Installing a Pressure or Flow Switch to Protect your Irrigation System

Almost any major maintenance problem in an irrigation system will cause a unusual pressure level or flow level in your irrigation system.  Therefore pressure and/or flow monitoring is a good way to detect problems.  Most of the time the response to a abnormal pressure or flow level would be to shut down the system, or possibly to shut down the current valve zone  and try another one.  Irrigation systems are typically shut down using what is called a master valve.  A master valve is a single valve located at the water source that can shut off all the flow of water into the irrigation system.  For more details see my article on master valves. On systems with a pump you will probably want to shut off the pump.  Sometimes, as with booster pumps, you will need to both shut down the pump and close a master valve.

So what problems might an abnormal pressure or flow indicate? A very low pressure may indicate that perhaps the pump is broken (if you have a pump), an intake screen is clogged, a filter is dirty, a valve failed to open, or a pipe has broken.  Abnormally high pressure could be the result of  a valve not opening when it should, a dirty filter (if the pressure is measured upstream of the filter rather than downstream) or some obstruction in the pipes.  Low flow could indicate a valve failed to open, a filter is dirty, or that a pump isn’t working as it should.  High flow could indicate a broken pipe, a broken sprinkler, or a valve that is stuck open.   In most cases monitoring either flow or pressure is sufficient as opposed to monitoring both.


How to Monitor Your Irrigation System

There are a number of different ways to detect and respond to abnormal pressure or flows.  Following are a few or these.  If you would like to suggest other methods, please contact me.  I realize this is not an exhaustive list.

The image below shows the Hunter Pro-C Modular 4 Station Indoor Controller which makes automating your irrigation easy and user-friendly.

An image of the Hunter Pro-C Modular 4 Station Indoor Controller

If you need to irrigate a larger property, or require more specialty zones, check out the Hunter PCC 12 Station Indoor Controller.

Use a Smart Irrigation Controller that has a Sensor Input and Response Feature:
This is probably the easiest way to add pressure detection and response.   It is also what I consider to be the preferred method, as it is reliable and gives you the most control.  Some high-end irrigation controllers can use an electronic sensor hooked up to the mainline pipe to monitor the water in the irrigation system. Some of these controllers use flow sensors, some use pressure sensors, some can use both types.   These controllers with advanced features are typically sold as Smart Controllers and are expensive compared to ones typically found on a residential irrigation system.  Prices for these controllers typically start around $300.00 and go up into the thousands for ones that handle dozens of stations.  Some controllers can increase the number of zones with an irrigation controller expansion module. But then you get a lot more with them too.  They are sold through professional irrigation supply stores, both online and locally.

WARNING: Be sure the controller will do exactly what you want BEFORE you purchase it!  Not all controllers marketed as “Smart Controllers” have these sensor input features, many only work with specific types or even models of sensors, and some controllers may not provide the response options you want or need.  You need to research the controller carefully.  Don’t rely on a simple check list of features!  “Sensor input” can mean almost anything, you need details!  I have seen controller feature lists where the unit sounded fantastic and ultra flexible, only to discover after closer examination that the actual response features don’t do what I need or want.   Read the actual owner’s manual (most controller manufacturer’s have them available on their websites) to see what the true capability of the controller is.  Read the sections of the manual on how to hook up the sensor, then there will also be a separate section on how to program the sensor you should look through.  Some controllers allow for time delayed responses, some don’t.  If you have a pump you will almost always need a time delay feature to bypass the sensor when the pump is starting up.  Even those controllers that do allow you to add delay times may not allow as much or little time as you need.  It is critical that you do as much research as possible before you go to the expense and effort of purchasing, installing and programming the controller.

For example, I have a Rainmaster Eagle Smart Controller on my own irrigation system, as well as using it on the majority of the commercial systems I design.  This particular Smart Controller has flow sensing capabilities, but it does not have built-in pressure sensing capability.  It does have a delayed response allowing delays of 1-6 minutes, but only in one minute intervals.  It will also allow the use of one additional simple on/off type sensor (most controllers have a circuit for this type of very simple sensors.  A simple rain switch is an example of this type of sensor.)    It has an audible “chirp” alarm that alerts you that a sensor response has been activated.  While this particular controller meets my needs, it certainly will not meet everyone’s.  Almost every major irrigation company makes a Smart Controller, and each has different features and capabilities.  Be sure you are using up-to-date resources when checking out models.  Smart Controller models are introduced each year, and often the capabilities of existing models change from year to year, so it is hard to keep up with them.

When using a controller with a pressure and/or flow sensor you start by installing the actual sensor on  the mainline pipe.  The method varies with the brand and model of sensor, most are pretty easily installed.  The sensor is wired to a special terminal on the irrigation controller.  Typically the wire used must be a special shielded communications cable, rather than standard irrigation valve wire.  Consider installing communications cable in PVC conduit to protect it, as it is very sensitive to even the smallest nicks from shovels, animals digging it up, or rodents chewing on it.  Most pressure sensors work by sending a reading of the current pressure to the controller every few seconds.  A typical flow sensor has a small paddle that turns as the water flows through the pipe.  Flow sensors normally send a signal based on the amount of flow, for example they might send a signal each time 5 gallons of water has flowed past the sensor.  The controller then interprets that data from the sensor and responds.   In most cases you will pre-decide what the response will be when you set up the controller.  For example; if you have a system with a pump, you could program the controller to shut down the irrigation system if the pressure was below 10 PSI for more then 2 minutes during the set irrigation period.  The 2 minute qualifier (delay) for shut down would allow the pump time to pressurize the system during start up and also avoid “false alarms” caused by brief dips in pressure.

