Tag Archives: valves

Review: Superior Model 3200 & 3300 Automatic Master Valves

The Superior model 3200 & 3300 series master valves are solid-brass, electric 3-way solenoid, MASTER VALVES.   These valves are designed to be extremely sturdy and to open and close reliably under extreme conditions.  The 3-way solenoid design allows these valves to open and close with zero flow through the valve.  While designed for the demanding task of being a master valve, these valves are often used for other purposes where a high quality, reliable valve is needed, especially in unique situations.  These master valves are available as normally-closed (3200 series) and normally-open (3300 series) configurations.

Superior 3200 Series Brass Master Valve
Superior 3200 Series Brass Master Valve

Basic Background on Master Valves:

What is a Master Valve?  Master valves (aka: main valve, primary valve) are utilized on irrigation systems to turn on/off the entire water supply to the irrigation system.  They are often used as an automated emergency shut-off valve working in conjunction with a controller unit that utilizes flow and/or pressure sensors to detect problems in the irrigation system.  When a problem is detected by the control unit the master valve is closed, shutting off the water supply to the entire irrigation system.  This reduces any further damage and/or water waste until the problem can be fixed.  For larger irrigation systems the irrigation maybe divided into multiple sections with a separate master valve for each section.    A master valve is typically installed as close as possible to the irrigation water source.

In addition to being used as an emergency shut-off, master valves are being increasingly use as a secondary fail-safe, shut off valve,  to prevent wasted water if one of the zone valves should leak.  When used as a fail-safe the master valve is closed any time the irrigation system is off, thus shutting off and depressurizing the entire irrigation system.

Why not use a normal solenoid valve as a master valve?  While any automatic valve could be used as a master valve, in most situations where master valves are used a higher level of quality, as well as special features that help the valve to operate more  reliably, are desirable.

This is a rather brief description of master valves.  For more details and a list of the pros and cons of master valve use, see the article on Master Valves.

Normally-Closed valves open when the solenoid is energized.   Most automatic irrigation valves are normally-closed, like the 3200 series.   When power is applied to the solenoid, a normally closed valve will open.   The valve closes when the power to it’s solenoid is cut off.  Normally-closed is the industry standard, so if a valve description doesn’t say which type it is, it is usually safe to assume it is the normally-closed type.  An advantage of normally-closed valves used as master valves is that they close when there is no power, ie: a power failure, or if the wires to the valve are cut or broken.  The normally-closed valve will shut-off the water supply in any of those situations.

Normally open valves close when the solenoid is energized.  If there is no power applied to the solenoid a normally open valve will open and remain open until power is applied.  Sometimes you need a  valve that closes when power is supplied to it.  A normally-open valve fills that niche need.

3-Way Solenoid or “No Minimum Flow” feature.  The 3-way solenoid on this valve allows it to vent the water in the diaphragm chamber to the atmosphere.  In laymen’s language that means that each time the valve opens or closes it spits a few tablespoons or so of water out of the back of the valve onto the ground.   Without getting technical, what this does is to allow the valve to open and close at a very wide range of flow, thus the “No Minimum Flow” claim.  For example Superior makes two more or less identical normally-closed master valves.  The 3000 series without the 3-way solenoid has a flow range of 5-320 GPM.  The 3200 with the 3-way solenoid has a flow range of 0-360 GPM.   This wider flow range, especially the No Minimum Flow, is an important feature for a master valve that is going to be used as an emergency shut off.  For example, let’s say we have an irrigation system, all the valves are off, but one of the pipes has sprung a leak and is dripping one gallon of water an hour.  A normal solenoid valve would not be able to close and stop the leak, because normal valves can’t close if there is less than 5 GPM of flow.   However a master valve with a 3-way solenoid will be able to close, and will stop the leak.

Drainage needed.  With a 3-way valve the designer needs to make a provision for the small amount of water that will spit from the valve each time it opens or closes.   In most cases the  valve is installed over a small pit with a few inches of gravel in it to absorb the discharged water.  If installed over a non-absorbent surface like concrete,  a drain needs to be provided for the water.

Superior 3200 Spitting Water From 3-Way Solenoid Outlet
Superior 3200 Spitting Water From Outlet Below 3-Way Solenoid

Not just for use as a master valves.  These valves are suitable for use in almost any situation where a high reliability valve is needed.  While it is called a “master valve” the usage does not need  to be limited to master valves, they could be used as zone valves for a sprinkler system for example.  A common use for normally-open valves like the 3300 is in automating the flush cycle of filters where they are used to redirect the water flow into the flush channel during the flush cycle.

RW Option:

The 3200 & 3300 series valves also are available with a “RW” option for use on recycled water systems.  The RW option adds a purple cross handle on top of the valves to indicate the use of recycled water.

Features of the Superior 3200 & 3300:

  • ¾”,  1″,  1½”,  2″,  2½”, and 3″ sizes
  • The 3200 series is a normally-closed design. This means the valve opens when power is supplied to the solenoid.
  • The 3300 series is a normally-open design.  This means the valve closes when power is supplied to the solenoid.
  • No Minimum Flow allows operation at no flow (3-way solenoid.)
  • Flow rates 0-360 GPM depending on valve size (see charts on the Superior website.*)
  • Rated for 20 – 150 PSI operating pressure.
  • Solid Brass body and cap.  (Plastic plate for the No Minimum Flow feature located between body and cap.)
  • Solenoid can be removed from the valve without cutting the wires.  (Makes maintenance easier.)  However you do need to disconnect the copper tube from the top of the solenoid to remove it on these models.
  • Slow closing.
  • Flow control with a brass cross-style handle.
  • EPDM rubber for long life.
  • Various solenoid voltages and wattages available, as well as latching solenoids.
  • Optional with British Standard Pipe Threads on inlet/outlet.
  • Separate rubber valve seat washer and diaphragm.
  • Optional purple recycled water handle.

* While this valve will work at close to no flow, like all solenoid valves it should be the proper size based on the normal flow expected through the valve.  Always base the valve size on the expected flow.  Do not select valves based on the pipe size!  It is very common for the valve to need to be a different  size than the pipe.

Review:

The Superior Valve is one of those products that years of use has shown to be a reliable, rock solid product.  For this review the test valve was a 1″ size sample of the Superior 3200 normally-closed master valve.  The normally open 3300 version of the same valve was not tested however it would be expected to perform similar.  The 3200 was installed on the test stand and operated at both 30 PSI and 110 PSI inlet pressures, as well as various flow rates.  The valve was tested with the manual flow control stem fully open and then tested again with it throttled to a partially closed position.

Results:  The 3200 normally-closed master valve opened smoothly and quickly at all tested flows and pressures when the solenoid was energized.  It also opened smoothly when using the manual bleed screw.  Note that when opened and closed manually using the bleed screw the 3-way solenoid is bypassed.

When the solenoid was de-energized (power turned off) the valve closed as it should at all tested pressures and flow rates.

To test the no minimum flow feature the valve was tested while operating a single 1 gallon per hour drip emitter at 30 & 100 PSI with the flow control in the full open position.   It took the valve a couple of minutes but it did completely close when the power to the solenoid was turned off.   While use of the manual bleed screw bypasses the “no minimum flow” feature, out of curiosity this same test was repeated using the manual bleed and the valve still closed at the 1 GPH flow!

Summary: These test results are about as close to perfect as is possible for any valve.

While not tested, the 3300 series normally-open valve would be expected to perform similar to the 3200.

The Superior 3200 & 3300 valves have a separate rubber seat washer that is not part of the valve diaphragm.  With most valve brands the seat washer and diaphragm are a single rubber piece, thus if the seat becomes worn you must replace the entire diaphragm/seat assembly.  The concentrated flow of water over the seat washer in a solenoid valve creates a lot of wear on the seat washer and the seat washers typically fail long before the diaphragm does.  This valve’s separate seat and diaphragm design means if the seat washer becomes pitted you can simply replace the separate rubber seat washer without the need to also replace the diaphragm.  In fact, the seat washer is reversible, so unless it is really pitted  badly you can just flip it over and reuse it without replacing it at all!

One last note on Superior valves… they have really great fully illustrated repair and  troubleshooting guides available on the Superior Valve Website.  That is the kind of “after the sale care” that explains why many professional groundskeepers are loyal customers.

Superior 3200 on the test stand.
Superior 3200 on the test stand.

About Superior Controls

Superior Controls is one of the original automated irrigation companies, and one of the first manufacturers of electronic solenoid valves for irrigation use.  They have been producing high quality brass solenoid valves for many, many years.  They also manufacture Irrigation Controllers for operating the valves.  Superior Controls merged with Buckner Company (another of the pioneer sprinkler manufacturing companies that specializes in brass products) in 2000 and both were acquired by Storm Manufacturing Group in 2006.

Review: Superior Model 1000 Automatic Globe Valve

The Superior model 1000 series are solid brass electric solenoid valves, designed for turning on/off water, and primarily used for operation control of irrigation sprinkler zones.  These are extreme quality valves and are especially useful for high pressure situations due to their 200 PSI pressure rating (that is very high!)

Superior 1000 Series Irrigation Valve for Recycled Water
Superior 1000 Series Irrigation Valve for Recycled Water

The Superior 1000 series  is designed for use with recycled water.  and features an internal dirty water filter screen, manual on/off lever (because a bleed screw is not a good idea with recycled water) and chemical resistant components to withstand the aggressive chemicals used in the treatment of some recycled water.

Features:

  • 3/4″,  1″,  1 1/4″,  1 1/2″,  2″,  2 1/2″, and 3″ sizes
  • Flow range 5-320 GPM depending on valve size (see charts on Superior website.*)
  • Rated for 20 – 200 PSI
  • Solid Brass Cap and Body
  • Internal self-flushing filter to protect the tiny solenoid passages (ports) from clogging.
  • Manual on/off lever with internal bleed (no water drains from the valve to the ground during manual operation.)
  • No bleed screw (bleed screws are not permitted on most recycled water systems.)
  • Purple flow control handle to identify recycled water usage.
  • Solenoid can be removed from the valve without cutting the wires.  (Makes maintenance easier.)
  • Chemical resistant diaphragm for recycled water.
  • Slow closing.
  • Flow control.
  • Various solenoid voltages and wattages available, as well as latching solenoids.
  • Optional with British Standard Pipe Threads on inlet/outlet.
  • Separate rubber valve seat washer and diaphragm.

