Didn't see a sticky, but need troubleshooting tips for sprinkler system

Discussion in 'Irrigation / Sprinkler Forum' started by Tim in Fort Worth, Jun 21, 2016.

  1. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    I've never had a sprinkler system before, but recently bought a house with a six-zone system. The main controller is an Irritrol Rain Dial, but the heads/nozzles are a mix of Toro, Hunter and Rain Bird. The system is programmed the way I want it, and the 9 volt backup battery has been changed so if the power goes out I'm still in business. I'm pretty mechanically inclined, and had no problem replacing some nozzles and a head that apparently was parked on by a contractor. So now three of the six zones are up and running fairly well. The only problem I see with them is that a few of the pop-up nozzles won't retract the last 1/4". A friend said silicon grease might fix that, but if it comes to it I don't have a problem replacing the heads, as I might want to change the coverage area at some point.

    My problem is with the next zone I'm working on, Zone 4. From what I can see, there are only two heads on this zone, along a fence and about 10' apart. When I run a manual check for that zone (15 minutes) the water barely come out of the heads, and the nozzles don't pop up. I would equate the pressure to that of slowly pouring out a glass of water. In my mind I'm speculating that a) there is a break/leak in the PVC pipe somewhere, or b) a valve is not functioning correctly. What is the best way to troubleshoot this? I've run two 15 minute cycles to see if the ground gets wet anywhere that might identify a leak, but haven't see anything. If I designed the system I would have put an access box somewhere to gain access to any parts that might need to be replaced, but I don't see anything other than the main valve box, just downstream from my city water service box. There are two standard cutoff valves in the box, both open. Based on experience and the statistics, what is the problem most likely to be, and how do I go about fixing it, both finding the problem and replacing any electrically activated parts? For what it's worth, when I manually run the first three zones I hear the flow of water kick in to the sprinklers because my hot water heater is right next to the timer control box and the cold water line transmits the sound. When I manually start Zone 4 I don't hear anything, so I'm really hoping this isn't a leak somewhere.

    I also have one other question. I'm guessing the system is constantly charged with water up to every electrically operated valve. When winter rolls around is there a best practices kind of procedure to drain the system so it doesn't freeze?

    Thanks for any help provided.
     
  2. SteveW

    SteveW DIY Senior Member

    Joined:
    Feb 11, 2005
    Location:
    Omaha, NE
    You are asking multiple questions. I'll take a stab at the main one -- what to do with Zone 4.

    From the sound of it, a malfunctioning valve does sound more likely than a leak. You have done exactly what I do when one of my zones doesn't have enough water flow -- leave it on and look for soggy soil. One more thing you can do is to watch your water meter and compare how much water is moving when a normally-running zone is on vs Zone 4. If substantially less, that would again suggest a valve not o opening completely.

    Next step is to find the valve. Pros can often kind of scope it out and make an educated guess where a buried valve is based on where the water supply is vs where the first head in the zone is and seeing what the shortest distance is between those two points. Then a metal detector may be helpful. Too bad the installer didn't box all the valves as they should have.

    If you have an estimated place for the valve and want to dig around to find it, be careful and mostly use a hand trowel once you remove the sod. There will be a control wire near the valve which is easy to cut with a shovel.
     
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  4. MKS

    MKS Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2016
    Location:
    Illinois
    If the system was installed by a professional there maybe a blueprint for it some where to help identify locations.
    If the heads don't function it is probably worth replacing than trying to fix.
    If there is water in zone four the solenoid is doing something. My parents 50 year old system had the same symptom. I was able to disassemble the valve in place, clean and loosen it up and it works fine.
    I'm sure if you find the valves and post a picture people here can help. My parents valves I believe to be rainbird and found a nice maintenance article.
    As far as winter goes, I understand there are self draining systems like my parents and non self draining. My parents just requires shutting the water supply off and opening two drain valves that purge the supply side of the valves. The zones are self draning.
    Non self draining systems require a substantial air compressor to blow the water out of the appropriate lines.
    Pictures will help the experienced here.
     
