Maintaining A Sprinkler Irrigation System

The Complete, Low-Cost Guide To Maintaining A Sprinkler Irrigation System

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A well-designed sprinkler irrigation system is one of the best investments you can make for the health and wellbeing of your garden. But if you’re resting on your laurels after the installation phase, it’s all too easy for undetected issues to undermine the performance of your sprinkler system, and small faults can snowball into a far more expensive problem if they aren’t picked up quickly. 

To keep your sprinkler system operating efficiently and effectively, it’s crucial to ensure all the components are properly maintained and inspected year-round – and with a little know-how, it’s easy to keep up with ongoing maintenance without needing to call in a professional. 

Putting a little time and effort into regular upkeep helps avoid water wastage from leaky pipes and fittings or incorrectly configured sprinkler heads. Proper maintenance and regular servicing also ensures the warranty on all of your parts stays intact. 

So what information do you need in order to monitor, maintain and diagnose any issues with your sprinkler irrigation system? 

This comprehensive guide will give you everything you need to know about sprinkler system maintenance.

What Are The Basics For Maintaining Above-Ground or Underground Sprinkler Systems?

Above-Ground Sprinkler Systems 

Above-ground sprinkler systems are a popular option for those looking to keep the budget down, while still offering a more convenient and thorough watering solution. There are many different DIY kits on the market that make above-ground sprinkler systems both cost-effective and easy to install, as well as making component repairs and replacements straightforward. 

When it comes to maintenance, the obvious advantage of above-ground irrigation is the clear access to pipes and fittings, making both visual inspection and repairs much simpler. Above-ground sprinkler systems are likely to be simpler in design and operation, without complex components such as pumps and pressure regulators. 

Depending on the model, the sprinklers themselves may still need to be installed flush with the ground, similar to an in-ground sprinkler system – but the hoses themselves can easily be inspected or swapped out as required. Using sprinkler spikes rather than permanent dug-in sprinklers can further simplify the set-up, maintenance and adjustment of an above-ground sprinkler system.  

There are a few key things to be aware of when it comes to maintaining an above-ground sprinkler set-up. First of all, the frequent use of connectors to attach and remove hoses makes these components more vulnerable to wear and tear – but it should also be easy to spot any leaks that arise at these junction points. It’s also important to keep openings clear of dirt and other debris that may potentially clog your sprinklers when attaching and removing hoses, and ensure caps are replaced securely every time a hose is disconnected. 

Underground Sprinkler Systems 

When it comes to both convenience and performance, an underground sprinkler system is the gold standard in yard and lawn maintenance.  Of course, this also makes maintenance more difficult when it comes to inspecting and accessing pipework for any necessary repairs. 

There are many helpful strategies for detecting leaks and problems without needing to dig up your yard, and you can read more about them later in this article. Regularly flushing your sprinkler lines will help avoid build-up or sand or sediment – and installing a filter at the point of water in-take can also help minimise these problems. 

For both types of sprinkler system, one of the most important maintenance tasks is to trim back grass or other vegetation which encroaches on your sprinkler heads. Installing a concrete ‘donut’ around each head can slow the process, but only regular trimming will keep your sprinklers free of grass which can keep them from functioning properly. 

What Are The Parts That Make Up A Sprinkler System? 

Understanding the layout of your sprinkler system and the role each component plays is a great place to start if you’re looking to improve on your maintenance skills. This knowledge also equips you to swiftly diagnose the source of any problems and potentially even resolve the issue yourself, without needing to call in a professional.

Note that in the world of irrigation, there are an enormous range of different brands and models available for each of these components. The best source of information on features, adjustments and maintenance is the manual for your specific components – if you didn’t receive one when setting up your irrigation system, the manufacturer’s website should have all the information you need. 

An irrigation system is typically divided into irrigation zones, each servicing an area with similar watering requirements and controlled by its own valve. This allows you to customise the operation of each zone individually, including watering times and schedule. There are typically several sprinklers to each zone. 

