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.
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Roofing-Looking for Leaks

March 4, 2009

roof0006

Contrary to common belief, roof leaks can be found when it is not raining.

While installing a chimney cap last week, I figured it was time to perform the annual roof inspection. My roof is less than 3 years old so you wouldn’t expect to find much of anything. Unfortunately that is never the case. Your roof takes a lot of abuse and you need to keep an eye on it.

Catching roof leaks before you actually notice them can save lots of dollars as roof leaks easily damage walls and ceiling finishes, besides the structure behind the walls. Even though a manufacturer may rate a shingle for up to 30 years of life, different climate conditions may impact the realistic life expectations to more like 17 years. Additionally breaches created by vents, chimneys  and other protrusions typically are the source of the failures.

Assuming your roof was installed correctly, most of your problems will be associated with just normal wear. Contrary to common belief, it does not have to be leaking to find it. Most roof problems can be identified on a nice day, it doesn’t have to be raining or leaking to find the problem. In fact, it’s easier to find a leak on a nice day and the repair process will go more smoothly. If you have a roof leak and call a roof repairman in a panic, don’t be surprised he won’t show up until after it quits raining. Standing on the roof when it is wet or during a storm is not recommended and should be avoided. Most of my discussion on the subject will relate to asphalt/fiberglass type shingles which is about  95% of the market. However, most issues are generic and can apply to other roof products as well.

Some of these items can be viewed from the ground, but if you plan to do any of the minor repair, you will need to get on the roof anyway. Most people don’t call a roofer until they have a leak. For a minimal charge, a roofer can perform an inspection and  correct most problems in a single visit. Here are the most common roof problems to look for. 

  1. Tree Limbs on the Roof. If you find tree limbs hanging within about 5 feet of your roof, you may consider cutting them back. When the tree adds leaves in the spring or ice over in the winter, they can cause damage. If you find a limb that has been rubbing the shingles you may need to apply some roofing caulk to seal any potential leaks. Shingle replacement or using an asphalt based roof caulk can solve the problem.
  2. Debris on the Roof. Leaves and limbs can accumulate around the chimney, roof valleys and corners.  Leaving this material in-place can breakdown, cause bugs to accumulate and accelerate deterioration of the roof material.
  3. 100_0124Bathroom and Kitchen Drain Pipes. (a.k.a.)  Vent stacks. Look around the top edge where the lead sleeve is molded into the top of the pipe coming from the vent. Looking at this picture, you can see that squirrels have really abused this vent stack. They can easily chew holes in the stack causing rain water to drip down the side of the pipe inside the house. Most roofers will just replace the lead vent stack.  If they are as damaged as this one, that may be your best choice, however, you can add acrylic caulk (grey or clear) around the edges to fill this holes.  Also look for exposed nails that are used to secure the flange of the lead vent stack. Add a dab of the same caulk over these nails.
  4. Water Heater and HVAC Vents. These vents are typically aluminum, tin or stainless steel and will not have the squirrel problem but look for the nail holes and if there is a vent cap, ensure there is a good seal. Use foil tape (HVAC type tape used on ducting) to seal the two if necessary. TIP: Exercise caution around these vents as they can be hot due to exhaust heat from devices they are venting.
  5. Nails: Normally, most nails are intended to be concealed by other shingles. However there are some places where it is just unavoidable for them to be exposed. Where you find them, make sure there is a good dab of caulk covering them.
  6. Chimney’s. The chimney should have some form of cap or top to reduce the opportunity for water to drain down the inside of the chimney leaving water on the floor (like my house). Inspect the cap for a proper seal to the top of the chimney. If you don’t have one at all, contact a roofer or sheet metal shop. TIP: If you just need the cap, and plan to install it yourself, take the measurements and   find a sheet metal shop.  If you contact a roofer, they will typically use a sheet metal shop to construct the cap, charge you 10-20% mark up, plus installation.
  7. Skylights. Skylights can be a big source for water leaks. Having them installed at the same time as the roof seems to reduce the opportunity for leaks. Roofs are installed as a system, adding protrusions (skylights, vent’s, etc), after the fact creates a breach in the system and becomes a potential location for water to find its way into the house.
  8. Wall/Roof Joints: Look for good flashing (metal edge) where these two opposing surfaces meet. This would typically be where the roof edge butts against a second story wall.
  9. Wall/Chimney Locations. Much like #7, these two opposing surfaces provide an opportunity for water to force itself into the house. Look for a good seal here. TIP: Do not remove or pull back the shingles for inspection unless it is the location of a known leak. Roof systems can be fragile especially as they age. It’s not hard to cause additional damage.
  10. Roof Valleys: Another location where opposing surfaces meet, allowing water to converge. Much like #8, if you do not see anything obvious and you have no known leaks.. let it be.

