6 irrigation questions from newbie

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Olga17

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Hi:

I have a few questions regarding irrigation systems. Here is the background:

We inherited a sprinkler system 7 years ago, when we bought a house built in 1972 in Portland, OR. Supposedly (according to the person who maintained it but didn’t install it) the system was installed in parts over time, as it has both galvanized steel and PVC pipes. A few heads were replaced, some were shut down during the past few years. The system is functional but some of the heads no longer go down, some spray erratically and water the side walk and fences, etc. The maintenance guy tells us that "removing a sprinkler head is a major challenge; put a wrench to it and the pipe below may crack. One day soon you either see your water bill going high up or a muddy sink hole in your garden.“. The current system has 6 zones, an Orbit controller, a mixture of head types and 3 valve boxes. The house is on a slope so the ground is relatively flat in the front and back but sloping on the 2 sides. We have grass on all sides and some flower/bush areas.
I asked for proposals from the current maintenance guy and 2 more companies in this business and asked them for their professional opinion about potentially “upgrading" the existing system. All 3 only wanted to bid only on a new system, stating that probably I would end up paying almost the same for upgrading the old system with no guarantee for its reliability.
I got the 3 proposals, all of them quoted for a much higher price than expected and with contradicting recommendations and comments, which really confused me. I have no idea whom I can trust (or not).

So here are the questions:

Question #1 - waiting w. some fixing vs. being proactive:
I have an acquaintance who does mainly lawns for golf courses and garden design (but has formal education in landscape design & irrigation systems) who told me that he doesn’t think that I should rush to get a new system and that I can guestimate the potential reasonable cost for a new system to be about $600-$700 times the number of zones.
Since all 3 contractors only want to install a new system and warn me about major potential problems due to the galvanized steel pipes, I do not know whom to believe. Is there a reliable and easy way to determine the state/age of the galvanized pipes? The 3 contractors I talked to do not care to save the existing PVC pipes, they just want to put everything new. Should I just wait until something happens to them or should I pro-actively have a new system installed?

Question # 2 - Smart controllers
One of the contractors recommended usage of a smart controller (Rain Bird ESP-SMTe). He said that after he does the initial adjustment, we would not have to do anything. The other one, when asked about it said that " they are still to complicated for home owners, I do not recommend them unless you are very technical savvy”. I do not want to ask for any headaches or build in ongoing maintenance/support issues, but I would love to have a smart system that can determine watering needs based on actual circumstances. I am not very handy and while I can, I prefer not to read periodically long manuals and struggle with adjustments. Usually in Portland a rain sensor is not helpful because it either rains most of the time or never rains (during the summer). Which contractor should I believe?

Question # 3 - Design, drawings and proposals

I have checked a few websites about design and installation of irrigation systems. Lowes, Hunter, Popular Mechanics and the incredibly helpful Irrigation Tutorials website all talk about design by taking measurements, doing calculations, preparing drawings, etc. It looks quite scientific. All 3 proposals are about half - 1.5 page lists, some with more details than others but none shows any specifics about my lot and does not include any drawings. E.g. they mention: “six Rain Bird DFV100 electronic control valves in locations to be determined at installation”, "Hunter Pro Spray PRS40 sprinkler heads with MP Rotator nozzles for all of the zones” (without showing the number of of heads). Is this customary for professional proposals? What should one expect that a professional proposal include?

Question #4 - Warranty

Two of the 3 proposals do not mention anything about any warranty and the contractors do not provide any formal contracts beyond the proposal. When asked, one of the said that their 1 year "Warranty covers everything that can break naturally if we winterize annually... without mother nature’s help-freezes, earthquake, large tree roots, grass roots growing into nozzles, bark dust caught in nozzles, humans breaking heads or pipes, utility companies breaking something.”. It’s hard to see then what’s covered (beyond maybe the manufacturer’s guarantee). Also if I read the above correctly, it seems that while they honor any warranty only if I pay them to winterize (and activate) the system, freezing caused problems are not covered….. Is this standard, an acceptable kind of warranty?

Question No 5 - winterizing the system:
The current maintenance guy has been winterizing the system by draining it (without blowing it) and covering the valves in the 3 valve boxes with isolating pillows. One of the other contractors stated that he doesn’t blow out pipes when he winterizes the system because blowing them out can damage the system and because supposedly there is no need to that where we live. According to him if something freezes, it is less expensive to fix the problem than dealing with blowing out the pipes… The 3rd contractor said that what’s being done currently is irresponsible and that we are taking major chances by just having the system drained… What gives?

Question # 6 - What “material” should be under/over new pipes?
Portland is in a major earthquake zone. All 3 contractors recommended PVC pipes. I was reading that gravel or sand should be placed in trenches under and over any new PVC pipes. Is that a best practice and necessary?

THANKS IN ADVANCE.

 

WorthFlorida

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Don't try to build a mountain when all you need is a mole hill. It's only an irrigation system to dump water on the ground and in your part of the world it probably be used only a few months of the year.

The hardest part of irrigation systems is burying the pipe. With the age of unknowns of the system, many probably would prefer to redo the property but others will take what you have and get it operational. Galvanized pipe is very unusual but to know where it is used each sprinkler would need to be dug down to and look at the pipe. I would have those sections replaced with PVC. Very old PVC pipe can get brittle even though it has been under ground forever. Sometimes just hitting it lightly with a shovel will puncture hole in the pipe or an old glue joint will let loose. Therefore, it depends with the irrigation contractor on what they are comfortable with and the c$$t but everyone uses PVC. It's low cost, flexible, easily to use. I would not place anything around the pipe except the dirt from the ground. For a golf course maybe or a 5 acres estate but for the average home it not needed. The biggest problem at least in Florida is pipes seem to always be buried near palm tress and after ten years or so the roots lift the ground and eventually the pipe cracks. Still an easy fix.