Irrigation Hoses & Pipes

If your sprinkler system is installed underground, you may not be getting up close and personal with most of the pipe work. However, it’s a good idea to know where the pipes run to avoid accidentally hitting the line when digging in the garden. If you need to excavate a section of irrigation pipe for replacement or repair, take things slowly to avoid causing damage. 

Irrigation pipe is typically made from black polyethylene (PE) and while sturdy, it is not immune to general wear and tear or damage from tree roots, rocks and garden tools. 

Irrigation Valves

Valves are crucial to the operation and control of your sprinkler system, but the number of components means that many irrigation system issues can be traced back to a valve problem or fault. 

There are several kinds of valve present in a typical irrigation system, and each plays a different role in controlling the flow of water:

Main supply valve or ‘master valve’

Connects your irrigation system to the water mains, controlling water flow to the entire sprinkler system. 

Sprinkler control valves

Control zones, or a series of sprinklers. Sprinkler control valves are operated by wires running from your control box to an electromagnetic solenoid, turning each zone on or off as required. 

Sprinkler valves are typically opened and closed by the control box, but can also be manually operated by turning the solenoid ¼ turn counter-clockwise or opening the flush screw on the valve.

Sprinkler Heads 

Sprinkler heads can be either pop-up or fixed. Sprinkler heads and nozzles vary in terms of features – options include adjustable spray pattern, pressure regulation, and models with improved water efficiency. Sprinkler heads can be disassembled to clean or replace the filter and nozzle, or to flush out the sprinkler system. 

Spray heads are fixed in place and spray a small fan of water, while rotors spin while emitting a single stream. Sprinkler performance can be enhanced and fine-tuned by installing a multi-stream nozzle to your sprinkler heads. It’s best not to combine fixed and rotor heads within the same irrigation zone. 

Depending on the make and model of your sprinkler head and nozzle, you may have the option to adjust the spread, range and arc of water delivery. 

Automation & Control 

Control Box

There are a wide range available, from the simplest automatic timers to advanced, app-controlled and Internet-enabled control systems. Many ‘smart’ controllers with Wi-Fi connection are able to self-adjust according to weather conditions and can even notify owners of potential leaks or valve faults. The control box allows settings such as watering times to be customised for each irrigation zone, and may allow for seasonal adaptions to be made automatically (eg. as a percentage of summer watering time). 

Rain Sensors

Are connected to the control box and automatically shut off the sprinkler system when sufficient rain is detected. While rain sensors aren’t essential, they can help maximise the efficiency of a sprinkler irrigation system and enable it to adapt to real-time weather conditions. 

Other Components

Pump

Not all sprinkler systems require a pump, but these are more common when utilising rainwater or pond water rather than water mains connection, or when irrigating a larger property. 

Pressure regulator

Sits between the water source and valves to moderate pressure, protecting the rest of the sprinkler system and ensuring water reaches the length of the sprinkler zone. 

Backflow prevention device

Keeps water containing soil or contaminants from flowing back up into the clean water supply.

Filter

Catches debris and impurities in the water supply before it can clog valves and sprinklers. 

What Safety Issues Do I Need To Consider When Maintaining My Sprinkler System?

There are a few vital safety concerns to keep in mind when disassembling or digging around your sprinkler system. 

Identify underground utility lines: ideally, you will have completed this step before installing an in-ground sprinkler system. However, if you’re a new homeowner or are uncertain about where your utility pipes and cables run, connect with your local infrastructure providers and obtain a copy of the plans. In Australia, you can request this information from all main utility providers via Dial Before You Dig (https://www.1100.com.au/)

Turn controller off before repairing: your sprinkler system should be switched off at the control box before repairing or replacing sprinkler heads and pipes. 

Keep dirt and debris out of the line: when opening up pipes and risers, it’s all too easy for dirt to get inside the pipework, possible creating more damage than is solved with the repair. It’s also a good idea to flush the pipes after completing any major repairs, just in case. 

Leave the electronics to the experts: any testing or repairs of electrical components such as the control box and wires should only be completed by an irrigation specialist or electrician 

When Should My Irrigation System Be Serviced?