Using a Simple Pressure Switch with a Pump Operated System:
This method is for those with pumps.  What I am describing here is for emergency shut off only.  I’m assuming you already have something set up to turn on or off the pump during normal irrigation operation.  That might be a standard pressure tank with a pressure switch to control it.  Or you may be using the pump start feature on the irrigation controller to actually start and stop the pump using a 120v relay.  The new pressure switch we are talking installing in this case is used only to detect pressures that indicate a problem and turn off the pump.  So if all is hooked up properly, in the event of blockage or no water going into the irrigation system the pressure will drop and the new pressure switch will shut the pump off.

This method requires that your irrigation system is leak free and can hold pressure for days between irrigations.  If the system is not leak free see #4 below.

1. Make sure you have a really good quality spring-loaded check valve on the irrigation mainline pipe.  The check valve goes someplace after the pump, but before the pressure switch.  A good quality check valve is needed to keep the water from leaking backwards out of the system through the pump.  Typically the self-priming feature of the pump is not good enough by itself to do this, you need a separate check valve.

2. You will need to use a pressure switch that works backwards from normal ones used for household water systems, since you want the switch to shut off the pump at low pressure (standard switches used on household water systems turn on the pump at low pressure.)  Some switches can be wired to work either way, others can’t.  Keep in mind that the low end on many common pressure switches in around 25-30 PSI.  That might be a bit higher than you want for a low end shut off, especially if your system will be operating at less than 45 PSI.  You don’t want accidental “false” shut offs since the only way to get the system back on will be to manually start the pump and hold it on until the pressure is back above the shut-off level.

3. There a problem to be dealt with.  The problem is that valves close slowly, taking as much as a minute or two to close after the controller tells them to.  At the end of the last irrigation cycle a typical controller closes the last valve and immediately shuts off the pump.  But it takes the valve several seconds up to a minute or two to actually close.  During this closing period the system will depressurize.  With no pressure in the system the pump will not restart for the next irrigation cycle, because the low pressure shut-off switch is detecting low pressure and shutting off the power to the pump.  There are two ways to deal with this.

A. You can fool the controller into keeping the pump running after the last valve circuit has finished watering.  Your controller needs to have the capacity for one extra valve on it to do this, so if you have 10 valves you will need a controller with 11 stations.  The last station on your controller needs to not have a valve attached to it.  Program 1 minute of time on that last station.  Now the controller thinks it is operating one last valve, so it keeps the pump running.   That will keep the system pressurized while the final valve closes.  If one minute is not enough time for the final valve to close then add another minute of run time to that last empty station.

B. Some controllers have a built in delay feature that keeps the pump running after the last valve closes.  This feature keeps the pump start circuit energized, which keeps the pump running for a minute or two after the last valve is signaled to close.  This gives the valve time to close before the pump is shut off.   Some less expensive controllers have this feature.  But typically only high-end controllers have this feature, so this method isn’t very practical.  If you are going to buy an expensive controller you might as well forget about using a pressure switch and use a Smart Controller and a sensor to shut the system down, as described in the first section of this article.

4. Often a small leak will cause the system to depressurize between irrigation runs.  This can be a major problem.  The pump will not start if the pressure is low, the low pressure switch is going to shut off the power to it.

If the leak is very small you can install a pressure tank, just like on a typical house water system.  Assuming a small leak, the tank keeps the system pressurized.  But that only works with a very small leak and it can take a huge pressure tank to supply enough water to keep the system pressurized.   If your system has a larger leak you will need to find and repair the leak.  If you can’t get the system leak free, you will need to take a different approach, as described below.

You can use a timer to over-ride the low pressure switch, and allow the system to start even with no pressure.  You will need a “Time Delay Relay”.  The time delay relay needs to be the type that allows the power to flow when energized, then shuts it off after a minute or two of delay.  It needs to have an automatic reset.  You then install the relay on a bypass wire around the low pressure switch.  That way the pump can start even when the pressure switch is “off” due to low pressure.  You will need to work with someone knowledgeable when ordering the time delay relay to be sure you get the correct relay, as they make many different kinds.

Using a Pump Controller with a Sensor:
This is essentially the same method as the Smart Controller method I described earlier.  Only the “smarts” are in the pump controller rather than in the irrigation controller.  Some of the newer digital pump controllers (don’t get confused here, we’re talking about a separate pump controller, not the sprinkler controller) are programmable, they are simply a small computer that operates a relay that starts and stops the pump.  You hook them up to a pressure sensor, also to the irrigation controller, and to any other sensor you want (wind, rain, temperature, light, flow, you name it.)  Then you can program them to do just about anything using that information input.  They can turn off the pump if a low pressure occurs for more than x number of seconds, turn off the pump if a high pressure occurs for x number of seconds, turn on the pump at a given time of day, etc.  Pretty much any input you want can cause the pump to turn on or off.  The capability depends on the brand and model of the pump controller. The downside is it takes electronics know-how to set the thing up and someone tech savvy to program it.  Typically you hook up a laptop to the pump controller to program in the logic, then once it is programmed it runs by itself.  The laptop just gives you an interface that is easier to work with.  I really can’t give you much more details beyond that, this type of pump control is beyond my expertise, I just have seen pump system experts use them to do amazing things.