The right tools make the job a whole lot easier and are worth investing in! Twenty or even forty bucks for a good tool is a lot cheaper than 3 weeks laid up in bed with a pulled muscle. Most tools last a long time. Also consider renting or borrowing tools if you are on a budget.
The tools required to install an irrigation system are pretty basic; a shovel, hacksaw, wire cutter, a couple of wrenches, and a knife will get the job done in most cases. But a few special tools make the work much easier and faster to perform. Here is a list of the tools commonly used by professionals.
Specialty Tools You Really Need:
Mattock: If you were to only buy one specialty tool this should be the one! By far the handiest tool for putting in irrigation systems! A mattock is a cross between a pick and a shovel. It has a narrow blade like a trenching shovel but you swing it like a pick. I use a combination mattock/pick for digging short trenches and removing rocks. It has a mattock blade on one side and a pick on the other. A railroad pick is similar to a mattock/pick, but the blade is narrower than a standard mattock. A mattock digs trenches twice as fast and twice as easy as a shovel. A mattock with a longer handle is much less tiring to use than a short handle model.
Trenching Shovel/Spade: This shovel is very similar to the Round Point shovel only it is narrow – usually only 3 or 4 inches wide so it can fit in narrow trenches. Most trencher machines create a 4″ wide trench so if you buy just one I suggest a 4″. (I have both 3″ & 4″ shovels, I use my 4″ shovel about 95% of the time.) A trenching shovel is used to remove loose dirt from the bottom of trenches dug by a machine or for digging trenches in soft soil. Remember you’re going to be using it in a deep trench, so get one with a long handle, not one of the short “D” handle versions. If you use a short handle version your back is going to really hurt the next day!
PVC Pipe Cutter: This is a handy cutting tool used for cutting PVC pipe and poly hose. It looks something like a pair of garden shears. It works much faster and easier than a saw, and results in a square cut with little or no burrs. A real time-saver and when used properly it will probably save you hundreds of dollars in future repairs from leaks caused by crooked cuts and burrs which can ruin a glue joint. Proper technique is essential when using a pipe cutter! Follow the instructions that come with it and make several practice cuts to get the hang of it. Using the cutter wrong can result in hairline cracks in the pipe which will not be noticed until it is too late and you have a leak. Use it to slice through the pipe with very little pressure. Very lightly squeeze the handles and rotate the cutter around the pipe. As you rotate the cutter the razor sharp blade will smoothly and cleanly slice through the pipe without leaving ridges or burrs. Do not “chop” the pipe by powering through it with a hard squeeze of the handles! Light pressure only!! If the pipe deforms at all while you’re cutting it you are squeezing too hard and doing it wrong! Let the sharp blade do the work.
Tools That are Helpful You May or May Not Need:
Tamper Bar, Pry Bar, Digging Bar: These closely related tools all consist of a heavy steel bar about five feet long. A tamper bar has a head on it similar to a huge nail head which is used to compact soil. A pry Bar has a point on the end and is great for loosening rocks. A digging bar has a wide, flattened point similar to a large chisel. Most bars are a combination of a Pry bar on one end with a Tamper or Digger on the other.
Riser Extractor: Hopefully you won’t need this! Sometimes a piece of threaded pipe will break off right at the point where it is screwed into a fitting. The result is that there is not enough pipe extending out of the fitting to grab with pliers or a wrench. A pipe extractor has a toothed probe that you insert into the open end of the broken-off pipe. The teeth bite into the pipe allowing you to twist it out. Riser extractors come in 1/2″ and 3/4″ sizes, you must use the correct size. An indispensable tool to have when you need it.
Landscape Rake: A landscape rake is a wide rake, 24″ to 48″ wide, usually made of aluminum, with teeth on one side of the rake head and a flat surface on the other. It is used for shaping the ground prior to planting and removal of small rocks. Generally not needed for irrigation installation, but if you have one they speed up the work of leveling off trenches after they are backfilled. A landscape rake is essential if you are doing landscape that involves leveling or creating smooth contours. I use a 36″ rake. This is an expensive item that if not used regularly may be better to rent.