* All solenoid valves must be the proper size for the flow through the valve.  Always base the valve size on the expected flow.  Do not select valves based on the pipe size!  It is very common for the proper valve to need to be a different  size than the pipe.

Review:

This is a valve designed for use with recycled or reclaimed water systems.  The Superior 1000 series is built on the same basic valve parts used in the industry standard 950 valves, however the 1000 series has upgrades of materials and function to meet the needs of recycled water systems.  The basic 950 valve on which the Superior 1000 series is based has been reliably running irrigation systems for over 30 years.  Superior valves are reliable, rock solid products, and the 1000 series valve on the test stand performed beyond expectations.

Test Summary:  Excellent performance, the Superior 1000 valve performed well even when pushed far beyond the limits of the manufacturer’s specifications.

Test Results:  A 1″ size sample valve was operated on the test stand at 30 and 100 PSI incoming pressure and flows ranging from as low as 0.25 GPM.  Those are pressure/flow combinations that will cause most valves this size to fail to close.  The Superior 1000 valve shut off quickly at that extremely low flow, which is way below the valve’s rated minimum flow of 5 GPM.  In fact it performed better than the original workhorse 950 series valve that we also tested.   When the pressure and flow were increased to more typical levels the valve performed similarly well.  In other words the valve’s performance far exceeded the manufacturer’s own claims.

The manual on/off lever worked smoothly and easily without the use of tools or even much effort.  There is no external water bleed screw on this valve as that would violate regulations in many locations regarding the use of recycled water.  The purple handle on this valve is the universal color used to warn of recycled water being used.

A quick note on the “dirty water filter.”  Dirty water is a relative term, if there is visibly dirt in the water a separate filter should be used to remove it prior to reaching the valve.  Most dirty water valves are designed to handle a level of dirt greater than found in a typical drinking water supply, but not at the level that might be found in water pumped from a ditch or pond.  Organics in the water, like algae, are particularly hard on solenoid valves and should be filtered out using a filter designed for removing organics, such as a disc/disk type filter element.  See the filtration tutorial.

This valve has a separate rubber seat washer that is not part of the valve diaphragm.  With most valves the diaphragm and seat are a single rubber piece, thus if the seat becomes worn you must replace the entire diaphragm and they are not inexpensive.  The concentrated flow of water over the seat washer in valves creates a lot of wear on the seat washer and they typically fail long before the diaphragm does.  This valve’s separate seat/diaphragm design means if the seat washer becomes pitted you can simply replace just the rubber washer without the need to also replace the diaphragm.  In fact the seat washer is reversible, so unless it is really pitted  badly you can just flip it over and reuse it without replacing it at all!

One last note on Superior valves… they have really great fully illustrated repair and  troubleshooting guides on the Superior Valve Website.  That is the kind of after the sale care that is why so many professional groundskeepers are loyal customers.

Superior 1000 Valve on the Test Stand
Superior 1000 Valve on the Test Stand

About Superior Controls

Superior Controls is one of the original automated irrigation companies, and one of the first manufacturers of electronic solenoid valves for irrigation use.  They have been producing high quality brass solenoid valves for many, many years.  They also manufacture Irrigation Controllers for operating the valves.  Superior Controls merged with Buckner Company (another of the pioneer sprinkler manufacturing companies that specializes in brass products) in 2000 and both were acquired by Storm Manufacturing Group in 2006.

Review: Superior Model 3000 & 3100 Automatic Master Valves

The Superior model 3000 & 3100 series master valves are solid-brass, electric solenoid, MASTER VALVES.   These valves are designed to be extremely sturdy and to open and close reliably under extreme conditions.  While designed for the demanding task of being a master valve, these valves are often used for other purposes where a high quality, reliable valve is needed, especially in unique situations.  These master valves are available as normally-open (3100 series) or normally-closed (3000 series) configurations.

Superior 3100 Brass Master Valve - 1" size
Superior 3100 Brass Master Valve – 1″ size

Looking for a Master Valve?

It’s rather strange to start a review off by redirecting you to a different product, however if you are looking for a Superior brand master valve then the Superior 3200 or 3300 series should really be your first choice.  The reason why is that the 3200 & 3300 master valves open/close reliably at ANY flow.  It’s important for master valves to be able to shut down the system at any flow, no matter how high or low the flow may be.  However, the 3200 & 3300 also spit water out of the valve each time they open/close which is a problem in some situations.  In those situations the 3000 and 3100 valves reviewed here serve as the next best option.

Basic Background on Master Valves:

What is a Master Valve?  Master valves (aka: main valve, primary valve) are utilized on irrigation systems to turn on/off the entire water supply to the irrigation system.  They are often used as an automated emergency shut-off valve working in conjunction with a controller unit, and utilizing a flow and/or pressure sensors to detect problems.  When a problem is detected by the control unit the master valve is closed, shutting off the water to the entire irrigation system.  For larger irrigation systems the irrigation maybe divided into multiple sections with a separate master valve for each section.    A master valve is typically installed as close as possible to the irrigation water source.

In addition to being used as an emergency shut-off, master valves are being increasingly use as a secondary fail-safe, shut off valve,  to prevent wasted water if one of the zone valves should leak.  When used as a fail-safe the master valve is closed any time the irrigation system is off, thus shutting off and depressurizing the entire irrigation system.

Why not use a normal solenoid valve as a master valve?  While any automatic valve could be used as a master valve, in most situations where master valves are used a higher level of quality, as well as special features that help the valve to operate more  reliably, are desirable.

This is a rather brief description of master valves.  For more details and a list of the pros and cons of master valve use, see the article on Master Valves.

Normally-Closed valves open when the solenoid is energized.   Most automatic irrigation valves are normally-closed, like the 3000 series.   When power is applied to the solenoid, a normally closed valve will open.   The valve closes when the power to it’s solenoid is cut off.  Normally-closed is the industry standard, so if a valve description doesn’t say which type it is, it is usually safe to assume it is the normally-closed type.  An advantage of normally-closed valves used as master valves is that they close when there is no power, ie: a power failure, or if the wires to the valve are cut or broken.  The normally-closed valve will shut-off the water supply in any of those situations.

Normally open valves close when the solenoid is energized.  If there is no power applied to the solenoid a normally open valve will open and remain open until power is applied.  Sometimes you need a  valve that closes when power is supplied to it.  A normally-open valve fills that niche need.

Not just for use as a master valves.  These valves are suitable for use in almost any situation where a high reliability valve is needed.  While it is called a “master valve” the usage does not need  to be limited to master valves, they could be used as zone valves for a sprinkler system for example.  A common use for normally-open valves like the 3100 is in automating the flush cycle of filters where they are used to redirect the water flow into the flush channel during the flush cycle.

RW Option:

The 3000 & 3100 series valves also are available with a “RW” option for use on recycled water systems.  The RW option adds a purple cross handle on top of the valves to indicate the use of recycled water.

PRS Option:

The 3100 series valves are available with a optional “PRS” Pressure Regulating System (PRS.)  This add-on option turns the valves into pressure regulating valves that can reduce and maintain the downstream pressure at a set level.

A couple of warnings for those not familiar with how pressure regulating valves work:

  • A pressure regulator can’t increase the pressure above what is already present.  No pressure regulator can increase water pressure, you need a pump to do that.
  • As with all hydraulic-powered pressure regulators, the outlet pressure setting needs to be about 15 PSI lower than the input pressure in order for the regulating feature to work accurately.  If the pressure drop through the valve is less, then the downstream outlet pressure may vary up and down over a range of several PSI rather than stay steady at the set pressure.  Example: if the valve inlet pressure is 80 PSI then the valve outlet pressure has to be set to 65 PSI or less (80 – 15 = 65).

Features of the Superior 3000 & 3100:

  • 3/4″, 1″, 1 1/4″, 1 1/2″, 2″, 2 1/2″, and 3″ sizes
  • The 3000 series is a normally-closed design. This means the valve opens when power is supplied to the solenoid.
  • The 3100 series is a normally-open design.  This means the valve closes when power is supplied to the solenoid.
  • Flow rates 5-320 GPM depending on valve size (see charts on the Superior website.*)
  • Rated for 20 – 200 PSI operating pressure.
  • Solid Brass body and cap.
  • Solenoid can be removed from the valve without cutting the wires.  (Makes maintenance easier.)  However you do need to disconnect the copper tube from the top of the solenoid to remove it on these models.
  • Slow closing.
  • Flow control with a brass cross-style handle.
  • EPDM rubber for long life.
  • Various solenoid voltages and wattages available, as well as latching solenoids.
  • Optional with British Standard Pipe Threads on inlet/outlet.
  • Separate rubber valve seat washer and diaphragm.
  • Optional purple recycled water handle.
  • Optional Pressure regulation module (available on 3100 series only).

* All solenoid valves must be the proper size for the flow through the valve.  Always base the valve size on the expected flow.  Do not select valves based on the pipe size!  It is very common for the valve to need to be a different  size than the pipe.

Review:

The Superior Valve is one of those products that years of use has shown to be a reliable, rock solid product.  For this review the test valve was a 1″ size sample of the Superior 3100 normally-open valve.  The normally closed 3000 was not tested however it would be expected to perform similar.  The 3100 was installed on the test stand and operated at both 30 PSI and 110 PSI inlet pressures, as well as various flow rates.  The valve was tested with the manual flow control stem fully open and then tested again with it throttled to a partially closed position.

Test Summary: The Superior 3100 performed excellent in all tests.

Test Results:  The normally-open Superior valve opened as it should when the power to the solenoid was shut off (ie: this is a normally OPEN valve, it closes when power is applied to the solenoid.)  It opened quickly after the power was shut-off at all of the flow rates and pressures tested.

