Friday, January 18, 2008

Tune Up Time for Your Irrigation System


Tuneup time for irrigation

A well-maintained system is good for your yard, your wallet and the environment. Here's what you can do.

Tom Maccubbin

Special to the Sentinel
April 1, 2007

Modern irrigation systems are so automatic that we tend to forget all about them. You might be asleep or off to work when yours is watering the lawn and ornamental plantings during the more-efficient early morning hours. But do you really know what your sprinklers are doing?

Sure, you see the damp spots along the sidewalk, and maybe the water hits your car, too. But are the sprinklers also watering the grass, trees, shrubs and flower beds? Many gardeners never know there is a problem with irrigation systems until the grass and ornamental plants start to die, says Bruce Hage, owner of Bruce Hage Irrigation in Orlando.

"If you take care of the irrigation system now, you won't have to worry about dead grass later on," says Hage. "It's best to check the system at least once a month after cutting the grass to catch broken heads before areas become dry."

Another important reason to check your irrigation system is to conserve water. It's estimated 50 percent of home water use is irrigating the landscape, says Teresa Watkins, Florida Yards and Neighborhoods coordinator in Orange County.

"We need to be good stewards of our water resources. We are rapidly running out of potable water," says Watkins. "Using water needlessly on your landscape also means you will have more weeds, insects and disease problems. Overall, it's just not smart to overwater."

Many home-irrigation systems are not very efficient, says Craig Borglum, owner of Irrigation Repair in Sorrento. Often more than 50 percent of the water is not benefitting the plants. He says an irrigation system with 70 percent efficiency is exceptionally good.

"Most systems have not been changed to meet the growth in the landscape," says Borglum. "Shrubs knee-high at installation have grown much taller and are getting all the water and the lawn, very little."

One option is to raise the sprinkler to overshoot the shrubs, but this might mean more work as the plants grow taller. Instead, Borglum suggests moving the sprinkler in front of the shrubs.

Relocating the sprinkler is easy and involves cutting the original sprinkler pipe off near the ground and attaching a 90-degree elbow. Then use flexible pipe to run the line in front of the shrub and install a pop-up sprinkler. Set the sprinkler nozzle to water the lawn, plus just a little of the shrub. "If you can cut pipe and glue them together, you can make this change," says Borglum.

This is just the beginning of a spring sprinkler tuneup that can make your system more efficient, save you money and conserve water. Use the following tips from irrigation experts to make the needed adjustments.

Replace broken or ineffective heads. Most sprinklers are plastic with a life of 10 to 12 years, says Hage. The seals deteriorate and blow out, causing the heads to waste water and leave dry spots in lawns. Hage says a big problem is also lawn mowers hitting the heads and causing them to malfunction. A simple solution is to replace the heads as needed. Just screw them off and on.

Grass also might grow higher than the pop-up heads originally installed with the lawn, says Borglum. As organic matter develops under the runners, the lawn rises higher above the ground and the grass blades eventually block the water even when they are cut at the proper height. His suggestion is to add an extension to the base of commonly used 4-inch pop-up heads, or replace them with 6-inch heads.

Clear obstructions from sprinkler heads and adjust them. Good growth encouraged by proper irrigation is often part of the problem. Some gardeners have trouble even finding their pop-up sprinklers after a few months without use. Test the irrigation system to check for obstructions from grass or limbs. Clear what is needed, and relocate sprinkler heads when appropriate.

Water does not benefit sidewalks or roadways, but it's amazing how many of these areas are soaked regularly. Adjust the sprinklers so they water only the planted areas of the landscape. If the irrigation system must water paved surfaces to moisten the landscape, consider adding zones with water-conserving sprinklers.

Establish separate watering zones for the lawn and ornamentals: Green-growing lawns are water hogs and need frequent irrigation, but trees and shrubs require much less water. A University of Florida study showed that when lawn and shrubs were watered separately, the landscape consumed 39 percent less water than a traditionally irrigated yard.

Microsprinklers that use less water than traditional rotor heads were set among trees and shrubs to wet only small areas near the base of each plant. These conserve water by putting it only where it is needed. Microsprinklers can be found at home centers to create separate watering zones within the landscape. Often tree and shrub plantings have to be watered only every week or two during the dry times.

Adjust controllers to water effectively. Make sure each watering zone is providing the moisture needed by the plants. University of Florida recommendations suggest 1/2- to 3/4-inch of water be applied at each watering. Watkins suggests gardeners calibrate their systems by placing rain gauges or makeshift gauges 5 feet from sprinklers and then turning on the zone and timing how long it takes to reach the preferred level. You can make a gauge by marking a spot 1/2-inch high inside a shallow tuna or cat-food can.

The time it takes the container to fill to the 1/2-inch mark is how long you need to operate the zone. Repeat this test for each watering zone within the landscape. Controllers and similar timers for automatic systems then can be set to run each zone for the proper length of time.

Make sure rain sensors are operating. Surely you have seen irrigation systems operating during downpours; it's kind of silly. One way to prevent this and conserve water is to install a rain sensor. Sensors have been required for new systems since 1991. But do you know whether the rain sensor is working?

Sensors should be located in the open where they are exposed to natural rainfall. Many don't work or are installed in the wrong spot, says Borglum. He suggests gardeners use a ladder to reach the sensor and then with the sprinkler system running, use a hose to douse the sensor with water. If the sensor shuts off the system after the equivalent of a 1/2-inch of water, it's working properly. Borglum says older systems should have rain sensors added at a cost of $20 to $65 for equipment, depending on the type selected.

Additional ideas that can help reduce water use include selecting drought-tolerant plants, grouping plants by water needs, reducing feedings during drought and replenishing mulches.

"Gardeners are often surprised how well plants can do without the additional water," says Hage. "Landscape watering can often be reduced to between 30 and 50 times a year."

April Garden Calendar Page H18.

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