If you do not know how old your roof is, here are a few additional items to look for that are signs of age and the roof may be near the end of life. If it’s not leaking, just keep a good eye on the items you can address.

  1. Loss of Asphalt Granules. By nature asphalt shingles will lose some of their exterior surface. The granules provide color and protection. You may see a  loss of granules in the valleys and near the edges or areas where there is regular water flow.
  2. Curling of the Shingle Tabs.This is an indication of age due to the roofing material drying out and losing its pliability.
  3. Chipped, Broken and Missing Shingles.  This is wear and tear that has occurred over 20 plus years. As the material becomes brittle, it is easy for it to chip and break.
  4. Raised Nails.  If you find nails surfacing, or popping up through the face of the shingle from underneath, this is a sign your roof  may be approaching its life expectancy.

Overall, avoid spending too much time walking around. Make your inspections and repairs and get off. Excessive activity can  cause problems as well.


Plumbing-City Water Pressure

February 28, 2009

plumbing-faucetCommon water pressure should be somewhere between 45 and 125 psi.

There are many contributing factors that impact this value that may include 1) distances to the water source, 2) size of the distribution lines, 3) elevation of the water supply, 4) primary water line size and the list goes on. However, your plumbing system should work correctly if the pressure is within the 45/125 psi range. If you have just moved from the city to a rural area, do not be surprised if the water pressure is lower than what you have been used to. Contact your water provider to determine if they are within their specification at your house.  (If your house is served by your own well, the primary pump will determine the pressure. Wells will be covered as a separate post.) There is no maintenance inspection associated with the water pressure item other than knowing what it is as a reference as it can cause the system to act differently than normal. Recognizing the  changes will help to determine if any action is required during high pressure conditions, you may experience excessively noisy pipes, clanging or hammering. Low pressure is pretty obvious… low pressure and low flow. Typically, these conditions can be associated with the service provider performing work that required them to open up or turn off the water near by. If the condition does not pass in 24 hours, you may call them to determine how long the condition could continue.  TIP: If you experience low pressure, take the opportunity to fill up some gallon jugs as you may totally loose water pressure before the water line repair is fixed.

waterpressure-gaugeIf you suspect your water pressure to be out of range, you can check it using an inexpensive pressure gauge available at most any home improvement center. To check your water pressure, simply screw the pressure gauge on to an outside faucet (TIP: closest to the water meter) and open the faucet. This will provide an accurate reading. If you find it to be low or high and intend to call the water department, provide them the reading to assist them in their resolution. (TIPKnowing what the water pressure is, under normal conditions, is also valuable information

Since water lines stay under pressure and are considered a closed system, turning the water off, opening the pipes(s) and exposing the interior of the water line allows dirt and mud into the system. It doesn’t matter whether the work  is performed by the water provider, plumber or yourself, it can cause clogged water filters, strainers and faucet nozzles. If you are aware of the work, wait about three days, then clean your faucet strainers/nozzles/filters. Look for a future post on this subject. Plumbing-Faucets.


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.

Plumbing-City Water Cut-Off

January 16, 2009

Knowing how to turn the water off here is a valuable tool in your home knowledge arsenal. Being able to turn the water off changes the complexion of your relation with a plumbing emergency as well as the plumber. 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. Be prepared, when you open the meter lid, you will probably find many bug friends as it is a great place to hang out if you are a cock roach. Give it try.


Plumbing-City Water Meter

January 14, 2009

watermeter2The city provides a water meter  to determine how much to charge for water usage and also a place to turn the water off. The meter can also be used as a tool to recognize water leaks.  If your water bill dramatically changes and cannot be related to service work, changes in household routines, extra house guests or summer watering, the water meter should be the place to start to determine if there are any hidden water leaks.  Obviously, if you have any recognizable leaky faucets, fixtures or toilets, these leaks should be addressed.  $TIP$: Many municipalities charge related services (sewage, trash pickup) on the same bill, these charges can be relational to total water usage. If you have leaks you may be giving the city extra money due to a water leak. Look for the upcoming post on Chasing Water Leaks  for a leak isolation method.


Electrical Service-Weatherhead

January 8, 2009

electweatherheadLook at the weather head on the tip of the mast. It should be intact and in one piece. Look for conductors to potentially be rubbing exposd metal surfaces here. If they are rubbing or have been rubbing (even if the plastic is not rubbed through) this situation needs to be corrected as this could cause a service outage as well as be a safety issue. As you can see in the picture of the weather head, the plastic sheath has rubbed off and is exposing the aluminum conductor. Even though the weather head is isolated from the metal structure with a rubber insulator, water could create an electrical path between metallic surfaces causing a electrical short. This condition should be addressed by a licensed electrician.

Key inspections and action items:

  1. Visually inspect the service drop entrance into the weather head for wear, distortion or damage.
  2. Contact an electrician for correction.