Plumbing- Water Supply Cut-Off

January 25, 2009

In most cases all houses should have a service cut off independent of the 100_0172water meter. Even though the  function can be performed at either location it is not uncommon for the service cut-off to be inoperable or impossible to find especially in older  homes.  Deterioration to this service  cut-off is not uncommon. If you can find it and it works, this would be the normal location to turn the water off when you need to turn-off the water.  However, if you cannot operate it with relative ease…. DON’T FORCE IT as it can be broken easily without to much effort. As you can see in this second picture there are several cut-offs and the handles have corroded away. I had to dig out a pail of dirt just to take the picture. If turning the water off at the meter is you choice, see 100_0176 Plumbing-City Water Cut-Off.  If this water cut-off does not work and does not leak and you can still turn the water off at the meter, just leave this one alone.  The day may come when you find it leaking, replacement will be your best option at that time. 

Regardless of where you choose to turn your water off, ensure that it can be performed in one of the two places, and turn the water off at least once to say you did. If you have a plumbing problem typically you need to turn the water off fairly quick.  A leak can put a lot of water on the floor as well as cause an expensive call to a plumber. If you can schedule a plumber based on his schedule, instead of an emergency call out, the cost difference is dramatic.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Locate the water cut-off.
  2. Atempt to turn the water off here, if not,  go to the water meter.
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Watering your Foundation – Its a Texas Thing Part III

March 23, 2016

Texas-Drought-2011As mentioned in my last post on watering your foundation; Here in North Texas it is essential.  Since this is not a one time event but a regular requirement, you might as well look at a relative permanent approach to the solution. I identified several ways to do this in my last posts on the subject but I wanted to share a bit more permanent method. The concept is the same, but its a bit more work, and you may want to hire an irrigation specialist to do it.

The biggest difference in this solution is capitalizing on the fact that you may already have a permanent in-ground sprinkler system. With this system, you operate it as any other section to your irrigation system profile and its no longer a separate system to take care of.

Criteria of existing lawn sprinkler system: For this to work, you need an automatic lawn sprinkler system and a couple more conditions to make it work.

  1. sprinkler controllerElectronic Irrigation controller: The irrigation controller will be the source of the schedule to water the foundation.
    1. Spare Zone: Most controllers come in 4, 6, 8, 12 (and so on) zones. You will need at least one vacant zone position for this to work. You can query the controller by stepping through the zones. When you select the zone with the controller, look for statements in the readout that could say things like; vacant, not-wired, turned off, etc. It that doesn’t work, open the back half of the controller and look at the incoming wiring. Each position that has a number on it represents a zone. If you find a number with no wire, you should have a vacant zone. If you don’t have any vacant zones, your forward path from this point would be to replace the controller with more zones. This may exceed your budgetary limitations
    2. Spare Wire: In many cases during the initial installation, the cable with the zone wires in it, may exceed the number of connected zones. So look for some coiled up wires in the base of the controller.  If that is the case, you are in luck and can use one of the spare wires. If you have no spare wires but a spare zone on the controller, you would have to add a pair for the new zone. (a colored wire and a common (white) wire).
  2. sprinkler-valveAdding a New Valve: At this point, you have a 1)zone position in the controller, 2) a spare wire for the new zone. Now, locate all the existing valves in the yard. Specifically ones that are close to the house.
    1. In that valve box, look for the same color wire you identified in the controller, if it is not there, check the other valves. Worst case, you may have to bring a new wire to your chosen location.
    2. Dig up around the existing valve and identify which pipe is under pressure all the time. Once identified, turn the main water supply off that feeds the sprinkler system (probably near the water meter), you will cut into the pipe and add a new valve. You may have to run a short piece of wire from the existing valve to the new one to hook it up. The connection will be one colored wire and one “Common”.
    3. When you buy the new valve, make sure it has (low) flow control, and or is designed to work with zones that don’t use a lot of water pressure. The drip lines you use have a low GPM (gallon per minute) rating as well as low pressure.
  3.  Polypipe: Depending on where you locate the new valve, you may need a section of polypipe to get you to the foundation.  You can cut the hose to length and use the polypipe fittings to make up the ends. Make sure the polypipe and fittings are the same dimensions. Since all these connections are on the low pressure side of the system, these fittings are just simple resistance (chinese finger) snap in connectors.
  4. Drip Lines:  From the poly pipe, use the same fitting to transition to the Drip Line. These hoses are designed with drip emitters in the hose every 12 inches.  Run it around the house keeping it about 6 inches from the foundation.  You can bury them a couple of inches or hide them with mulch. Staking them with landscape stakes will help keep them in place as this product does not like to lay flat to the ground. You can purchase the hose in bulk from the Orange Box store of Sprinkler Warehouse. You will need to also purchase inter-hose connectors as well as a way to connect to your water. If you have to make a sharp turn it is better to use a fitting than bending the pipe. You do not want to crimp the hose. Splitting the line with a Tee is totally acceptable, and it will also allow a little better flow control if the go half way around the house with one feed and half with the other.

 

So here is what it looks like in dollars. Admittedly, you can probably do this a little cheaper, but I used high quality components, so this should last for years to come.

DripSys for house

Related articles:https://homeownerbob.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/watering-your-foundation-its-a-texas-thing/

https://homeownerbob.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/watering-your-foundation-getting-ready-for-the-summer/

 


Chasing Water Leaks Part II

July 28, 2010

water-leak210% of all homes have some sort of water leak, and can be repaired quite easily. However, hidden leaks are hard to find but can go un-noticed for years and cause significant structural damage.

