April 1 2006 12:00 AM

Installing valves and valve boxes can be as routine as pouring another cup of coffee on the way to your truck. But as routine as this task has become, how you do it says a lot about you and your company.

Is your company one that looks for the quickest, most inexpensive way through a simple project? Or do you and your staff make sure that your commitment to quality is on everything you do…and that means every thing. Are your valve installations the kind that make maintenance contractors cringe when they open the box? Or are your installs the kind that make it a pleasure to work with?

Install with the future in mind
“There are basically two main criteria to keep in mind when installing valves,” says Craig Borland, product manager with Toro. “The first is to make sure to follow local codes and include an appropriate backflow prevention system. The second is to always install with future maintenance in mind.”

“Unfortunately, some people take the ‘hit and run’ approach,” he continues. “They install valves as quickly and cheaply as possible and then move on. This can cause nightmares for them or others down the road, when it comes to warranty repair or just regular maintenance.”

Rick Silverberg couldn’t agree more. Silverberg, who works for RE Landscape Services, a landscape maintenance and construction firm in Grand Junction, Colorado, has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to valves. “As a maintenance company, we end up fixing a lot of other people’s installs,” says Silverberg. The staff of RE Landscape Services knows from experience how to ensure that their own installs are not the ones that waste time and money in the future.

For Silverberg, this means installs that are easy to repair and maintain. “Always start with professional products,” he says. “I hate to see off brands. It’s much easier to work with name-brand products because replacement parts are widely available. A lot of problems with valves can be repaired without having to replace them.” But if you can’t find the parts, replacement may be your only option.

Using the right product for the application is critical. Valves are chosen by flow and pressure requirements for each installation. If you are the one designing the system, it’s important to carefully research and understand the product specifications.

“Using a valve that is underspecified, for example, a 150psi valve in a 200psi application will greatly increase the potential for component or system failure,” says Ron Bailey, product manager for Rain Bird.

“It’s important to follow best design practices by keeping water velocities below 7.5 feet per second,” he continues. “This minimizes water hammer effects such as line shake and hard opening and closing. It also places less stress on the individual system components like sprinklers, piping, pipe fittings, and manifolds.”

“The right valve in a good system can last decades,” says Richard Greenland, vice president of Superior Controls. “I see valves that were installed fifty years ago that are still working.”

“Go through the catalogs and charts carefully,” he says. “Know the minimum flow requirements and make sure you have plenty of flow. There are specialty valves for special situations. With drip systems, for example, flow is so low it falls below the manufacturer’s minimum flow requirements for many valves. Make sure the valve you choose for drip has a low enough minimum. We offer some specifically designed for drip, with no minimum flow requirement.”

Another special situation concerns reclaimed water usage. “Rain Bird offers the industry’s only truly reclaimed water valve,” says Bailey. “It’s designed from the ground up for this application. Reclaimed water is treated with higher levels of chlorine, which can damage the rubber and plastic components of a system. Our PESB-R valve is designed to be more resistant to chlorine, and will have longer life spans between service calls. It’s much more than just a purple handle!”

There are several steps you can take during installation to make sure valves work well from the start and remain serviceable in the future. “When using a threaded valve, the only thread seal you should use is Teflon tape, not liquid or pipe dope,” says Paul Cordura, president of HIT Products, Inc. “If you use these, particles can break off and water can push them up into the valve. Also, don’t use too much tape or over-tighten. The old saying, ‘If a little is good, more is better’ does not apply in this situation.”

“When welding a slip valve, position it at an angle so that solvent will run away from the valve,” says Cordura. “Otherwise the solvent can run up inside the valve and cause it to fail.”

One thing Silverberg likes to see when he’s servicing valves is extra space between the T’s in a manifold. “When you’re installing a manifold, leave enough room—at least three to four inches—between T’s to install another one should a problem arise. This way, if you have to cut one out there’s enough room to replace it without having to rebuild the entire manifold.”

The ability to turn off water at the manifold is another thing Silverberg likes to see. “It’s always nice to have an isolation valve ahead of the manifold,” says Silverberg. “Sometimes repairs take more than a day or two while you’re waiting for parts. This way, the rest of the property can still have water while you’re servicing one area.”

Finishing off a manifold with a capped line for possible future expansion is another good practice, adds Borland.

Careful attention to wiring can also prevent headaches down the road. Extra wire will always comes in handy. “When installing valve wire, make ten or twelve wraps of wire around the pipe, before splicing,” says Cordura. “This provides about two feet of extra wiring that can be used for servicing in the future. The coil keeps it neat and out of the way.”