A full service and audit of your sprinkler system can be incredibly helpful to not only pick up on faults and leaks, but also to identify any potential improvements that could help make it more efficient and cost-effective. 

It’s recommended that a sprinkler irrigation system be professionally serviced once or twice a year, particularly if it has been laying dormant over the winter. 

Particularly in colder climates where freezing is a concern, owners may opt to ‘winterise’ their irrigation system before the cooler months arrive. By ‘blowing out’ the pipes, removing any water left inside, winterising helps avoid damage to pipes and fittings. The main valve and control box should also be turned off when winterising a sprinkler system. 

Many homeowners choose to tie-in the service and audit of their irrigation system with winterising in the fall and re-activation of the system in late winter or early spring. 

  • Who should service my irrigation system?

It’s important to ensure that your sprinkler system is serviced or repaired by a certified irrigation contractor. When getting your irrigation system professionally serviced, your chosen contractor may also be able to draw up a preventative maintenance plan specific to your needs. 

Backflow preventer testing and auditing must be carried out by someone with special certification in this area, and should be done annually to ensure contaminated water can’t flow back into the water mains.

Should I Have My Sprinkler System Professionally Maintained?

While it’s not necessary to have a professional maintain a sprinkler irrigation system, it does offer a more hands-off solution, especially for those managing larger yards and properties. An irrigation professional will be able to manage all of the maintenance tasks listed in the article, as well as effectively troubleshooting any issues, carrying out repairs and making adjustments to your irrigation control programming as required. 

To find a professional to maintain your sprinkler system, your irrigation or landscaping contractor is an excellent place to start. Many contractors who install irrigation also offer support for ongoing maintenance and repairs. If not, they may be able to recommend a trusted partner who can take care of ongoing routine maintenance. 

Otherwise, the website of your local irrigation certification body will include a directory of irrigation specialists, searchable by area and function (ie. maintenance, repairs, installation). 

What Should I Look For When Inspecting My Sprinkler System?

Inspecting your sprinkler system regularly is the best way to ensure you pick up any faults or issues as quickly as possible. There’s nothing worse than discovering a leaky fitting or sprinkler head has been bleeding water for weeks or months, landing you with a very surprising water bill at the end of the quarter. 

At the very least, staying in tune with how your sprinkler system is running allows you to be responsive and tweak settings as needed – even small adjustments to the range or angle of your sprinklers can have a big impact on the health of your garden. 

If opting not to get your sprinkler system professionally serviced after winter, care should be taken to inspect and test your sprinkler system thoroughly when it has been sitting dormant. 

Check Pressure Levels

The first step in any inspection is to check your pressure regulator to ensure settings are at at the correct level. Too much pressure risks damage to your fittings and components, while too little pressure will interfere with the proper function of your valves and sprinklers. 

Keep An Eye On Your Lawn 

One of the clearest indicators of a sprinkler system fault is the condition of your plants or lawn itself. If you spot any brown, dried-out or balding patches in your lawn, it’s possible these areas are being underwatered (or even overwatered). 

While this can be caused by a range of unrelated issues, it’s worth checking if your sprinkler system is neglecting that region – this can be a problem with the spacing and range of your sprinkler set-up or a fault within the individual sprinkler head. The goal is ‘head-to-head coverage’ – that the sprays from all sprinklers in a zone should just be meeting each other, ensuring there are no unwatered areas. 

To test the reach and flow of your sprinkler system, place a series of small containers at regular intervals in the yard or problem area – small rain gauges or empty tins work well for this. Run your sprinklers for 15 or 30 minutes and then measure how much water your containers have picked up, compared to the amount your sprinkler system was designed to deliver. This should allow you to pick up on any neglected or under-watered spots. 

There’s no one correct result you should be aiming for, since the target amount will depend on your zone configuration and variables such as sun or shade, climate and the time of year. Generally, water requirements vary between half an inch (in shade and cooler weather) to 1.5 inches (in full sun during summer). 