To continue with the “Chasing Water Leaks” theme for March, Part II of this article is directed at the real hard to find category. By now you should have fixed any leaks associated with faucets, toilets, and any other water delivery devices (dishwashers, ice makers, lawn sprinklers, etc.). If not, make sure and read the posts on Chasing Water Leaks Part I and lawn sprinklers  and resolve those issues first before going any further.  This Part II  inspection will help you discover leaks that may be in the ground, in a wall or very small leaks that can go unnoticed in or around the house. Even if you decide not to do any of the work, isolating the leak for the plumber will save you significant $$’s.

Leak Isolation Group II (main lines and  concealed leaks)

  1. Main water line: Typically houses have a service cut-off immediately before the water service enters the house. Turn off the service cut-off and re-inspect the water meter low flow gauges to see if the meter is still running or not. If the meter still runs, walk the path of the water line looking for dark green grass (in the summer) or wet spots. TIP: Use caution in operating this cut-off if it has not been operated for a year or so, do not force it. You can still walk-out the path without using the cut off. Obviously, if you find something here it will need to be fixed before you can complete the inspection. Finding the leak here may conclude your inspection.  Considered rare, finding a leak here can typically be associated with recent digging.   mold
  2. At this point, the leak you are searching for is probably very small.  You will be looking for traces of water, in the form of moisture or mold. You may just find slight discoloration or the surface may be cold to touch compared to the rest of the surface. Inspect baseboards and walls near or around where water pipes enter the house. Make sure and look on both sides of a wall that may have water pipes in them.  Look for moisture on the walls and floors surrounding all the water fixtures. You may also find distortion on the wall or floor surface as water will cause the building materials to expand. If you find solid evidence, you may have to open the wall to get to it to expose the pipes, but before you do, try to isolate the problem further by following the Foundation methods.  (TIP: Experiencing foundation movement could have been the cause of a leaky pipes in a wall.) If you were unable to locate the leak based on the previous inspection you may eventually require a professional but before you call them try these inspection methods for further isolation.

Pier & Beam Foundations: Houses with pier and beam foundations usually have a crawl space with an access hole. Possibly in a closet or outside around the foundation. If you are claustrophobic, don’t like bugs spiders and crawling things, you want to stop here and call a professional. If you choose to continue, take a good flashlight and crawl in.

  1. Start at the end of the house where the water line enters the house and  crawl the path of the pipes. Look for puddles, wet soil and wet pipes. If you suspect pipes-in-crawl-space1a leak in the wall , look up at the floor boards and all locations where the pipes enter the house above you.  Moisture, dampness, mold is the give away. If it has been leaking for an extended period of time, you may find rotten wood. If the pipe is leaking within the wall, you will probably see water trickling down the pipe to the ground.
  2. If you find water or water damage around the large drain pipes under the toilets, shower, tub or sinks, this will have to be addressed, but is not the cause of water loss through the meter.

Slab Foundations: With slab foundations; walk the perimeter of the house.

  1. Look for damp areas or pools of water
  2. Look for damp conditions or green moss on the concrete and brick. This would not be associated with any gutter downspouts or roof run offs.
  3. At this point, if you  haven’t found it, you may have a leak in an interior wall or under the foundation. If you have had recent foundation movement or foundation repairs, this would increase the chances of this type of leak.
  4. Calling in a professional may be your only choice because it may require  specialized test gear designed to measure for small amounts of water. When you are interviewing a plumber over the phone, insure they are equipped for this type  of diagnostics. Otherwise they will come out and do pretty much the same things you did, then call another plumber (as a sub-contractor) to perform the tests  and charge you for both his time and the other plumber.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Use the  water mter to determine if any water leaks exist.
  2. Inspect in, around, and underneath the house.
  3. Once the leak(s) have been isolated, repair them or call a professional.

Chasing Water Leaks Part I

March 27, 2010

Ten percent of homes have water leaks that waste 90 gallons or more water per day. water-meterParticipate in National Fix-a-Leak Week by fixing a water leak this month.

 

The Silent Thief

A leaky faucet that drips at the rate of  one drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons of water per year. If you have a dripping faucet or running toilet, these need to be fixed first and will solve the obvious water leaks. If you need to call a handyman or plumber.. the time is now. If you want to give it the DIY try, visit EHow.com for a straight forward method for fixing common faucet and toilet leaks. However before you start, make sure you have already read my post on Water Supply Cut Off and City Water Cut Off.

 

Even though fixing water leaks is not normally what I would consider as preventative maintenance, fixing a faucet or toilet is something that is hard to miss, if you see it leaking….fix it. However, some water leaks can occur in places you would not normally view. Under the sink, behind the refigerator, and under the house are just some of the places. These type water leaks can go unnoticed for weeks, months or even years. These leaks not only waste water but can cause structural damage to wood floors as well as foundations. If you have no leaks, this inspection is about 5 minutes. If you do, plan on a good part of the day.  Good luck .

