Tales of terror

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

Survive these bone-chilling stories of irrigation nightmares.

Because it’s October, we thought we’d share some chilling horror stories of irrigation service calls gone frightfully wrong. A technician or contractor never knows what lies ahead on a job site. It could be a straightforward maintenance or repair task — or a straight-up nightmare.

Under pressure

About 15 years ago, Brian Snoe, owner of SG Landscapes, Galt, California, encountered a scenario that almost caused him to quit the irrigation business. “I was working for a company in San Martin, California, and I was sent to Hillsborough on what was supposed to be a simple install to replace some valves in the front and back yards of a residence,” he says. “I get to the house, shut off the water main at the street and install the new valves in the back. No problem. Then I go to do the same thing in the front yard, expecting the same results.”

Snoe replaced the valves and glue fittings in the front yard. “I usually give myself a pretty good cure time on the glue before firing a system back up, a couple of hours at least. I did the same thing here, and after about two hours I started the system back up.”

With the work done, Snoe packs up to go. But before he could leave the job site, the new fittings popped off. He thought that was strange, but he redid them and waited a few more hours for the glue to cure again. The same thing happened again: The connections popped off.

Snoe thought that perhaps the water pressure was a bit high, but when he measured it with his gauge, one that goes up to 200 psi, it pegged the dial, meaning the pressure was actually higher than 200 psi.

This made no sense. “Typically, in a residential area the pressure is under 70 psi,” he says. “I thought the gauge was broken.” He told the customer that the water would have to be shut off a full 24 hours this time to really let those connections cure.

A day later, Snoe returns and turns the system back on. “After about 10 minutes, the connections start popping open again,” he says. Now he’s really flummoxed. Was there a prankster poltergeist at work?

“Usually, with the glue and primer I was using, as long as the pressure is under 70 psi, you only really need a two-minute cure time,” he says. “But here I’d given it two hours, then another two hours, then 24 hours and it still wasn’t holding.”

Desperate for answers, Snoe starts making calls to the company reps for the piping, the primer and the glue. “I asked all of them, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ Even though I’d been servicing irrigation systems for 10 years at this point, I figured there must be something I’d missed, and I was kicking myself in the butt for it,” he says. Three separate days he came back to try to fix the problem and he couldn’t figure it out.

“Finally, I threw my hands in the air and told my boss, ‘You need to send somebody else out, I’ll pay whatever it costs,’” he says.

Driving back home on that final day and wondering if he ought to choose a new career, Snoe happened to see a geyser of water shooting 100 feet over a freeway overpass. The geyser had been shooting out of a main line leak in a city common, the same main line he’d been working on.

The company sent another tech and a helper out to finish the job. When they tested the pressure at the water meter, they also got a pegged gauge. No wonder the connections were popping!

How was the problem finally solved? They threaded a pressure regulator on at the main, without glue this time.

“Seriously, this was one of the days where I almost quit this profession,” recalls Snoe. “Before this happened, I thought I’d seen everything and knew pretty much all I needed to know, but this was a new one on me. It made me question all of my education and whether I really knew what the heck I was doing. In the end, it was all about physics.”

The property owner was sympathetic. After the second time the pipe fell out, the homeowner offered to pay for Snoe’s overnight hotel stay.

What was Snoe’s reward for three days of frustrating work? “It ended up costing me $400 or $500,” he says. “I lost the commission because I didn’t finish, and the other two guys were paid out of what I would have made.”

But Snoe says it wasn’t entirely a negative experience. “This was an anomaly. I’m actually better at what I do because of it,” he says.

Lesson learned: When things go wrong, figure out what you can learn from it and don’t beat yourself up.

What lies beneath

It sounded like a simple job, just fix a leak in a lateral line. But when the service technician from Wrightsville Beach Landscaping, Wilmington, North Carolina, arrived at the residence, he found a much bigger job than he expected: The irrigation lines were under a river birch tree and entangled in its roots.

“Literally everything was under there,” says Irrigation Foreman Joel Frye. “Everything” included the pipe carrying the main water supply line to the house, the water supply line to a six-zone valve manifold and the manifold itself. “The valves and all the lateral lines were all underneath that tree, with the roots grown over and entangled among the components,” says Frye.

It took the tech two days of cutting the tree’s roots away to get to the leak, which had been caused by those very same roots. Although the tech was able to do the repair, he found himself wishing that the tree would fall so that everything under it could be redone anew.

Two weeks later, a hurricane blew through the area, and the tech got his wish. The river birch blew over, but that just made things worse.

“After the tree blew down, we brought the homeowner out and showed him the situation,” recalls Frye. They told the homeowner that the tree stump had to come out. “Because of the way that the stump and the roots were entangled with the pipes, when that tree tilted over, there was no way of knowing what it had torn out.”

They explained to the owner that this was not going to be an easy, quick process. And, once they did manage to get the components divorced from the tree roots, everything in that section was going to have to be replaced. You can imagine the size of the final bill!

“The roots had grown around a piece of four-inch corrugated drain line,” says Frye. “Some of those roots were as big around as my arm. We had to get in there and cut the stump and those roots out.”

Frye, another service tech and two managers hacked away at that stump for three and a half days. “Luckily, there were no electrical lines near there that we had to worry about.”

“Then we had to make sure that everything was put back correctly,” Frye says. “We had to hook lines up just to figure out what zone went where and what valve went back to what.”

What should have been a simple job turned into a 30-hour-plus project. “It was not only a physical nightmare, but a mental one,” says Frye. At one point, he told the technician, “Brian, from now on, please be careful what you wish for!” Lessons learned: Be prepared for anything, and watch where you plant things.

