Why Leaks in Your Sprinkler System are More Expensive Than You Might Think

Sprinkler system being repaired by mature man with irrigation pa

Most people know that that sprinkler system leaks cost them money but may not realize just how expensive they really are.

Leaks can have a big impact your budget, especially at this time of year — when wastewater averaging is done.

What is Wastewater Averaging?

Many Texas cities, including Austin, use wastewater averaging to determine your monthly wastewater volume charges for the next year. The averaging is done from mid-November to mid-March, when outdoor watering is reduced. This time period makes it easier to estimate the amount of water going directly into the sanitary sewer system as opposed to irrigating the landscape.

If your irrigation system is leaking, your wastewater average will be higher, increasing your water bill for the next year. Even if you spot the leak and have it fixed before the wastewater averaging period is over, you will still have raised your water costs for the many months ahead. That’s why it’s important to maintain your irrigation system, and have it inspected in the fall to catch any leaks that will inflate future water bills.

Winterizing Your System to Prevent Leaks

It’s essential to properly winterize your system to prevent leaks and costly repairs due to freeze damage. We do recommend irrigating your lawn once or twice a month over the winter to encourage healthy root growth in the spring, and to prevent expensive system problems due to nonuse. To keep your system safe while running in the cold weather, make sure you insulate your backflow prevention assembly, and any above-ground pipes and valves. If your isolation valve is outside, it needs to be buried beneath the frost line, or wrapped in insulation. We’d be glad to help you winterize your system, as well as show you what to do during a hard freeze.

Troubleshooting Irrigation Leaks

Some leaks are obvious and easy to fix, and others are more difficult to locate. For example, you may only be alerted to a problem if your water bill has spiked from the previous month. If you’re a handyperson, perhaps you’ll want to troubleshoot and repair any leaks yourself, but if you don’t have the expertise it’s better to hire a professional.

Types of Leaks

Sprinkler Head Leaks

Water geysers or high water spouts occur when sprinkler heads are cracked, broken, or missing altogether. This happens when the heads are set too high, and vehicles and lawn mowers run over them. These broken heads should be replaced with the same brand and model as others in the zone.

Spurts or pools of water at the base of the sprinkler’s extended riser when the system is running indicate the seal needs to be replaced.

If the leak around a sprinkler head appears to start underground, it needs to be investigated by digging a hole around it down to the lateral line and riser. One of the fittings attaching the sprinkler head to the riser or supply line could be broken, or the supply pipe itself could be cracked. Sometimes just the threaded connection at the bottom of the sprinkler head needs to be tightened. A cracked sprinkler head will have to be replaced.

When is a Sprinkler Leak Not a Sprinkler Leak?

Your sprinklers may not be the problem if water is pooling due to saturated clay soil, or other drainage issues on your property. As well, check the settings on your controller to make sure the watering schedule and run times are appropriate, and you’re not overwatering your lawn.

Low head drainage is often mistaken for leaking sprinklers, and occurs when water flows from sprinklers at the lowest elevation after the system shuts off. It can happen with an elevation change of less than a foot. The runoff stops after the pipes are fully drained, and is replaced with air. If your sprinklers spit and hiss when the valve is turned on, you have low head drainage, not a leak.

Installing check valves, or replacing the sprinkler heads with new ones that have check valves, will prevent water from draining out of the pipes through the lowest elevation heads. These valves work by closing and holding water in the pipes when the irrigation system is off.

Valve Leaks

Excessive, nonstop pooling around a sprinkler head when the system is off could be caused by a station valve not shutting off properly. Other sprinklers in the same zone could also be leaking.

The most common reason a station valve leaks is because there’s debris obstructing the diaphragm that keeps it from closing. Other reasons include a torn or damaged diaphragm, and debris in the solenoid. 

If the diaphragm is torn or damaged, either replace it with one from a repair valve kit, or replace the valve. You can also replace the solenoid if the plunger remains stuck, and won’t move up and down freely.

Sometimes a valve ruptures or cracks, spraying water from the valve body and filling the valve box with water. This can happen if valves aren’t protected from freezing temperatures in the winter, or due to wear and tear.

Pipe Leaks

Signs you have a pipe leak include:

  • Water bubbling up from the ground between sprinkler heads when the system is on.
  • Flooded areas between sprinklers.
  • Very soft or wet areas.
  • Ground depressions.
  • Sprinkler heads not popping up all the way, and barely spraying or shooting water.
  • Sprinkler line spraying dirty water.
  • Mushrooms growing in a specific patch.
  • Water meter running when the system is off and no water is being used in the home.

Pipe breaks can occur in the main (constant pressure) line leading from the backflow prevention assembly to the individual zone valves, or in the lateral lines that feed the zones of the sprinkler system. A zone lateral line won’t leak and is not under pressure until the controller activates it. A leak in the main line, however, will flow 24/7, even if the system is off.

Locating and repairing leaks in the main and lateral lines should be done by an irrigation professional. Finding a pipe break can be very difficult, and if you’re not an expert, dirt, rocks and other contaminants could get into the lines during a repair, and clog or damage sprinkler heads and other parts of the system downstream.

Call the experienced pros at Smart Earth Sprinklers at (512) 694-1147 or contact us online for inspection and repair of your sprinkler system.

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