 

The Inspection

This inspection method is really about finding those hidden leaks.  Insure that nothing will be turned on (dishwasher, toilet, sprinklers, etc.), or activated during this test. Before performing the inspection you must gain access to the meter. This may require a meter key that can be purchased in the plumbing section of any home improvement center. Once you have the meter box open, the meter should be visible. There are at least a dozen different water meters having different dials and gauges. Look for the “Low Flow” gauge in the meter (in the meter pictured here, the low flow indicator is the little red blob to the left of the large sweep hand, between the 7 and 8 on the dial). If you are unsure which gauge it is, turn on a faucet, leave it on and look at the meter. One of the gauges in the meter will be moving faster than any other part of the dial; this is the low flow gauge. Turn off the fixture, return to the water meter and watch the low flow indicator for approximately 3-5 minutes. If the meter progressively moves forward, you have some form of leak, if not no further investigations are required. If you do have a leak,  you can call a professional or try to further isolate the problem. Either way, it may take some time  as some the leak may not be visible.  $TIP$: Isolating the leak before calling the plumber will save you some money as the plumber will charge you by the hour whether he is looking or fixing a leak. 

water-meter-key1Before we start the leak isolation test, turn the water off here (to make sure you can). It may seem like a simple task and why should you do it just to say you 100_0178can? Because when you really need to, time is of the essence, and you don’t have time to search for the right tool. This cut-off (on the street side of the meter head may be hard to get to, so find the right wrench that will work for you).  A crescent type wrench works best for me. The cut-off is probably a ball valve and you will only need to turn it 90 degrees from its current position. 

 

Leak Isolation Group I (fixtures, faucets and toilets):

If you find a lot of  water or condensation on the fixtures, save the test for a dry or warmer day as this condition will make it difficult to find your problem.

 As mentioned in the beginning of the article, you should have already fixed any obvious dripping faucets. This isolation method is for the hard to find leaks. If the low flow meter stops after any one of the isolation steps, you have found the source of the leak. toilet_water_shutoff_valve

  1. One at a time, turn off each fixture at the wall and return to the meter to watch the low flow gauge. This should include all faucets, toilets, ice makers, water filters, dish washer and water heater (inspect last).   If the meter stops, there is a leak between the cut off and the fixture.
  2. If you find water dripping or puddles, take some unused toilet paper and wipe down the hose, pip, cut-off, fixture and both ends of the connection; everything under the sink.  TRICK: Why use TP you ask? TP is very absorbent, very pliable and you can see any water trace in the paper. Water travels down hill so look at the joints above the first sign of water.
  3. With the water turned on, start your inspection from the highest joint/connection. Look at the TP after wiping down each joint/connection/pipe section/cut-off. If you find any water deposits on the TP, you may have found the leak. Leaks are usually found at joints, couplings and connections. Assuming it can be tightened, do so by hand if possible or with a wrench, or call a plumber. TIP: Most plumbing connection are made with soft plastic, copper or brass, only tighten the joint to the point of not leaking, over tightening can cause it to leak worse.  Many plastic joints ca be tightened by hand. After tightening the joint, dry it completely and perform the TP test again. Perform the test at least twice. If the leak persists, replacing the rubber washer or seal at this joint may be required.
  4. Toilets: Toilets require the TP test as well. Since most residential toilets have a tank, you will have to verify that water is not leaking from the tank to the bowl. Remove the lid from the tank and add some food coloring or colored tank bowl cleaner to the tank water (do not flush). Give it about 5 minutes, then see if any of the color has leaked in the bowl. You may have a leaky flapper valve. 
  5. Check the water meter again. Hopefully you fixed it, but you could still have more leaks.
  6. Perform this series of tests as required for each water fixture in the house. This will include all faucets, toilets  refrigerator mounted ice maker. dishwashers and any other water consuming or delivering device.

Look for articles on Sprinklers Leaks and Plumbing-Chasing Leaks Part II for additional leak detection methods.


Celebrate National Fix a Leak Week

March 18, 2012

Ten percent of homes have water leaks that waste 90 gallons or more water per day. Participate in National Fix-a-Leak Week by fixing a water leak this month.

The Silent Thief

A leaky faucet that drips at the rate of  one drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons of water per year. If you have a dripping faucet or running toilet, these need to be fixed first and will solve the obvious water leaks. If you need to call a handyman or plumber.. the time is now. If you want to give it the DIY try, visit EHow.com for a straight forward method for fixing common faucet and toilet leaks. However before you start, make sure you have already read my post on Water Supply Cut Off and City Water Cut Off.

Even though fixing water leaks is not normally what I would consider as preventative maintenance, fixing a faucet or toilet is something that is hard to miss, if you see it leaking….fix it. However, some water leaks can occur in places you would not normally view. Under the sink, behind the refrigerator, and under the house are just some of the places. These type water leaks can go unnoticed for weeks, months or even years. These leaks not only waste water but can cause structural damage to wood floors as well as foundations. If you have no leaks, this inspection is about 5 minutes. If you do, plan on a good part of the day.  Good luck .

The Inspection

This inspection method is really about finding those hidden leaks.  Insure that nothing will be turned on (dishwasher, toilet, sprinklers, etc.), or activated during this test. Before performing the inspection you must gain access to the meter. This may require a meter key that can be purchased in the plumbing section of any home improvement center. Once you have the meter box open, the meter should be visible. There are at least a dozen different water meters having different dials and gauges. Look for the “Low Flow” gauge in the meter (in the meter pictured here, the low flow indicator is the little red blob to the left of the large sweep hand, between the 7 and 8 on the dial). If you are unsure which gauge it is, turn on a faucet, leave it on and look at the meter. One of the gauges in the meter will be moving faster than any other part of the dial; this is the low flow gauge. Turn off the fixture, return to the water meter and watch the low flow indicator for approximately 3-5 minutes. If the meter progressively moves forward, you have some form of leak, if not no further investigations are required. If you do have a leak,  you can call a professional or try to further isolate the problem. Either way, it may take some time  as some the leak may not be visible.  $TIP$: Isolating the leak before calling the plumber will save you some money as the plumber will charge you by the hour whether he is looking or fixing a leak.

