Oct. 6 2021 02:34 PM

Brace yourself for more gut-wrenching irrigation nightmares.

Some irrigation service calls make a technician scratch their head with confusion.

But some are so calamity-filled that they seem cursed. This October, these contractors share irrigation horror stories of possessed wires, ghostly internet signals and backbreaking digging — jobs that seemed straightforward, until they became a straight-up nightmare.

A shocking revelation

Greg Haynes currently works as the public works supervisor for the City of Newport, California, but memories of a nightmare irrigation service call during his tenure as an irrigation contractor come rushing back to him with a jolt.

He was called out to the 57 Freeway running north and south through Orange County, California, to service the irrigation system, which was watering the east side of the highway, but not the west side.

“There was wiring everywhere, and none of it made sense,” says Haynes. “It looked like someone had tried to fix it already, and I was there to fix the fix.”

After locating what he assumed was the sole master valve on the east side of the freeway, he was certain that lines were carrying water underneath eight lanes of roaring highway traffic.

He just wasn’t sure how it was happening. But after three days of walking along the freeway and climbing over and under the bridge head, Haynes says he finally discovered another master valve that no one knew about, buried under asphalt along the west side lanes of traffic.

“As I chiseled away at this 3-inch master valve that was buried in the emergency lane on the side of the freeway, it looked like the road had been widened just enough to cover the valve,” Haynes says. “After I dug up the master valve on the west side, I went in to check the wires on the solenoid.”

That’s when Haynes was shocked by a jolt so forceful that it knocked him backwards and off his feet. Dazed and on the ground along the highway, Haynes knew he was shocked by more than 24-volt irrigation wiring.

“I’m sitting on my butt on the ground thinking that something was wrong because 24 volts will give you a buzz, but it won’t hurt you,” Haynes says. “I sat underneath a tree by the on ramp thinking that I couldn’t put a tracer on this wire because there was power in it, but I had to figure out why there was power in it.”

After a closer inspection, Haynes says he found a strange looking wire in the controller. Using a wand tracer, he traced it back to a splice box buried deep under ground cover.

“The splice box said ‘street lighting,’” Hayes says. “I opened the box and found the same wire in there. Someone had connected the irrigation wiring to a 220-volt line that ran the traffic light to the on-ramp.”

After disconnecting the wires and replacing a melted panel in the solenoid, Haynes says he had to start from scratch to figure out how the master valves were programmed and connected.

After two more weeks of walking back and forth over the bridge, climbing on the bridge heads and searching alongside highway traffic, Haynes says he figured out that while there were two controllers, the one on the west side was wired incorrectly. The one on the east side, while wired correctly, was programmed incorrectly.

“The east side system would run and then shut down, and because there wasn’t a relay and there was no way to get under the freeway, I had to use a ghost program to keep the valve open on the east side so the water would work on the west side,” Haynes says.

In the end, Haynes successfully got the water working on both sides of the freeway. One year later, the entire system was torn out during a highway expansion.

Lesson learned: Get as much information about the job as possible from any previous contractors, then take the time to think through possible scenarios before diving into a job.

Nightmare at dusk

As dusk was falling over Carmel, Indiana, one Friday evening, Ken Barthuly’s team was wrapping up the installation of 200 sprinkler heads at a newly built estate. They had finished in the nick of time, just ahead of a large Indianapolis 500 race party scheduled for the next evening.

“Our hands were tied in this situation by scheduling issues out of our control, and we weren’t able to meet the deadline a week earlier,” says Barthuly, co-founder of Barthuly Irrigation Inc., Westfield, Indiana. “So on Friday evening, as the landscapers were laying the sod, we were turning on the water.”

As he watched the sprinkler heads, he quickly realized that there was a big problem. The rotors weren’t rotating. There had been a 90% failure rate of the sprinkler heads.

“We were devastated at that point,” Barthuly says. “I was irate and I was embarrassed.”

With less than 24 hours until guests were due to arrive, Barthuly says he was juggling calls to the homeowner to explain what was happening, to the landscapers to tell them they would have to handwater the sod, and to a manufacturer’s rep from a new company that had been working to earn his business.

“I remember making the phone call to the new manufacturer’s rep saying that we were in a world of hurt and needed some answers quick,” Barthuly says. “They came out with product the next day and gave us the product for free.”

The next morning, a team of 20 technicians working a fast-paced 10-hour day finished replacing the heads just as the first guests began to arrive.

“As cars were arriving, we were pulling out,” Barthuly says.

Although the original timeline was extremely tight, Barthuly says that he and the other contractors on the job wanted to make it happen for their client, a high-profile and well-respected figure in the city. In hindsight, Barthuly says he should have explained to the client that the timeline wasn’t realistic.

Lesson learned: Identify the deadline. For your internal calendar, move it up a week so you have plenty of time to deal with unforeseen situations.

A spotty connection

When the Los Angeles County Parks system decided to install weather-based controllers for the irrigation system in one area park, Sean Gorman says they were certain they had located the ideal spots for the controllers, ones that had a strong internet connection to power the controllers.

“Everyone thought they did their homework and we put a good amount of time into the prep,” says Gorman, a senior plumber with more than 20 years of experience as an irrigation fitter. “We had taken a smaller model controller down into the area and powered it up, and we had initially gotten the good numbers we were looking for to say they were good spots.”