Fowl play

A property manager of a residential estate in one of New England’s wealthiest enclaves called Brian Gill, owner of Gill Irrigation Inc., Middletown, Rhode Island, saying there was an issue with the irrigation system. “When I got on the property, I saw that there were a couple of valves stuck open. Normally I would have a valve locator wand with me, but it was being used on another job,” Gill says.

After poking around a bit, Gill, a Rhode Island Master Irrigator, found two valve boxes close to the house. “I shut the water down and cleaned out all those valves,” he says. “But when I turned the system back on there was still a stuck zone. Now I have to find this thing. I shut down six of the seven heads on the zone.”

“I was probably about 60 or 70 feet away from the chicken coop. The one head that I left on, I pumped a couple times. That’s when I saw the chickens starting to jump up and down,” Gill says.

Gill thought that was kind of interesting, so he walked over to the coop and looked around but couldn’t see anything. “I went back over and did it again, and the chickens started jumping again,” he says. “This time, I took my shovel and started poking around inside the coop. Lo and behold, there was the valve box right in the middle of it.”

But what had caused the chicken dance? “What I was doing created back pressure against the valve,” Gill explains. “The only reason they jumped is because I’d shut down all the other heads and forced the water back to the valve. The pressure pushing back on it was creating a knocking sound and made the ground under their feet vibrate and it was frightening them.”

Gill had done that deliberately to make up for not having a valve tracer handy. “I knew that if you force pressure back, sometimes you can hear the valves knocking,” he says. “Someone with less experience would have dug up the entire yard to chase the main line down.”

When Gill finally opened the coopedup valve, he found pebbles inside. “We’d had a tough, droughty season, and wells were running pretty low,” he says. “You could see how sediment had gotten sucked in. I then proceeded to battle chickens for the next 10 minutes trying to knock the pebbles and debris out of the open valve.”

As to whether the valve box was ever moved to a chicken-free environment, Gill doesn’t know. “I made that suggestion to the property management company and they told me ‘We’ll let you know.’ But the valve box was definitely there before the chicken coop was,” he says.

He sums up the experience as: “You walk onto a property and you never know where a valve box is going to be, but it’s definitely a unique circumstance that someone saw fit to put a chicken coop over the top of one. You’d think that they’d call their irrigation company and say, ‘Hey guys, I’m building a chicken coop here, can we move this?’”

“A valve locator is an invaluable tool,” says Gill. “Luckily, I’ve been doing this for a long time so I managed to finagle it without having the locator with me.”

Lesson learned: Always bring a valve locator with you.

The author is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at pouncerspy@gmail.com.

The backflow test that backfired

When Stu Palmer, owner of Palmer Landworks LLC, Kennewick, Washington, went to a new customer’s house to perform an annual backflow device inspection, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. “Normally, with a pressure vacuum breaker inspection, you should be able to get that done pretty quick,” says Palmer. “But this turned into a gigantic disaster.”

To complete such a test, the contractor or technician needs to be able to hook gauges up to the test cocks. “But this PVB had been installed so close to the house there was no way I could hook my gauges up to it. I didn’t see how it could be tested.”

The homeowner claimed that it had been, though, every year since he bought the house, and he had been billed accordingly. When asked if he had received the test results, the homeowner said they had been submitted to the city.

This left Palmer, a certified backflow tester with 10 years’ experience, scratching his head. “I thought, ‘Okay, so this is a testable device.’ I thought maybe the previous guy just undid the union and moved the device a little bit to get a gauge on. So I thought I’d try that.”

There was a union on the downstream side, but not the upstream side, he says. He thought he could use his pipe wrench to get the device just far enough away from the wall to attach the gauges. “I figured, since it’s a threaded fitting, I can turn it a little bit, just enough to let me put my gauges on there,” he recalls.

But a surprise was ahead. The galvanized pipe actually threaded into PVC, not more metal. “When I tried to twist it away from the wall of the house, the PVC 90 in the ground completely snapped and the area started flooding,” says Palmer.

Now he had to dig out the broken pipe and fix it. As if things weren’t difficult enough, the area where the backflow device had been mounted was only about three feet by three feet wide, surrounded by concrete and a deck, not an easy spot to dig in, Palmer remembers.

When he finally was able to test the backflow device, it failed. “So I took it apart, cleaned it out, put it back together and retested it. It failed again.” Figuring three times is the charm, he again took the device apart, cleaned and reassembled it. This time, it passed.

Had the backflow device been working prior to this? “I don’t know,” Palmer says, “because the PVC pipe broke when I tried to move it and dirt got into it. I can tell you this, though: If whoever put in that PVB had any brains at all, they never would have installed it that close to the house.”

What should have been at most a 10-minute task took Palmer four and a half hours. “It was a filthy, muddy job, but I fixed what I broke, and reinstalled the device properly, away from the house, as should have been done in the first place, and then cleaned everything up.”

And the bill for all that hard labor? $65. “That’s what I charge for a backflow test,” says Palmer. “I felt bad for this poor customer. It’s not his fault that someone installed the thing wrong, or broke the pipe. It was just a crappy situation all the way around. All he wanted was a backflow test.”

He finally got one — a real one, anyway. When Palmer filed his test report with Kennewick’s water department, there was another surprise. There was no record of the device at that address, or of any inspections ever having been done.

What did Palmer learn from this experience? For one thing, not to make assumptions about pipes he can’t see. “If I would have known that there was PVC and not galvanized pipe in the ground, I never would have tried to turn that device.”

And from other irrigation professionals, he’s since learned that he could have tried unscrewing the test cock, replacing it with a 90-degree quarter-inch fitting and then re-screwed the test cock onto that fitting. “Would there have been enough room to actually unscrew it all the way, with it being so close to the wall? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s something I would have tried, had I known about it. You never stop learning, right?”