What not to do.

Silverberg agrees, “I hate to see wiring cut so short you have to stick your hand down into the box to work on it. Ideally you should have enough available that you can pull it out to work on it. If all you have left is a three inch stub, it can make life miserable.”

“Trying to use anything other than waterproof connectors is a mistake,” says Bailey. “We’ve seen installations where duct tape, electrical tape, even bubble gum was used to seal the wires. Valve boxes can fill up with water during heavy rain or snow melt. If water gets into the wire connection, it’ll corrode and short out. The connection must be waterproof, not just water resistant. Water-proof connectors are specifically designed for this.”

“Electrical tape is not an acceptable connection,” agrees Borland. “It does not provide any protection from water or corrosion. I can tell you that this is the most inexpensive part of an irrigation system, but it’s also the one that’s most overlooked and where you’ll have most of your problems down the line.”

Giving valves a good home
The box that houses valves can be almost as important as the valves themselves. When choosing and installing valve boxes, keep in mind what they are there for. “Valve boxes are designed to create a safe, clean, and serviceable environment for the valves,” says Kevin Rost, vice president of Dura Plastics. “They keep valves safe, clean, and easily maintained in a below-ground environment.”

“Irrigation valve boxes are important to use for a variety of reasons,” agrees Natalie Gass, product manager with Carson Industries. “They provide security for irrigation valves by preventing vandalism and breakage. They protect wiring from UV sunlight exposure. They prevent trip hazards. And they hide valves from view providing an aesthetically pleasing environment.”

With that in mind, choose and install boxes in a way that will allow them to do their job well. “Contractors should start by using the valve box specified in the irrigation design plan,” says Gass. “A lower quality box can compromise the entire project.”

Use a box that matches the conditions of the application. “Don’t select a lightweight box if you’re in a lawn area where a mower could damage the box or valve,” says Vahan Bagdasarian, product manager for NDS. “Lighter weight boxes are more appropriate for non-traffic areas.”

One of the most important factors when it comes to serviceability down the road is using a box that is sized correctly for the job, or perhaps more importantly, not cramming more valves into the box than it’s meant to hold. Squeezing too many valves in one box completely defeats one of the primary purposes of the box: convenient repairs.

“Choosing an undersized box in the interest of saving money is a mistake,” says Bagdasarian. “You need to select a box that’s large enough so that you or someone else can easily get into it in the future for repairs and maintenance.”

“A good rule of thumb is no more than three in a standard 14-inch rectangular valve box,” says Borland. “I don’t know who started the game of ‘he who gets the most valves in the box wins,’ but it has to stop. I was at a site in San Diego once where I found a box with six valves in it, three on top and three more underneath—face down. It was absolutely stunning.”

Gass points out that mistakes can be made in the other direction as well. “Overspending can also occur when large boxes are purchased to contain only one valve each, when actually three to five valves are meant to fit inside.”

“Another mistake people make,” says Bagdasarian, “is to try to modify a box to suit their needs without taking into consideration that the part they’re modifying might be important to the overall design and strength of the box. For example, a contractor may cut away part of the box to make more room and might actually be damaging the box’s structural integrity.” Using the right size to begin with prevents this problem.

To help maintain a clean box, most contractors put gravel down, then place the box on top of the gravel with the valve above. This aids in drainage and helps prevent dirt and debris from getting into the valve. “Filter fabric is another option to keep debris from entering the valve during regular maintenance or repair,” says Borland.

Placement is also an important consideration. “They should be placed in a location that’s accessible for maintenance but that doesn’t detract from the aesthetics of the landscape,” says Borland. “Some contractors seem to like to put them next to the thorniest bush on the property. Others seem to like to place them in the middle of the lawn where the kids playing football will be sure to fall on them.” Find a balance by locating them in a discreet but accessible spot in the landscape.

When considering placement, consider color as well. “Valve boxes shouldn’t be blight to the eye,” says Rost. “A color application should be aesthetically pleasing. Green boxes can be used in a grass environment. Tan can be used in a desert setting.” The exception to this practice is a purple box which serves to alert people that reclaimed water is being used.

Installation depth must also be correct to ensure the lid is flush with the surrounding ground surface. “Don’t install them too high or they could be taken out with a mower,” says Rost.

Like everything you do, the way you install valves is one more way to demonstrate the quality of your workmanship. Using professional grade products and installing them well will keep your system operating smoothly for years to come.