Pumping things up

Features - Irrigation

Pumps and valves can make or break an irrigation system, and knowing exactly what to install and how to maintain it is crucial.

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April 22, 2021

Photo courtesy of Grass Roots Landscaping

Much like the heart pumps blood throughout the body, pumps and valves are integral parts to any irrigation system, and key to its success or failure.

“If any of those fail, then nothing else is going to work,” says Andy Paulson, irrigation foreman at Salt Lake City-based Simms Landscape. “That’s the backbone of the entire system.”

And in some parts of the country, specialized equipment like booster pumps are a necessity to bring enough water to the system. That’s certainly the case for Chris Haase, president of Haase Landscape in Spokane, Washington, who has 35 years of experience in the irrigation industry.

“This area here is so rural…so we have a lot of properties that are on wells. We don’t have domestic water everywhere in this area, so sometimes we have to put booster pumps in to get the pressure up,” he says. “It’s very helpful in getting enough water.”

Start off on the right foot.

Haase says because of Washington’s climate, his company installs a lot of irrigation systems.

“In our areas, we are prone to wildfires, so we put a lot of fire line irrigation in, and we add pumps in extra zones to water those areas around the properties,” he says.

According to Haase, the first step in installing a successful system is to do your research and see exactly what kind of pump and other equipment will be needed.

“One of our designers comes out to take a look at the property and evaluate the area,” he says. “They will find out what their water system is like right now, whether it’s a well or domestic, and if they have enough water. We’ll do a pressure test and gallons test on the water and determine if we need to add the pump to it.”

Paulson also urges the importance of making sure you have the right equipment for the pressure needed.

“I feel like a lot of the time, with our clients, irrigation is a mystery. It’s something that happens underground, and something they don’t see.” Andy Paulson, irrigation foreman with Simms Landscape

“It’s about sizing everything correctly,” he says. “Is my valve and main line and everything going to be able to handle what I need it to do? Also, do I have the supply to handle the demand?”

Jake Francesconi, president of Grass Roots Landscaping on Cape Cod, says installing pumps and valves should be easy.

“The preparation and planning are key to any job, but even more so for irrigation,” he says. “If you have a good plan of action, and you know exactly what you’re getting into, problems don’t happen.”

Francesconi adds that doing your due diligence can also keep installation crews from having to make on-the-fly decisions or having to change course midway through the project.

“Have everything pre-flagged, know what kind of pressure you’re looking for and get it all laid out in terms of where the valve boxes are going,” he says. “You’ve just got to put everything together correctly and know that it has the space to work. Don’t just jam anything in any place and make sure to expand to a second box if need be.”

Everything’s automated.

While the technology behind pumps and valves hasn’t changed too much over the years, Francesconi, Haase and Paulson all say that irrigation customers have fully embraced “smart” technology – or automation.

“I feel like a lot of the time, with our clients, irrigation is a mystery,” Paulson says. “It’s something that happens underground, and something they don’t see. And the only time they see it is if there’s an issue. But with the smart technology, it gives them the opportunity to monitor it from anywhere.”

Not only is the smart technology nice for the homeowners, but it’s convenient for the irrigation companies, too.

When installing an irrigation system, plenty of research beforehand can prevent problems with pumps and valves down the road.
Photo courtesy of Rain Bird

“I can make adjustments on the fly and I can do them from anywhere on the lawn or even offsite, to make sure the client’s property is staying as good-looking as it should,” Paulson says. “It’s convenient for us, but a lot of times now, the customer wants the upgrade.”

Haase says the latest irrigation clocks have been a game changer as well.

“The technology with the clocks is crazy – with the apps and being able to start them and turn them off anywhere, it is nice,” he says. “Even at my house, my clock is app-driven. So, when a crew goes to mow at my house, I can turn off the irrigation system with my phone. I don’t have to ask my wife to do it or go over there or anything.”

What to watch.

But even with all these advancements, problems can still occur.

“The number one thing that goes wrong, other than heads and coverage, is valves,” Paulson says. “If your valves are not working correctly, then nothing’s going to operate right for you.”

Paulson says the most frequent problems are either a wiring issue where the valves are not turning on and off, or an obstruction in the valve that keeps it from closing all the way.

Haase says inadequate water pressure is a regular obstacle his crews face, which harkens back to Washington’s geography.

“We also have a lot of mountains around here, so sometimes the water pressure is not that great when you get to the top of a mountain and want to build your house on a domestic water system,” he says. “Sometimes we get into iron deposits in our water – or calcium. We have a lot of calcium. So, we get buildups and things like that. Sometimes we have filters on them for the iron. Most of the calls we get are because of the equipment failing.”

Supporting the system.

Paulson says filtration is an important step for maintaining pumps and valves in Utah as well.

“We service a lot of systems (here) and they use secondary water,” he says. “So, if you’re pulling off of a secondary source, you have to monitor pulling debris in. It all comes down to filtration.”

Haase says his crews are on each client’s property at least once a year to blow out the system at the start of the season. He adds that with proper maintenance, pumps and valves can last a long time.

“Most of the times the pumps run pretty good, if you keep it clean and protected,” he says. “Valves can last for 20-plus years if it’s a good brand. Pumps last five to seven years usually.”

Routine maintenance and winterization can keep valves lasting a long time.
Photo courtesy of Rain Bird

Paulson says maintenance can encompass a lot of things, but the root of it should focus on the system’s wiring and connections.

“As far as the maintenance goes, the most complicated thing you can get into is a wiring issue from the controller to the valve itself,” he says. “And on the install side, you’ve got to make sure you’re using good connectors and things like that. So, it lasts as long as it can. You can do everything right, but if your connections aren’t sound, they’re not going to continue to operate correctly for you.”

Francesconi says getting eyes on the valve box a few times a year, usually in the spring and at the end of the season, can also prevent headaches down the road.

“Keeping the valve box clean and putting some gravel underneath it so it doesn’t get overrun by vegetation is important,” he says. “You’ve got to keep them clean when you do the blowouts and everything else, so they aren’t overwhelmed with leaves, debris or mice.”

Francesconi says he’s seen a lot of animals get inside a valve box and hibernate.

“When you’re doing the winterization, you’ve got to make sure to get them clean,” he says. “You don’t want stuff burrowing underneath there because it’ll be a nice little shelter for them all winter.”

Like with anything else, preventative maintenance is essential and keeps small things from snowballing into bigger issues. Paulson says you should stick to a routine maintenance schedule.

“Usually on our properties, we do monthly site checks,” he says. “And cleaning filters and running through the entire system are part of that site check. So, we can make sure everything’s top-notch for our clients.

“We tell our clients it’s a preventative thing – because it is,” Paulson adds. “If we keep everything at 100%, then you aren’t going to call us down the road because you have dead spots in your lawn or something like that.”