This February, Central Texas experienced the coldest stretch of weather ever recorded at Camp Mabry in Austin. For six days, from February 12th to the 18th, the temperature stayed at or below freezing. This historic freeze lasted 144 hours, and surpassed the previous stretch of 140 hours in December, 1983. Both Austin and San Antonio had single-digit temperatures for the first time in more than 30 years.
Snow records were also broken. Austin had the largest two-day snowfall in over 70 years of 6.4 inches that started the night of February 14th and continued through into the next morning. Beginning February 15th, there was at least one inch of snow on the ground for five consecutive days, smashing the previous record of a three-day stretch that’s occurred only four times before on the following dates:
- January 1985
- Late January-early February 1949
- January 1944
- December 1929
Irrigation System Damage
Needless to say, this prolonged subzero winter event has taken its toll on irrigation systems. In many systems water froze and expanded inside pipes and sprinklers, causing cracks, leaks and ruptures. To see how well your system survived, here are some recommendations on what to inspect.
Damage to Backflow Prevention Assemblies
Above-ground backflow prevention assemblies (BPAs) are the most susceptible to damage from freezing. And unfortunately, they’re the most expensive part of the sprinkler system.
Do a careful check of your BPA and look for obvious signs of damage. You won’t have to look far if it’s ruptured and water is flooding the ground. Or you might find leaks resulting from broken ball valves or cracked bodies. Sometimes the BPA body gets warped, which prevents the internal parts from seating and working correctly. If you have a leak or rupture in your BPA, use the shutoff valve to turn off its water supply until it can be repaired or replaced.
A BPA installed below ground, such as a double check valve assembly, may have fared better, but check it out for external damage as well.
For an above-ground or below-ground BPA there might not be signs of external freeze damage. However, there could be internal damage, in which case the BPA won’t be providing any backflow protection. It’s extremely important that your BPA is working properly to prevent potable (drinking) water in the public water supply from becoming contaminated from any backflow of non-potable water from your sprinkler system. It should be checked out by a licensed irrigator or tester. If any repairs are made, it will have to be tested afterwards.
Water gets trapped in irrigation pipes in low spots. If the PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipes freeze, there’s no room for them to expand, and they crack or burst. Do a walk-through of your yard looking for wet, soggy patches. Those are an indication of broken pipes or fittings.
Irrigation pipes should be buried at least 10-12 inches deep so they’re insulated from the cold and below the usual frost level for the area. This also protects them from shovels while gardening, and lawn aerators which can penetrate the ground down to 6 inches. Also, PVC pipes can “float” up, especially if the soil gets saturated with water — the more dirt on top the more they stay at their original depth.
Freeze Damage to Sprinkler Heads
Sprinkler heads don’t always drain out properly, and when the water inside freezes and expands it can cause them to pop off and break. Sprinkler bodies can also crack down the side and break open. And, if the internal mechanism that allows the sprinkler to pop up freezes and cracks, the sprinkler will remain in the down position.
Check the Valves and Manifolds
Check the manifolds and valves in their below-ground box for any cracks or leaks. You may have to empty water from the valve box first.
Run the Irrigation System
Once you’ve done a visual inspection, run each zone manually to make sure everything’s working. You want to look for such things as:
- Sprinklers not popping up and retracting fully.
- Clogged nozzles.
- Sprinklers spraying in all directions.
- Rotor heads not rotating properly.
- Water bubbling up around sprinklers.
- Water filling up the valve box.
Hire a Licensed Irrigator
After you’ve checked your irrigation system, and repairs are needed, or if you want to be certain there’s no hidden freeze damage, hire a licensed irrigator to do an inspection and any needed repairs. Make sure you’re getting a legitimate irrigator, as scammers have been trying to take advantage of people after the storm. You can protect yourself by doing the following:
- Choose an irrigation contractor with an established physical address.
- Ask to see a current license and/or check for the irrigator’s license on the TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) site. Irrigation contractors must be licensed by the state of Texas and registered with the city of Austin.
- Check out the contractor online for reviews from past customers.
Smart Earth Sprinklers is a licensed, established, and experienced irrigator serving Austin and the surrounding areas. Call us at 512-694-1147 for your sprinkler system inspection, repair, and maintenance needs.