When the solenoid was energized the test valve closed as it should.  The manufacturer rates the minimum flow for this valve as 5 GPM, and the 1″ test valve closed at both 30 and 110 PSI with no need to throttle the flow control.  To see what would happen if the valve was pushed beyond it’s normal limits the valve was tested again at a flow of 1 GPM, far below the manufacturer’s recommended minimum flow.  The valve did not close at this low flow when the flow control was fully open, however with only a small amount of throttling of the flow control it did close.  This shows that the flow control feature on the 3100  allows this valve to be very adaptable to unexpected conditions where it is pushed beyond the norm.

The tested 3100 series valve is normally open so it does not have a bleed screw for manual operation (a bleed screw won’t work with a normal solenoid valve.)  To manually close the valve you simply turn the flow control handle on top of the valve until the flow is shut off, just like you would with a standard manual garden valve.

While not tested, the 3000 series normally-closed valve would be expected to perform similar to the 3100.  The 3000 series does have a manual bleed screw on it.  The optional RW and PRS features were not tested for this review.

The Superior 3000 & 3100 valves have a separate rubber seat washer that is not part of the valve diaphragm.  With most valve brands the seat washer and diaphragm are a single rubber piece, thus if the seat becomes worn you must replace the entire diaphragm/seat assembly.  The concentrated flow of water over the seat washer in a solenoid valve creates a lot of wear on the seat washer and the seat washers typically fail long before the diaphragm does.  This valve’s separate seat and diaphragm design means if the seat washer becomes pitted you can simply replace the separate rubber seat washer without the need to also replace the diaphragm.  In fact, the seat washer is reversible, so unless it is really pitted  badly you can just flip it over and reuse it without replacing it at all!

One last note on Superior valves… they have really great fully illustrated repair and  troubleshooting guides available on the Superior Valve Website.  That is the kind of “after the sale care” that explains why many professional groundskeepers are loyal customers.

Superior 3100 Valve on the Test Stand
Superior 3100 Valve on the Test Stand

About Superior Controls

Superior Controls is one of the original automated irrigation companies, and one of the first manufacturers of electronic solenoid valves for irrigation use.  They have been producing high quality brass solenoid valves for many, many years.  They also manufacture Irrigation Controllers for operating the valves.  Superior Controls merged with Buckner Company (another of the pioneer sprinkler manufacturing companies that specializes in brass products) in 2000 and both were acquired by Storm Manufacturing Group in 2006.

Review: Superior Model 950 & 950DW Automatic Globe Valves

The Superior model 950 series are solid brass electric solenoid valves, designed for turning on/off water, and primarily used for operation control of sprinkler or drip irrigation zones.  These are extremely high quality valves and are especially useful for high pressure situations due to their 200 PSI pressure rating (that is very high!)

 

Superior 950 Series Valve
Superior 950 Series Brass Valve

The valve also is available with a “DW” option that allows operation in dirty water situations.  (Dirty water is a relative term, if there is visibly dirt in the water a separate filter should be used to remove it.  Most dirty water valves are designed to handle a level of dirt greater than found in a typical drinking water supply, but not at the level that might be found in water pumped from a ditch or pond.  Organics in the water, like algae, are particularly hard on solenoid valves and should be filtered out using a filter designed for removing organics.  See the filtration tutorial.)

Superior 950-DW Series Brass Valve for Dirty Water
Superior 950-DW Series Brass Valve for Dirty Water

Features:

  • 3/4″, 1″, 1 1/4″, 1 1/2″, and 2″ sizes
  • Flow rates 5-140 GPM depending on valve size (see charts on Superior website.*)
  • Rated for 20 – 200 PSI
  • Solid Brass
  • Solenoid can be removed from the valve without cutting the wires.  (Makes maintenance easier.)
  • Slow closing.
  • Flow control.
  • Various solenoid voltages and wattages available, as well as latching solenoids.
  • Optional with British Standard Pipe Threads on inlet/outlet.
  • Separate rubber valve seat washer and diaphragm.

* All solenoid valves must be the proper size for the flow through the valve.  Always base the valve size on the expected flow.  Do not select valves based on the pipe size!  It is very common for the valve to need to be a different  size than the pipe.

950DW Dirty Water Model Adds:

  • Internal self-flushing filter to protect the tiny solenoid passages (ports) from clogging.

 

Review:

Some products are just going to be exactly what you expect.  The Superior Valve is one of those,  years of use has shown a reliable, rock solid product, and the valve on the test stand performed as expected.

Test Summary: The Superior 950 & 950DW performed excellent in all tests and performance far exceeded the manufacturer’s specifications.

Test Results:  A 1″ size sample 950 valve was operated on the test stand at 30 PSI incoming pressure and 1GPM flow with the flow control fully open.  A 950-DW valve was also tested at the same flow and pressure.  That is a pressure and flow combination that will cause most valves to fail to close.  The Superior valves both shut off at that extremely low flow, which is way below the rated minimum flow of 5 GPM listed by the manufacturer.   At that extreme low flow they took about twice as long as normal to close, which is to be expected.  When the pressure and flow were increased to more typical levels the valve closed at a speed typical of other valves.  In other words the valve’s performance far exceeded the manufacturer’s claims.

The only downside of this valve is that the manual on/off operation is activated by partially unscrewing an external bleed screw.  In the 100 PSI test the manual bleed screw jammed due to the high pressure on it and could not  be turned with fingers only.  However it easily turned when a screwdriver was used.  While the manual bleed screw works well, it does spit out water when it is opened (which is normal, it is how the manual on/off on all valves worked back in the early days of automatic irrigation systems.)   In most cases the spitting water is not at all a problem, it just falls harmlessly onto the ground.  However in some situations this water spitting may be annoying or a nuisance, for example a valve installed in a building or some other place where the water can’t just spit harmlessly onto the ground.   Note that the water only spits when the valve is manually operated, when used the normal way in automatic mode it does not spit water.  (If you want a very similar Superior valve that doesn’t spit water see the model 1000.)

This valve has a separate rubber seat washer that is not part of the valve diaphragm.  With most valves the diaphragm and seat are a single rubber piece, thus if the seat becomes worn you must replace the entire diaphragm and they are not inexpensive.  The concentrated flow of water over the seat washer in valves creates a lot of wear on the seat washer and they typically fail long before the diaphragm does.  This valve’s separate seat/diaphragm design means if the seat washer becomes pitted you can simply replace just the rubber washer without the need to also replace the diaphragm.  In fact the seat washer is reversible, so unless it is really pitted  badly you can just flip it over and reuse it without replacing it at all!

One last note on Superior valves… they have really great fully illustrated repair and  troubleshooting guides on the Superior Valve Website.  That is the kind of after the sale care that is why so many professional groundskeepers are loyal customers.

Superior 950 Series Valve on the Test Stand
Superior 950 Series Valve on the Test Stand

About Superior Controls

Superior Controls is one of the original automated irrigation companies, and one of the first manufacturers of electronic solenoid valves for irrigation use.  They have been producing high quality brass solenoid valves for many, many years.  They also manufacture Irrigation Controllers for operating the valves.  Superior Controls merged with Buckner Company (another of the pioneer sprinkler manufacturing companies that specializes in brass products) in 2000 and both were acquired by Storm Manufacturing Group in 2006.

 

Drip System Detail Drawings

Some sample drawings to assist you

A Typical Drip System using Anti-Siphon Valves

Miscellaneous Drip Irrigation Part Installation:

Drip Flush Valve

Hard Piped Emitter

Valve Installation & Wiring:

Automatic Control Valve with Filter and Pressure Regulator

Anti-Siphon Valve

Valve Wiring to Controller

Filter Installation:

Auto Flush Disk Filter

Backflow Preventer Installation:

This is a good method for installing a valve and backflow preventer on a trellis, arbor, or other elevated structure:
Atmospheric Vacuum Breaker Backflow Preventer

Pressure Vacuum Breaker Backflow Preventer

Reduced Pressure Backflow Preventer

Double Check Backflow Preventer

Drip Irrigation Valves

There are many different kinds of valves available. Most drip irrigation systems will need at least two different types; an emergency shut-off valve and a control valve.

Emergency Shut-Off Valve

An emergency shut-off valve should be installed at the closest point possible to your water source, that is, the location where you tap in for the irrigation system. Without this valve you will need to shut-off the water to the entire house if you have an irrigation breakdown and need to work on the mainline or irrigation valves. The most commonly used valves for this purpose are “gate valves” because they are inexpensive. Unfortunately the cheap gate valves you’re likely to use also tend to wear out quickly and start leaking. While a gate valve will get you by, I recommend that you use a “ball valve”, “disk valve”, or “butterfly valve”. These may cost a bit more (prices are becoming more reasonable as ball valves slowly are replacing gate valves for plumbing.) Ball valves are the least expensive of these and are much more reliable and will last several times longer than a gate valve. So if you pay twice as much for a ball valve it’s probably still the best deal! If you do use a gate valve make sure that it is a good quality one. There’s nothing worse than trying to work on a irrigation system when you can’t shut off the water completely. For some very small drip systems an emergency shut-off valve is simply not cost effective. For example; a manually operated drip system where an existing faucet or hose bib is used to turn the system on and off.

Zone Control Valves

Zone Control valves are the valves that turn on and off the water to the drip tubes. Often these are automated valves that are turned on and off by a irrigation controller/timer. For a small drip system there may be only one zone control valve. Bigger systems may have several zone control valves, for example they may have one the turns on the water to the front yard, another for the side yard, one for the vegetable garden and a final one for the back yard. There are two basic styles of zone control valves to choose from. Take a look at the image below, descriptions follow.

Globe Valve, Anti-Siphon Valve
Standard Globe Valve on left, Anti-Siphon Valve on Right

Standard Globe Valve:

Glove valves are available in just about any size. They are often installed underground in a box or vault. Since a globe valve doesn’t incorporate a backflow preventer you must provide one separately. See the section on backflow preventers. The globe style valve is the most commonly used valve on large commercial drip systems.