The installation went smoothly, but later in the day, it was evident that something had gone terribly wrong.

“It seemed like we were getting good reception, and then later in the day, we noticed that the controllers were dropping internet,” Gorman says. “The controller will try to reconnect, but after so many times, it goes into a failsafe mode. The data of the history showed that it was trying to connect every 10 or 15 minutes. It would connect, and then it would disconnect.”

With five or six controllers going on and offline, the team jumped into problem-solving mode, switching out modems, experimenting with different types of antennas, replacing circuit boards and even changing the front display panel. Working alongside reps from the manufacturer, Gorman says they attempted to replace everything but the power supply.

As they began frantically consulting any expert they could find, the team finally stumbled on an IT expert who identified the issue.

“They were just as baffled as we were about why the signal was good six months ago, and after installation, we had issues,” he says. “It took some digging, but we finally found out that we put some of the controllers between two cell towers that were equidistant, and the signal wasn’t sure which direction to go. By moving it one way or another, it got a sense of direction and we got a better signal.”

With the problem identified, the team knew they needed to relocate the controllers and extend the irrigation wiring. Then, the real horror story began.

“No one likes wires,” Gorman says. “It’s like brain surgery. Sometimes we have 36 or 48 wires and we have to make sure all the wires are connected correctly. Everyone gets super serious and super stressed because they don’t want to have to do it again. We had to make sure that once we moved it, we weren’t going to have to move it again.”

This time, Gorman and the team decided to relocate the controllers, power the units up and let them run for a week, which allowed them to review the data history and confirm that the new locations were receiving strong and reliable internet signals.

“When we saw the history and that it was doing fine, we could say without question that the location was good, and we could finish the project,” he says. “Now anytime we go to install a controller, I’m looking to see if I have a building, a metal barn, big trees or anything between me and the cell tower. I don’t need a big oak tree blocking my signal. I don’t want to come back to dead landscape.”

Lesson learned: When it comes to weather-based controllers, it’s all about location.

Tractor tales

When Earthco Commercial Landscape, Santa Ana, California, was called to do a turf removal project in Anaheim, it seemed like a straightforward job. Remove the turf, install plant materials and retrofit the old irrigation system with low-flow nozzles.

“When we got in there to dig out the pop-ups, we couldn’t even make that happen,” says Kyle Morrison, vice president of operations. “The California Pepper trees had encased the main line that ran through the area with roots.”

For two days, five guys hacked away at the roots with picks, shovels, axes and a chainsaw. After 80 man hours and little progress, the team finally decided to bring a tractor to the job site.

“Sometimes with the coordination of tractors, it can be a pain to get it there, but we should have bitten the bullet and coordinated from the beginning to get the tractor,” Morrison says. “It took eight hours once we brought in the tractor. We should have just done it originally.”

Because Earthco also maintains the irrigation system at the property, Morrison says they also made the decision to upgrade the system to drip irrigation.

“Had we not changed it, we would still be dealing with irrigation issues to this day because the old system would still be encapsulated in roots,” Morrison says. “We lost between $5,000 and $6,000 on this job, but I don't have to replace plants because they are getting the correct amount of water. And since we are there every week to maintain the system, it ends up being better.”

Looking back, Morrison says he should have suggested upgrading the outdated system to a drip system before beginning the project, which would have eliminated the need for digging, making the problems they encountered a nonissue.

“You lay the drip on top of the dirt so we would have maybe had a slight amount of digging to make sure the lateral line was in the right spot, but it would have been very minimal,” he says.

With this job under his belt, Morrison says he now recommends drip irrigation on every turf removal project, unless the area is on a slope.

“With ease of installation and longevity of materials for the drip, we always recommend drip,” he says.

Lesson learned: Try to work smarter, not harder. Use machinery to your advantage.

Lauren Sable Freiman is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached at laurensable@gmail.com.

Living to tell the tale

When contractors are facing down their own irrigation installation nightmares, it’s important to remember that they’re not taking them on alone. Your distributor or dealer will be eager to lend a hand, says Erik Anderson, district sales manager for SiteOne Green Tech, Vista, California. No matter how much expertise you have, it’s helpful to have that kind of an experienced team behind you.

Before you start pulling your hair out at a tough install, take a breath, gather your notes and give your contact a call, he says.

“Usually, that’s initiated with a single phone call,” Anderson says.

Having images or the original plans on hand will be helpful in vetting the job to get you to the right expert no matter who your distributor or dealer is, but it’s not required. “After that, I’ll usually need to make a site visit, or I’ll have the customer text me pictures of a specific controller. I may make a site visit after I determine what he’s got out there.”

“A lot of the time, I’ll end up helping people over the phone if they just don’t know which buttons to push on the controller or they don’t know how to connect it to the web,” he says.

If a site visit is necessary, your representative will do their best to get a good handle on the situation, he says.

“We’re going to take a look at the whole thing,” he says. “I may have to call in a technician myself, if it involves electrical or a plumbing issue. But the first thing to do is make a site visit and establish what we’ve got going on.”

With an understanding of the issue, the representative will present options relying on their expertise and the products they have available to deal with the challenge, he says. “We’re providing the client with multiple choices to difficult problems, or multiple solutions to difficult technical problems in the field.”