that is rapidly filling. It’s a leak. As you think about digging through the growing swamp to reach the pipes and fittings, your eyes glaze over. Will you have to have someone come in to dig a big hole? Will you have to replace every plant you just installed in this section of the property? You begin to see your profit dollars flowing down the drain.

You can make these irrigation repairs yourself. It will instill added confidence with your clients, since you will be handling all of their landscaping and irrigation needs: installation, maintenance, and repair. By doing the repairs yourself, you will also be limiting the disturbance to the landscaped property, ensuring that the delicate ornamentals that you’ve been nurturing for weeks aren’t tossed into the compost just because digging has to be done.

Here’s how you can do it. Larry Workman, national product manager of Lasco Fittings, Brownsville, Tennessee, says there are several basic steps to most irrigation repairs.

First, you have to define the repair. Sometimes it means walking the property and finding out what is leaking and where. Most times, however, you’ll need to dig in order to see what is happening underground. With today’s quick repair fixes, you may not need to dig more than a few feet around the leaking valve or pipe. You’ll disturb the ground much less than if you had to dig a trench several feet long.

Once you’ve exposed the break or leak, you’ll have to ask yourself a number of questions. Where is the leak, and how big is it? Is it a leak around a fitting or sprinkler head, or a cut or break in the pipe? What kind of pipe is it? Under what conditions will you be repairing the leak? Will you have to pump out the water, or just cut the water flow at the main?

Next, and most critical, is finding out what caused the failure. Systems fail for a variety of reasons. Sergio Graham, president of Westturf Landscape Maintenance in Vista, California, says most evident leaks come from cracked sprinkler heads and laterals, or from cracked or loose fittings. “Sometimes maintenance or construction equipment will run over sprinkler heads or pipe, causing damage,” says Ron Modugno, vice president, sales and marketing, KBI, Valencia, California. “In most cases, a hoe or shovel damages pipe when putting in trees or shrubs,” he adds.

Clarence Dowel, property manager of Dowco Enterprises, Chesterfield, Missouri, says some leaks are also caused by small punctures from deep-root feeding trees.

Workman says there are also just plain system failures. “You get leaks out of nowhere that are the result of multiple causes. For example, cold weather can make some materials brittle or aggravate a defective part, causing a leak.” He suggests going to the sources of the problem and fixing those, especially when there seems to be a repeated leak in a system. “That weakest link will continue to malfunction until the system problem is fixed,” he says. “Replacing the component rather than patching it, or finding sturdier fittings or a different pipe material for your environmental conditions will prevent future headaches,” explains Workman.

Now that you know what went wrong and how much you’ll have to fix or replace, you can begin the repair. There are several options, depending on the type of pipe you are working with.

In older irrigation systems on hillsides, in exposed areas, or leading into back-flows or valves, old galvanized pipe poses a special problem. “You can’t readily cut it or put in a repair coupling,” says Jon Christy, president of T. Christy Enterprises, Inc., Orange, California. The reason for this is that most repair couplings, especially the popular telescopic couplings, are made of PVC. The mix of materials does not work in the field because they will leak. The same is true for polyethylene pipe, which is used in colder areas of the country. It must be cut, and a patch and repair coupling used. “Polyethylene cannot be solvent cemented,” Christy says, “so telescoping couplings won’t work on this kind of pipe.”

For these types of repairs and for a fast repair around irregular shapes, there are two products on the market that contractors are finding useful. They are Slick Wrap by T. Christy Enterprises and STOP IT by Indumar Products, Inc., Houston, Texas. Both are fiberglass wraps that are coated with a polyurethane resin which is water activated. Used in refineries, chemical plants, marine environments, and by hazardous materials teams, these wraps can be applied under the soggiest conditions, even under water, says David Davies, marketing and sales manager for Indumar. Christy cautions, though, that his product can’t be applied when there is pressure in the line.
Davies suggests using STOP IT to reinforce PVC slip couplings or other fittings when you are installing pipe. “It will add over 200 pounds of strength to those joints, and will prevent the couplings from shifting in the ground,” he says.

These quick wraps make a permanent repair. “They become a hardened pipe over a pipe,” Christy says. They only take one man three to five minutes to apply, cure in thirty to forty-five minutes, and work on all metal and plastic pipe, including copper and galvanized pipe. Fix Stix, an epoxy putty, is used to secure STOP IT to pipe.