Anti-Siphon Valve:

Available only in 20mm (3/4 inch) and 25mm (1 inch) sizes. This is my recommendation for most homeowners. The anti-siphon valve incorporates a backflow preventer into the valve. This saves a considerable amount of money, as backflow preventers are very expensive. The anti-siphon valve MUST be installed above ground and MUST be at least 150mm (6″) higher than the highest drip emitter. This may prove a problem for some locations, since you would likely have to put the valves at the highest point in the yard. I have seen a anti-siphon valve installed on top of trellis in order to get it above the emitters for hanging baskets. On a slope the simplest solution is to run a mainline up the slope to the anti-siphon valve installed at the top of the slope. From there pipes run down to the emitters.

Indexing Valves (standard and anti-siphon):

Indexing valves are a single valve unit that controls several valve zones. The index valve has a water inlet and several water outlets. When the valve receives a signal from the control unit it opens the first water outlet, at the next signal it switches from the first to the second outlet. At each signal it switches to the next outlet until it gets back to the first outlet, at which point it shuts off. Indexing valves require a special controller to operate them. Indexing valves are usually available in models with or without a built in anti-siphon device. So an indexing valve may be also an anti-siphon valve. The anti-siphon indexing valve MUST be installed above ground and MUST be at least 150mm (6″) higher than the highest drip emitter. Indexing valves have never been widely popular and are generally only available in localized regions where a nearby manufacturer has heavily promoted them. Perhaps the best know indexing valve is made by the K-Rain company, they are popular in Florida where K-Rain is located.

Operation Method:

The control valves may be manually operated or they can be remotely controlled. Manual control is simple, the valve has a handle you use to turn it on. Remote control valves are either electric or hydraulic, but almost everyone uses electric solenoid type valves. The valves are turned on and off by a timer called an “irrigation controller” or often just called a “controller”. Anti-siphon, globe, and angle valves are all available as automatic valves. Most controllers and valves sold today are standardized, you don’t need to use the same brand of controller and valve. The standard is a normally closed valve that uses 24 volt alternating current to actuate the valve. When 24 volts of current is applied to the valve solenoid wires the valve opens, when the voltage is turned off the valve slowly closes. This way the valve will close during a power failure or if a wire breaks. There are some exceptions to this standard operation method. To save power, controllers that run on batteries or solar power often use a special type of solenoid on the valves called a “latching solenoid”. Latching solenoids work like a toggle switch, when a short burst of power is detected the valve switches open (if it was closed) or closed (if it was already open). Generally if latching solenoids are required there will be a warning and instructions on the controller. If the controller doesn’t plug into a power source, chances are it uses latching solenoids. There are a few specialty controllers and valves that use their own proprietory system and are not compatible with either the standard or latching solenoids, but these are rare and seldom used by homeowners. The most common are Indexing Valves (see above). Another common one is a small solar-powered controller and custom valve solenoid combination sold under the brand name LEIT®. While a little beyond the budget of most homeowners, LEIT controllers can operate on very low levels of light, they claim moonlight is sufficient. (If you see something that looks like a parking meter installed in the middle of a landscaped road median island, you’ve spotted a LEIT controller. They are very popular with highway departments.)

 

Valve Body Materials:

Valves are available with either brass or plastic bodies. Most valves today are plastic, but brass is still widely available and preferred by some pros, especially when high water pressure is present. There is no doubt that a brass valve will last longer if installed in the sunlight. From an operational point of view, both are reliable, especially for automatic systems. For manual valves my experience is that brass will last much longer. For automatic control valves I almost always use plastic, my experience is that when buried or protected from sunlight it holds up as well as brass and is less expensive. If you use plastic valves above ground you may wish to consider building a cover for them to protect them from sunlight, which can destroy the plastic over time. My experience is that even when made using UV resistant plastic, the plastic valves will start to break down after a few years in the sunlight.  Most residential oriented plastic valves are made using PVC or ABS plastic.  A fiberglass reinforced nylon material is often used for the bodies of more expensive valves aimed at the commercial, parks and golf course markets.

Installing an Anti-Siphon Valve

Anti-siphon valves are the primary type of valve used for residential irrigation systems.   There are several very important rules that apply when you are using or installing an anti-siphon valve.  They MUST be installed in the correct way or they will not work!!

Quick & Dirty Summary

  • Anti-siphon valves must be installed 6″ higher than the highest sprinkler head or emitter outlet.
  • The anti-siphon valve inlet pipe must meet local plumbing code requirements for exposed pipe.  Generally that means using metal pipe such as copper, brass, or galv. steel.
  • No other on/off valves may be installed on the downstream side of an anti-siphon valve.
  • Anti-siphon valves may not be left “on” or “open” for more than 12 continuous hours at any time.
  • The optional “Flow Control” feature is worth paying more for.  It will probably save you more time and money than the extra cost it adds to the valve.  Plus most anti-siphon valves without flow controls are poor quality.
  • To avoid nasty surprises, avoid using a water supply for your irrigation system that passes through a house inside the walls, under floors, or through the attic.

Keep reading for in-depth details and answers to “why?”

Continue reading Installing an Anti-Siphon Valve

Drip Irrigation Design Guidelines – Basics of Measurements, Parts, and more

Index to the Guidelines:

If you wish to print out the entire Drip Guidelines Package for reading off-line, print this page and each of the ones listed in the links above.

Background:

Drip irrigation is the most efficient method of irrigating. While sprinkler systems are around 75-85% efficient, drip systems typically are 90% or higher. What that means is much less wasted water! For this reason drip is the preferred method of irrigation in the desert regions of the United States. But drip irrigation has other benefits which make it useful almost anywhere. It is easy to install, easy to design, can be very inexpensive, and can reduce disease problems associated with high levels of moisture on some plants. If you want to grow a rain forest however, drip irrigation will work but might not be the best choice!

Drip irrigation (sometimes called trickle irrigation) works by applying water slowly, directly to the soil, bloop, bleep, bloop, bleep. The high efficiency of drip irrigation results from two primary factors. The first is that the water soaks into the soil before it can evaporate or run off. The second is that the water is only applied where it is needed, (at the plant’s roots) rather than sprayed everywhere. While drip systems are simple and pretty forgiving of errors in design and installation, there are some guidelines that if followed, will make for a much better drip system. The purpose of this tutorial is to guide you toward materials and methods that will increase the benefits of your new drip system, while steering you away from some common misconceptions and practices that can cause you trouble.

“What’s with the Metric measurements? !!” Come on, quit whining, the rest of the world uses metric without problems!!! OK, don’t flame me, I give up, I’ll compromise… While a lot of drip irrigation research has occurred in the USA, most of the credit for making drip irrigation what it is today really should go to Israel and South Africa. So I’m going to honor that contribution by using the metric system as the primary measurement units for these guidelines. After all, metric is really the “native” measurements of drip irrigation. When I started using drip irrigation (back in the dark ages of irrigation) all drip data and products were in metric! But because I’m such a nice guy (inflated ego alert!! Dump some ice water on this guy!), I will provide English measurements also. So don’t panic.

This tutorial is setup in a multilevel format. Each of the guidelines below describes a basic rule for drip irrigation design, the guidelines follow in the logical order for creating a design. You can think of the guidelines as design steps if it helps. This page is the top level, here you will find a brief description of each design guideline. For many of the guideline topics there is a link to another page with expanded information on the guideline topic. There may be additional links from there to allow you to dig even deeper into the drip irrigation knowledge base. So you choose how much you want (or need) to learn. My recommendation is that if you want to print out something, print this page. Then refer to the other levels (and print them if necessary) as needed. That will save you a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on your printer. It might also save a tree from going to the paper mill!

Parts of a Drip system:

If you don’t know a lateral from a pressure regulator start by learning about the basic parts of a typical drip irrigation system. I strongly suggest that even if you are familiar with drip irrigation you start be reading through The Basic Parts of a Drip System page now. It contains a lot of tips and recommendations.

A simple drip system.
Illustration of a very simple drip system.
Complex home drip system
A more complex home drip system.
Suggestion: Click on the image above for a pdf version of the drawing that prints better.

Prescriptive Drip Design Guidelines:

These guidelines will provide you with all the information necessary to design a residential drip system for a typical yard. These guidelines are what is termed a “prescriptive standard” in the building industry. A prescriptive standard is a set of rules and/or methods that, when followed, allow you to skip the engineering calculations for a design. Obviously this saves a lot of time and effort in preparing a design. The downside to a prescriptive standard design is that it tends to “over-design” in order to make the design “one size fits all”. Unlike sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation systems are much more forgiving of design error, the cost of over sizing the materials is minimal, and so a prescriptive design method works very well for almost everyone. To prepare a fully engineered drip irrigation design requires a massive number of difficult mathematical calculations. If there was ever a great place to use prescriptive standards for the design, it is drip irrigation!

Emitter Type and Flow:

Use pressure compensating emitters if you have an elevation difference of over 1,5 meters (5 feet) in the area you are irrigating. For more level areas turbulent flow emitters will work great and are often less expensive. For gravity flow systems use short-path emitters, they typically work better than the others at very low water pressures.

For most soil types 2,0 l/hr (0.6 gph) emitters work well and are more economical. For sandy soil use 4,0 l/hr (1 gph) emitters.

For more information see Drip Irrigation Emitters.

How Many Emitters are Needed?

1 or 2 emitters per plant, depending on the size of the plant. Trees and large shrubs may need more. Obviously, using two allows for a backup if one clogs up (which happens now and then, even on the best designed and maintained drip systems.) But just as important, more emitters also wet more soil area. This results in more roots, and a healthier, happier plant. Exception: if the plants are very close together you may need to use less than 2 per plant in order to maintain the minimum spacing between emitters. Minimum spacing for emitters: In most situations install emitters at least 450mm (18″) apart. A good default spacing for quick and dirty design is to space the emitters 600mm (24″) apart. For supplemental watering of low-water-use plants, use one emitter per plant. Supplemental watering is used for establishment of drought tolerant plants that are not likely to need irrigation once they have developed a good root system, or might be used to apply a little extra water now and then to make them a bit more lush. Use of low-water plants with supplemental drip irrigation is considered very “green” and is the current trend in landscape design.

Rule of thumb- install emitters 600mm (24″) apart under 80% of the leaf canopy of the plant. That’s where the roots are, and the roots need water. If the soil is very permeable install emitters 300mm to 450mm (12-18 inches) apart. For more information and a better method of determining spacing see Drip Emitter Spacing.