You did not mention the water source and the size of the property. This is a big number because the water flow and pressure helps determine number of sprinklers per zone and pipe sizing. Also, if you're going to use pop up spray heads or rotors. Generally you want as few zones as possible. As an example my first home in Florida was city water for irrigation. First home that I ever had an irrigation system installed by the home builder. Almost every home in FL has one. It was five zones for a 10,000 square foot lot. It took forever to irrigate and at times the pressure was great and others times too low. I replaced it with a well with a 1.5 HP pump motor and reduced it to four zones and it would have worked great with just three zones. My current home has fours zones with all pop ups and on a reclaimed water system from the water company. There is so much pressure that my small lot would work with just two zones but I'm sure it would work with just one zone.

Warranty work is rare on the irrigation system except for the timer and pump & motor if there is one. If a sprinkler broke it is usually it has been driven on, hit with a lawn tool or water froze inside of it. If spray heads pop up but no water, it's because debris has plug up the tiny hole where the water flows, all part of maintenance. But do get warranty info on the timer and usually you'll need to register it with the manufacture.

Winterizing the system with air pressure is it the best way to go but if your property is on a hill and drains valve are installed correctly, gravity will also work.
 

Olga17

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Thanks a lot for the helpful reply.

Since I sent the message, I dug next to 7 heads and found only PVC... So maybe the system is not as old as the maintenance guy (who told me that the pipes are galvanized steel) was claiming. The property is 10,000 sq ft and city water is used for irrigation. We never had a problem with the water pressure, the sprinklers worked without flow problems. The proposals mention a combination of spray heads and rotors. The max time the sprinkler runs now (in some of the 6 zones) is 20 min. It seems that the approach for winterizing here depends on what the contractor wants to do.

While I am not trying to make a major deal out of the work, a new system can cost a lot of money. I do not want to ask for what I might not need just because someone wants to sell... Also based on what I see, it is best if I get a little bit more educated as, unfortunately, not every professional can be trusted. I will try to see if the existing system can be "upgraded": new heads, maybe a new timer or whatever else will make it more efficient.

What would be a somewhat reliable way to determine how old is the system? In the past there was no requirement for a permit to install one where I live. Could a trustworthy professional see the age based on the components and maybe the PVC?
 

WorthFlorida

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Where the galvanized pipe might be from is the water supply to the irrigation system. My house built in 1989 was feed with a PVC pipe but a tee was added and a galvanized pipe was used to come to the surface. It's stronger and little chance that if hit with something it wouldn't break.

Many areas like Florida are require permits for any irrigation added to a property including wells. The connection from city water to the irrigation system is critical and a sprinkler head cannot be closer than 18" from the outside wall of the home at least in Florida. Many areas of the country now have limited watering times. Generally, two or three days a week allowed and no watering from 8-10 am to 4-5 pm so a new timer that has more programming smarts with a rain sensor is a benefit.

The age of the system and underground pipe really have no impact on the system reliability until a pipe breaks but it is usually from tree roots or a bad glue joint. My house is only ten years old and a very poor glue joint let loose this year and it was a repair job from someone else.

One general rule irrigations guys use is only one type of sprinkler head per zone. All pop up, rotors or impacts. I found that for a home this is sometimes not possible and again all you want to do is dump water. It's not rocket science unless your doing a golf course or irrigation 12 acres as I maintain at my church where I worked. To upgrade what's on your property is first check if some areas are getting too much water or not enough and adjust or change the sprinkler heads accordingly. Rain bird has very nice water saver pop-up heads. Too often there is too much water being dumped and the water just runs off to the sidewalk or road taking fertilizer with it. These heads put out very little water so the water can work into the soil but you may have to run the water a little longer to get the needed amount of water. http://www.rainbird.com/homeowner/products/sprays/RNnozzles.htm

I hope all this helps you make a decision.
 
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Olga17

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Thanks. I found someone who is willing to look at the existing system and tell me what he would suggest to change. You are right on target about too much water wasted, some of the existing heads water the driveway, the sidewalk, etc. Hopefully I will find the solution that will save water and will keep the existing system working better without spending now $6,000-$7,500. I will take a look at the suggested head.
 

Dj2

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I was wondering what you decided to do and whether you have done that by now.
 

Olga17

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I engaged the person who offered to "upgrade" the existing system. The work is in progress, all heads are being changed, swing joints are being added with "toro funny pipe". Some heads will be capped (where the lawn is overwatered) and 2 will be added where needed, King Drain valves will be installed at low points of the irrigation zones. The cost is obviously a lot lower than it would have been for a new system. There is no galvanized pipe anywhere... We shall see the results next summer. I hope that this will extend the life of what we have. Thanks for the follow-up.
 

Gary Swart

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I have just one negative comment. Do not use those stupid automatic drains. I cost just a few dollar in the fall to have the lines blown out with compressed air and then you know for sure they are dry. Since you made no mention of it, I wonder if you have a back flow prevention device. They are required although some locals don't enforce the law. These prevent cross contamination of domestic water. I would be surprised if Portland does not require them along with annual certification that it is functioning properly.
 
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