Make Irrigation Installations Easier

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

You gotta love technology—cell phones, digital video recorders, tablet devices… how did we ever live without them? Seems like some new gizmo rolls out every day. It’s tough to keep up with it all. Irrigation contractors haven’t been left out of this revolution. Smart controllers, weather and ET, moisture and rain sensors, water management software…there have been plenty of high-tech goodies for you as well.

“That’s all very nice,” you may be saying. “But what I really need are things that’ll speed up the process of installing and servicing irrigation systems. That has a direct effect on my bottom line.”

Well, you’re in luck. As it turns out, there are a number of changes and new products that have come along in the last few years to make your job easier. Actually, luck has nothing to do with it. These innovations weren’t dreamed up out of a vacuum; they came from the input that manufacturers got from contractors like you, in the field.

“We go to a lot of trade shows,” said Ron Pace, sales manager at Dura Plastic Products, Inc., in Beaumont, California. “The guys who do new installations and repairs tell us that time is money. They don’t want to spend eight hours putting in a system if they can get it done in six, and then move on to the next job.”

“We’ve always tried to make the labor component better for the contractor,” said Alan Ence, director of business development for Salt Lake City, Utah based Hydro-Rain. “We strive to make installation better and easier for everyone involved.”

“We’re seeing the next generation of irrigation equipment now,” said Tom Horn, owner and president of All-n-One Outdoor Solutions, Inc., Jefferson City, Missouri. He speaks from the perspective of one who has been installing and repairing irrigation systems for more than 20 years. “The companies that make irrigation components keep improving things and tweaking them, making systems easier and faster to install, maintain and adjust.”

Self-piercing saddles

Horn cites this example: “For one thing, the saddles that you use to tap into lateral lines—they improved those greatly about five years ago. Used to be, you’d have to take a nut driver and tighten down the nuts. Then, you had to take another tool and stick it down inside the hole and cut out pieces of pipe, then put the saddle in.”

“Now they have self-piercing saddles that just clamp right onto pipe. You screw the thing in, it pierces the pipe, and you’re ready to hook up your sprinkler head.”

Push fittings

Nothing slows down the installation process more than having to wait for glue and primer to set up and dry. That’s why push fittings (sometimes called push-and-lock fittings or slip-fixes), connectors that don’t require glues or primers, were invented. They’re used for both new installations and for repairs.

Joe Walker is operations manager for Indianapolis, Indiana-based Walker Irrigation Systems, Inc. When asked about push fittings, he says, “I absolutely love them. They make installation lightning fast.”

“When you’re connecting PVC pipe, you’ve got to prime the piece, glue the piece, then push it in and wait for it to set up,” he explains. “The label on the can says to wait 45 minutes to an hour for that. But with a push-fitting, there’s zero downtime. I just put it on, and I can immediately turn the system on and re-pressurize it.”

“And for poly pipe, the traditional method is putting clamps on,” says Walker. “Every time you put an insert fitting in, you’ve got to make sure to clamp that ring down tight with a separate tool. But, because of clampless push fittings, we’ve never had to do it that way. Once we actually start plumbing, I’d say we’re saving about 40 percent of our time, if not a little bit more.”

Walker also appreciates push fittings for cutting down the amount of equipment his crew members have to carry. “Instead of carrying a can of primer, a can of glue, a saw, a deburring tool for PVC pipe, and for poly, a pair of crimping tools and a bag of clamps, all they have to carry is a pair of pipe cutters.”

Not everyone is on board the express connection train, however. “In my experience, quick connect or push fittings don’t work nearly as well as good, old-fashioned glue and primer, and they’re considerably more expensive,” said Tom Nowak, owner and president of James River Irrigation,in Richmond, Virginia.

Walker begs to differ. “The push-and-lock fittings are such time-savers, and that translates directly into money. The labor costs are completely offset. I can do five more service calls in a day if I’m using push fittings than I can using conventional fittings and sitting around, waiting for them to dry. We’d have to be blind to look past that.”

“Some older contractors might not be comfortable with push fittings because they’re so used to using their glue and primer,” says Matthew McElveen, national product manager, at Lasco Fittings, Inc., in Brownsville, Tennessee. “They’ll probably stick with what they know.”

“That’s the old dogs not liking new tricks,” says Kurt K. Thompson, irrigation director for Orlando, Florida-based Massey Services, Inc. “But nothing is perfect; nothing’s without its own trap doors. You can make mistakes in gluing pipe together, too, such as not seating them all the way in. That can be really expensive.”

