Sprinkler Maintenance – The Dreaded Task!

20 Jun

Aah, the task dreSprinkler Repair and Maintenanceaded by novice and master gardeners alike … sprinkler maintenance.  Mind you, I’ve hired countless gardeners, sprinkler companies and  landscapers skilled in the fine art of sprinkler repair to whip my sprinklers into shape.  Intuitively this seemed like a great solution, but the results never matched my hopes.  Five or six key items were always left unrepaired.  So that is how I became an (unwilling) student of this singular skill, learning through trial and error.

The Ageless Question: Why Do Sprinklers Stop Working in the First Place?

This used to keep me up at night, something I would ponder along with the nature of infinity.  I wanted to know the cause of this inconvenience so I could fix it once and for all.  Alas, since then I have learned it cannot truly be prevented, so periodic maintenance is a necessary evil. Following are some key causes:

  • Small bugs crawl into the spray nozzle holes and block them.
  • Filters retain rocks and debris that cause clogs.
  • Dirt gets into the sprinkler line and interferes with the water flow.  (How in the heck does the dirt get in there?  Presumably when the sprinkler system was initially installed or through the nozzle holes.
  • The sprinkler leaks a bit, encouraging root growth that wraps around the pipe and pushes on it until it leans.
  • Normal wear and tear.  The plastic suffers environmental damage from the elements and just wears out, causing cracks, chips, etc.
  • Accidental damage occurs from foot traffic, cars that slightly missed the driveway, errant footballs, etc.
  • Plants grow and block the water spray.

Tips to Help Ease the Pain

Although maintenance can never be fully eliminated, it can be made less formidable.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Make regular, frequent periodic  inspections.  Keep a strict schedule.  Check for problems every three months as the seasons change.  This is much more manageable than checking annually, when the number of issues may have accumulated to the point of being overwhelming.  It will also make sure that problems do not go unnoticed too long.
  • Take notes.  Sketch a quick map of your garden.  Then manually activate the full sprinkler cycle and walk your property, observing each sprinkler’s performance.  When you find a sprinkler that needs help, mark its location with an “X” on your map, describe the  problem (clogged, blocked by plant, etc.) and state your intended repair (new 15′ sprinkler head, prune plants,  straighten pipe, etc.).  This will be so much easier and efficient than trying to remember where you saw a problem.  Plus your notes will form the basis of two lists: on-hand tools you need to gather, and items you need to buy from the hardware store.
  • The right tools really do make the job much easier.   I love the new adjustable sprinkler heads.  You can customize the spray angle from 0-360 degrees and the spray radius as well.  They also simplify the shopping process.  Instead of looking for three 90° nozzles and four 180° nozzles, you just buys seven adjustable nozzles – simple!.  I also adore the plier-like tool that lifts spray heads and holds them so they don’t slip back down through your wet hands.  Risers that screw on and extend pipes are an inexpensive and easy way to accommodate plants that have grown and are blocking the spray.

How To: The Most Commonly Needed Adjustments / Repairs

  • Water does not flow fully or evenly from the nozzle.  First, grasp the nozzle with your fingers and pull it up slightly.  Then clench and hold it up with the Spray Head Pull Up Tool (yes, that’s what it’s called – apparently the gardening industry is in need of  marketing types to help with product naming) while you unscrew the nozzle from the pipe and inspect it for damage, replacing damaged nozzles with new ones.  If the nozzle is still in good shape rinse out the filter and if necessary clear the hole the water sprays through.  Screw the nozzle back on and run the sprinkler again.  If it is still fully or partly blocked try “clearing the line”.  This is an impressive-sounding way of saying (so feel free to throw it around frequently) unscrew the head, take it off and turn the sprinkler on again so that the water spouts up and pushes out any dirt that might be caught in the pipe.  If this doesn’t solve the problem, go ahead and replace the head.  I would use the opportunity to  swap it for an adjustable one.
  • Plants have grown and are blocking the spray.   See if you can trim unruly plants in a way that stays true to your garden design yet allows ample water to reach the places that need it.   You can also exchange the sprinkler head for a “shrub head”, which projects the spray upward, to see if it will clear the plant.  Risers are also a great and inexpensive way to accommodate growing plants.  This pipe simply threads onto the existing pipe, extending it.  The spray head then screws on the riser, lifting the spray as high as you like.   You can combine a riser with a shrub head.
  • A spray head leaks.  This is something you will want to fix as soon as possible, as a shooting or dribbling sprinkler can cause flooding and plant overgrowth in the immediate area while lessening the amount of water delivered to other areas.  If the nozzle leaks it is most likely cracked or broken due to accidental damage, age or weathering (over time the sun makes the plastic brittle) and you will need to replace it with a new one.
  • The sprinkler pipe leans to one side.  A leaning pipe skews the nozzle so that the water spray is not aimed in the intended direction.  This is most likely caused by wayward roots that have grown too large and are pushing on  the pipe, or have encircled and are tugging on it.  With a shovel, begin to very carefully excavate the soil around the sprinkler pipe, scooping it out with your (gloved) hands as needed.  Go slowly so that you do not damage any of the underground pipes.  Remove the roots by pulling on them and/or cutting them into smaller pieces with a pruner or garden shears.  Add soil to fill in the space where the roots were.

It can be overwhelming to repair 10 or 12 sprinklers in the same day.  This I know from personal experience!  However, if you walk your garden once a season and immediately address the problems you find, you will shrink the dreaded sprinkler maintenance down to its proper, manageable size.

What garden task do you hate the most?  Send a comment and let us know!

4 Responses to “Sprinkler Maintenance – The Dreaded Task!”

  1. Barbara June 21, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    Dear Lisa,

    Your humor as the “unwilling student” tackling the dreaded task of sprinkler repair is refreshing! I’m particularly fond of the image of you lying awake through the wee hours of night pondering the works of your sprinklers along with the nature of infinity. A true scholar!

    Your suggestion to draw a map of the garden to locate areas of need are very helpful and I wish I had thought of it myself. Thanks for the great tips.


  2. Greg June 20, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Good insights Lisa. I’ve also noticed that over time, the sprinkler pipe glue can dislodge from the joints and collect just uner the sprinkler head. If the head has a filter, it’s real easy to take off the head and clean the glue off the filter.

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