Jan. 13 2020 06:00 AM

Irrigation experts show how they manage some of the most common service call issues.

Most everyone has had an experience with deja vu, the feeling that what’s happening at that moment has happened before, in the very same fashion.

If you find that sort of thing enjoyable, consider a career in troubleshooting irrigation systems. You’ll see the same issues coming up again and again but without any quasi-mystical underpinnings.

We asked some pros with decades of troubleshooting under their belts about their deja vu experiences. Here are their top five.

1. Faulty wiring or connectors

Of all the things that can go wrong with an irrigation system, electrical problems rank first. “Wiring connections cause roughly 70% of all the failures we have in the field,” says Craig S. Borland, CIC, CID, CIT, CLIA, CLWM, senior customer resource specialist at The Toro Company’s irrigation and lighting division in Riverside, California.

Borland says it’s common to see connections made using standard wire nuts not intended for irrigation use. These nuts are made of two different metals. When wet, these metals react with each other and corrosion results. This happens frequently, even though every manufacturer specifies that only waterproof PBY wire connectors should be used.

Faulty wiring is one of the most common causes of problems with irrigation systems. Wiring equipment not intended for irrigation is used and ends up corroding, or a poor splice can lead to a bad connection. Photo: Shady Tree Landscaping

“We find a lot of standard wire nuts or cheap, gel-filled wire nuts used to make connections inside valve boxes that are in wet and moist environments,” says Eric Santos, CIT, CLIA, CGIA, CLWM, CIC, CAIS, CID, vice president of irrigation services at BrightView Landscape Maintenance. “Sometimes these gel connectors are reused, but they shouldn’t be. Once removed, they should go straight into the trash.”

There’s a big difference between connectors that are merely water-resistant and connectors that are truly waterproof, and the two types shouldn’t be confused, says Brent Mecham, CAIS, CIC, CID, CLIA, CLWM, industry development director for the Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia. “Water-resistant connectors are fine in places like California, where valve boxes are above ground, but not when valve boxes will be submerged in water,” he says. “They’ll corrode and cause an intermittent connection, so that the system will sometimes work and sometimes not work,” making a diagnosis even more difficult.

The wires themselves can also be the source of a problem. “Say a wire wasn’t long enough to go from valve box to valve box, so the installer made a splice connection in the middle,” says Peter Roberto, irrigation division and human resources manager at Shady Tree Landscaping, Norwood, Massachusetts, and president of the Irrigation Association of New England. “Then that bad connection is often buried and can only be found with a ground fault detector.”

When moisture penetrates that connection, you can get an open circuit, says Santos. “The water and moisture will start to wick between the conductor and the insulation of the wire, which leads to corrosion and can even impact the solenoids.”

Electrical problems get even hairier in the two-wire world, according to Santos. “Conventional irrigation systems are very forgiving to poor installation and can work fine for many years, but issues with a poorly installed two-wire system show up right away,” he says. “Whenever anyone takes over the maintenance of a two-wire system, I recommend inspecting it with a fine-toothed comb.”

Every two-wire manufacturer has different specifications as to the type of connectors, wire and grounding rods or plates you’re supposed to use. “A brand-new two-wire system can work perfectly fine one day, but if the grounding specs weren’t followed, one day you’ll find that 30 decoders are no longer working due to an electrical surge,” Santos says.

2. Inadequate water pressure

Service calls about sprinkler heads that aren’t working properly are often caused by low water pressure. Bryan Wynen, CIC, CLIA, CLWM, owner and president of both Wissco Irrigation and Springwise Irrigation, South Bend, Indiana, says he sees this a lot. “When a sprinkler or well system is first installed, it will usually have plenty of pressure. But a lot of our city water mains are metal, from the ’50s and ’60s and earlier. Mineral deposits build up inside, and the pressure starts to drop.”

Reduced pressure can also be caused by worn-out pumps or additional development in the area since the irrigation system was installed. Sometimes low pressure can be compensated for by changing the heads or nozzle sizes or switching to high-efficiency nozzles. If that doesn’t work, a pump may need to be added.