Trencher Machine: Unless you’re planning to install irrigation systems for a living I wouldn’t suggest running out and buying a trencher. You can rent one from most rental yards. When you do, get the newest, biggest, meanest, most powerful one available (but make sure it will fit through your gate if you’re working in a fenced yard!). Rider type trenchers are the best, but few rental outlets have them. Operating the typical, dull-bladed, on it’s last legs, walk-behind-style rental trencher is a bone-shaking, tough job (actually walk-behind is not the right term, you walk backwards in FRONT of a trencher, so don’t fall down!) You will feel like you have wrestled a bear when you are done. Have lots of aspirin and sore muscle lotion on hand.
Tip: In many areas there are companies that will dig the trenches for you. Where I live you can actually hire someone to dig the trenches for you for less than the cost of renting a trencher! Look into it. If you can’t find a trenching company in the phone book ask a local sprinkler supply store. Most will be able to recommend someone who would be more than happy to bust their back for you! Sit back, grab a glass of iced tea, and watch them make it look easy!
Tools You Probably Will Need But May Have Already:
Round Point Blade Spade or Shovel: Almost everyone has one of these. You’ll use it to dig larger holes needed for valves, multiple pipes, etc.
Square Point Blade Shovel: Handy for back-filling trenches and for scraping mud off of sidewalks.
Broom: Everyone knows what one is and what to use it for.
Work Gloves: A pair of heavy gloves is essential to prevent blisters. If this is a weekend job you’re likely going to have enough aches the next day, don’t add blisters to the list.
Disposable Gloves: Disposable gloves can help keep PVC cement off your hands when assembling pipe. You will need several pairs. When you get glue on a pair they will stay attached to the next pipe you touch! By the way, acetone will remove PVC cement from your hands, clothes, car seat, or some carpet.
Pipe Wrench: If you’re using any steel or brass pipe you will need a couple of pipe wrenches to assemble it. Do not use wrenches or pliers on PVC fittings, hand tighten them only!
Measuring Tape: A measuring tape is needed to lay out the irrigation system. A 25′ tape works well for most residential systems.
Hack Saw: Used to cut metal pipe and PVC pipe. In tight places you can use just a hack saw blade. Wrap half the blade with duct tape to make a handle. I’ve been known to use a bent hacksaw blade to reach into tight places that I can’t even get my hand into.
Wirecutter Striper: Needed for cutting and stripping insulation off the control wires.
Screw Drivers: A full set of various sizes of flat blade and Phillips screwdrivers for all the various size screws on the irrigation equipment.
Sledge Hammer: A long-handle 10 lb. sledge hammer is useful for breaking chunks of concrete and rocks. Wear safety glasses! A sledge hammer also makes a great tamper to compact soil in trenches.
Garden Hose: Water is the best tool for settling soil around the pipe in trenches. You can also use water from a hose to bore under sidewalks and driveways. You’ll need a long enough hose to reach anywhere you are digging a trench. Tip: If you’re installing an irrigation system to get rid of long hoses, it doesn’t make sense to buy a lot of hose just for the installation work. Many rental yards will rent you a hose, or borrow them from your neighbors!
Hose Sweeper Nozzle: This non-adjustable type hose nozzle is used as a boring tool . Attach the nozzle to one end of a length of PVC pipe and a garden hose to the other. Turn on the water and use the concentrated water stream from the nozzle to bore a hole under sidewalks, driveways, or large tree roots. You will need a length of 3/4″ PVC pipe as well as the following two items for each bore you make.
3/4″ PVC pipe to Male Hose Thread Adapter: You need this to attach the sweeper nozzle above to the pipe to make a boring tool. You glue it onto the pipe so this is a use it once item. You will need a new one for each additional bore you do.
3/4″ PVC pipe to Female Garden Hose Adapter: You need this to attach the garden hose to the 3/4″ pvc pipe to make a boring tool. You glue it onto the PVC pipe so this is a use it once then cut it off and trash it item. You will need a new one for each additional bore you do.
This article is part of the Sprinkler Irrigation Installation Tutorial Series
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