Irrigation: Getting Ready for Spring

Spring is coming soon to an irrigation system near you. “What? It’s still winter!” you might be saying. Yes, and midwinter is the perfect time to start preparing to get your clients’ systems off and running—or, should we say, ‘on’ and running, once that first robin sings.

Actually, we do need to back up just a bit. Spring startups really began a few months ago, in the fall, when the winterizations were done. Or, in some cases, not done—or at least, not done properly.

“If you’ve done the winterization right, spring startup should be easy,” said Maurice Dowell, president of Dowco Enterprises, Inc., in Chesterfield, Missouri. “You need a qualified technician to shut the irrigation system down, to blow it out. We use a high-powered compressor on the backflow, blow the water from that point out, and make sure to drain it. That’s the real key—to drain the water from the system for the winter. Then, in the spring, all we have to do is energize the system and check for leaks and head coverage.”

‘Head coverage,’ of course, doesn’t mean buying a new spring hat. It means going to each of the sprinkler heads and making sure that they’re rotating properly, watering turf and beds, not sidewalks or driveways.

But before you get to that point, you first have to set up the appointment. “That’s probably the hardest part,” Dowell says, laughing, “especially with our residential clients.

You have to get in and get access to the basement. At least in my part of the country, that’s where the taps are. The water supply enters through the basement. Somebody needs to be home, to let us in. Scheduling that can be tough.” Make sure you get started early.

When you restart that irrigation system, you’re also restarting your relationship with the client. So, be sure to make a good impression. “When that technician comes to the door, you want him to be polite and presentable,” says Dowell. “He should look good, and before he goes down to turn the water on, he should put booties on over his shoes.”

“There’s two parts to spring startup,” says Kurt Thompson, director of irrigation for Massey Services, Inc., in Orlando, Florida.

“There’s the hydraulic part, the irrigation system itself. First, you do a visual check; look for leaks and major breaks from anything frozen in the ground. Next, you activate every valve, every zone, and observe all the sprinklers. You have to make sure that the ones that are supposed to rotate are rotating, and the popups are popping up. That the spray heads aren’t spraying on the roads or the house, and the rotors are throwing the water where they’re supposed to be throwing it.”

“The second part is resetting the controller,” says Thompson. But that’s not all there is to it. Don’t just copy the schedule you used last spring, or on some other client’s house. “The plants have grown since last year. To accommodate bigger plants, you might need to increase the run times. You might also have to physically move sprinklers out of the way, adjust them so they’re not blocked by the new growth.”

This is especially true of certain kinds of plant material that really get “turned on” once they get the cue from Mother Nature. “We have St. Augustine and Zoysia grass down here,” says Judith Benson, owner and president of Orlando, Floridabased Clearwater Products and Services, Inc. “Those both grow by sending out ‘stolens’ that interlace with each other, so the turf keeps getting thicker and thicker. As it matures, it’s like laying one layer on top of another.”

“The problem,” says Benson, “is that contractors typically install four-inch spray heads. But within two years’ time, the heads may no longer be able to pop up past the thickened turf, and the spray patterns are inhibited.” At that point, she’ll recommend that they go ahead and change out to six-inch heads.

Most desirable would be to keep readjusting sprinkler locations throughout the growing season, two or three times a year, says Thompson. Realistically, however, this only gets done at startup.

Dan Newcomer owns Ground Control Irrigation in Omaha, Nebraska. “An irrigation system here is tied into the water meter down in the basement. So, first thing, we shut off the backflow. It should be at a 45-degree angle when we get there, because that’s how we left it when we did the blowout in the fall. Then we turn the water on in the basement, turn those levers back to the “on” position, and charge the mainline. And then we’ll reset the controller to the correct time and day, and set the schedule up for springtime watering.”

A big part of spring startup for Benson’s company is checking rain sensors. “We go through long, dry spells, up to seven months, where those sensors may not be activated,” she says. “The batteries may be dead. More importantly, a lot of rain sensors have these little absorbent discs in them, and if they stay dry for extended periods of time, they may no longer be able to easily absorb water again. A repair kit may be needed.” This is not a minor matter in Florida; the law requires every irrigation system to have a functioning rain sensor.

What can go wrong

“One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is when homeowners try to turn their systems on themselves,” says Newcomer. “They go down in the basement and just pull that shutoff valve straight on, way too fast. And then, all that air that’s inside the pipes just slams into the bonnet pop-it assembly inside the backflow preventer. It’ll put a little hairline crack in the plastic, right on the thread, and water will drip out of it. The only way to make that stop is to replace the whole assembly. That’s the number-one repair that we see in the spring,” he said. Because it’s so common, he keeps at least ten bonnet-and-pop-it assemblies in each of his trucks when springtime rolls around.

What’s the proper way to do it?

“We shut everything off on the backflow first, and then turn the water on, slowly, so we can get all the air out of the line gradually,” says Newcomer.