  5. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    I guess I should clarify something. There may be access boxes in the ground for the valves that activate zones, but I haven't seen them. The system was installed several years ago, and the boxes may have been covered up by dirt over the years. The only way I could find the heads was to activate the system on manual and visually locate them, sometime repeating the manual cycle several times to avoid getting wet. When I did, they were all partially covered with soil and had St. Augustine grass wrapped around them. For all I know, there may even be a city code that mandates access to control valves, and it is just a matter of locating them. I don't have a metal detector, but I do have a nice length of re bar, so I may lay out a line between the heads and jab the ground on either side of them for several feet in hopes of hitting a plastic lid. Though I am mechanically inclined, I am clueless as to the architecture and design of a sprinkler system so it may be hit and miss until I hit something since I won't be able to intuitively calculate where it might be.

    Since I first posted this thread I ran a manual test on Zone 5 and Zone 6. The first three zones are in the front yard, Zone 4 is on the side yard, next to the backyard fence, and both Zone 5 and Zone 6 cover the back yard. One surprise is that both backyard zones are 100% mechanical, with overlapping patterns. They all seem to function perfectly in terms of mechanical action, though one 360* rotating head in the middle of the yard is leaning a few degrees off vertical. But that should be fairly easy to fix. In the months before I bought the house a deck was added to the back of the house, so one of the heads (180* rotating head) sprays the outside third of the deck, and the posts and railing nearest the head. I've worked with PVC a lot, so my preliminary plan is to reroute that particular head to just past the front corner of the deck so it can spray to its heart's content, and replace the existing head with a simple pattern nozzle. I'm not really a fan of digging in hot weather, but I guess I should feel lucky. My neighbors down the street have a sprinkler system with 17 zones, and it's just as hot down at their end of the block.
     
  6. SteveW

    SteveW DIY Senior Member

    Joined:
    Feb 11, 2005
    Location:
    Omaha, NE
    What do you mean by zones being "100% mechanical"?

    RE: moving heads, lots of videos online with good tips. There is something called "funny pipe" that is a small diameter flexible pipe expressly designed for moving individual heads.

    Yes, you are lucky -- you only have 6 zones, for one thing, and of course lucky because you 1) have a sprinkler system (so don't have to spend nights and weekends dragging hoses and manual sprinklers around in the Texas heat) and 2) have access to water for irrigation. I spent a couple summers in college working for a sprinkler system installer and not a great deal of fun digging in the dirt in full sun, drenched in sweat and now covered in dirt. But as my son would say, "It's a first-world problem."
     
  7. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    By mechanical I mean that they all rotate, where as none in the front or side yard move at all. Though not certain, I'm guessing that there is some kind of mechanical gear system inside that is turned by water flow and pressure. Some oscillate back and forth, and some rotate in a constant circle. I'll have to check out the "funny pipe". I only need to move the problem head about 8' diagonally, and hopefully I'd like to add a fan type head/nozzle in the existing station. Based on the current pressures I'm seeing I don't think it will affect things too much, and there is a good amount of overlap between the moving heads in both zones so I think everything will get covered. If need be I can just up the time a few minutes to make up for any gallons of water I lose by adding it.
     
  8. MKS

    MKS Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2016
    Location:
    Illinois
    The valve boxes at my parents are within 16 inches of the foundation and covered by a box and dirt about 4 inches below grade. On the respective sides they serve.
    Whatever you probe with do it gently.
     
  9. flapper

    flapper Member

    Joined:
    May 19, 2016
    Location:
    California
    It's also called 'swing pipe' and that is what it is called in the stores, so use that keyword to find them.
     
  10. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    Thanks for all the help. Here's a quick update. All zones except Zone 4 are up and running on a fixed schedule. The leaning head in Zone 6 is now upright, but the head that sprays the deck has not been moved yet. I'm going to have to investigate that a bit further to see if that head is at the beginning of the run, or in the middle or far end before I do anything.

