Most irrigation work doesn’t require professionals to have a crystal ball allowing them to see the future. No customer expects you to know where a tree’s roots are going to grow or how a new sidewalk will block a sprinkler head. But a successful irrigation system installation calls for considering the future’s possibilities.
Experienced irrigation professionals know there’s a long list of steps to consider when installing a new irrigation system. No matter how simple the initial design looks, there’s a lot to do before jumping in to begin trenching
“You have to start with a plan, a design, that has water conservation as the focal point,” says Tave Close, Florida team leader for Masuen Consulting LLC, Newport, Washington, an irrigation design, consulting and water management firm. “A good design, whether it’s residential or commercial, takes into account what the turf and plant material is that’s going to be irrigated, the climates and microclimates that are present, local watering restrictions, codes and regulations.”
A pre-installation site visit is important to verify that the field conditions match the plan, Close says.
Scot Latham, CIC, CIT, owns Poseidon Irrigation Oklahoma in Edmond and is president of the Oklahoma Irrigation Association. He says looking at the water requirements of your project and making sure they match the actual availability at the site is a crucial first step. “Doing that at the start will make your job much easier,” he says. “So will communicating with customers about what their expectations are and whether or not you can meet them with the water that’s available.”
For Stephen Geckeler, CLIA, CIC, vice president of sales and estimating at Aqua- Lawn Inc., Fairfield, Connecticut, a smooth-flowing installation begins during the sales process. You need to understand where you’re going and why, and what you’re going to do when you get there. Make sure you and the client are in agreement on the work that is to be done. “You need to know where you’re getting the water from, what the water pressure is and where everything is going to be installed,” he says. “You need to know what the budget is. That all should be resolved before you begin and that really gets done during the sales process.”
Close says one of the first pre-installation steps is “doing your locates,” finding out where all the underground utilities are buried, including cable, electricity, gas, water and sewer. “If they’re not properly located, you’ll tear them out with a trencher,” Close says. He adds that most utility-locating companies give themselves a minimum of 72 hours to respond, so you’ve got to plan ahead and make sure this task is done in time to accommodate your groundbreaking date.
Close advises making sure that all the needed materials are on hand before the construction begins. “There’s nothing quite as devastating to the morale of the field personnel as getting things going and moving along; then, all of a sudden, you find you don’t have something you need.”
Geckeler starts by logging the new customer into his job management system, which is used for both installation and service. “We make sure the plumbing is done, or at least scheduled, and we coordinate with the homeowner, the landscaper and/or builder. Some contractors order materials per project. We don’t typically do that, as we have a good stockpile of materials on hand at the office so we’re ready to go.”
Using a checklist
Latham says having a checklist helps make sure critical items aren’t missed. “Ours includes the requirements of the sprinkler system, what the available water is, and whether we’re using city water or well water. With city water, what’s available depends upon the size of the water meter — how much water is allowed to go through it and what size piping we’re tying into.”
It’s quite a bit different when the water source is a well. “Wells work off of pressure and use either a pressure tank or a pump starter, so you have to take that into consideration,” Latham says. “You need to determine whether it’s feasible to even do a sprinkler system.” He says many times, incorrectly installed sprinkler systems that draw from wells will deplete the water supply for the house.
Other items on the list include what kind of nozzles will be used for the rotors and the sizes and configurations of spray heads. Pipe sizing and elevation changes are also important. “If our valves are set to where the water will have to be pushed uphill, this reduces the pressure toward the top,” says Latham.
Finally, he takes pressure compensation into account. “If our valves are up above where the zone is, that would increase the pressure as you go down,” he says. “A lot of times municipalities will have 100 pounds of pressure, so you have to determine whether we do pressure compensation at the heads or at the valves or overall.”
Making maintenance easier
Irrigation systems should ideally be installed with an eye toward what might be needed down the road. “A lot of installers do not do maintenance,” says Latham. “They’re only thinking, how fast and how quick can I slap all this stuff together and then move on to the next job, and they don’t take into consideration if somebody has to fix it later on.”