3. Poor workmanship

Sometimes a system is rife with problems because it wasn’t installed correctly in the first place. Todd Magatagan, CAIS, CGIA, CIC, CID, CLIA, CLWM, owner of Around the Grounds, Longview, Texas, and his techs have run into everything from poor basic pipefitting and wire splicing to what Magatagan calls horrific hydraulic piping done with incorrect knowledge of proper irrigation design or the hydraulics involved.

“We regularly have to fix basic plumbing issues because someone didn’t put pipe into a fitting squarely,” he says, and offers an example. “For instance, we’ll have a 90-degree elbow, but the pipe coming into it is at 60 degrees — so hardly any of the pipe is glued in. That pipe will have constant outward pressure on it to pull out the entire time it’s left like that.”

4. Hardscape barriers

Wynen says he and his crews are often called out to both residential and commercial sites where an addition has just been built, and suddenly the sprinklers don’t work. Too often, new construction creates hard barriers because whoever built the addition completely disregarded the sprinkler system, often cutting pipes or blocking them.

“We’ve seen hundreds of buildings that had really nice, well-installed irrigation systems that are no longer functional or are only partially functional due to expansion of the property,” says Wynen.

A poorly executed electrical connection, showing both the wrong type of wire being used along with too much electrical tape. Photo: The Toro Company

In some cases, parking lot islands have been removed because delivery trucks couldn’t make the corners. “An irrigation pipe supplying a parking island may be a sub, but it could also be a main line. At any rate, they’ll dig it out and put pavement over it, and now the trucks can make the corner — but the pipe is still broken under there and can’t be accessed for repair.”

If that broken pipe still has water flow, a sinkhole will be created, Wynen says. “Typically, the pipe will be leaking, and that necessitates going back to the last point of water pressure and capping it.” Doing that risks turning off the irrigation to the islands that are still there, placing them at risk of not getting watered.

“We have many retail clients who’ve added onto their properties, but the irrigation wasn’t properly extended,” Wynen says. “Sometimes the system becomes impossible to operate again and has to be replaced.” Replacement is the cheaper option versus spending thousands to snake pipes under walkways or around new buildings.

5. Poor coverage and incorrect scheduling

Service calls often happen because of dead, wet or brown spots in a lawn or landscape, the result of poor coverage. A lawnmower may have broken a sprinkler head or lateral, or even main lines could be leaking. Things like broken, clogged or out-of-adjustment sprinkler heads and nozzles should be detected and corrected as a part of routine sprinkler maintenance.

A property owner may think there’s a broken sprinkler head or a wiring problem when there is none. John Newlin, CIC, CIT, CLIA, owner of Quality Services, North Ridgeville, Ohio, says the real reason for poor coverage is landscape plantings that have matured. The system was fine when it was first installed — but the funny thing about plants is, they tend to grow, and if sprinkler heads haven’t been moved or added in a long time, vegetation can block them or shade once-sunny areas. Or, a property owner may have added new plants but failed to have the irrigation system adjusted accordingly.

Bad coverage can also result from a poor initial system design, such as mixing sprays and rotors. Water pressure may also be too high or too low; this can be compensated for by using pressure-regulated valves or heads.

An audit may be called for, says Newlin. It will reveal that some heads should be moved, raised or straightened. Entire zones may need redesigning.

Many service calls happen when a property owner notices runoff. This is usually the result of incorrect, inefficient scheduling — or the lack of a rain sensor, which Newlin says is “a must.” The soil type may respond better to a cycle-and-soak schedule, watering for shorter periods of time more frequently so water can seep into the ground.

Underwatering is usually due to a controller needing adjustment for the warmer season. When the problem is either under- or overwatering, Newlin says that gives you a good opening to talk to the client about adding a smart controller, which would provide a solution to both problems and prevent others.

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at maryvillano@igin.com.