Many contractors like Robert Sigsworth, owner of American Backflow and Irrigation Consulting, Terrytown, Louisiana, often will replace a section of punctured pipe, rather than patching it or trying to weld it. Sigsworth serves homeowners and businesses in southern Louisiana’s unique climate, where irrigation system maintenance is a preventative against foundation movement that occurs when the water table is low. Getting a system back on-line is critical. Sigsworth usually cuts out 6" or so of punctured pipe, bends up the pipe, puts in a section of new PVC or polyurethane pipe, secures it with a clamp and solvent or glue, and pops it back into the ground.

Workman also says some contractors use compression repair couplings to attach the new pipe. “This can be done with 1?" to 1?" pipe,” he points out. They also don’t need glue, says Chris Compton, an engineer with Flo Control, Inc., Burbank, California. His company has linear compression fittings for schedule 40 PVC pipe from ?" to 4" in diameter.

There are other types of repair fittings that also can be used: Kwik Repair Fittings by Dawn Industries, Arvada, Colorado; Quick-Fix Repair Couplings by KBI, Valencia, California; and Flo Span fittings from Flo Control, Inc., Burbank, California. There are telescoping repair couplings that eliminate the need to bend or move the pipe in order to put in new fittings or replace pipe.
According to Modugno of KBI, these products minimize the amount of disturbance to the landscape, since you don’t have to dig such a big hole. You cut out the leaky pipe and put in the coupling, then slide the telescoping ends out to meet the cut pipe ends. There are fewer weld joints with this type of repair, and they are durable solvent welds. “The repair is permanent,” Modugno says, “and as strong as the original pipe.” He adds, “There are also no wrenches or tightening needed.” Kwik Fix can fit pipe up to 6" in diameter.

Duane Robertson, founder and president of Dawn Industries, says that field repairs with telescoping fittings usually cost less and create a secure cemented bond on both sides of the fittings. His company makes T joints, elbows, and straight couplings which further eliminate potential new leaks from joints created by the repair process. These special fittings can often make a repair with only one part. “It can take up to six or seven regular fittings to replace a T,” says Robertson.

Obviously, a one-part repair saves time and money; in most cases, it cuts down repair time from forty-five minutes to just fifteen minutes. Robertson also says that his products are tapered to eliminate interference fit with PVC pipe.

The Flo Span telescopic repair coupling has a threaded cap on the end which can be used as a new union or a means to look into the pipe itself. “Reports from the field prompted the development of the new Pro Span NU, which doesn’t have the cap,” says Chris Compton, an engineer with Flo Control. “There’s just one less place for a leak.”

To use a telescopic fitting, you just measure the length of pipe you want to cut out, using the telescopic fitting, pulled in and centered over the break, as a guide. Cut the pipe. Dry fit it for correct fit. Retract one sleeve at a time, apply cement on both the fitting and the pipe, slide sleeve into place and rotate sleeve. Hold in place for 10 seconds; do the other side, and you’re done.

Graham uses telescopic couplings and solvents for all of his irrigation repairs. Since he does it all — landscape and irrigation installation and maintenance — he has had to find a reliable cost-effective product. “In the past,” he says, “if I had a 6" crack in a length of pipe, I had to dig three feet on each side of the leak. Now, I just dig out one foot. There’s not as much landscape disturbance.” He gets the repairs done with fewer parts in less time, lowering his materials and labor costs.

Dowel also has found telescopic fittings to be the easiest and quickest way to make repairs. “It takes 15-20 minutes, start to finish, depending on how much digging is involved or how extensive the break is,” he says.
Lupe Gonzales, irrigation manager for Luke Brothers, Inc., New Port Richey, Florida, also swears by telescopic fittings. “They’re very simple to use. You dig just enough to put both hands in there and pull the coupling together.” In Central Florida’s very wet to very dry grounds, he says, “These couplings seem to work in any kind of conditions.”

Irrigation repairs are not that difficult to make. Your clients know you and trust you, and they want you to fix what’s wrong. Take Sigsworth’s advice: “Make sure you have enough parts and equipment on your truck, so you don’t nickel and dime yourself going to get parts.” He suggests keeping these things on hand: pipe cutters, solvent and cement, an assortment of fittings, and small lengths of ?", ?", and 1" pipe, for when you go out on an irrigation repair call. That list will vary according to the types of irrigation problems in your area, and the kinds of repairs you choose to do.

So take the time and follow these steps. Repairs can be made quickly and easily. More importantly, you will be able to handle all of your client’s landscape and irrigation needs. Before you know it, you too will be an irrigation installation expert.

March 2002