Another benefit to push fittings is their ability to be used in wet conditions. “Imagine showing up to a job site,” said Ence. “Water is gushing, and you have a mess, a huge hole with a big puddle. You turn the water off, look down in that hole, and see a lot of water that you’ve got to drain out. There’s also water inside the pipe; you’ve got to get rid of that, too. You have to cut your new pipe, attach it, and get in and out of there in a limited amount of time.”

“How are you going to glue a joint under such conditions? You’ll have to make sure that the pipe is dry, on the inside and the outside. Here’s where push fittings are invaluable. They can be installed underwater, or with water running.”

Could push fittings eventually become the standard? “Personally, I think there’ll be a place for both types of fittings, push-on and glued, in the future,” said McElveen.

When you must glue, it’s still mostly a two-step process. Horn has tried using an adhesive that combines gluing and priming in one application. “It’s very nice to only have to carry one can, and it seems fairly effective and reliable on smaller systems. But I wouldn’t use it on bigger installations. With anything more than two-inch diameter pipe, I would still rather use traditional glue and primer.”

There’s another kind of quick-attach connector called a compression fitting. This type has little “teeth” that actually bites into pipe, even metal pipe such as copper.

“The only time we’ve had a problem with a compression fitting is when we can’t get it properly seated onto a pipe,” says Horn. “If they’re just a little bit off, they can leak and fail. But then, any product you use has to be properly aligned and installed.”

Walker has discovered another distinct advantage to push fittings. “Being able to eliminate 80 percent of my gluing and priming is better for me and my laborers, because we don’t have to deal with fumes and skin contact. It eliminates a lot of hazardous waste as well.”

Respirators and gloves should really be used with toxic chemicals. But then…“Sometimes there aren’t a lot of safety precautions once you get out in the real world,” acknowledges Walker. “The vast majority of contractors are probably gluing pipe barehanded. My guys wear gardening gloves, but they’re not latex or rubber, so there can still be soakthrough. And a lot of times, you might be in a meter vault, or some other enclosed space like that, breathing that stuff in.”

“That said,” Walker observes, “why not convert to something that’ll offer you the same performance, plus a little more peace of mind?”

Flexible pipe

Flexible pipe, made by a number of manufacturers, has been another gift to installers. “The nice thing about flexible pipe is that it comes in rolls,” said Keith Shepersky, senior project manager for Irritrol, headquartered in Riverside, California.

“It can be cut to length, and used with PVC pipe. If you have to install a tall pop-up sprinkler, for instance, you won’t have to make your entire trench as deep as that sprinkler body. You can dig a standard-depth trench, make a little bit deeper hole where the sprinkler goes, then use the flexible pipe to connect it. You can attach half- or three-quarter inch fittings on either end.”

“Flexible pipe is great for when you don’t know exactly how long the section is that you need to cut out,” says McElveen. “It saves you from having to go get more pipe. It can also be used for expansion joints.”

“The flex pipe is great for situations where you have to go below or around obstructions, like rock, for instance,” says Thompson. “Especially when you’re doing renovations, where you often have to do some kind of wacky bending.”

“It’s used much more for the repair business than it is in new installations,” said Pace. “I’d say for every ten repairs that someone does with flex pipe, he might use it once on a new installation. For instance, a situation where it might take four or five non-flexible fittings to make something work, or when pipe isn’t lined up exactly right. It goes in faster, quicker and cleaner.”

Another flexible connector is swing pipe, used to attach sprinklers to PVC pipe. It’s been around since the 1980s. “Those connections have to be able to move, because they’re sticking out above ground,” explains Thompson. “Otherwise, cars or heavy equipment running over the corners of driveways will break the tees, the sprinklers, or the pipes.”

Easy-peasy sleevers

There’s one more trick for your quick-installation bag, and that’s a sleever. It’s great for when you need to run pipe under a sidewalk or driveway. “A sleever is a steel bar that looks like a big knitting needle, or a double-headed nail,” said Thompson. “You can slide, say, a one-inch PVC pipe into it, and then dig a trench perpendicular to where you’re going to cross under the sidewalk. Then you just pound it through, pull out the steel bar, and leave the PVC pipe in the ground.”

He points out that in some areas, like in sandy-soiled Florida where he works, sleevers may not be necessary, as it’s fairly easy to attach a hose and let water bore out a hole for you. But in places with clay soil, a sleever is invaluable.

“The old days of pounding galvanized pipe through, pulling it out on the other side, and then sliding PVC back through, or trying to, are gone,” says Thompson.

There are other products out there that can streamline jobs for installers, such as direct-glue valves that don’t require threaders, and trenchers with tracks instead of wheels. Competition among equipment manufacturers being what it is, it’s a safe bet to say that there’ll be lots more to come.

Installing and servicing irrigation systems is never going to be an easy job; but it can be made easier.