Before we start the leak isolation test, turn the water off here (to make sure you can). It may seem like a simple task and why should you do it just to say you can? Because when you really need to, time is of the essence, and you don’t have time to search for the right tool. This cut-off (on the street side of the meter head may be hard to get to, so find the right wrench that will work for you).  A crescent type wrench works best for me. The cut-off is probably a ball valve and you will only need to turn it 90 degrees from its current position.

Leak Isolation Group I (fixtures, faucets and toilets):

If you find a lot of  water or condensation on the fixtures, save the test for a dry or warmer day as this condition will make it difficult to find your problem.

As mentioned in the beginning of the article, you should have already fixed any obvious dripping faucets. This isolation method is for the hard to find leaks. If the low flow meter stops after any one of the isolation steps, you have found the source of the leak.

  1. One at a time, turn off each fixture at the wall and return to the meter to watch the low flow gauge. This should include all faucets, toilets, ice makers, water filters, dish washer and water heater (inspect last).   If the meter stops, there is a leak between the cut off and the fixture.
  2. If you find water dripping or puddles, take some unused toilet paper and wipe down the hose, pip, cut-off, fixture and both ends of the connection; everything under the sink.  TRICK: Why use TP you ask? TP is very absorbent, very pliable and you can see any water trace in the paper. Water travels down hill so look at the joints above the first sign of water.
  3. With the water turned on, start your inspection from the highest joint/connection. Look at the TP after wiping down each joint/connection/pipe section/cut-off. If you find any water deposits on the TP, you may have found the leak. Leaks are usually found at joints, couplings and connections. Assuming it can be tightened, do so by hand if possible or with a wrench, or call a plumber. TIP: Most plumbing connection are made with soft plastic, copper or brass, only tighten the joint to the point of not leaking, over tightening can cause it to leak worse.  Many plastic joints ca be tightened by hand. After tightening the joint, dry it completely and perform the TP test again. Perform the test at least twice. If the leak persists, replacing the rubber washer or seal at this joint may be required.
  4. Toilets: Toilets require the TP test as well. Since most residential toilets have a tank, you will have to verify that water is not leaking from the tank to the bowl. Remove the lid from the tank and add some colored tank bowl cleaner to the tank water (do not flush). Give it about 5 minutes, then see if any of the color has leaked in the bowl. You may have a leaky flapper valve.
  5. Check the water meter again. Hopefully you fixed it, but you could still have more leaks.
  6. Perform this series of tests as required for each water fixture in the house. This will include all faucets, toilets  refrigerator mounted ice maker, dishwashers and any other water consuming or delivering device.

Just to visually understand the relation to size of hole to amount of water loss, check out this table.

Look for articles on Sprinklers Leaks and Plumbing-Chasing Leaks Part II for additional leak detection methods.


Seasonal Reminder-Extended Winter Vacation

November 8, 2010

On a recent visit to my brother in laws cabin in Michigan, I was reminded of the importance of winterizing a home for extended periods.  If you have a property that you leave for extended periods (greater than 2 weeks), you should have a good documented plan on how to perform  the shutdown of the major components of  the home. I would give my brother-in-law an A+ as he had tags and numbered instructions on what to do and in what order. He even had an emergency generator and the instruction on how to disconnect from the utility as well as the connection steps to bring the electrical circuits back on-line. All these items are of great help, not only for the owner but for friends that might visit on their own.

Winterizing Plumbing: This post is a good general overview of what condition the plumbing should be in, at both your primary and secondary residence. Following this guide will ensure you don’t have any surprises.

Inspection and Testing  Natural Gas Fired Water Heaters and Appliances:

Unless you plan to drain your hot water heater each time you visit, leaving the pilot light on or keeping the system in “vacation mode” will save some water and time. You may choose to do the same with the forced air heating system,  gas stoves or water boilers. With all these appliances, it is important to know the safety switches will operate as designed in the event the pilot goes out or the service in interrupted. This safety feature is intended to automatically turn off the gas (at the appliance) when this happens, known as fail-safe.  As a mater of building  code compliance, appliances designed for residential construction in the last 30  plus years that include pilot lights should be equipped with a “fail safe” type pilot light.  You should test the fail-safe feature at least once a year. Before you start this test, ensure there is no other open flame in the same room. WARNING: This procedure has its risks as unburned natural gas can start a fire, be extremely carefull in the use of this test. If you are inexperienced with dealing with natural gas, contact a plumber to perform this test. 

  1. Inspect the pilot light; it should have a strong blue flame that is washing the thermocoupler with the flame. (Note: In the last 5-10 years, some appliance manufacturers have been using electronic pilots, if that is the case, you will not have a pilot light to test, no need to proceed any further in this inspection.)
  2. Locate the natural gas shut off in the event it has to be turned off.
  3. Blow out the pilot light, you will begin to smell gas. You should also be able to hear the flow of gas at the orifice. Back away from the appliance.
  4. Within 30 seconds to 2 minutes the gas valve should automatically shut down stopping any flow of natural gas. You may hear a click from the appliance.
  5. Air out the room if the smells of gas is apparent. Assuming the gas valve worked properly, you should not hear or smell any gas.
  6. With the gas valve in the same position as in the beginning of the test, use a butane stick lighter to  attempt to relight the flame. It should not light. If the pilot re-lights the gas valve may be bad and should be replaced.
  7. Assuming the valve worked properly and it shut down as expected, follow the manufacturers procedure for relighting the pilot light.