Backflow Preventer:

Drip emitters rest directly on the soil so it is especially important to have a backflow preventer to prevent water contamination by soil-borne disease. There are several types that will work depending on your situation and local codes. For more information see Irrigation Backflow Preventers.

What valve type and size to use:

Use a 20mm (3/4″) valve for most systems. Any type of valve may be used. For more information see Drip Irrigation Valves.

How many emitters per valve?

Use the charts below to determine how many emitters to install on each valve circuit. If you don’t know what size your water supply pipe is, see How to Find the Size of a Pipe.

Emitter volume used Any water supply that comes out of a building, such as a hose bib. Any system with a pump*. 20mm (3/4″) water supply. Use a 20mm (3/4″) valve. 25mm (1″) water supply. OK to use a 20mm (3/4″) valve.
2,0 l/hr (0.6 gph) 300 300 700
4,0 l/hr (1 gph) 180 180 420

*Pumps can be tricky. This is a conservative figure in order to make it work with the majority of pump fed systems. You may be able to use a larger number of emitters by calculating the actual output of your pump. See the Irrigation Pumping Systems tutorial for more information about using pumps.

Water supplies coming out of a building are also a problem. The piping in buildings is almost never designed to carry large amounts of water such as is used by irrigation systems. To be safe I assume you have significant restrictions. 95% of buildings have these restrictions so don’t increase the flow unless you really know what you’re doing. Increasing the flow could cause extreme damage to the plumbing in the building!

Mainlines & Laterals.

Use 25mm (1 inch) PVC, PEX or polyethylene irrigation pipe for mainlines (“mains”) and laterals. The total length of the mainline and the lateral together should not be more than 120 meters (400 feet). So you could have 100 meters of mainline and 20 meters of lateral, for a total of 120 meters of both. But you should not have 80 meters of mainline and 60 meters of lateral because the total of both would be more than 120 meters. Remember mainline is the pipe before the control valve, lateral is pipe after the control valve. Many drip systems won’t need mainlines or laterals. Or they may need just a mainline, or just a lateral. For more information see the sections on mainlines and laterals in the The Basic Parts of a Drip System.

Maximum drip tube length.

The length of drip tube (or drip hose) may not exceed 60 meters (200′) from the point the water enters the tube to the end of the tube. Thus you could have 120 meters (400′) of tube if the water entered the tube in the middle (that would be 60 meters from the point the water enters the tube to the end of the tube in each direction, which would be OK). You can extend one tube off of another as long as the total length of the tubes that are connected is not more than 60 meters (200′). For more information see the drip tube section of The Basic Parts of a Drip System.

Buried Emitters

Never bury emitters underground unless they are made to be buried. If you bury the emitter roots will grow into it and clog it. If you do want to bury the emitters do a search for “subsurface drip irrigation” to find specialty drip products designed to be buried. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for those products as they must be designed and installed to very exacting standards to avoid problems.

Buried Tube.

Don’t bury the drip tube. If you do bury drip tube don’t complain to me if gophers, moles or other rodents chew it up. I’ve seen them gnaw to pieces a buried drip system over night. One day it works, the next, it’s garbage. It only takes one gopher (or mole, squirrel, etc.), and one evening! You’ve been warned! Other wildlife (and most dogs), will also chew the tubes. It helps if you provide a water source for them to drink from if possible. A water bowl with an emitter over it to keep it full sometimes will distract wildlife from the tubes. You may need to train your dog not to chew the tubes, dogs seem to chew on the tubes for no real reason other than to annoy you. If you want to hide the tube, dig a shallow trench for it, so that it is just below the level of the surrounding soil. Don’t put dirt over the tube. Throw some mulch or bark over the top to hide the tube, or plant a low spreading plant that will grow over it and hide it.

Feeder, Spaghetti, and Distribution Tubing

Avoid using feeder, spaghetti, or distribution tubing if possible. For more on this topic see the section on spaghetti tubing on The Basic Parts of a Drip System page.

Hard-Piped Drip Systems

A type of drip system used in commercial and high quality landscapes called “hard-piped” uses buried PVC pipe rather than poly drip tubing. The PVC pipe is installed underground and a pipe goes to each plant location, so it takes a lot of pipe. At each plant the emitters are installed above ground on short poly tubes called “risers”. Hard pipe systems can be pretty expensive due. For a detail drawing of this click here. The design of a hard-piped drip system is essentially the same as shown here, except you would use PVC or larger size poly irrigation pipe in place of the inexpensive drip tubing.

Fittings- Use the correct size!

This is really important! There are many different sizes of drip tubing sold, and the fittings have to be made for the exact size tube you are using! If they aren’t, they will either be very hard to install, or the tube will blow off the fitting. Sometimes it takes a week or so for the tube to come loose, but if the fitting is even 1mm too large, the tubing will come off eventually. Never heat the drip tube or use oil on it to make it easier to insert into or onto the fittings. See the section on drip tube in The Basic Parts of a Drip System for more information on fittings and tips and tricks for installing fittings.

Stake down the Drip Tubes!

Stake the drip tubes to the ground once every meter (about 3 feet). This keeps the tubes from wandering. No kidding, they tend to move around by themselves! Staking them also helps protect them from damage. I prefer to use metal stakes as the plastic ones I’ve tried pull loose too easily. Wire that rusts holds even better, as the rust binds the wire to the soil. After a few days they can be almost impossible to remove. They will rust away in a few years, but by then the tubing has adapted to its position and stays in place pretty well. Standard 12 gauge wire works well, as does pieces of wire coat-hangers. Buy some coat-hangers at a yard sale or thrift store and help recycle! Bend a 300mm (12 inch) length of wire into a”U” shape to make a tubing “staple”. Or you can buy metal staples that are made for holding down erosion control blankets, they work great.

Check Valves, Slopes, Hillsides:

Install check valves if the drip system is on a hillside of slope to prevent the water in the tubes from draining out through the lowest emitter each time the system stops running. For more information see the drip tube section of The Basic Parts of a Drip System.

Air Vents:

Install an air vent at the highest point on each drip valve circuit. If there are multiple high points you an air vent installed at each one. Air vents should always be used for drip systems on sloped areas. Air vents are often not installed on small homeowner drip systems without any slopes. If air vents are not used be sure the emitters at the highest points are not installed where dirt could be sucked into them. For more information see Drip Systems for Slopes and Hillsides.

Flush Valves and End Caps

Install a flush valve or end cap at the end of each drip tube. Automatic flush valves are available, however my personal preference is for manual flush valves. See the section on flush valves in The Basic Parts of a Drip System for more information.

Patios with Potted Plants and Trellises:

You will probably want 6mm (1/4″) feeder/spaghetti/distribution tube running to the plants if they are in pots just to make it less obtrusive visually. Try to use as little 6mm (1/4″) distribution tube as possible, keep the tube lengths short as much as possible, and only put 2 emitters on a single 6mm (1/4″) tube. If a 6mm (1/4″) tube is longer than 5 feet, use only one emitter on it. I like to staple the tubes to something to keep them in place if possible (like stapling the tube to a trellis for hanging plants.) Use a wire stake to hold the emitter in place in a pot. Don’t pull any of your tubes tight, snake them a little, leaving some slack in them to allow movement. The tubes will expand and contract with temperature changes, you don’t want them to tear or pop the fittings off.

So for example, I run standard 15-16-17mm (1/2″) tube along the patio perimeters, trying to put it in places it will be out of the way or I can hide it. I also run it up onto the trellis if there are lots of hanging plants, putting it on the back side out of view and clamping it to the trellis using standard conduit or pipe clamps. (I’ve found conduit clamps are cheapest, look in the electrical dept at any hardware store.) From the 15-16-17mm (1/2″) tube I run short lengths of 6mm (1/4″) tube to the potted plants. Remember: more 6mm (1/4″) tube = more problems.

Backflow preventers are always an issue if you have hanging plants and trellises. Vacuum breaker or anti-siphon type of backflow preventers must be installed above the trellis or they won’t work. Both those types of backflow devices must be installed at least 150mm (6″) higher in elevation than any of your emitters. This is generally not very practical to do. I have seen people run copper pipe up a trellis and put an anti-siphon valve 150mm (6″) above the trellis. But in most cases you need to use a double check, or preferably a reduced pressure type of backflow preventer. Those can be installed at any elevation (a reduced pressure type should be above ground.) I recommend a reduced pressure type. See the backflow preventer page for more detailed information.

Beyond these issues, the other basic drip guidelines in this tutorial all apply to patio and trellis drip systems.

Gravity Flow Systems:

If you are using a gravity flow water source like a rain barrel see the suggestions on the Gravity Flow Drip Systems page.

Drip System Sample Detail Drawings:

I have put together a few sample drawings of drip system parts and assemblies that you might find useful. See Drip System Sample Detail Drawings.

 


Technical Data:

This is just for those who want to know all the little details. Everyone else can ignore this information. Here are the assumed pressure losses for the prescriptive drip system design used in these guidelines:

  • Valve 0,4 bars
  • Backflow Preventer 0,8 bars
  • Pressure Regulator 0,0 bars
  • Filter 0,2 bars
  • Mainline & lateral 0,4 bars
  • Drip Tube 0,2 bars
  • Emitters 1,0 bars

Total Pressure required 3,0 bars (44 PSI)

Based on 0,2 l/s flow for 20 mm valve with smaller supply, 0,4 l/s flow for 20 mm valve, and 0,9 l/s for 25 mm valve.

Irrigation Valves

This page explains everything you need to know about irrigation valves!

There are many different kinds of irrigation valves available. You will need at least two different types for your irrigation system.

1. Emergency shut-off valve:

This valve should be installed at the closest point possible to your water source, that is, the location where you tap in for the irrigation system. Without this valve you will need to shut-off the water to the entire house when you want to work on the mainline or irrigation valves. The most commonly used valves for this purpose are “gate valves” because they are inexpensive. Unfortunately the cheap gate valves you’re likely to find in your local hardware store also tend to fail after a very short period of time.  I recommend that you use a “ball valve”, or if you need a really big shut off valve (over 3 inch size) use a “disk valve”, or “butterfly valve”. These cost a bit more but are much more reliable and will last several times longer. So if you pay twice as much for a ball valve it’s probably still the best deal! If you want to use a gate valve make sure that it is a “wedge” type and buy a good quality one (it will probably cost more than a ball valve.) There’s nothing worse than trying to repair a system when you can’t shut off the water completely.  OK, that’s about all you need to know about emergency shut-off valves.  The rest of this page is about Irrigation Control Valves.