Keeping in touch with the condition of your lawn and garden is the best way to tell if the flow or angle of your sprinklers needs to be altered, particularly as the seasons change – water requirements can even double during the summer months, though adding one or two extra watering sessions per week more effective than increasing the volume. 

Inspect Pipes & Sprinkler Heads For Leaks

It’s a good idea to visually inspect any above-ground pipes and fittings, as well as sprinkler heads and nozzles. Many kinds of damage can be tricky to spot with the naked eye, so inspecting your sprinkler system while it’s running is the easiest way to pick up leaks and faults.

Underground irrigation systems are more difficult to inspect for leaks, but there are a few key approaches that can be used without the help of a professional. First of all, inspect your yard at a time of day when the sprinklers aren’t running – look out for any unexplained water pooling and boggy or muddy ground. Patches of grass which are far greener than the surrounding area may also indicate an underground water leak.

An even more precise method of detecting leaks is to utilise your home water meter: turn off all water sources in the house, then check the readings on your water meter. Keep the sprinkler system off in the meantime and check the meter readings again in 30 to 60 minutes. If the readings have changed at all, you may have a hidden water leak. 

More common signs of trouble are visible leaks from pipes or fittings, water pooling around sprinkler heads, or sprinklers failing to turn on or off properly. It’s important to note whether the issue is affecting a single sprinkler head, an entire zone or the whole of your sprinkler system – this is the first clue in narrowing down which components could be responsible for the issue. If your sprinkler system hasn’t been used for a while, it’s helpful to test one zone at a time and inspect each zone for any signs of water leakage. 

Test Rain Sensors & Control Box

Rain sensors should be inspected and tested at least once a year. You can manually test a rain sensor by pressing the button on the top – this sends the signal for rainfall to the control system and your sprinklers should automatically shut off. If you notice the sprinklers are still operating when it’s raining, it’s a good idea to test the rain sensor manually and check if anything is obstructing it. A rain sensor should be kept free of debris like leaves or dirt and exposed to the open sky, away from eaves and overhangs. 

How Can I Resolve Some Common Sprinkler Problems Myself?

Many common issues can be diagnosed and repaired at home – but if you aren’t feeling confident or have any lingering questions, there’s no shame in calling in the experts. 

Here are some of the problems most often encountered and what you can do about them. 

Problem: Misdirected, Malfunctioning Or Obstructed Sprinkler Heads 

Keep an eye out for any misdirected or malfunctioning sprinkler heads while the sprinkler is running. Damaged or obstructed sprinkler heads – including a clogged filter or nozzle – will often result in an uneven or unusual spray pattern, and potentially excessive water output. Alternatively, a fault or blockage can stop the sprinkler from running at all. 

If water is being sprayed onto paths, driveways or patios instead of the lawn, the amount wasted to evaporation and run-off quickly adds up, and that water isn’t reaching the plants that actually need it. The solution may be as simple as realigning the sprinkler nozzle to point in the correct direction – either by twisting the nozzle or using a key provided with your sprinkler head. If the spray pattern can’t be adjusted, the nozzle may need to be cleaned out or replaced. 

If the spray pattern is being blocked by an obstacle, such as foliage or other landscaping features, the obstruction can be moved or pruned back, or the sprinkler head can be raised above the obstacle by installing a riser. 

With a variety of nozzles available, switching from a 360° nozzle to a differently angled nozzle – or investing in adjustable spray pattern nozzles – can avoid wasting water on paved areas and fences inadvertently in the way. If a certain area no longer needs to be watered at all, the sprinkler nozzle can be replaced with a secure cap and the water flow will bypass that sprinkler outlet. 

Problem: Misting Or Fogging From Sprinkler

If your sprinkler heads are producing fine mist or fog, these airborne droplets are more prone to evaporation and wind drift, reducing the water of your sprinkler system via evaporation and wind drift. 

Misting is a symptom of excessive water pressure and can be addressed by adjusting – or installing – a pressure modulating device, installing pressure-regulating sprinkler heads, or tightening the ‘flow control’ screw on the sprinkler control valve. 