 

System Shutdown Procedure for Extended Vacations: Here are the key items to address as part of your shutdown procedure.

  • Water Heater:
  • HVAC: Depending on the circumstances you may choose to leave heaters active in the house while you are away. There may be exceptions, but overall, if you will not be back for more than two weeks, ts a better decision to shut it all down. The ambient temperatures and the duration of non-occupancy should be included in your decision. If your circumstances make it a better choice to leave the system active, reduce the temperature to somewhere between 50-60F. HomeownerBOB would highly recommend having a full time resident or care taker type person make periodic visits once a week or so just to make sure everything is okay. Unfortunately, if the weather gets real bad, they may not have access to the property either. If the utilities fail and you have left your water on, you may find a terrible mess on your next visit. For this reason, system shut-down is attractive. If you choose to shut the system down and the heater includes a pilot light, turn the system off (at the Thermostat) and leave the pilot light on. 
  • Plumbing: Shut off the water:    The first choice to cut off the water is at the house. If you have a basement, it will probably be there. If you live in the southern portion of the US, look at the Water Cut-off post for greater understanding. If you have to use the meter see City Water Cut-off.  In many cases you may find a drain valve at the cut-off. If you do, open to start draining the system. Now go to all the plumbing fixtures ( kitchen sink, bathroom, showers and tubs), open both the cold and hot valves about one turn. Now go outside and open any exterior faucets. By inducing air in the line any remaining water that may freeze has room to expand and should not cause any harm. Dont be surprised to see water draining out of a faucet that is the lowest in the system. Water follows gravity and will seek the lowest open valve.
  • Toilets: Flush all the toilets, this will open the valves to drain back any water
  • Drains and P-Traps: Pour a cup of RV-AntiFreeze in every drain. DO NOT USE AUTOMOTIVE ANTIFREEZE. This is not mandatory, but HomeownerBOB highly recommends this if you plan to leave for the entire season.
  • Connected Exterior Water Hoses: Disconnect and store any exterior water hoses. If they are covered with snow and ice, they can be a tripping hazard as well as they become frozen they will be prone to breaking.
  • Sprinkler System Shutdown: There should be a master cut-off for the sprinkler system. Shut off the water. If there is a bleed or drain valve at the cut-off, open it up. With the water off, run each section about 3 minutes. This will  allow the (normally) pressurize line to take on air. To avoid damage, it is important to depressurize the system.
  • Electrical Services: No changes, leave the service active, no harm done here. This will keep your clocks correct and if the house is equipped with an electric water heater, it will allow it to run as necessary to keep the water warm. Hopefully you also have some security lighting and possibly a security system that will need to be powered.

If this is a regular routine for you, consider writing up a check off list (or print this post) to ensure you cover everything. This last thing you want to do is to get home and wonder if you really did everything or not. Good Luck.

For those of you who regularly read my post, you have recognized that I have not been writing a lot lately. Here in Texas, the Fall is a great time to get out, vacation, ride motorcycles and do home projects all of which I have been doing. Look for my next series on “Cutting the Cord” Giving up subscription Cable Television.


Chasing Lawn Sprinkler Leaks

March 21, 2009
 Fixing easily corrected household water leaks can save homeowners more than 10 percent on their water bills. sprinkler21

       

 Unfortunately many of us require lawn sprinklers to have any kind of landscaping short of cactus, gravel and rocks. Having a lawn sprinkler system is kind of like garage door openers, once you have one its hard not to. Dragging hoses around the yard is a real pain and it becomes a challenge to keep things alive. Taking care of your sprinkler system will save you money,  reduce the opportunity to waste water and keep your plant material alive. With water restrictions  on the upswing,  more and more cities are assessing fines for violating the restrictions.  Check with your local municipality for restrictions regarding time of day, rain and freeze detection.  Adding a rain sensor to your system is a wise decision.   

Rain Sensor

Rain Sensor

   

Because sprinkler heads are not under pressure until the system is live,  it can be difficult to isolate the leaks. “Pop-ups”  are the most common spray heads found in  residential systems. Typically I find  pop-ups require more maintenance than the larger impulse or stream sprayers primarily due to the fact that pop-up sprayer use less water per head and the water orifices are smaller and they clog easily.  With pop-ups, it takes more heads per square foot to provide adequate coverage. The greater the distance between heads, the further the water has to spray.  To do this, the arc in the spray pattern has to be projected higher in the air.  As a result,  you lose up to 50% of the water in the air.  Up until the last year or so, we have seen little in the way of water miser type heads. These new type heads are designed to replace the pop-up with a miniature stream sprayer providing a coarse spray in lieu of a mist. This can help reduce water loss and your system may be retrofitted to use these type heads. However, it is important to match the right head for the system. When your system was designed,  it was all based on a certain water pressure, pipe size and GPM (gallon per minute) volume, so any changes need to take this into account otherwise you may end up over/under-watering. Not that a DIYer cant figure this out,  a good licenced irrigator can help you solve the problem. Also, take a look at this comparison study of nozzle types.   