    Zone 4 is still a problem. I was able to locate a third head located at the property line that I originally thought belonged to my neighbor. I ran that zone on manual for almost an hour, and noticed a small amount of water coming up out of the ground. All three of these head are in a line, with the head closest to the house appearing to have greater flow than the others, and the middle head having greater flow than this last head I located. I don't know why I didn't notice it earlier, but this zone is approximately 400 square feet in size (20' x 20'), and these three heads only cover one side of this square. There is no way they can be the only heads for this zone, but I haven't see a single drop of water coming from anywhere else in this zone. There almost seems to be a forensic aspect to this problem, which I like because it becomes a puzzle to be solved.

    My hope is that the head with the greatest flow is the head closest to the sticking valve, and the further away from this head the water travels the less escapes the downstream nozzles. That would explain why I can't find the other heads in the zone. If that logic is sound my next step will be to dig away the dirt around that first head and see if there is a pipe running to it opposite to where it feeds, then backtrack from there until I find the valve. I prodded and tapped the ground all through this zone and didn't find anything, so if my plan doesn't work there will most likely be a lot of digging. At minimum I can see myself pulling the three known heads, capping the holes and firing up that zone to see the next point(s) where water comes up. That way I can at least map out the zone. Another idea would be to pull one head, then thread in an adapter with a garden hose fitting and blast a hose through that zone.

    So does it sound like my logic and troubleshooting procedures are good, or at least on the right track?

    Thanks.
     
  11. MKS

    MKS Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2016
    Location:
    Illinois
    If you charge zone four with a garden hose and the sprinklers work it would seem to be time to find the valve.
     
  12. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    It looks like there has been a new wrinkle in this saga. I dug up the head that seems to have the most flow, and that was some serious digging. I had to chop through several roots around it, and it turned out to be a head that was about 1' in length connected to a 90* fitting that was attached to what looks like a 1/2" black, PEX-like tube. The head was the female side of the connection that is located in the top half of the head, so I had to dig the hole big enough to turn the entire head to unscrew it from the fitting. I attached the adapter for a garden hose, hooked it up and opened the hose bib spigot all the way. Unfortunately, there was only slightly more pressure, but it was enough to force water through a fourth head. I pulled out the stem and it was also about 1' in length. So unless water coming out of a hose spigot is of significantly less pressure than the sprinkler system, I'm starting to tilt back toward the problem being a leak. I haven't seen a regulator anywhere around the house or attached to a water line, but I suppose it is possible. I am also thinking that because of the length of two of the stems in the heads I may have located all the heads in Zone 4. The zone is square, and no more than 20' to a side, maybe a bit less. Given the spray range I've seen on heads at Home Depot I could see these covering the entire zone.

    So now I have two ways to approach this. One would be to keep digging along the path of the 1/2" black tube until I find some kind of spine that feeds all the other heads in the zone. Once I have found the spine I could dig holes every few feet and track it back to the valve, and if I haven't found a leak by then I could replace the valve and see what happens. Of course, if it isn't a leak then why wouldn't the garden hose only lift the stems no more than 1/2"? The second option would be to proceed with locating the valve. A friend suggested that I might get a signal tracer and connect it to the Zone 4 wire and track it back to the valve. The guy who works in the plumbing department at Home Depot said in this area it is common for there to be a valve box containing all the valved located near the control panel, which in my case is on the back wall of the garage. There is about 4' of armored flex conduit coming out the back wall of the garage that protects a sheathed black cable containing the power wires for all the zones, plus a white ground wire. That armored flex conduit is also rusted so it might be a good idea to replace that anyway, and given the cost of it is hard for me to believe that they would have ran a flexible metal conduit more than 10' - 15'. If I go this route I would also replace the armored conduit with underground electrical PVC.

    In a way I am now back to the drawing board to plan how to go forward. If the valve was stuck partially open those heads would be flowing constantly, so I'm ruling that out. If it only partially opens when that zone is turned on it would account for the low pressure. If there is a leak that would also account for the low pressure, but I don't hear the water flowing at the cold water fill pipe on the hot water heater like I do with the other zones. I suppose there could be a leak big enough to kill the pressure to the heads, but not big enough to hear at the hot water. For the moment I'm stymied, so any suggestions are welcome. But I think I definitely have two issues that need to be dealt with. Leak or valve, the problem with Zone 4 needs to be resolved. The second is I think it is important to locate the valves, be they all next to each other in a box or scattered throughout the yard. If the signal tracer can detect a signal through up to a foot of soil that should make the job a lot easier.