If the winterization wasn’t done right, and there was water in the pipes that subsequently froze, then what? “Well, first, you hope that you’re not the person who winterized it,” laughs Dowell, “but you don’t mind getting those calls from someone else’s customer.”

Dowell lays out what typically happens. “You’ll get a phone call in late November, early December, and sometimes as late as January, from a customer who’s freaking out, because they’ve looked out the window and it’s a winter wonderland out there. Water’s spraying on the side of their house and freezing, and there’s ice all over the place. So you go out and turn it off, but you really can’t blow the system out at this point, because it’s frozen.”

“So you turn the system off,” continues Dowell. “Now, it depends on where the break is, but usually, the backflow device is ruined. Here in Missouri, putting in a new backflow requires a plumber and a permit, and it’s going to cost the homeowner at least $550 to $600.”

Even in areas where it doesn’t freeze, weather can still cause problems. “We do experience a higher volume of mainline repairs in the spring and fall, when the weather’s changing,” said Tom Foley, co-owner of Liquid Technologies, LLC, in Glendale, Arizona. “Once it gets either hot or cold, things level out. But during the time the weather is fluctuating, heating up or cooling down, there’s contraction and expansion, not only in the pipes, but in the soil as well. So, in the spring and fall, there’s a higher likelihood of mainline breaks.”

Another task faces Foley as things begin heating up. “We have quite a few reclaimed water systems here, and they can be kind of a nightmare. That water isn’t necessarily purified, and it can have plankton or microorganisms in it. With the warmer temperatures, we can get bacterial growth inside valves and nozzles, clogging things up. You have to clean filters often, and periodically flush out systems.”

Stuck valves

We mentioned before that spring startup begins with proper winterization, i.e., a blowout. But sometimes, a blowout can backfire.

Occasionally, an overzealous technician might force compressed air in at too high a pressure, or for too long. This can break the gears in gear-driven rotors.

“Gear-driven rotors, and rotating nozzles, all have these little gears in them that are moving very, very fast,” said Thompson. “They’re actually cooled by the water that goes through them. If you blow all of the water completely out of those drives with compressed air, you leave them with no lubrication. They can get hot and stop spinning. And of course, you won’t notice that during the winterization process. But when you go to turn them on in the spring, they won’t turn.”

Just as you shouldn’t let a vehicle “sit” for a long time without being started, the same can be true of an irrigation system. “The diaphragms tend to get hard and brittle,” says Foley. “I don’t have any statistics on it, but the systems we’ve done this on, we’ve had fewer problems with than on the ones that have lain completely dormant.” Of course, you’re not going to fire up a sprinkler system in January in Minnesota or Montana (and you shouldn’t). But in places where winters are more moderate, you might give it try.

“Valves that are left idle over long periods of time tend to have more maintenance issues,” Foley continued. “It’s a good idea to periodically run a cycle through the system, not for a great length of time, just long enough to get the valves opened and closed, and the heads to pop up and throw water out.”

Fixing and upselling

Spring startup is the time to inspect, find problems, and fix them before the season begins. “As an irrigation installation and maintenance company, we require our techs to go through the systems, find any problems, identify them and repair them,” says Dowell. “There’s nothing worse than starting a system up and then having a customer call you a week or two later, saying, ‘The heads aren’t rotating!’ That’s a nono here. We tell our guys, if a part is questionable, replace it.”

Dowco’s technicians make a checklist of the problems they’ve found, and tell the property owner that they’d like permission to do these repairs. They explain what the issues are, then it’s up to the owner to decide when or whether he wants them addressed. “There’s a certain amount of upsell to this,” says Dowell.

As it happens, spring startup is an ideal time to upsell your clients. “It’s a great time to talk to consumers, whether residential or commercial, about better water management,” Benson says. “We take that opportunity to educate them about advanced smart irrigation technologies. We explain that these controllers, once they’re installed and the settings are tweaked, will automatically adjust the water window. This is something we do on a routine basis.” In fact, Benson says her company gets more conversions from conventional to smart irrigation from spring startups than at any other time of year.

That’s not the only marketing Benson does as spring approaches. “We contact all of our clients just prior to the season coming in. We direct-mail everyone on our client list; for our residential clients, we’ll offer specials.

Preparation for these campaigns starts right after the New Year so everything can be sent out by February.”

Benson also looks to see if clients have changed, or are planning to change, their landscapes, and see if there is additional revenue to be had from increased services. “We always strongly encourage clients to alter the irrigation systems to match their new landscapes. Not everyone looks at that; they’ll change out their plants, but they won’t typically change their irrigation.”

Conducting a formal spring startup is not only a great way to reconnect with clients, but to offer them additional products and services. Even if your part of the country irrigates yearround, it’s not a bad idea to do a spring review with all of your irrigation clients. Start planning now for vibrant spring growth, both in your clients’ landscapes and in your company’s bottom line.