Top 5 Reasons Why Water Sprinklers are Wasteful   

  • Poor design: System design that allows sprinklers to spray water across sidewalks or concrete cause water to be lost to evaporation and run off. 
  • Wrong watering times:  Running your water sprinklers in the middle of the day allows the water to evaporate before it has time to absorb in to the ground. 
  • Wrong water duration: Some believe short duration watering is a way to conserve water however, short shallow watering can cause turf and plants to experience stress because the shallow water can cause shallow roots.
  • Dirty nozzles: Even though sprinkler heads (should) have filters underneath the nozzles, they can still pass some particles in to the nozzle. Many times bad-sprinklerthese particles can be wedged in the spray nozzle causing it to mis-spray and not distribute water equally and efficiently throughout the spray pattern.
  • Lack of maintenance: Sprinkler heads take a lot of abuse from lawn mowers, string trimmers and edgers. Whether it be abuse,  leaky or bad sprinkler heads, all of these conditions can cause a lot of water to run down the sidewalk. 

Standard spray nozzles are approximately 50% efficient as the over-spray is lost in the air.  Loss and waste in a sprinkler system can be difficult to recognize without taking the time to exercise the system and inspect each sprinkler head while running.   

 Keeping your lawn sprinkler system in good working order is one of the easiest ways to get optimum performance from your system. Most all lawn sprinkler systems can be defined in two distinct parts:
  • Feeder or Pressure Lines: The side under pressure includes a cut off valve, double check valve (aka back flow prevention valve) and a valve for each zone and a lot of pipe. 
  • Distribution Lines or Zones: The system could include any number of  zones, this is all dependent on the size of the system. The zone has to be running to inspect it for leaks. Since the sprinklers are spraying water, finding leaks can be a bit more challenging.

Chasing Lawn Sprinkler Leaks   

Feeder or Pressure Line  Leaks:   

  1. Finding leaks in feeder/pressure lines is similar to the same process as found in the Chasing Water Leaks post. Turn off the main cut-off that will isolate the sprinkler system from the remaining water supply. If the flow meter stops proceed with the following steps.
  2. Locate each sprinkler valve in your system. If you are not sure how many valves are in your system, look at your Sprinkler Controller to identify how many sections or zones are in the system. Finding the sprinkler valve may be difficult as valves can be overgrown by grass or ground cover.  If you have the original installation drawing, it should identify the approximate locations of the valves. Before you hire a professional, try the methods described in Searching for Lawn Sprinkler Valves. Either way, once you find them, take note of their location for future use. 
  3. You may notice water residue around some sprinkler heads even when it should be dry, known as weeping, this could be a hint that the sprinkler valve is passing water when it should not be.
  4. Once the valves are located, they should be turned off, one at a time to determine if you have isolated the leak. Each valve has a manual cut off on the center top of the valve. Once you have isolated the leak to a specific zone, the problem will be resolved at the valve. (TIP: Sprinkler valve can be disassembled and cleaned without removing them from the system but the water must be shut off.) Most likely it just needs to be cleaned (that means taking it apart and removing any dirt or debris inside the housing),  but it could have been damaged during the winter months, if so, you may need to replace the valve. Read this tutorial for specific instructions on repairing a solenoid valve.

Distribution Lines or Zones: (Plan to get wet)   

  1. Run each section one at a time. Walk the zone looking for excess water accumulation around the head, the seal could be bad or the head loose causing a lot blown-sprinkler1of blow by. Try tightening the head, (yes, all this while the system is running). If none of this stops the excessive water, replacing the head and riser is the simplest solution. If the leak is around the stem or nozzle riser, you can take these head apart for cleaning. Perform this action with the water turned off. To avoid additional dirt in the system, its best to dig away the dirt from around the head, down to the connection otherwise dirty water will enter the lines. It’s important to remember to do your best job of keeping new dirt from entering the system as this will cause more blockage problems further down the pipe. TIP: Keep a couple of extra sprinkler heads around for spares and spare parts. Changing the head is lots less invasive and a 1 for 1 head swap out than trying to operate on the head in the dirt and water. You can also rebuild the removed head for future change-outs.
  2. If the head is not leaking inspect the pattern of the water spray. Different nozzles are designed with different patterns, so the spray could be limited by design to provide adequate coverage. There are too many nozzle patterns to discuss, but most importantly, look for a  nice clean even pattern. If you see breaks or weakness  in the pattern, the nozzle is probably dirty. Turn the zone off and unscrew the nozzle. There will be a  filter in the riser. Clean the dirt out of it. Also inspect the nozzle itself for very small pebble grit lodged in the sprayer. Use a toothpick or very small screwdriver to remove these particles. The last item may require 2 people. Run the zone without the nozzle installed, this will blow-out any dirt particles that are below the filter. Tell your partner to turn the water off and grab the riser before it stops releasing water. This will keep  dirt from re-entering the system. Re-install the filter and nozzle. Perform this same inspection with each sprinkler zone.   
  3. If necessary, (while the zone is running) adjust any partial pattern sprayers that may be near sidewalks or driveways to keep the water spraying on the grass. If you have parkway sprinklers that  are designed to water across a sidewalk (bad design)  to water grass or plants, you may be stuck with leaving it alone since cutting it back may cause an area to be dry.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:   

  1. Look at your water meter for any slow leak that may be caused by your sprinkler system. Isolate the sprinkler valves to determine where the leak is.
  2. Run each zone, inspect each head for leaks, also look for a good pattern and good coverage. Cleaning the heads may be required.  
  3. Adjust the sprinkler heads as necessary to minimize water over-spray on no-porous surfaces (sidewalks and streets).
  4. Adjust your water cycles to match the season.