    After posting this response, I found the following on a site that sells sprinkler products:

    "Another way to determine lawn irrigation system valve location is to check with the local city permits department. Often, the irrigation system permit application includes an irrigation blueprint, which should indicate the irrigation valve location."

    I hadn't thought of that, but it would be a good idea to see if a blueprint exists. Something like that would prove to be very useful over the years.
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2016
  13. MKS

    MKS Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2016
    Location:
    Illinois
    Have to agree a leak sounds possible.
    Finding the valves would help narrow where to look for a leak.
    Not sure how pros find leaks but maybe connect the garden hose again and let it go for an hour or two and walk around looking for a damp spot.
    I think I'd follow the steel cable before digging in the yard to find valves.
     
  14. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    I just got back from a visit to City Hall. They didn't have a copy of the blueprint on file, but I was able to file a public information request to get the name and contact information of the contractor who installed the system. Hopefully they are still in business, and keep comprehensive records. For the time being I'm kicking it pioneer style with a small hose end sprinkler for that zone. The request can take up to 10 business days, and there could be some cost to me. Sometimes I think cities don't put things online for precisely the reason that they can charge for it.

    I also just checked on wire/valve trackers, and saw that they are expensive to buy and about $60 to rent. The Armada Pro700 Underground Wire and Sprinkler Valve Locator sells for between $550 and $650. The Greenlee 521A Wire and Valve Locator is also about $600.
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2016
  15. MKS

    MKS Member

    Joined:
    Apr 15, 2016
    Location:
    Illinois
    60$ eliminates some digging in the Texas sun.
     
  16. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    And it looks like that is how this is going to go down. Yesterday I paid a visit to City Hall and filled out the form to request public information. They said it could be up to 10 business days to get a response, but this morning they e-mailed me and said no records were found. I also called the primary rental store here, and they told me that while they get requests for equipment to find valves, they don't carry it. So rather than dig up the yard in a hit and miss style I'll check with other rental companies and also with sprinkler repair companies. A sprinkler repair company most likely already has the equipment, and they may even be able to detect the lines as well. They may charge a minimum for a service call, so if it is reasonably priced it would be worth it to have them map out the entire system. If not, I'll call the other rental companies in the area. Online there is a company called Sprinkler Warehouse that will rent the Armada Pro 700 for $59 for two days. Don't know anything about the company, but the price is right.
     
  17. flapper

    flapper Member

    Joined:
    May 19, 2016
    Location:
    California
    maybe you should just abandon it and redo it all
     
  18. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    That would be my last resort option. To do that I would have to locate the main line downstream from the main cutoff valve in the front yard, then track it to the zone and dig up an entirely new layout architecture. Then I would have to dig up the electrical lines on the opposite end of the house and dig a trench along the entire length of the house and around the side of the house to connect it to the zone valve. That would require at least 50' of digging for the plumbing, and another 80' of digging for the electrical work, plus purchasing all the material needed to replace the zone. Before I did that I would make an attempt at finding the valve or leak in that zone and fix it. I've been busy the last week, and will be busy for the next 10 days or so, but after that I'm going to rent the valve locator and try to locate it that way. From what I've read I should be able to open the valve manually. If that works then it is just a matter of replacing it. I've already tested the resistance and it reads at 21 Ohms, where the others are reading between 25 and 27 Ohms. But once I find that valve it should at least be easy to locate the line for that zone and track any leak from there if manually opening the valve doesn't work. If there is a leak it has to be downstream from that valve since it doesn't run constantly now. If the valve locator works like I think it does, finding the valve should be relatively easy. I'm hoping I only need to connect a transmitter to the hot wire and common for the zone, then use the receiver to follow the signal. I think the valve locator I can rent is a Greenlee 521a, and while I was typing this I downloaded the manual and datasheet for it. I also just read the operation section for finding broken wires, nicks and locating valves and that seems to be how it works, so it seems pretty straight forward, at least if the solenoid is functioning. Since I do get some flow when the zone is turned on I think it should work. The 521a is also supposed to be able to determine the depth of the wire by triangulation. So given the Texas heat I think $60-$80 is worth it to avoid a lot of digging in rocky soil.
     
