11.05.13Alan Harris

A Day in the Life of an Irrigation Tech

Irrigation controller mounted too low.Irrigation controllers should be mounted at 4' above finished grade instead of 18". Irrigation controller behind several locked doors.Getting to this irrigation controller meant having codes to the gate as well as the padlock on the pump room. Wires and pipe lost their battle with a back hoe during demolition of the gas station.Demolition of the corner gas station resulted in demolition of mainline, wires and lateral lines. Sunlight shining through the trees exposing high irrigation pressureHigh pressure on irrigation results in misting which wastes 50% of the water and excess wear of irrigation components.

One day each year members of  ValleyCrest’s  management team, from the CEO to the local Account Managers, report to a Crew Leader and work in the field to recognize our hard-working crews and demonstrate the respect we have for the job they do every day. This year I joined an Irrigation Tech for inspections and upgrade recommendations. This is the story of my day.

5:30 AM: With my steel toed work boots, safety vest and several layers of clothes I head to the office. It is the coldest day of the fall as evidenced by frost on the windshield of my truck. First thought of the day: “Oh, joy! Not the best day to be getting wet.”

6:30 AM: Morning stretches. Meet Justin, the Irrigation Tech with whom I will spend the day. Hit the road to sit in traffic. Along the way I learn the work pants I am wearing and have had since the early 1990’s are about the same age as Justin. Second thought of the day: “Man, do I feel old, but boy do I feel good, I still fit in the same pants from 21 years ago!”

Irrigation Inspection #1

7:45 AM: The first stop is a 15 acre neighborhood retail center with a 16 year old, 40 zone irrigation system. After clawing through a four foot tall Burford Holly Hedge (ouch), we kneel down to the irrigation controller which is mounted about 18” off of the ground. Note to Irrigation Contractors: Please install controllers four feet above grade. Nobody should have to get on their hands and knees to access an irrigation controller. Unfortunately, when performing maintenance on irrigation systems installed by others you don’t always have optimal systems.

The inspection of the first few zones goes relatively smooth. We adjust the spray pattern of a few irrigation heads to minimize the water hitting the pavement and unclog a few other nozzles. Thankfully the water is still warmer than the air temperature, but the fingers soon start to hurt from the cold. Regrettably, several irrigation heads, which battled valiantly unsuccessfully with car bumpers were beyond repair and will have to be replaced.

Zone four is interesting.  The 12” pop up spray heads are spaced about 45’ apart in a long narrow island in the parking lot. We start looking for buried heads, but don’t find any. Hmmm…mystery.

Zone six solved the mystery as four inch pop ups on 10’ spacing were in the same area. Evidently the long, narrow, parking lot island at one point in time had a strip of turf on either side of a small hedge. Over time the hedge grew taller and wider and the Willow Oaks shaded the turf so only an 18” strip of mulch remained between the curb and the hedge. Recommendation: Cap the 12” spray heads watering the same area as the old turf spray heads.

The next few zones are routine until we hit zone 17 which does not respond. Zone 18 does not respond either. Zone 19 comes on, but the turf rotor heads cannot pop up and seal on their own. We manually pull the heads up to form the seal and an anemic stream of water goes about 10’. The same is true for the next 3 zones. Hmm…mystery number two.

Our first thought is a mainline leak, but by this time we already walked the entire property and did not see any flowing water. Additionally, the first 16 zones were inspected without any issue. There is ongoing construction on the corner outparcel so possibly they had hit the mainline, repaired it and there were rocks or debris lodged in the pipe restricting water flow.

Zones 24, 25 and 26 do not respond so we abandon the inspection and head towards the corner outparcel. The construction is in the demolition phase. In the corner of what used to be the paved area of a gas station is a 12’ tall pile of concrete and gravel. On the other side of the pile is a pool of water flowing into a storm sewer.

We learn when the contractor pulled the footing out for the light pole they bumped and cracked the 2” mainline. The contractor had created a makeshift dam to keep the water from flooding his site. The gas station and the shopping center were built at the same time so the mainline and wires were installed on the back of the curb of the outparcel, which was fine…for 16 years until they decide to tear down the gas station and build a bank.

So much for evaluations and irrigation upgrade recommendations for this location. The budget would have to go towards rerouting 300 feet of 2” mainline to the other side of the outparcel property line and rewiring about 20 zones. The leak had been going on for at least one day, before it was noticed and may have been going on for up to 3 days when the light pole footing was pulled. The owner will also have to find the money for an extra $500 – $1500 for the water that literally went down the drain. Third thought of the day: “If only the property had a smart controller and flow meter the system would have shut down automatically after a few minutes instead of a few days. Had we not been doing an inspection that day, how long would the water have flowed freely before someone located the source and turned it off?”

Irrigation Inspection #2

1:30 PM: The second stop of the day is a small two acre medical office complex with 10 zones. Should be easy, but the irrigation system has not been operable in a few years due to a bad backflow and budget limitations. Again, the controller is 18” above grade. (See previous note to Irrigation Contractors).