2. Irrigation Control Valves:

These are the valves that turn on and off the sprinklers, they also may be used for drip irrigation systems. Other names sometime used for them are irrigation valve, sprinkler valve, solenoid valve, and lawn valve. Sometimes they are incorrectly called Garden Valves.  A garden valve is a manual valve that you connect a garden hose to.

Globe Valves vs. Anti-Siphon Valves

You have two basic styles of control valves to choose from.

 sprinkler10a

Globe or angle valve:

This valve is available in any size and is commonly installed underground in a box or vault. Since it doesn’t incorporate a backflow preventer you must provide one separately. See the article on backflow preventers. The globe style valve is the most commonly used valve on commercial and larger size sprinkler systems.

Anti-siphon valve:

Available only in 3/4″ and 1″ size. This is the most common used valve style for homeowners. The anti-siphon valve incorporates a backflow preventer into the valve. This saves a considerable amount of money, as backflow preventers are very expensive. The anti-siphon valve MUST be installed above ground and MUST be at least 6″ higher than the highest sprinkler head. This means that if you want to use anti-siphon valves you will have to locate the valves at the highest point in your yard, and run a water supply pipe to them from the water source (this water supply is called a “mainline”). The mainline pipe leading to the anti-siphon valves should be buried 18″ deep to protect it.

Valve Operation/Control Systems

Manual, Hydraulic and Solenoid Valves:

The sprinkler valves may be manually operated or they can be remotely controlled (automatic valves.) Manual control is simple, the valve has a handle that you use to turn it on and off using your hand as the power source. Remote control valves are either electric or hydraulic operated using a timer or other signaling device to tell them to open and close. Today almost all of sprinkler control valves are electric powered solenoid valves. The electric solenoid valve operates on 24 volt alternating current (vac) and is turned on and off by a timer called an “irrigation controller” or often just “controller”. Anti-siphon, globe, and angle valves styles are all available as automatic valves.

Solenoid Valve and Controller Compatibility

Pretty much all 24volt valves and controllers are compatible with each other.  The most common exception to this rule is valves operated by controllers that are battery or solar powered. (By battery powered I mean they are not plugged into a power source other than the battery.  Many controllers have a battery to prevent program loss in case of a power failure, these are not “battery operated”.) So in most cases you can buy a brand “X” controller and it will work fine with brand “Y” valves. You can even mix two or more brands of valves together if for some reason that appealed to you.  For example the irrigation system where I test valves and controllers has many different brands all running together.  If the valve is not “universal” or compatible it will typically have a warning on the packaging.

Flow Control

I strongly recommend that if you are going to use automatic valves, you select a valve model that has a manual flow adjustment control feature on it. Don’t confuse the flow control with a manual on/off switch. The flow control is a separate handle (sometimes a screw) in addition to the manual on/off control on the valve. This flow control feature is not found on many of the less expensive “budget” valves. The flow control bypasses the automatic valve features allowing the valve to be closed in an emergency by turning a handle just like a standard manual valve. More important is that it also allows the valve to be “throttled”, that is, the water flow may be adjusted to any rate desired. This ability to adjust the flow rate is very useful in many different situations, both when installing your sprinkler system and later when managing it.  It can literally make the difference between being able to make a troublesome valve work and having to remove and replace it!  I very strongly suggest that this is a feature worth the extra cost.

why

  • Using the manual flow control you can manually force the valve closed if it sticks open. The manual on/off switch will not close the valve if it is stuck open. Failure to close automatically is one of the most common valve problems, so there’s a good chance that someday you will use the flow control to force closed a valve that is stuck open.
  • If your flows are on the low end of the valve’s operation range, it may be helpful to throttle down the flow control to make the valve close faster and more reliably. Without the flow control feature you may have a lot of problems in this situation, you will probably have to replace the valve.
  • Partially closing the flow control will make the valve close faster, which is not something you want to do normally, but sometimes it is desirable. On automatic systems it is common for the next valve to open before the previous one fully closes. The resulting loss of pressure due to two valve circuits being on at the same time can cause the first valve to never fully close. A flow control on the valve can help correct this problem.
  • Buy valves with the flow control feature.  Just do it.  Don’t be one of the many people who later makes some lame excuse to me, like “the guy at the store, who normally works in the paint department but was filling in for the day on the irrigation aisle, said it was a waste of money!”

Should You Use Metal or Plastic Valves?

Sprinkler valves come in both brass and plastic models. Most valves used today are plastic, but brass is not out of the picture. There is no doubt that a brass valve will last longer in most situations, especially if installed above ground in the sunlight. From an operational point of view both are reliable, especially for automatic systems. For manual valves my experience is that plastic valves wear out fast and have a very short life. Brass will last much longer. If you use plastic valves above ground you may wish to consider building a cover for them to protect them from sunlight, which can destroy the plastic over time.

Two types of plastic material are used for valves. Glass-reinforced nylon is the best, it is tougher, more resistant to impact, and has a higher pressure rating. PVC is used for lower cost valves, it still is pretty strong, although that really depends on how thick the plastic is! A few valves use ABS plastic or polyethylene, especially for minor parts like screws or caps. Both of these plastics are less strong and are typically used for parts with little stress on them. I recommend avoiding valves with “solvent weld” connections (the pipe glues directly into the valve.) If the valve fails, they can be difficult to replace. Only the cheapest valves come with solvent weld connections. Hmmm… cheap valves fail more and with glued ends are harder to replace- sounds like a bad idea.

Jar Top or Traditional Top Held on with Screws?

OK, just personal opinion here, but I don’t see any advantage to a jar top valve.  Yes, they seem to work as well as a top with screws holding it on.  They primarily are only found on cheaper valves.  The only selling point I have heard for them is that they are supposed to be faster to open for repairs.  Are you repairing it that often?  I hope not! But I guess if it is a cheap valve…?  My experience is that by the time the valve is old enough to need repairs the jar top has seized up and it takes a strap wrench to get the top off.  Personally I prefer using a simple screwdriver to remove a few screws as opposed to wrestling with a strap wrench in a tight spot like a valve box.

Maintenance

Today’s valves are pretty maintenance free. Almost all automatic valve failures result from installation or design problems. Ignore the following and you will hate your valves regardless of what type or brand you buy!

Tip
Join the “Hall of Regrets”! Simply ignore the following advice, then send me your “I’m an idiot, I wish I’d listened…” sob story. I’ll add it to my collection and shed an alligator tear or two for you!

  • Dirt in the irrigation pipes. Inside the valve there are very small water passages that lead to and from the solenoid. Water must flow freely through these small passages. If a grain of sand or glob of algae gets into these passages it can block them and the valve will fail to open or (more likely) fail to close. It is critical to flush all the dirt out of the pipes before installing the valves. A 100 to 200 mesh filter installed at the water source connection can also help keep out contaminates that comes in with the water supply. You may be surprised to learn that most water companies have considerable amounts of sand in their pipes. When you install a new sprinkler system the higher flows stir up this sand and then it gets into your new system. That’s why I suggest to you in the installation tutorial to flush for so long. You have to get the sand out of both the sprinkler system pipes and the water supply pipes! I can’t stress this enough! It’s like a cheap low-flow toilet. You have to flush, flush, and flush again!
  • Almost all valve solenoid failures are caused by water getting into the solenoid. The water gets into them through the wires. The solenoid wires have multiple strands of wires twisted together with insulation around them. Because they are twisted there are very small gaps between the wires which form passages along the length of the wire. Water is sucked up through these small passages and deposited into the solenoid by capillary action. Thus it is critically important that the wire splices on the valves be completely water proof so that water can’t be sucked into the solenoid through the wires. You should water-proof the wire splices right after you test the valves! No kidding, a single drop of water on the bare valve wire end can be quickly sucked up into the solenoid and will ruin the solenoid. The Installation Tutorial has more on this.

Valve Size and Pressure Losses:

Emergency Shut-Off Valve:

The pressure loss through the emergency shut-off valve is not significant enough to worry with. We will ignore it. The emergency shut-off valve should be the same size as the pipe it is installed on. If a smaller size shut-off valve is used then you do need to worry about losing pressure through the valve. Probably about 2 PSI would be a safe assumption of the pressure loss.

Automatic Valves:

WARNING!!! If you use the wrong size automatic valve, the valve may not work! READ THAT AGAIN! Let it sink in. The correct valve size often will not be the same size as the pipe it is connected to.

why
The pressure loss in an automatic solenoid valve is the primary energy source used by the valve to open and close the valve.  The electricity sent to the valve solenoid is just used to jump-start the process, the real force used is the water pressure.  If the valve doesn’t have enough pressure loss it will not have the energy needed to close by itself.  Always size automatic valves based on the flow rate using the manufacturer’s chart as a guide. Never assume that the valve should be the same size as the pipe! It is very common for the valve to be a different size than the pipe it is installed on. I have seen some rare cases where a 3/4″ valve was the proper size for the flow through a 2″ pipe!!! If you absolutely must guess, use the next solenoid valve size smaller than the pipe size and assume a pressure loss of 6 PSI. Never guess if your flow is less than 5 GPM, always use a chart! Many automatic valves won’t work at all at flows below 5 GPM!

The size of the automatic valves is determined by the manufacturer’s recommended flow range, together with the pressure loss through the valve at the selected flow. You will need to get the valve manufacturer’s flow chart for the model of valve you plan to use. This information should be on the valve packaging. If you can’t find it on the package, try the valve manufacturer’s website or ask for a data sheet on the valve at the store where you buy the valve. (At discount home improvement stores you are likely to get a blank stare from the employee if you ask for a data sheet!)