Problem: Sprinkler Heads Seep Water After Watering Session 

Leaking sprinkler heads indicate a problem within the sprinkler head itself or the sprinkler valve. If the water leak stops when the valve is switched off, the problem is within the sprinkler head or riser, and those can be replaced. 

A valve failing to close all the way will typically lead to leaking and puddling around the lowest-oriented sprinkler head in the zone. 

To resolve the issue, begin by disassembling the valve, checking for any damaged components and cleaning the diaphragm and filter. If this still doesn’t allow the valve to close, the valve will need to be replaced. 

While individual components within the valve can be swapped out, professional testing will likely be needed to diagnose specific issues with the solenoid or control wires. 

Problem: Water Run-Off While Sprinklers Are Operating

General water run-off during sprinkler operation means the sprinklers are delivering water too quickly for the soil to absorb it. Yards with sloped terrain are particularly prone to water run-off. The simplest solution is to adjust the timing of your watering sessions – split watering into several cycles with sufficient time in between for the water to soak in (around 30 to 60 minutes). 

The easiest way to determine cycle length is to see how long it takes before run-off appears, then reduce the length of each cycle to just short of that time. 

Problem: Sprinkler Heads No longer Pop Up Or Retract 

Try flushing the sprinkler line to get rid of any dirt or sand that may be causing problems. If this doesn’t resolve it, the sticky heads are a result of wear and tear on the risers, and the only solution is to replace the sprinkler head itself. It’s typical for pop-up sprinkler heads to wear out after a year or two. 

Problem: Zone Fails To Turn On 

If an entire zone fails to turn on, you may have a problem with the wires running from the control box to the solenoid in the sprinkler control valve. Try operating the sprinkler valve manually by turning the solenoid by ¼ in a counter-clockwise direction. If the valve then operates correctly, the fault is in the control box or connection to the valve. 

It’s best to call in an irrigation contractor or electrician to troubleshoot and repair any issues with the system’s electrical components. 

How Should I Clean My Sprinkler System? 

The simplest approach to cleaning your sprinkler system requires little disassembly – the line should be flushed thoroughly when the sprinkler system has been dormant, such as over the winter months. 

Flushing can be completed by simply removing all nozzles – or installing flush caps – and  running the water via manual operation of the sprinkler valve, one zone at a time. This will clear dirt, debris and insects from the pipe, as well as eliminating air pressure. Flush for 15-20 seconds with a flush cap installed, or 5-10 seconds with an open riser. 

When disassembling any part of your sprinkler system, ensure you keep openings clear of dirt and debris to avoid clogging the line, and prevent dirty water from flowing back into the pipes after flushing. 

Some individual components can also be disassembled and cleaned – a great first step when it comes to troubleshooting any problems.

When it comes to cleaning out sprinkler components, running water is the best option, but a few drops of mild dish soap can also be used for stubborn dirt and grime. An old toothbrush can be helpful for scrubbing filters and diaphragms. 

Cleaning Filter

Screen filters should be cleaned around once a month when using mains water. Some filters are self-cleaning or have a flush cleaning function, so consult your user manual if this applies to you. 

Filters are designed to be cleaned regularly and are quite simple to disassemble – just unscrew the fitting holding the screen filter, remove the filter and clean under running water. 

If the filter is growing algae, you can use a solution of water with a little bleach to clean it. Rinse filter thoroughly before replacing. 

Cleaning Valves and Diaphragm 

Different models of irrigation valve have different schematics, so consult your user manual for specific disassembly instructions. Typically, this process will require a screwdriver. Ensure you don’t misplace screws or seals when taking apart your sprinkler valves. 

After disassembling the valve, you can use tweezers to remove any visible stones or debris within the valve. Remove the diaphragm and clean under running water, then reassemble and test.

Clean Clogged Nozzles & Sprinkler Heads  

Spray heads: Unscrew the nozzle at the tip of the sprinkler head to clean sprinkler nozzle and filter (a bent paperclip can help remove the filter if it’s tricky to prise out). Simply tap the nozzle against a surface to dislodge debris such as small pebbles, and rinse the nozzle and filter under clean running water. 

