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Winterizing Irrigation Systems

DANNY FASOLD | Miscellaneous

Tis the season for cold, cold weather. Frozen ponds, layer upon layer of snow on the ground, the mechanical blare of Vplows and straight blades and salt spreaders plodding the white from Winter Wonderland—this is what the season is made of.

With turf maintenance in virtual hibernation, it’s the perfect opportunity for landscape contractors to rake in a bit of revenue at a time when business might otherwise come to a complete halt.

The same holds true for the irrigation market. Chances are, contractors who install and repair irrigation aren’t going to see too many clients asking for system installations when freezing water makes it next to impossible to turn on irrigation systems.

However, there are plenty of property owners out there who need their systems turned off once the weather gets cold. Winterizing irrigation systems, or the process of shutting the systems down and draining the water out of the pipes before it has the chance to freeze, can be a very lucrative addition to your business. Offering these services can seal the deal for gaining new customers, as well as strengthen relationships with your existing clientele. Companies such as Rain Bird, Hunter Industries, Toro and John Deere Landscapes offer free tutorials available online for anyone interested in learning the steps of the process.

“There’s not much to the winterizing process, really,” says Chris Davey, marketing administrator for Champion Irrigation, Los Angeles, California. “It’s all a matter of going back to the system and making sure there’s no water left in the pipes. Of course, there are several ways to do this, but none of them are very time consuming.”

Draining all the water out of an irrigation system for the winter, especially in regions where the temperature drops to freezing for long periods of time, is critical if you want the system to stay in good working shape. Un-winterized systems run the risk of breaking down completely, as frozen water will expand inside the pipes and cause them to crack. Left untreated, this will throw the property owner for a loop once spring comes around and it’s time to get the water flowing again. “I’ve seen hundreds of cases where people have forgotten to winterize their irrigation systems,” says Davey.

“I’ve heard stories of people washing away thousands of dollars of new landscaping because something happened to their pipes and they didn’t check the integrity of their system before rebooting it in the spring. You can ruin plant materials, hardscapes like retaining walls and new decking, construction… essentially the entire foundation can collapse if you’re neglectful during the winter.”

As a number of things can go wrong in the field, it is important to have some knowledge of the procedure if you are thinking of adding this service to your business. You might add too much air pressure when blowing out the pipes and, as a result, damage the valves and spray heads. Or you might leave air hoses lying across public areas, creating a safety hazard.

“Some of our competitors will sometimes rush to get things done quickly, so they’ll use higher air pressure and end up harming the system,” says Kevin Johnson, president of All-American Turf Beauty, Van Meter, Iowa. “My advice is to follow all of your steps and take your time so that you don’t have any problems the following year. It’s a repeat business, and if you don’t do it correctly, you’ll make your customers unhappy to the point where they’re likely to switch providers.”

Despite all the caution that must be exercised, winterizing is a relatively simple four-step procedure. There are a few different ways pipes can be drained, and it’s left up to the contractor to decide which method works best for him. Here’s an in-depth view behind the how’s, what’s and why’s in how it’s done.

Four basic steps

There are four steps that must be performed in order to properly winterize an irrigation system:

Turn off the water ~ First things first. You can’t drain the pipes if there’s still water flowing inside of them. Go to wherever the source of the water is and turn it off at the valve. Sometimes, sites have it set up so the water can be turned off remotely. However, the vast majority of the time, the water will need to be turned off manually.

Make sure the controller is off ~ Do not forget to turn the controller off. If the controller is left on, the watering schedule will continue as normal, and if the valves try to run without any water inside, this can ruin the solenoids and cause massive damage to the irrigation system.

Open the valves ~ Go to each zone and manually open each valve. The reason for this is because if you try to use an air compressor on a closed valve, you risk bursting the line or sending the spray heads flying.

Drain the pipes ~ Just because you’ve turned off the water and released all the pressure, that doesn’t mean that it’s gotten rid of all of the water. Water will always find its way to the lowest point in its path, so expect there to still be shallow pools of water inside the pipes. There are a few different methods out there when it comes to draining the remaining water.