  19. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    I was able to rent the Greenlee valve locator today (Monday). It was already rented out in the morning when I called, but that turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for me. I checked late in the afternoon and it had just been returned. I got it home, hooked it up and started searching for the valve. It took about 10-15 minutes to get the hang of how it worked, but I was able to locate the valve with minimal problem. I did dig two holes near where the valve was located because I didn't interpret the transmitter signals correctly. For what it's worth, I connected one lead to the zone wire, and the other end to the common (both disconnected from the controller) instead of using an earth ground. The whole job took about an hour from the time I hooked up the device to the time I had the valve dug up and exposed. And on top of that, the valve turned out to be boxed. I was done by 6:00pm. The late rental was fortunate for me because now I can spend the cool part of the morning tomorrow locating the other five valves, also probably boxed.

    So now comes the fixin' part of the problem. The valve on this zone (and most likely the others) is a Richdel R-204. I popped the bleeder screw off the pressure side of the valve, and water sprays up. Is there a manual way to open the valve on the R-204? That seems to be the best way to verify that the zone is actually working. Another way to test it would be to take off the wire nuts that connect this valve to the system and fire up the zone that way. If the zone starts working it means that the connection at the wire nuts was poor.

    The other possibility is that the valve is actually broken, and has a bad diaphragm or other internal parts problems. It has several screws around the top so I'm thinking it can be rebuilt. But is it worth it to rebuild this valve, or is it better to replace it since the hole has already been dug? If I replace it I will most likely glue adapter to the feeder pipe with PC, and use a compression coupling on the sprinkler side to connect it.
     
  20. Tim in Fort Worth

    Tim in Fort Worth Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2007
    Location:
    Texas
    Success in spades. I got up before the heat set in today and was able to find the other 5 valves in less than 1 hour. This Greenlee valve locator was exactly what I needed. Turns out the valves on the other 5 zones are of a different type, as they had a flow control knob on top. When I returned the valve locator they told me I brought it back fast enough that they only charged me $45 instead of the daily rental of $75. I asked the counter people if it was worth rebuilding a Richdel R-204 valve, and they said it was one of the best plastic valves ever made, but the R-204 was replaced with the R-205. So I bought a diaphragm from them for just over $8. Got home and installed it in about 20 minutes. Opened the bleeder valve a bit and the zone came to life. Then I got soaked because the valve is right in the middle of the zone. So I closed the valve and ran a 10 minute manual operation of the zone. Other than some screwy patterns, it worked perfectly. Since the Texas heat still hadn't set in for the day and I was already soaked to the bone I flagged each of the 9 heads, and spent the next 45 minutes popping them off and cleaning both the nozzles and the screens and readjusting the patterns. I was done by lunchtime. God was really smiling on me here. I didn't have to cut any PVC, I found all the valves, and everything was cheaper and took less time than I expected. The place where I rented the valve locator was even half the price of Home Despot for valve box lids, so I replaced the three that were broken. All in all it was a lot better experience than I expected. Now the only thing left to do is relocate one sprinkler head in a different zone so it doesn't spray the deck in the back yard. Should be easy. Thanks for everyone's help.
     
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  21. SteveW

    SteveW DIY Senior Member

    Joined:
    Feb 11, 2005
    Location:
    Omaha, NE
    Perseverance really paid off! Congratulations. Thanks for reporting back to the group-- not everyone is considerate like you are to do so. Always good to learn how it went.

    Now that you have done all that work, you will feel pretty confident to continue to tweak your system as needed. On mine, for example, I replaced all the spray heads on one zone with multiple stream rotors. Very pretty and they lay the water down more slowly than traditional single-stream rotors, but less wind-sensitive than spray heads.
     
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2016

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