Put your sprinkler system to bed: preventive maintenance saves money

By Dave Heinen of Heinen Landscape & Irrigation
Kansas City Gardener

Since recordings began in 1961, most of Kansas and Missouri have experienced the fall season’s first frost – the point when the temperature reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below – in October. This year will likely be no different with the average date of the first frost falling between October 10 and 15 for the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. By the time you read this article, I hope you have already arranged to have your sprinkler system properly shut down. If not, may this article serve as a helpful reminder.

Every sprinkler system must be “shut down” and water drained from pipes before the ground freezes. Some homeowners elect to service their sprinkler system themselves. Others prefer to leave this maintenance to a professional irrigation specialist. Bottom line – should you leave water in the pipes or in the equipment of your system and this water sits there over winter, your pipes will likely break when the water turns to ice. Come spring, you will find a broken system, you won’t know where to look for the break and will need to call a professional to first identify the break and then fix it. These avoidable repairs can be costly.

In addition, fall offers the best opportunity to do a complete check of your sprinkler system as you close it down because the system can be easily viewed in its complete operation. Now, let’s review the two types of systems and how each are prepared for winter.

The first type, manual or hand-operated systems, have drain valves located along mainlines and automatic drain valves located on lateral lines. If your system was installed with this older type of technology, you will need to know where all the manual drains are located so they can be opened and allow any water in the lines to drain. However, as homes change owners from time to time, the knowledge of where the drains are located often is lost.

If you are a new owner of a manual system without this expertise, you will need to create a new “as built” of where your pipes, valves and sprinkler heads are located. If you do not have an original drawing of your system, a professional can recreate one for you. However, expect to pay a nominal fee for this drawing. For speedy and accurate service at the lowest possible cost, irrigation professionals rely on homeowners to keep accurate records of this information.

With manual systems, you’ll also want to know if each of your drainage valves were actually installed at their lowest points. If not, not all of the water will drain. This creates a risk for water freezing and pipes breaking. Again, a professional can check this for you and inspect your system when conducting a sprinkler shut down.

The second method of winterization entails the use of an air compressor, connected to the mainline via a quick-coupling connection. Most modern systems accommodate this type of shut down, as it solves several problems.

  1. There is no need to record the location of manual valves buried in the yard or beds,
  2. Drains do not need to be installed at low points, ensuring system line drainage, and
  3. The system actually has the water and air blown out through the heads, giving a visual inspection of the operation of the system.

Without a doubt, make sure your system is a ‘blow out’ system or is converted to one. Should you need to convert your manual system, this will generally cost less than $200.

Blowing out an irrigation system provides preventative maintenance. When a service technician winterizes your system through this method, you can make sure all is clean and in proper operation before it is put to winter rest. You also receive the benefit of a guarantee that your lines would not hold water causing freeze damage.