YOU’VE JUST COMPLETED A PROJECT that included weeks of planting. As you close the last door on the work trailer you notice water bubbling out of the ground and running along the curb. A moment of panic sets in. What do you do now?
For a brief moment you imagine a sub-contractor working onsite—all of the ornamental plants you’ve finished mulching have been tossed aside into a pile.
This might be the perfect time to enter the irrigation business. You’ve given it thought before and realize that money is being left on the table each time a repair or maintenance request is turned down. Furthermore, many clients prefer working with one contractor for all of their landscape needs. Walking back towards the house you begin to wonder if you will be able to make the repair. The answer is yes, you can repair and maintain irrigation systems. By following a few easy steps, the process will soon become second nature. The first step in making any irrigation repair is identifying the source of the problem, explained Jonathan Bradley, owner of JEB, Inc. in Pennsylvania. “Water is not like electricity—it usually shows itself.”
Locating the source of the leak can be as easy as tracing the flowing water back to the source. “We ask the customer to flag the spot where they see the leak. It saves us time and we don’t have to make the area muddy again by running the zone,” explained Dennis Fiddick with DRF Plumbing and Irrigation, Aurora, Illinois. Zone performance can also be an indication of a leak. If only half of the heads on a zone are working and the pressure is too low to pop the other heads on the zone, the break location will be somewhere in between the performing and under-performing heads.
At DRF, leaks are classified— the noticeable breaks and leaks are large flow leaks. If the problem is a small volume leak, like a pin hole in a piece of polyethylene pipe, the water will not show at the surface.
“A customer may call and say the system is using too much water,” said Fiddick. “If you’re not sure where the small volume leak is, you could spend a lot of time looking because the only way to find it is by trial and error.” In these situations finding the leak will be a bit more difficult and time consuming.
“Sometimes the leaks will cause a grass blister that is not easily noticeable until you step on it,” Bradley commented. “It will feel spongy and bubble up under your feet.”
Once the location of the leak is found, the next step is to begin digging. Digging a hole at the source of the leak will not only help identify where the problem is and what caused the leak, but will also reveal the type of pipe that was used to install the system. The type and size of pipe and the depth at which it is installed underground will determine how large the hole needs to be.
Because polyethylene (poly) pipe is more flexible than PVC the hole can be much smaller. Allowing 2" to 3" on each side of and below the pipe, as well as 1' to 2' in length along the pipe is the space needed to make a repair to poly pipe. PVC pipe repairs require more workspace because it is critical that the repair joints are clean and dry. Now that the hole has been dug, the next step is to identify what caused the leak. Some common causes of damage include puncture from aeration, deep root feeding, construction around the site, defective materials, faulty installation, digging pets and, depending upon geographical location, frost and frozen water in the lines. Once you know what type of pipe you will be working with and what caused the problem, there are several options available for repair.
In comparison to PVC, the repair of a poly pipe system is quicker. The process for identifying and locating a leak is similar for PVC and poly, but the repair process differs. We will begin with poly pipe.
The items needed for a basic repair are new fittings and/or heads, clamps, a pipe cutter and crimpers. Barbed insert fittings, commonly used during installation, are also used to make repairs. “I prefer to use the poly insert fittings, rather than poly compression couplings,” Bradley said, “because I feel that I can make a better connection with the insert fittings. In some cases, insert fittings are the only option for the site because of all the different sizes and configurations that they are available in.”
The damage has been located, the hole has been dug and the needed repair items are in hand; it is time to make the repair. Remember, at least 2" to 3" of cleared space on all sides as well as below the pipe are needed. “The worst mistake is allowing rocks and dirt in the lines, which can lead to many other problems like clogging of nozzles or plugging of pipe junctions,” Bradley cautioned. “Finding those is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Fixing a straight run of pipe is a bit different than repairing a junction point that joins two lines. To start, hold the fitting up to the damaged pipe to measure how much pipe needs to be removed. Then cut the pipe. Place the clamps on the pipe before making a connection and then slide the barbed ends of the fitting into the open pieces of pipe. Position the clamps over the fittings and crimp closed. When bending the pipe to attach the fittings, be careful not to kink the pipe by bending it too much. Any kink in the pipe will significantly reduce the integrity of the pipe.
A tee connection would follow the same steps above, but the order in which the pipes are connected to the insert fittings could make your job easier or more difficult. Attaching the two pieces of cut pipe to the side of the fitting that forms a right angle first makes it easier to connect the third piece without a lot of twisting and bending of the pipe lines.