Some valves don’t appear to have data sheets available anywhere, so as a last resort I’ve assembled some data for you based on my own research for some of the more popular ones. You will find it in the reviews on this website, Click Here.  That said, if the valve manufacturer doesn’t provide this necessary information it shows an extreme lack of professionalism, I would be very reluctant to use the product!

If you can’t find pressure loss and flow range information for the valve you want to use, I strongly suggest you use a different brand of valve. After the valve is installed is not a good time to discover it’s the wrong size and won’t open or close automatically!

Example: let’s say you are going to use an automatic anti-siphon type valve. Your Design Flow is 20 GPM, so for now we will assume the flow through the valve will also be 20 GPM. (If it turns out the flow will be less,you can resize the valve later.) The manufacturer’s flow chart would look something like this:


 

Doesn’t Work Valve Company, Inc. – Valve Performance Data

5 GPM 10 GPM 15 GPM 20 GPM 25 GPM
3/4″ Anti-Siphon Valve 5.0 PSI 5.5 PSI 6.0 PSI 8.0 PSI
1″ Anti-Siphon Valve 2.5 PSI 3.5 PSI 3.0 PSI 4.0 PSI 9.0 PSI

Warning: The chart above is not real. DO NOT USE THESE VALUES!


The example chart above tells us that the pressure loss for our valve at 20 GPM flow would be 8.0 PSI if we used a 3/4″ valve and 4.0 if we used a 1″ valve. So we could use either one. The pressure loss information from the chart would be the number that you write into your Pressure Loss Table on the “_____ PSI – Valves” line. So if we decided to use the 3/4″ valve, the value would be 8 PSI. But what if after adding all the pressure losses in the loss table, you discover that the losses are too high? In that case you could go back and change to a 1″ valve. That would reduce the pressure loss down to 4 PSI, rather than 8. With that said, as a general rule I try to avoid losing more than 6 PSI through a valve. So I would not use a 3/4″ valve in the example above if it were my sprinkler system. Why? Valves need pressure drop for them to work correctly, but really high pressure losses are hard on the valve. As the pressure loss through an automatic valve increases, the speed that the valve closes also increases. Thus a high pressure loss can cause the valve to snap closed extremely fast, and that is bad for the entire sprinkler system. Plus the water is moving extremely fast through the valves at those higher pressure loss rates, resulting in more wear on the valve seats. So the valve will fail earlier.

If you looked closely at the chart above you may have noted a couple of interesting items. First, and most obvious, is that no pressure loss is given for a 3/4″ valve at 25 GPM. This is because that flow is outside the acceptable range for the valve. You should not use the valve for that flow. The next item is less obvious, but if you look closely, you will notice the pressure loss for the 1″ size valve is less at the 15 GPM than it is at the lower 10 GPM flow!  No, it isn’t a mistake.  It is very common for valves to have higher pressure losses at very low flows, so if you notice this on a flow chart; don’t panic, it’s not a misprint.

Can a valve be smaller than the pipe it is connected to?

As you move through the tutorial you will find that even though the valve will handle a certain flow, that flow is often too high for the same size of pipe. So it is very common to have a valve that is one, or even two, sizes smaller than the pipe it is installed in. In fact it is so common that they actually make special pipe fittings (connectors) for this. For example they make a PVC plastic male adapter that glues onto 1″ pvc pipe, but has 3/4″ threads to allow you to install a 3/4″ valve on a 1″ PVC pipe. They also make one that glues onto 1 1/4″ pipe but has 1″ threads.

For Manual Valves:

Manual valves are much more forgiving than automatic valves. You don’t need to worry about having enough pressure to allow the valve to close by itself, it uses “elbow grease” to power it! However, you still need to find out what the pressure loss through the valve will be so you can enter it in your Pressure Loss Table. As with the automatic valves, you use a chart provided by the manufacturer for this. Follow the same procedure given above for automatic valves. Unfortunately, pressure loss data for manual valves can be hard to find as many manufacturers don’t provide it. As a general rule, allow 2 PSI pressure loss for a globe or angle type manual control valve, 5 PSI if it is an anti-siphon valve. Manual irrigation control valves should be of the “angle” or “globe” type with replaceable rubber seats. Never use a gate valve as a control valve. Gate valves are not made to be regularly opened and shut. Many gate valves will start leaking after as little as 10 uses!

Want to use a manual valve now but change to an automatic valve later? No problem. Simply design for the automatic valve, but use the manual one instead. Then you can replace it later when you want to automate the system. Another way to do this is to install the automatic valve and simply operate it manually using the manual on/off lever. If you do this, then later you just install a controller as well as wires between the controller and the valves and you have an automatic control system.


This article is part of the Sprinkler Irrigation Design Tutorial
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How to Remove a Valve Zone from Sprinkler system

Q.  I have 3 zones for my sprinkler system.  I need to remove the valve/pipe/heads from one of the 3 zones in my backyard.

A. You may not even need to turn off the irrigation system water for this project.  But it is a good idea to know how to turn it off.  You never know when you may need to.

Definition:Zone valve” when used in irrigation, is the valve that turns on and off a group of sprinkler heads.  In most cases the zone valve is an electric activated valve and has a solenoid with wires leading into it on top of the valve.  The wires connect the zone valve to the irrigation controller (sometimes called the “timer” or “control box.”)  The power to the valve is typically 24 volts AC.  It usually will not harm most people if they touch a live wire, but it will give you enough of a shock that you will never want to do it again!  Obviously if you have a pacemaker or sensitivity to electrical current you will want to be extra careful around the wires.  If you touch your cell phone to a bare wire it may become an expensive paperweight.

Shut off the water. (Optional, if you are not going to remove the zone valve you don’t need to do this.)  Turn off the water to the entire sprinkler system.  Many sprinkler systems have a main shut off valve that turns off all the water to the sprinkler system.  Look around for the shut off valve.  It may be in a box underground.  Often it it near the location where the pipes enter the house.  Often it it in a basement if other water pipes are located in the basement.  Once you found a possible shut off valve, turn on one of your sprinkler zone valves so you can see that the system is running.  Now try turning off the possible shut-off valve.  It the sprinklers stop running you know the valve shuts off water to the sprinkler system.  Now check and see if it also turned off the water to the house.  If it did, you just found the house main water shut off valve.  You may not find a valve that turns off only the sprinkler water.  A lot of homeowner installed sprinkler systems don’t have them.  You may just have to turn off all the water to the house in order to work on the sprinkler system.

The easiest way is to leave the zone valve installed and not remove it.  Just plug it.  I’ll tell you how to do that first.

Identify the valve.  Now you need to figure out which of the sprinkler zone valves is the one you want to remove.  Hopefully you know where the valves are.  If not, see the article on how to find missing valves.   To determine which valve you want to remove, you manually turn on the zone valves (without using the control box) and see which one turns on the sprinkler you want to remove.  On top of your zone valves is a solenoid, written on it you will see ON/OFF arrows.  Turn the solenoid in the “ON” direction about 1/4 turn or so.  This should open the valve and the sprinklers should come on.  Note: Some valves have a lever that turns them on and off, some have a bleed screw you partially turn to make them manually open.  Each valve make and model is a little different, so you may have to use some deductive skills to figure out how to manually open your valve.  By turning them on one at a time you should be able to determine which valve operates the sprinklers you want to remove.  When finished, turn off the valve by by reversing the procedure you used to turn it on.  If your valve uses a bleed screw to open it, DO NOT completely remove the bleed screw.  Just unscrew it slowly until the valve turns on.

Typical sprinkler zone valves.
Typical sprinkler zone valves.

3. Now that you know which valve you want to remove, carefully dig the dirt away from the valve and expose the pipe on the downstream side of the zone valve. If you clear the dirt off the top of the zone valve it should have a flow direction arrow someplace on the valve body that points toward the outlet side.  (It may be on the side of the valve, using a small mirror makes it easier to find it.)

Once you know which direction the water flows through the valve, cut out a short section of the pipe right after the valve. Water may squirt out when you make the first cut into the pipe, so be prepared to get some muddy water sprayed at you!   A lot of water may drain out when you cut the pipe, depending on how much water was in the pipes and the slope of your yard.   You may have to bail water out of the hole with a bucket to remove it.  With the pipe section removed you can now use a wrench to unscrew the remaining pipe from the valve outlet.  Take the pipe section you removed from the valve (with the threads on it) to a hardware store and buy a threaded plug of the same size and a roll of Teflon tape.  Wrap several layers of the Teflon tape sealant onto the threads of the plug and then put the plug into the valve outlet opening.  Hand tighten the plug, then use the wrench to tighten it another half turn.  Do not overtighten it, if you overtighten the plug the valve body may split open.  Now that valve zone is plugged off.  You can remove the wires for that valve from the controller if you wish.  Now remove any of the pipe or sprinklers you want from that valve zone.

You can remove the entire valve if you want to.  I didn’t have you remove the valve because that does not require you to turn off the water to the entire sprinkler system, which is easier for most homeowners to do themselves.

To remove the entire valve:  Turn off the water to the entire sprinkler system.  Then manually turn ON the valve you want to remove, the sprinklers will come on for a few seconds then slowly shut off as the water discharges from the pipes and the pressure is released.  If the sprinklers keep running the water is not shut off!  Now follow the directions above.   Once the outlet pipe section is cut and removed, cut the wires off the valve, then unscrew and remove the entire valve.  Seal the ends of the wires with PVC glue or silicon caulk/sealer if you think you may ever want to use them again.   Put a threaded cap on the pipe that formerly connected to the valve.

Removing sprinklers.  To remove a sprinkler you can sometimes just grab the top of it and turn it counter-clockwise.  It will unscrew from the pipe below it and then you can lift it out of the ground.  Often you will need to dig away grass from it so you can twist it out.  In most cases you don’t need to dig a big hole around the sprinkler head, just dig away enough dirt and grass to allow you to grip the sprinkler.  Fill in the hole with dirt after you remove it.  Assuming you are abandoning the pipes, there is no need to cap the pipe off below the sprinkler, just leave it there.  If you don’t plan to ever use it, it doesn’t matter if it gets dirt in it.

