The heart of irrigation

The heart of irrigation

Proper installation and maintenance of valves keeps systems pumping along.

March 25, 2015

Irrigation valves are an integral part of an irrigation system. In fact, Alexis Bookman, product marketing manager with Irritrol, and Steve Hoveln, rotors, valves and accessories product manager with Hunter Industries, both describe valves as the heart of the system.

“If the valve fails to operate, the entire system fails,” Bookman says. These system failures may result in lost time and, in the case of repeat issues, dissatisfied customers. Contractors need to be confident that the valves they choose will operate correctly the first time and will continue to operate consistently for years after installation.

The good news is that the majority of the issues arising from valves can be solved at either the point of installation or through simple maintenance.

“I hate to be too simplistic, but valves in general are really trouble-free given a few basic things,” Hoveln says. “If there is minimal to no debris running through the system and they are wired correctly, they will last for a long, long time.”

Fit the valve.

The first step to a problem-free valve is selecting the right one for the job. Contractors should have a clear idea of the jobsite before selecting the valve, says Bookman, paying attention to the flow characteristics, the water source and even the types of sprinkler heads that will be used.

Ron Wolfarth, principal product manager for contractor valves at Rain Bird Corp., says that contractors should take the time to choose the right product, ensuring that the valve is designed well and has the appropriate pressure rating for the job site.

“A key to a long-lived valve is to not push it to its limits,” Wolfarth says. “High stresses, which can be absorbed in the short term, have long-term detrimental effects on valves, pipes, fittings and the joints between the fittings.”

In areas where reclaimed water is used, Wolfarth recommends using a valve designed to withstand the corrosive effects of chlorine in the water. Other factors to consider before choosing the valve are the wiring system and flow conditions.

According to Hoveln, the one item that contractors often complain about is closing speed. By selecting the proper valve for the flow application, contractors can alleviate this concern.

When selecting the valve, contractors should not only consider the conditions today but also in the future. Is the water source likely to change? Will the system need to be expanded down the road? Are the valves easy to access, manage and service in the long run? All these conditions may change not only the type of valve a contractor may use, but also where the valve is installed, Bookman says.

Time to install.

Proper installation is critical to ensure that the valve functions at its optimal potential. Debris and improper wiring at the point of installation are the two main causes for challenges with valves, Hoveln says.

To limit the amount of debris, start the job out by ensuring that the lines are fully flushed before the valves are installed.

“If you’ve ordered pipes and they are sitting in a construction yard, water and debris may get into the pipe,” Hoveln says. “All that dirt has to go somewhere, so if the lines aren’t flushed, the debris will go right through the valve and right out the sprinkler head. And that’s the same type of debris that could cause an issue upon installation.”

Debris can also occur when contractors use pipe dope to secure connections from the main line to the valve.

“Excess pipe dope often makes its way to the internal parts of the valve, causing the valve to fail,” Bookman says. Polytetrafluoroethylene or Teflon tape is a preferable material for making waterproof connections to the valve, Bookman says, but contractors should be mindful of manufacture recommendations. To avoid future debris clogging the system, Hoveln suggests installing a filter in irrigation areas with potentially high debris, like a pond.

One of the largest complaints Hoveln hears from contractors is shorting or wiring problems. A common wiring error is failing to connect them correctly with good waterproof connectors. “So much of our business is about knowledge that is passed down from the supervisor to somebody else and you just kind of learn,” Hoveln says.

“Or you go to the supply house and ask, ‘What do you use?’ But if you don’t really know, you kind of learn as you go.”

Something as simple as using a good wire connector instead of a wire net will help ensure that an irrigation system functions efficiently.

Prolong the life with maintenance.

Once properly installed, valves should function well for decades. Add in a bit of a regular maintenance, particularly in larger commercial sites where more damage or debris can occur, and a contractor will help ensure that the heart of the irrigation system keeps ticking.

“Taking the time to periodically check on the valves for any visible leaking or weeping goes a long way in avoiding water waste,” Bookman says.

Contractors should occasionally open the valve to check the diaphragm for debris or visible tears to prevent problems from occurring. Contractors should also pay attention to any changes in how the valve functions. If the valve is taking a long time to turn on or off, this could suggest a problem.

In this situation, Wolfarth recommends contractors begin with the obvious: checking to make sure the water is available at the valve, adequate power is supplied to the solenoid and the dump port below the solenoid is free of debris.

“I have had contractors tell me they had to go back two and three times to ‘top out’ the valve,” Wolfarth says. “It is likely that debris was causing each of these failures. If the lines had been flushed out completely at installation or at the first sign of trouble, successive trips to ‘top out’ the valve could have been avoided.”

By taking the time to properly install and maintain the irrigation valves, contractors will not only help ensure that an irrigation system runs smoothly but also avoid potential damage to the lawn and landscape from valve failure.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada.