Getting an exam at the doctor’s office isn’t much different from repairing an irrigation system, according to John Dubose.

“Most of the time, people go to the doctor’s office for a reason,” pointed out Dubose, regional sales manager, Buckner by Storm, Fresno, Calif. “It’s the same with irrigation contractors and an irrigation system. Nine times out of 10 there is a complaint from the homeowner or property manager first before an examination is made.”

When the check up actually starts, a doctor usually goes through the same methodical means – checking a patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, reflexes, etc. – each time to diagnose and treat the problem correctly. If he or she misses one of these steps, a misdiagnosis could be made, Dubose said.

“Troubleshooting an irrigation system really isn’t complicated,” Dubose explained. “It’s systematic. Irrigation contractors need to go through the same process each and every time they diagnose and repair an irrigation system. Ninety-nine percent of the time the reason they can’t find the problem the first time around is because they skipped a step and had to start over.”

WHERE TO BEGIN. Some arrangements need to be made with the homeowner or property manager before an irrigation contractor even sets foot on his or her property, warned Rick Walter, partner, Northway Landscaping and Irrigation, Circle Pines, Minn.

“Irrigation contractors need to make sure someone is home and that they have access to the water source and irrigation controller so that they can identify the problems,” Walter said.

This is particularly key with residential customers, stressed Joe Bennett, president, AutoLawn, Fort Gratiot, Mich.

“There is less interaction between the technician and owner of a property when commercial clients are concerned,” Bennett explained. “They just want the system fixed and the property managers usually leave the job to us, but we still tell them when we’re going to get there, what we’re doing and when we’re going to leave. With residential customers, make sure they know when you’re coming and what you’re doing each step of the way and how much they are going to be charged.”

If the homeowner can’t be around during the inspection, ask him or her to mark the water source, controller and any problematic areas of the irrigation system, suggested Rick Pate, president, Pate Landscape Co., Montgomery, Ala., so that they can be easily found.

The hourly rate for an irrigation service varies from location to location based on what the contractor includes in that rate. In the Texas market, an irrigation contractor will charge an average of $45 to $55 an hour with a two-hour minimum charge, Dubose said.

Pate said he charges $49 per hour with a one-hour minimum charge to send a two-man service crew out. After the first hour, the price drops to $39 per hour. The rates are different if Pate’s crew plans to be on the property all day for a special project. Walter charges $58 per hour with a one-hour minimum charge. These prices all include drive time, and some contractors noted they charge extra for mileage if the property is outside of their regular service area. Any parts needed to fix the irrigation system are an additional cost to the customer, and Walter said he doesn’t charge above the retail cost for parts, yet he admitted some contractors do.

“Determining a price for your service is all about being fair to yourself and your customers,” Bennett explained. “It takes a service technician about two to five years to get good at repairing irrigation systems. So, you have to make sure you’re sending a knowledgeable person out to service the system to be fair to the customer even if you have to send a new employee out with an experienced one so they can learn from each other. And, to be fair to yourself, you have to make sure you’re bringing in a profit.”

AN ORDERLY APPROACH. Troubleshooting an irrigation system requires only common sense, Pate declared.

“Start with the controller and work your way outward,” he said.

One of the most common problems irrigation systems face is something as simple as a power outage, Bennett remarked.

“If the power goes out and the backup battery wasn’t plugged in or isn’t charging and the customers don’t reprogram their systems, they call an irrigation contractor,” he said. “All we have to do is reset the clock and the system is working fine again.”

After a power outage, an irrigation contractor can find irrigation system clock problems ranging from blown circuitry and broken power modules to a chassi that needs to be replaced, according to Greg Boyce, East Coast regional manager, K-Rain Manufacturing, West Palm Beach, Fla. These parts are relatively easy to replace, Boyce maintained.

Pate said he laughs at how many times he has to charge his customers for service calls as simple as this.

“They don’t want you to explain the problem or how they could have fixed it themselves,” Pate admitted. “They just want you to fix it. They feel that they are buying a good-looking landscape from us and they are paying for the convenience of not putting a lot of work or maintenance into it.

“Technology has improved so much over the years and homeowners don’t understand what kind of system they have or what it’s capable of doing,” Pate continued. “They just want it to turn on and turn off.”

If there is no power coming from the controller, there are two things that need to be checked, according to Dubose: Make sure the controller is not unplugged and, if there is AC power, be sure to check the output of the controller for sufficient voltage to the field, which is commonly 24 volts.

“Something as simple as a lightning surge could have lowered the voltage,” Dubose explained.

In a residential system, another common problem with a poorly operating controller is unclear or poor setting changes made by the homeowner or system operator that have stopped the system temporarily from working, Dubose added.

The only time the controller is at fault is when there is no power going from the controller to the electric output in the field. If this is the case, the controller needs to be fixed or replaced. If the controller is supplying power, but there is no power actually going to the valve, Dubose said that is usually the result of a broken wire between the controller and the electric valve.

If a homeowner or property manager has some new landscaping work done on the property, then bringing an irrigation contractor out to the property afterwards to check the system is usually worthwhile, Bennett said.