The inspection goes quickly due in part to three non responding zones. However, one of the operating zones was on top of a segmented block retaining wall spraying into a natural area. This would have only been a waste of water, however there was also an irrigation leak at the tallest part of the wall as evidenced by the water pouring out of the joints between the blocks. Fourth thought of the day: “An irrigation leak around a retaining wall can be disastrous!” Recommendation: As the site is not in a fire zone the zone watering the natural area can be abandoned to save water and reduce the chance of a retaining wall failure.

Irrigation Inspection #3

3:05 PM: The third stop of the day is a home owner association entrance and recreation area. We start of the at the recreation area. However, the controller is in the locked pump room of the pool area which is closed and also locked for the season. Thankfully, we have the codes for both locks and are able to access the controller which for once is mounted four feet above the finished floor.

Zone one has two rotor heads leaking from the base, but everything else seems to be in good shape…until zone one will not turn off. Zone one also happens to be connected to the master valve so no other zones can be inspected until the master valve is replaced. Off to inspect the irrigation at the entrance.

The entrance is small and only has three zones on each side. However, they have excessively high pressure.  Five of the first six rotors on the first zone leak. The one good rotor, which is a different manufacture from the rest had obviously been previously replaced. With the late afternoon sun the misting resulting from the high pressure of another zone of rotors made for a beautiful picture, but also demonstrates how 50% of the irrigation water is lost to vaporization. Recommendation: Install a pressure reducer to eliminate misting effect and extend the life of irrigation components.

Final Thought

Field Day is about appreciation for the gardeners and irrigators who rise early, put on their boots and safety vests to tackle a strenuous job in all sorts of conditions. Not all days go as planned as evidenced by the face we started the day to inspect 78 zones on four controllers. At the end of the day we were only able to fully inspect 37 zones. Work orders will have to be prepared, approved by the owners, repaired and then the other 51 zones can be inspected…maybe. Irrigation design, which is my background as a landscape architect, is a pretty exact science…irrigation inspections, not so much.

If you liked this post about irrigation inspections and upgrade recommendations, please leave a comment, share it with a friend, check out my previous posts , follow me on Twitter @h2oMatters  and

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Alan Harris

Alan Harris is a water management pioneer. With roots in landscape architecture, Alan has worked with irrigation throughout his career experimenting with hydrozones and a variety of high efficiency irrigation systems. Now, over thirty years in the landscape industry, Alan continues to stay apprised of the latest technology even in a sales leadership capacity as our Director of Sales Operations for our landscape maintenance division. In addition to his contributions to this blog, Alan keeps his hand in water management as a regular contributor to Lawn & Landscape Magazine and speaker at WaterSmart Innovations Conference.


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  1. Tuesday, 4:47 Carol Ward-Morris

    Cheers to the guys and the gals in the field!

  2. Tuesday, 8:48 Ron Vo

    Sounds like a fun day of work, Alan.

  3. Tuesday, 12:19 Kathy Nguyen

    Great work! I am always happy when I see a Valleycrest Truck in Cobb. I know my customers are getting some quality info on outdoor water mangement! Tough job for your field folks! My hats off to them.

  4. Tuesday, 1:34 Patricia Shahbazi

    Hello Alan,
    I wanted you to know how much I appreciated your humorous and informative report of this year’s field day. You brought up a lot of good points and especially liked your observation that many controllers are only 18″ off the ground!
    Thanks for taking the time to share.

  5. Tuesday, 1:48 Alan Harris

    Carol, Ron, Kathy and Trish: Thank you all for taking time to read my latest post and to provide your comments. As these posts are usually written during non-business hours, your comments provide the inspiration for me to wake up a little early and spend time on the weekends writing about my thoughts and experiences.
    I enjoy Field Day each year as it is an opportunity to both learn and teach. We truly have a great team in the field throughout the country.

  6. Wednesday, 7:26 Ann Runley Carroll

    The comments from contractors and maintenance are helpful for us irrigation consultants as we design projects. Communication between the contractor and maintenance people and the consultants is essential for a fine end product for the owners. Some day you will have a better day checking systems than your recorded day in the field.

  7. Wednesday, 7:30 TJ Kendrigan

    This article sounds all to familiar. With the never ending construction in Boston I run into sites like your first stop all of the time. I particularly like the building of a dam to reroute the water. That seems to be s.o.p. for contractors who don’t work in irrigation. Great piece, thanks for sharing and shedding some light on a typical day for an irrigation tech, for those who have not gotten the pleasure to spend time out in the trenches……

  8. Tuesday, 6:19 Alan Harris

    Ann – I am glad my observations will help future designs. As a Landscape Architect I learned the science of irrigation design from books, but learned the art of irrigation design from working in a design/build firm and seeing what worked and didn’t work in the field.
    TJ – thanks for the Irrigation Tech “stamp of approval”.

  9. […] waste water fast. A single broken irrigation head can send 800+ gallons a month down the gutter. My field day in 2013 was spent as an irrigation tech. I was amazed at how many heads were broken on a retail site. Of course irrigation heads and car […]

  10. Tuesday, 11:31 Deirdre Irwin

    Great piece, enjoyed it a lot. True conservation is all about attendtion to detail and it messy and complicated but so worth it to your clients and the local utility!

  11. Tuesday, 2:17 Alan Harris

    @Deirdre – thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed reading about my day. Please share our site with your friends and co-workers who have a similar appreciation of water.

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