The above scenario describes the repair process for an irrigation system installed with polyethylene pipe. What if you uncover PVC pipe after digging around the site of the leak? Making the repair to a PVC line can be as simple, but does require a few extra steps. While poly pipe is the most popular choice for residential projects in the Northeast and other geographical areas, PVC pipe is the only pipe used in many regions, including California and the Southeast. Leaks in PVC pipe occur for many of the same reasons they occur in polypropylene pipe. Like poly pipe, if the lines are not properly winterized in the cold climate, the pipes can freeze and shatter. “Workmanship is the biggest component of leaks in a system—as much as one-half of all the problems we see are workmanship related,” Fiddick explained. The type and location of the leak will determine the method used for repair. Fiddick explains that on a typical residential job where a leak has occurred in a straight piece of pipe, he uses a telescoping quick coupling to make the repair. “With two fittings, a telescoping repair coupling and a regular PVC coupling, we can have the repair made,” he said, “cut out the damaged section of pipe and glue the one end of the telescoping coupler onto the pipe, pull out the other end to the desired length and glue to the pipe.” Telescoping repair couplings are manufactured by several different companies and, depending on the manufacturer, are available up to 6" in size.
A repair made to a jointed section of pipe requires a bit more detail and time. After assessing if elbows or tees are needed, be sure that the joint connection is clean. “Dig a big enough hole. If the break is at a low spot or at the end where all the water drains, take a cup and bail the water out,” said Fiddick. “You will never get a joint to seal if the pipe is wet. Cut the pipe square and remove the burrs that are on the inside and outside of the cut pipe ends.”
Clean the PVC with a clean rag to remove any dirt or moisture. “A lot of guys skip the primer and go right to the glue. This makes a fair joint, but it is not permanent and down the road it will just fall apart,” explained Fiddick. It is important to check the dry fit before applying any glue. Once the glue sets, you can’t break the joint and will have to start over. The pipe must slide at least one-third of the way into the repair fitting without added force. Work quickly, but be careful not to apply too much cement. Brush off any excess glue or beading. Assemble all of the pieces as soon as the cement has been applied by rotating the pipe into the socket �-turn while the pipe is still wet.
“Seasoned irrigation contractors will give the pipe a minute or two to set and begin backfilling the trenches before even testing the repair,” explained Fiddick. “However, beginners will want to check the system first to ensure that the repair has been made correctly before backfilling and moving on,” he added.
Joints on PVC pipe over 2" require a few extra steps. “Any piece of pipe that is changing direction— tees, elbows, etc., requires thrust blocking behind the fittings,” Fiddick pointed out. “Without thrust blocking you can blow up the fittings with the water hammer.” The use of thrust blocking is common and understood in the plumbing industry and is used in irrigation systems, sewer and water main pipes. “Not only do you need these during the installation, but you need them during a repair,” he added.
Now that you have an understanding of how to repair a leak to a polyethylene or PVC irrigation system, there is one additional scenario that you may encounter. What do you do if you uncover copper or galvanized pipes after digging around the leaky spot? Prior to the mid-1960s, copper and galvanized pipe were installed rather than PVC or poly. If either of these types of pipe is found underground or leading into a backflow unit, they pose a unique repair problem. PVC fittings and telescoping couplings cannot be used because solvents will not work on either of them. There are a handful of products on the market that may work.
Typically the products are fiberglass wraps coated with a polyurethane resin. The water-activated wraps can be applied in any conditions and are flexible to make bends and turns with the pipe. In Fiddick’s opinion, using the “magic epoxy” to repair metal or plastic will not make a permanent fix. The product advertisements say it will repair pipe but does not take into consideration the pressure rating of the pipe it is repairing. “It is one thing to repair pipe, but have you considered the integrity of that pipe?” he questioned. In some instances the product will work, but in others it does not even come close, he added.
Learning how to make irrigation repairs is not difficult. You can begin by replacing damaged sprinkler heads and progressively graduate to making small repairs on residential systems and then to wire tracking and design. Keeping a few of the most common repair parts on the truck will save you the added expenses of chasing down parts when a leak is discovered. As Bradley suggests, having the basic tools, including a pipe cutter and a few small lengths of pipe, solvent, glue and assorted fittings on your truck will make the process easier and more profitable for your company.
A good rule of thumb before taking on any irrigation repair is to check if there are any local or state requirements or regulations. As more states begin to require some sort of certification or license, now may be the perfect time to get started.