Draining a system

When it comes to draining irrigation systems, this step can be broken down into three categories. It’s left to the discretion of the contractor as to which approach works best for him. The first approach involves opening the drain valves. Many irrigation systems have drain valves installed along the sprinkler pipe. They can be found screwed into the pipe at the lowest point of the system near the main valve. Opening the valves will vent them to the atmosphere and allow water to drain out.

Another way to drain is to pull the nozzle off each individual spray head. Simply remove the nozzle and pull it up a quarter-inch. Some contractors will even remove the heads completely from the ground to make sure they’re fully drained. “I’ve seen contractors pull up all the innards and shake them dry,” says Davey.

Among the most effective approaches is to use an air compressor. This involves taking the machine’s air hose and sticking it into the blow-out valve, then turning the compressor on and blowing out all the air in each valve. Picture filling a cup with soda and blowing forcefully into its straw; the same way you’d splash soda all over the table is essentially the same way you’ll blow out all the remaining water in the pipes.

When using an air compressor, always exercise care and patience. The pounds of air per square inch, or psi, must be set at a reasonable level. Remember: If you blow out a system at too high a psi, you risk causing damage. “We use a 185 CF pull-behind as our air-compressor,” says Johnson. “We try to blow out between 50 to 70psi of air pressure and never much more than that. You really have to regulate how much compressed air is going through there.”

Combining approaches is a surefire way to thoroughly drain the system. There’s always the possibility that the drain valves might not be working properly. Opening the drain valves and also running an air compressor through the system ensures that the system is completely drained. “You can’t really see if the drain is working per se,” says Johnson. “Whereas with compressed air, you’ll actually see the water come out of the head. We’ll run through each zone twice to make sure we got all the water out. When we see only air coming out, that’s when we know for sure.”

Bringing winterization to your business

Winterizing irrigation systems offers companies a chance to strengthen customer loyalty. Property owners want to be sure that their site is running smoothly at all times, and performing winterizations proves to them that you care about protecting their investment. When you’re bidding on a property, make sure to mention that you perform winterizations. Include the service in your contract as part of your regular maintenance duties. You might even want to specify that the cost will include the first year’s winterization fee. The customer will be impressed to know that you’re thinking ahead, and it will give you a leg up on competitors.

This service is also a double-sided coin, of sorts. If you’re shutting the entire irrigation system off for the winter, the chances are high that the client will want you to return in the spring to turn everything back on. Performing spring startups is just as solid a source of revenue as winterizations, and doing so will build a positive company image in your customers’ minds. “I always try to keep the same people going to the same sites,” says Jeff Dempsey, owner of West County Irrigation, High Ridge, Missouri. “You want your clients to get familiar with the same people, come to know them like they would other people around the building. It’s a good relationship builder.”

Dempsey gives his advice, appropriately enough, while he’s on site servicing one of his customer’s irrigation systems. He speaks hurriedly over the foreground of a shaky phone connection, shuffling back and forth between our conversation and trying to find a way to get into the backroom to access the sprinkler system. One moment he’s asking the store clerk for the keys to the equipment room, the next he’s narrating the process of winterization step by step. (“Always check with the client to see where the control panel’s located,” he says. “And tell them who you are and what you’re doing there before you hook up the air compressor.”) In the background, the sound of compressed air goes off, like a vacuum on overdrive. In this case, his job ends earlier than usual. Before he can blow out the next zone, he has to pack it in because the distance of the valve requires him to stretch the air hose all the way across the distance. “I don’t want to leave this hose lying stretched out like that for liability reasons,” he explains. “Someone can trip over it and get hurt. I’ll have to come back here during off-hours when no one’s around and blow the system out then.”

It’s only the beginning of the winterization season for Dempsey. He may not have been able to finish the job today, but there’s plenty left on the plate. As Dempsey puts it, business is good these days. There’s always an irrigation system out there to service. “I think all types of people have irrigation systems now,” he says. “Whereas 20 years ago, it was associated mainly with the more well-to-do, that’s not the case today. These systems are always breaking down and needing work. There’s where we come in.”

No matter how many extra services your company tacks on, none of them will mean anything if there isn’t a good relationship between you and the customers to serve as a backbone. Irrigation is a business, and same as any business, it thrives on the loyalty of its customers.

 
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