Seasonal Reminder-Winterizing Plumbing

January 21, 2009

 

Uninsulated pipes installed in unconditioned crawl spaces or attics can freeze when the outside ambient temperature  falls to 20F or below.

plumber1I am a little late in the season for this one, but here in the Southwest part of the country, winterizing our plumbing is perceived as not a big deal, but in reality, we  have more frozen pipes in our part of the country than Northern climates. Our building code are more lenient and allow methods that would never be considered in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Several years ago, Southern Louisiana had extreme cold weather over the Christmas holidays. The amount of broken water pipes almost called out the National Guard, due to the extreme loss of water pressure in the city water supply.  If you live in Baton Rouge or Houston, it would not be uncommon to find your main water pipe exposed on the outside wall of the house before it goes in the house.   For that reason, these tips may apply to homeowners that live in zones 8A or greater as  defined by the USADA Hardiness Zone Map.

According to the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois, uninsulated pipes installed in unconditioned crawl spaces or attics can freeze when the outside ambient temperature  falls to 20F or below. However, high winds or “wind chill “can augment this number potentially causing frozen pipes at higher temperatures.  Wind chill typically impacts pipes that may be exposed to insulation leaks in the building envelope. For example, a water pipe in an exterior wall without insulation is at risk, add the fact that a crack in the exterior wall near the pipe will allow colder temperatures to increase the opportunity for a frozen pipe. 

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Wrap exposed pipes: Especially outside pipes, but don’t forget pipes under the house in crawl spaces as well as in the attic. All Home Centers sell foam foam-insulationsleeves to cover the pipes. This is cheap insurance as these sleeve are about $2.00 per 8 feet. 
  2. Cover or wrap the exterior faucets. Home Centers have a solution for faucets that protrude from the wall, but you will have to be creative for faucets that surface out of the ground. My grandmother always tied an old hand towel around the outside faucets…. its pretty ugly but it worked.
  3. Caulk the cracks: Check the exterior of the house, especially in relation to faucets or pipes on exterior walls. Ensure the surface is well sealed as not to allow cold air to seep into the wall cavity.
  4. Open cabinet doors: In extreme conditions or extended vacations, open cabinet doors associated with all kitchen and bathroom faucets.
  5. Dripping Faucets:  If it appears you may experience sub 20 degree weather, and you have pipes (especially on the North side) that are at risk, let the hot and cold water run. Granted, this breaks my rule of wasting water, but if possible, try to capture the water in a pan or pail and water your house plants. They are probably drying out since your are running your heater anyway. TIP: If the open faucets stops dripping, leave it open as this will allow the ice formation to expand without damaging the pipes.
  6. Turn off and drain Lawn Sprinkler System: If cold weather conditions are forecasted  for several days, you may consider turning off and draining your sprinkler system. Hopefully you have a cut off and drain. For some of us, watering in the winter is still necessary due to the lack of rain or snow, so you may just turn it off based on the weather forcast. TIP: If you do not have a drain at the sprinkler cut-off, you can activate the sprinkler system for a few seconds to remove presure from the lines.
  7. Disconnect and drain exterior water hoses: A water hose connected to an exterior faucet will telegraph a frozen condition into the faucet potentially causing the faucet to freeze. 
  8. Extended vacation:If you are leaving the house for several months, you may consider turning the water off and draining the pipes. As an alternative to that, leaving your Central Heater on 60F, will alleviate this situation. Look for future posts on “Extended  Winter Vacations” for more details.

Electrical Service-Panel

January 18, 2009

The electrical service panel would be considered the heart of the electrical system. A properly sized, correctly wired panel will serve the electrical needs of the home for many years. Proper care and inspection will reduce the potential of system level problems and failures.

 

electrical-service-panel1If you have many of today’s modern conveniences such as a dishwasher, clothes washer, dryer, electric heat and air-conditioning, your service is likely 100 Amps or greater. If your house has anything smaller than 100 Amps, upgrading  your service to 150 Amps or greater is highly recommended. If you have very few of the items mentioned, the inspection covered in this section may or may not reveal immediate problems associated with a small panel, but as you add more electrical devices, you will start to see issues that are discussed in this topic.

Look at the table below to help determine what level of electrical service panel you may have. Generally speaking, service panels are not well marked to provide you an exact rating number, but the fewer positions the lower the rating. More positions typically equates to larger service. This is all based on the assumption that the panel is supplied with large enough cables in the first place. If you live in an older house, don’t be surprised if you have add-on panels that are used to provide additional capacity, if they are installed correctly there should not be any problems. If you question the cable sizes, have an electrician look at the panel for greater clarity.

 

servicepanelchart-fullinit_

 

With our increased dependency on electricity, the minimum acceptable size of AC service panels has slowly increased over the years. If your house is in category A or B with the original AC service panel, upgrading to a 150 Amps or greater can be a wise decision, as adding additional circuits will be problematic. In fact, some insurance companies may not issue or renew a policy because of the fire risk associated with the smaller panels.

INSPECTING THE PANEL

With relative ease, and a tool or two, the homeowner can inspect the electrical service panel to identify conditions that may warrant further investigation or repair. Additionally, if you would like to analyze your AC requirements, send me an email and I can forward you an spreadsheet to calculate your AC demand. This will provide you a general reference of demand vs. capacity.

Visual Inspection: This level of inspection is performed with no more than the door open. No screwdrivers or tools should be required to expose the face of the panel. There should not be any exposed wires at this point. Your service panel should (generally) resemble this picture (for a panel newer than 1960). Look at the general condition of the panel.