“Many times the problems in an irrigation system stem from work that has been done on the property,” Bennett declared. “Broken sprinkler heads are usually the result of passing lawn mowers, edgers or snow plows or from a growing landscape with maturing trees and bushes that have changed things on the property. Sprinkler heads have to be moved to accommodate a growing landscape. And sometimes they just wear out.”

The key to examining sprinkler heads, according to Bennett, is a thorough inspection. He recommended doing a head-to-head inspection, making sure they spin, turn and spray properly and adjusting each head accordingly vs. just checking to see whether or not they come up from the ground. He also recommended checking the valve manifolds around the threads of the valves or in the valves for leaks.

“A bad sprinkler head is easy to fix,” Walter added. “The hard part is locating it.”

If the controller is running fine but the heads are continuously running, there may be a bad rubber diaphragm in the valve or a bad electric solenoid, which is mounted on the side of the valve, that is broken or stuck open by some debris, Dubose said.

“Valves work off of back pressure,” Dubose explained. “Some valves have to have a little bit to work properly. If there’s no back pressure, then the valves won’t close, which usually means there is a broken line or a broken head somewhere.”

One of the worst problems an irrigation system faces is cut wires, Pate lamented. This can occur from recent construction, aging or a power surge.

“If power is present from the controller to the solenoid but the heads aren’t coming on, the wire inside the solenoid could be shorted out,” Dubose pointed out.

Pate said a common problem is irrigation contractors or do-it-yourselfers using wire that is not UL listed for direct burial in the ground, which means the jacks on the wire are not made for the corrosive elements in the soil. Irrigation wire should always be UL listed, he stressed.

When trying to find leak problems, another quick tip from Bennett involves checking for mainline leaks.

“The easiest way to determine this is to look at the water meter dial,” Bennett explained. “It spins if water is going through smoothly. If there is a small leak, it will pulse.”

The Technician’s Toolbox. . . . . . . . .
To troubleshoot an irrigation system, a contractor needs to have the right tools. John Dubose, regional sales manager, Buckner by Storm, Fresno, Calif., recommended these essentials and explains their uses:

  • Pressure gauge – Checks the static water pressure.
  • Volt-ohm meter – Checks the AC voltage, wire resistance and continuity.
  • Remote valve solenoid actuator – Provides a voltage to actuate the field solenoids when the power of a system is in question.
  • Wire locator – Helps determine the path of irrigation wiring underground when it is unknown.
  • Wire fault locator – Can search out the exact location of an underground, shorted wire after the path of irrigation wiring is determined.
  • Wire toning device – Can help identify a single wire in the field when all wires are the same color.
  • Wire cutters and wire strippers – Helps with the replacement of wiring.
  • Wire dry splice connector – Helps with the replacement of wiring.
  • Various PVC pipe and wire types – Used for repair purposes.
  • PVC slip fixes – Used to make repairs on irrigation piping without having to dig up the whole pipe.
  • Blue/wet glue – Used to make repairs in wet conditions, such as to a PVC pipe when the water to the irrigation system cannot be completely turned off or drained.
  • Hand tools, shovels, saws, etc. – When it comes to tools, Joe Bennett, president, AutoLawn, Fort Gratiot, Mich., recommended a complete set of pipe wrenches – 36-inch being the largest, a ½-inch drive socket set, screwdrivers, nut drivers, hex saws, cable saws, a torch, pipe cutters and a chain wrench. – Nicole Wisniewski

TOYING WITH ANOTHER’S HANDIWORK. Some contractors refuse to service systems they did not originally install or that were homeowner built.

“Unless we are working with the client on another project, we don’t service other contractors’ systems,” Pate said. “We are busy enough with our own customer base and we feel it’s a bonus to our customers to service them first and give them top priority and quality. If we do work on a system that wasn’t built by us, hopefully we can get some as-builts of the system to help us figure out how it was built.”

An as-built is a final drawing depicting how the system was installed in the yard – an item all homeowners and property managers with irrigation systems should have if the system was properly installed by an irrigation contractor.

“But nine times out of 10, residential customers misplace or lose their as-builts,” Boyce warned.

“And as-builts are overrated,” Bennett continued. “They can give you a good idea where the valves are in a system, but a system always changes and the as-builts are never consistently updated.”

The hardest task when inspecting existing irrigation systems is locating problems, which are difficult to find even when a contractor is familiar with the system. There is a lot of guesswork involved, Dubose said.

“Most valves are located where the water leaves the house,” Bennett advised. “All of the fittings that connect the valves together, also known as the manifolds, are usually located right near the vacuum breaker.”

If an irrigation contractor ventures into the realm of troubleshooting do-it-yourself systems, Bennett said the biggest problem is usually found in the design of the system.

“And most of the time it’s a design problem that cannot be easily fixed,” he said. “We’ve seen systems where the homeowner will run four or five sprinkler heads on ¾-inch line, creating a low pressure problem. These types of system problems on a homeowner-built system require a lot of contractor patience and time to inspect and repair.”

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