Overlooking maintenance on valves can leave contractors struggling in the deep end.
Things unseen often go ignored. You know, like that furnace tucked away in the bowels of the basement that doesn’t get attention until it breaks. Or the mice behind the walls … until they make your kitchen their playground.
Irrigation valves are somewhat similar to those. Because they’re buried, we often forget about them. But this is a dangerous way to live. Just ask Patrick Crais, founder of Blue Watchdog Conservation, an irrigation service provider in San Diego. He has found that taking a few extra steps during installation can save a lot of headaches when and if a problem surfaces down the road.
With valves, it’s important to make sure they’re clear of any debris. While some contractors wait for something to break to address it, Crais and his crew are proactive in cleaning the valves, even washing them down with water.
“It seems corny to do this,” Crais says. “Why would we clean a valve that’s underground in this plastic box? The idea is that if you can’t see the valve and it’s covered in dirt or dirty, you can’t actually detect if there is a leak. We look at every valve as a risk, so we baby them differently. Making sure they’re clear of debris may not be very technical, but it’s probably the most effective way to keep them functioning.”
So, with valves prone to leaking, a great investment would be a $40 acoustic device much like a stethoscope, Crais says. Once they determine there might be a leak, they check all the valves because there are a lot of valves that are leaking that a contractor never knows about because they can’t hear the leak.
“We recommend this as low-hanging fruit, or an easy return on investment,” Crais says. “Otherwise, you spend a lot of time looking for weeks and don’t know which valve it is and start guessing and digging.” Crais suggests a good maintenance program might involve changing out diaphragms every three to five years. In cases where a property might have valves that have been in the ground for 10 years, Crais recommends to the owner to change out all diaphragms to have a fresh start versus waiting for every valve to leak.
“Pretty rarely do you have to replace the entire valve,” Crais says. “Sometimes a contractor will say, ‘Oh, the valve isn’t working,’ and then replace the whole thing. Well, now you have to cut the whole thing out and you just added three more hours of labor to it and the client won’t understand why it will cost $200 to change out a valve. All they had to do was ID the valve and purchase a diaphragm – as long as they determined that was a failure.”
Crais performs a quarterly inspection of the entire irrigation system. He generally works with older properties, and will get the client on a program and keep with it. Anything pressurized they want at least inspected. And they install a water meter to tell them what’s going on with their valves.
“Valves may fail but often the manufacturers don’t have a submeter or water meter in place that would tell them if they have a leak. They often look at the water meter up at the street and often don’t know where it is,” Crais says.
Using a union or threaded fitting can go a long way toward saving a lot of work when it comes to removing valves, Crais says. He makes it standard practice to put a union or threaded fitting downstream of his valves, which gives him the ability to spin off the valve rather than cutting the entire thing out.
“We put it downstream because that’s not the pressurized side of the valve,” Crais says. “To purchase a $4 union downstream of the valve makes it easier to work with that valve if there’s a break.”
The art of the upsell
Sometimes it’s all in the language, right? Patrick Crais, founder of Blue Watchdog Conservation, and his crews don’t tell his clients they’re cleaning their valves but doing a “leak detection inspection.”
“That’s really the purpose of it,” he says. “We’re preventing you from losing water and destroying your property. We don’t even use the term ‘water meter’ or ‘submeter’ – we call it a leak detector.”
Typically it’s a separate line item in their bids, usually one of the cheaper items if you figure a day’s labor to go through 35 valves ($500).
Crais also upsells the installation of waterproof wire nuts, a cheap solution to making sure the wiring doesn’t get screwed up.
“Each one costs $0.89, and putting them in doesn’t take long. But if you know how to do it and put them in correctly, that’s work to be done.”
Husney Landscape and Irrigation’s sprinkler installations include a warranty and the first winter shutdown service. At the end of January, the company sends out service proposals for spring startup and fall shutdown service (winterization).
Any repairs needed are over and above this service.
“The majority of our clients have us do both spring startup and fall shutdown,” says Project Manager Dan Husney. “Some clients who are mechanically inclined choose to do their own and call us if they have problems.”
Once the service contract is signed, Husney sends out a reminder and then works on coordinating a convenient date and time when they can come out and perform the service.
Dan Husney, project manager for Husney Landscape and Irrigation in Cleveland says valve problems he runs into typically are mechanical issues or diaphragms sticking open due to dirt or debris under the diaphragm preventing it from closing. If it’s an electrical problem, replacing the solenoid usually is the fix.
Addressing the diaphragm or solenoid is always preferred over replacing the valve entirely.
“There are some manufacturers of valves with chronic problems where, if we run into those, we are better off changing out the valves,” Husney says. “But I’ve seen others last 10 to 20 years, so you can’t benchmark the years they will last. It can be tedious and labor intensive to replace them depending how they’re manifolded together.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.