This is how you get things like too many valves crammed into a valve box, he says. “It kills me when I get to a job site and someone has literally put the valves right next to each other. Then you’ve got a four-valve manifold and only one of them is leaking. You have to tell the customer, ‘Well, the previous installer didn’t give me enough wiggle room, enough piping, to cut out that valve and replace it, so I’m going to have to charge you to replace all four of them.’” There are many things an installer can do that will make the next tech’s life much easier, such as using color-coded wire. “If I go to a controller, and they’ve used multistrand wire, I can tell which valve is tied to what by color,” says Latham. “If somebody runs single strand out to everywhere, it’s usually the same color and then you’re not so sure.”
Documentation of the what, the where and the how deep is critical. This is known as an “as-built” or site plan, Close says. “Everything should be on that as-built: GPS coordinates of where every valve is, where the main line is and its depth, where every turn in the main line is, the depth of the turns of the main line, where the gate valves are, where there are crossings, where every remote control valve is, the controller itself, and the wire path. All of these things should be documented on it.” This way, any maintenance company that takes over won’t have to start from scratch. As Close puts it, the customer already paid to have a system installed, they shouldn’t have to pay for discovery every time they switch landscape providers.
Close says there are other techniques that will simplify future maintenance and repairs, such as putting unions on valves that will allow for easy replacement and repair and isolating valves before the remote control valves. “That way you don’t have to drain the main line in order to effect a repair on a valve, you can just isolate that valve, do the repair and turn the main line back on.”
Any irrigation professional with any time in the field at all has stories about mind-boggling mistakes they’ve run across. Latham once saw a site with piping so shallow that a heavy rain exposed them. “They were literally within just a few inches below the surface, so shallow that the spray heads were flush to the ground.”
Latham says a lot of errors happen when installers feel rushed. “When you’re going too fast, you don’t take the time to make sure that fittings are glued in properly. Or you just run wire without keeping track of where valves are and what their numbers are.”
Of course, even experienced irrigation professionals make mistakes sometimes. “Everybody’s flooded a house before, we’ve done it too,” says Geckeler.
Good on-site quality control is essential to avoid mistakes, according to Close. “You need to make sure proper solvent-welding techniques are being used,” he says. “On a system with 4-inch piping and above, there really shouldn’t be any solvent welds. There should be mechanical joint fittings used, and those have to be properly installed, properly restrained and properly thrust-blocked.”
Thrust-blocking, explains Close, is important when gasketed pipes take a turn in direction. “Say you have a 90-degree turn. When the water hits it, natural forces are pushing the fitting away from the pipe.
Thrust-blocking can be as simple as dropping a bag of concrete or two behind the turn. Or, you can wrap the fitting in plastic and then pour concrete around it.”
Overtightening is a common error. “If you overtighten a threaded pipe, you can create a stress point, and it can crack because plastic is brittle,” says Geckeler. “It might not break right away, but over time it might start creating a stress fracture.”
Another mistake is failing to communicate with the customer about changes, the correct way the system is supposed to be run or how to schedule and handle future maintenance to keep things going smoothly. “That is a huge one,” says Latham, “when a contractor just gets in there, installs things and goes down the road and the homeowner is left with this piece of equipment (the controller) hanging on the wall and having no idea how to operate it. Then they become very dissatisfied.”
“Wrong nozzling is one of the biggest areas where genuine, honest mistakes occur,” says Close. “It usually happens when field employees are not trained in hydraulics or precipitation and just throw nozzles wherever. The result is water going where it shouldn’t go.”
Geckeler agrees that preventing mistakes comes back to training and the sales process. “If the sales person doesn’t determine what the water source is and how much water is available, or if a booster pump is needed, then you can’t properly plan a job and you end up shooting from the hip and working backwards.”
Avoiding mistakes and completing a system installation correctly could be much easier with visions of the future, but proper planning and solid training will go a long way to make up the difference on your next job.
The author is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.