Rotor heads: Cleaning out these nozzles is more difficult – requiring specialty tools to disassemble – so many pros find these easier to replace than to clean out. However, referring to the manual for the specific make and model is your best bet when it comes to disassembling a rotor head sprinkler.

How Can I Replace Sprinkler Heads And Pipes? 

For most irrigation components – such as sprinkler heads, pipes and valves – the most reliable and cost-effective solution is to replace a faulty component, rather than attempting a repair. 

Replacing Sprinkler Heads

Sprinkler heads and nozzles are the components most prone to damage, particularly from lawnmowers and other power tools. Thankfully, they are also quite simple and cost-effective to replace. Sprinkler nozzles are simple to unscrew and replace – ideally with the same hardware brand to ensure compatibility. 

To replace the sprinkler head entirely, you will need to dig down to where the sprinkler head meets the riser and unscrew. Clearing the area around the head helps ensure no dirt falls into the pipe. A universal sprinkler head wrench can help unscrew the sprinkler head in tight spots. When replacing the head or riser, flush the pipe before reattaching the sprinkler head to clear any debris. 

Replacing Pipes

For an above-ground irrigation system, replacing the pipes can be as simple as connecting a new garden hose. However, in-ground sprinkler systems do require a bit more manual labour to unearth and replace.

When digging up irrigation pipe, be sure to clear the area on both sides and underneath the pipe itself for ease of access. Use a pipe cutter to remove the damaged section. Install pipe clamps on each end, insert slip coupling to both pipe ends then tighten clamps with the help of a screwdriver. Ensure you test the pipe before filling the hole to ensure it’s watertight. 

If the damaged section is extensive, you may need to insert a new section of pipe between couplings. 

What Kind Of Warranty Covers My Sprinkler System? 

Manufacturer warranty periods for irrigation components range between one and five years of normal use. In case of any problems, you’ll need to follow up the warranty claim through your original distributor or contractor, so be sure to keep all receipts and invoices in a safe place. 

Many professional irrigation contractors will guarantee their components, labour or both, and your installation or maintenance contractor is a great first port of call if you’re having trouble with your irrigation system. At the very least, the problem may need to be professionally diagnosed before you can follow up a warranty claim with the manufacturer, who may replace a faulty component or cover the cost of repairs at their discretion. 

It’s important to note that failing to conduct regular maintenance or properly winterise your irrigation system may void the manufacturer’s warranty. If a fault is due to damage during lawn maintenance or yard work, or a so-called ‘act of God’ (eg. flooding and other natural disasters) this won’t be covered under warranty either. 

Related Questions

  • How much does irrigation maintenance cost?

Irrigation maintenance costs can vary – a DIY approach to sprinkler system inspection and maintenance may not cost anything at all, aside from any required parts and repairs. Sprinkler head replacements can cost between $2.50 and $18 per head, and valves range from $12.50 to $40, plus labour costs if professionally installed. The cost of professional servicing or winterising is typically under $200. 

  • How can I learn more about my irrigation system?

Product manuals are a good place to start, but it can be difficult to really understand how your irrigation system works through static diagrams. For more accessible product guides and tutorials, Youtube is a fantastic resource, and many irrigation manufacturers share their own videos online to assist DIYers with maintenance and repairs.

  • Who is responsible for the irrigation system in my rental property?

Like many other questions around rental property maintenance, the answer may depend on the terms of your individual lease agreement with the agency or landlord. Basic maintenance requirements usually fall upon the tenant, but dealing with any faults or repairs – particularly those from normal wear and tear – should be the responsibility of the property owner. At the very least, you should get permission from the property owner before carrying out any significant or non-emergency repairs to the irrigation system.

Sam Christie

Sam Christie is the owner and operator of Christies landscapes, founded in 2013 Sam and his team of landscapers and designers have many years experience in the landscape construction industry. Over the years they have developed and refined a broad range of skills, qualifications and techniques to deliver outstanding projects throughout the Canberra region.

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