  1. The door should open and close without difficulty or obstruction.
  2.  The panel should fit snug to the adjacent wall. No gaping holes around the panel face around the Sheetrock or wall covering. If you find conduit or Jacketed Metal Conduit (JMC) leaving the sides of the panel, this is okay assuming the electrical conductors are not exposed.
  3. With the door open, look for missing knockout where breakers may have been removed. TIP: Home centers have plastic filler plugs to cover these holes. 
  4.  No standing water, corrosion or signs of water in the panel is acceptable. Call an electrician for resolution.
  5. Look at all the breakers for deformation, if they look melted or are no longer holding their original shape, they should be replaced. This can also be an indication the breaker has or is exceeding its limitation.

Heat and your AC Service Panel: Heat generated by the electrical service panel is an indication of potential problems that may result in an interruption of service. Heat can be recognized in a couple of different ways. 1) by touch or, 2) or digital  infrared thermometer.  If you don’t own a digital thermometer, they can be purchased for a reasonable price ($15 to $100) over the Internet or discount tool supply. The digital thermometer will be referenced throughout HomeownerBOB and its a great addition to your tool box. You will find lots of uses for it.inferred-thermometer

Before you look for heat issues, try to answer these questions.

  1.  Have you noticed that you regularly trip breakers?
  2. Does it occur at a certain time of the day?
  3. Does it occur when you use specific appliances such as a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer?
  4. Is it the same breaker(s) that have to be regularly reset?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s a good decision to replace the breaker(s) now. All breakers have a service life and can deteriorate over time due to frequent tripping or heavy loads. Large commercial breakers can be tested and repaired, but it is more economically feasible to replace residential breakers if there is any question of their reliability. Furthermore, this will further the isolation process of the breaker if it continues to trip.

  1. Test by Touch: Without a digital thermometer, you can place a finger on the face of the plastic breakers. TIP Look for temperature differential. If you find an individual breaker noticeably warm, and it has been tripping, you may have an issue, so have the breaker changed out. If you already changed it out and it is still warm, the load on the circuit is probably high. If the breaker has not been tripping, no further action is required. Just make a note in your inspection journal and look for a change from one inspection to the next.
  2. Test by Infrared Thermometer: TIP: Look for temperature differential. If you find 25% in temperature difference between the hottest breaker and the coolest, and it is not tripping, log it in your home inspection journal.
  3. Tripping Breakers: If the breaker has started tripping, replace it first, then try the following trick to resolve the issue if it continued to trip after replacement. TRICK: Identify everything plugged into this circuit and try moving some appliances to other circuits to de-load this one. If you can live with this change, you have solved the issue, no further action is required. If it’s not a convenient arrangement, you may need to hire an electrician to re-associate some outlets to different circuits. This can get expensive, but it will take an on-site analysis to figure it out. Regardless, re-associating the circuit should solve the problem.

Testing and Exercising Circuit Breakers:Some professionals recommend circuit breaker testing by switching breakers on/off 5 consecutive times once per year. HomeownerBOB considers this optional. If the service panel is over 10 years old and breakers were never exercised for test, cycling them may actually cause some deterioration. TIP: Determine the brand and style of the breakers and buy a couple of the most common sizes (15, 20’s and 30’s are the most popular) and keep them for an emergency. If you choose to exercise the circuit breakers in the future, you will have ready access to a replacements. If the house is fairly new, exercise them if you wish.

Service Panel and Breaker Caution:  If your service panel is a Federal Pacific brand, some municipalities require them to be replaced. FPE Panel Controversy.

gfci-breaker GFCI Circuit Breakers:These special breakers will look different than a standard breaker as it includes a test and reset button, just like a GFI (ground fault interruption)outlet. In newer houses the electrician may wire an entire bathroom or all the kitchen circuits as GFCI in lieu of installing individual GFI outlets. You may also use an outlet tester with a GFI  testing feature to trip the breaker. Either way will work but HomeownerBOB prefers to test at the outlet as this allows you to associate the outlets with the breaker. See Outlets and Switches.

afci-breakerAFCI Circuit Breakers:  AFCI  breakers may look like a GFCI, both will be properly labeled to identify the difference. Arc Fault Circuit Interruption breakers are designed to prevent fires based on an arc flash that could occur in an electrical appliance. Read their full description in US Gov. AFCI doc for more information. Since 2002, the NEC has required these breakers be used with all bedroom circuits. TIP: These breakers can be quite sensitive and may trip for no apparent reason. If your inspection finds no fault, the breaker has been replaced and it continues to trip, you may consider having an electrician evaluate the circuit. Even though HomeownerBOB cannot recommend the removal and replacement of this breaker with nothing other than the same breaker, there have been cases where replacement with a traditional standard breaker has solved the problem without issue. 

Replacing Breakers: There are many links on how to change out a circuit breaker. Here is just one. Replace a circuit breaker.  If you are replacing your own breakers, they should ALWAYS be replaced with a like-for-like size and rating of the breaker being removed. NEVER up-size a breaker because it continues to trip. If you replaced the breaker because it was hot and it is still hot or it continues to trip. Make a note in your inspection journal. If it starts to trip over the year, follow the testing isolation method described above. The NEC (National Electric Code) allows for residential grade breakers to supply up to 80% of their rating. So in other words, if you have a 20 Amp breaker, the actual measured load should not exceed 16 Amps (1920 Watts) at any one time.