by Charlene Burgi
The approach of mid-March, daylight saving time, rising evapotranspiration (ET) rates, and prolonged dry weather are indicators that we are long past due for testing our irrigation systems for leaks, breaks, and clogged heads and emitters before we turn them on for the season.
This spring chore is as necessary for saving water outdoors as is installing a high-efficiency toilet or repairing a leaking faucet indoors. One might argue that the water from a missing drip emitter is still watering the ground; however, the missing emitter is also reducing the water pressure in the line and starving plants “down stream” of their needed water supply. A clogged emitter prevents any water from getting out of the pipe, and a broken pipe is literally water down the drain without any benefit to the garden—but a sure bet of a high water bill.
What amazes most of us is our irrigation systems worked perfectly before we turned them off in the late fall. What creates this added chore in our already busy schedules? And if we do the right thing by checking before turning the irrigation system on, what is the best “down and dirty” way to approach it so we can move on to more exciting things going on in our lives?
First, check the controller for the time and date setting to determine if winter power outages tampered with that detail. A controller will default to watering ten minutes every day on every station. That is a lot of water! Replace any back-up battery if your controller has that feature. Many new controllers have a built-in feature that maintains the settings for a given period of time without a battery back-up. If your controller is malfunctioning, this might be the time to consider upgrading to a smart controller: Once calibrated to your garden, it will free up time now spent monitoring the controller on a weekly basis.
Next, manually turn on each individual station from the controller and walk around that station listening and watching for water hissing or spurting in the air. Exposed broken pipes will sound like an uncontrolled gushing hose. Broken pipes underground may present themselves by puddling or lifting the lawn in a pillow-like fashion. Watch for sprinklers that no longer spray to the adjacent heads on the same station. Lack of water pressure indicates a break in the pipe somewhere. The stations with drip emitters should be producing the same amount of water at the end of the line as at the beginning, closest to the valve. If you are on a sloped area, be certain you have pressure-compensating emitters installed so there is an equal distribution of water despite the elevation variation in your garden.
Emitters that are plugged need to be cleaned out. Replace missing emitters and repair damaged drip tubing so water is not escaping where it isn’t wanted. Remember you are directing water to the root zone of plants to prevent unnecessary weed growth elsewhere. Contact a licensed QWEL landscape contractor if you experience a lack of communication between the controller and the valve that opens the station to be watered. This could indicate a broken wire, malfunctioning solenoid or a problem with the controller. You might want to leave this chore to the pros.
Each station requires this type of scrutiny before you turn on the irrigation system for the season. You won’t regret taking the time for this chore. Fix problems now, and your water bill will reward you for your efforts!