Removing Pipes.  Most of the time we just leave the pipes in the ground.  They are a lot of work to remove and most of the time they don’t bother anyone if left buried.  If the pipes are not very deep you can often pull them up using “brute force”.  Dig down to expose the end of the pipe, grab the end and pull it up out of the ground.  If there is thick lawn you may need to cut a slit in the lawn surface to allow the pipe to be pulled up easier.  Use a edger to cut the turf directly above the pipe.  A string trimmer with heavy string in it may be able to cut the turf.  It may use up a lot of string!

I don’t recommend using a vehicle to pull the pipe out, but I know some will try it.  If you do this and get yourself injured or killed, you will be featured in those “knuckleheads in the news” columns!  If you try attaching a rope to the pipe and the other end to a garden tractor or truck to pull the pipe out of the ground – be very careful.  Wear protective clothing, gloves, eye protection and a hard hat.  Keep everyone else far away.  Have someone there watching from a distance who can call 911 if you get hurt!  Here’s why I say you shouldn’t do this:  Plastic pipe breaks suddenly and violently when pulled hard.  If the pipe or rope breaks while pulling on the pipe both the rope and the pipe can whip around violently and cause injury or damage, ie; break a window.  The white hard PVC plastic pipe can shatter and release small, very sharp pieces of plastic that act like shrapnel and cut like dozens of little knives.  If the pipe does not come out easily and you see the rope stretching, STOP, it’s going to break!  Don’t be an idiot, use common sense and extreme care.

If you can’t pull the pipe up and you absolutely can’t just abandon it in place, the only way I know of to get it out is to dig it out.  Ugghh.  Lots of work.

 

 

Creating Water-Proof Irrigation Wire Connections

Water-proofing your irrigation system’s wire splices is one of the most critical tasks in any installation or repair that involves wire splices.  The splices need to be completely water-proof.  Taping them up with electrical tape will NOT work for this!  The electrical tape will allow water into the splice as it becomes old, brittle, and the adhesive on it dries out.  If you don’t water-proof your splices it WILL cause your valve to fail!  Don’t save a buck on a wire splice and ruin a $20 valve! I’ll explain in detail why waterproofing is so important later, first let’s get down to the details on how to make a good waterproof wire splice.

General Things That you Need to Know about all splices!

Caution:  The methods described below are intended for low-voltage wires of 24VAC or less, such as those used in typical irrigation system controls.  They should not be used for higher voltages.

DO NOT BURY SPLICES directly in the ground.  Put a box around them to protect them and to help you find the later.  A small plastic utility box works fine.  Glue a large steel washer to the bottom of the box lid using epoxy.  This will allow you to find the box with a metal detector if grass grows over it.  Splices are the most likely place a wire will short out in the future, so a box makes the splices easier to find and repair.

2-wire irrigation systems:  These are a newer type of system that uses only 2-wires to control all the valves.  The irrigation controller sends a signal through the valves to a decoder at each valve.  The decoder then allows power to the valve solenoid only when told to by the controller.  These types of systems depend on electrical “signals” sent from the controller through the wire to the decoder.  Any voltage leak at a splice can severely impact the signal and cause the system to malfunction.  For this reason splices for 2-wire systems need to be made much more carefully.  Many of the 2-wire manufacturers have specific splice methods they require be used in order to protect your warranty.  Be sure to use these if required!

Not sure if your system is 2-wire?  As i write this in 2013, 2-wire systems are seldom used on residential systems, but they are also gaining popularity and will probably start showing up soon, first on larger systems.  The controller case normally will be clearly labeled as “2-wire”.  A 2-wire system will also have a “decoder unit” installed on the wires at each valve.  Standard irrigation control systems have two wires going to each valve.  But in a standard system one of the wires goes to a single valve and only that valve.  So if you have 4 valves there will be 5 wires (1 common shared by all the valves, + 1 individual wire to each of 4 valves = 5 wires.)  On a 2-wire system with 54 valves there would be only 2 wires and each valve would have a decoder unit installed on it.  The presence of a decoder to be installed at each valve is the best way to tell if it is 2-wire.

The best way to make the splice is to use special water-proof splice connectors that you can buy at any hardware store.  These are made for sealing outdoor wire connections and work very well.  There are many different styles and types available.

Water-Proof Twist On Connectors – “Nut” Style or “Wing” Style

Most of the connectors currently used by pros consist of an twist on type wire connector that is filled with a water sealing grease.  Sometimes these are called water-proof “nut” or “wing type” connectors.   These are inexpensive and very simple to use. Here are general instructions for use since a lot of these inexpensive connectors are sold without instructions.  If instructions came with the connectors please use those instructions, as they are intended for the actual connectors you bought!

  1. For every 3 connections you need buy 5 connectors.  Why?   Because you will probably make several bad splices, and you will have to remove those connectors and toss them in the trash.  They can’t be reused because when you remove them a lot of the sealer comes out with the wire.   (If you look close most connectors actually say “do not reuse” or similar language on them.)
  2. Start by stripping the insulation off the end of the wires to expose the bare metal wire.  Do not strip off too much insulation, the exposed  bare wire should be about 1/2 the length of the connector body.   You can splice 3 wires together easily using a single connector.  It’s OK to put 4 or 5 wires in a connector, but be warned that it gets a lot more difficult getting the wires to stay in the connector when you use more than 3 wires.
  3. Place the bare ends in one hand and using your other hand, align the wires side-by-side, so the ends of the bare sections are lined up together.  Those ends need to all go into the connector together at the same time, so hold the wires tight and don’t let them slip out of position.  Do not try to insert an additional wire into a wire connector that already has wires spliced together in it.  You need to remove all the wires and redo the splice to add more wires.
  4. Push the connector down over the bare ends of the wire.  Twist the connector clockwise to screw it on.  Hold the wires firmly in position as you twist the connector over them.  The connector has threads, a spring, or barbs inside it that will grab the wires and cinch them together tightly as you twist it on.  Stop twisting when you feel substantial resistance.
  5. Hold the connector in one hand and tug on each of the wires with the other to make sure the wires are secure and will not pull out.  If a wire feels loose or pulls out, disassemble the entire splice and try again.   Use a new connector as some of the sealer will probably be lost when you remove the connector, and it needs all the sealer for a good seal.   If the wires still pull out after another try you are probably using the wrong size connector.
  6. Finally make a visual inspection of the splice.  The insulation on the wire should be fully inserted into the sealer gel or grease.  No bare wire should be visible.  That’s all there is to using twist on wire connectors, they are very quick and easy.

The connector size is important when using twist on connectors!   Be sure you buy and use the correct size connector for the wire sizes you are splicing. The package will list the various wire size combinations that the connector works on.  The connector colors indicate the connector’s size and most are standardized.  Here are some general guidelines.  Warning: There are some brands that do not follow these color guidelines so double check the instructions on the package!

Connectors for #18 wire.  Most residential irrigation systems use #18 size wire, this is the size of most of the multi-wire underground irrigation cables sold in hardware stores.   Unfortunately the colors for these connectors are not standardized.  Most I have seen are dark blue or black.  Make sure it says it will connect 2- #18 wires.

Connectors for #14 & #12 wire.  Larger irrigation systems and commercial irrigation often use individual #14 wires.  Sometimes #12 will be used for irrigation systems with very long distances between the controller and the valve.  Most often these connectors are yellow.   Note: Most of the yellow connectors I have seen will NOT connect a single #14 wire to a typical valve solenoid wire.  For this you will probably need the smaller #18 wire connectors above.

Twist-On Waterproof Wire Connectors. Wing Style on left (blue), Nut Style on Right (black).

 

 

 

Mechanical Clip Style Non-Stripping Connectors

Clip style is a catch-all name I use for the various types of connectors that use a mechanical clamping system to grab and bite into the wire.  Typically with this type of connector you push the wire into a round slot on the connector, and then squeeze some type of clamp that bites into the wire to hold it in place.  Some require pliers to squeeze the clamp into the wires.   The most popular of these types of connectors for irrigation use is the Blazing Snaploc BVS Series wire connectors and the 3M Scotchlok 314 series connectors.  These connectors are more expensive but make a very secure connection almost always on the first attempt.  You won’t need to buy nearly as many extras for bad splices.

 

Container Type Connectors

These connectors are a two piece, two step system.  You connect the wires together using either a standard twist type wire connector, a crimp sleeve, or even soldering the wires together.  Then you shove the splice into a container filled with a water-proofing grease or jell and snap a retainer lid closed to hold the splice inside the container.

A variation on this type of connector is the original waterproofing method used back when I started in the business.   You mixed a 2-part epoxy resin in a small plastic envelope and then shoved the splice into the envelope so it was covered in resin.  The resin was allowed to harden creating a solid water-proof seal.  Unfortunately the resin was a carcinogen.   I don’t think these are sold any longer.

 

Pump Cycles On Briefly When Irrigation is Off

Q.  My irrigation pump runs fine when the system is operating, but after it turns off it cycles on for 5 seconds every 10 minutes or so.

A.  If you are using a pressure switch and pressure tank to turn the pump on and off my first guess would be that you have a water leak in your irrigation system.  The water leaks out, which cause the water pressure to drop, then the pump kicks on and recharges the pressure.  Then the pump shuts off again.  That would cause exactly this symptom.

Knowing the problem is the easy part.  Finding the leak, that could be harder to do.  It could be a zone valve that isn’t turning off all the way or it could be a leaky pipe.  You can narrow the search area a little,  the leak will be someplace in the pressurized part of the system, that is, between the pump and the zone control valves.  Start by looking for obvious dripping, then look for someplace that seems wetter than it should.  If it is a leaky zone valve then the water will be leaking through the valve into the sprinkler zone pipes and will dribble out at the lowest sprinkler head.  So look at the sprinkler heads.  There will be a small “swampy” area around the lowest sprinkler head that is controlled by that valve.

How to Fix a Automatic Irrigation Valve that Won’t Open

Check The Dumb Stuff.

If the valve won’t open at all, or doesn’t fully open, start with the obvious things just to be certain. I know, any idiot knows better, but even us pros periodically overlook something really simple and obvious.

Tip: There are labeled photos of some of the more popular valve models showing the various valve controls (such as flow-controls, on/off levers, and bleed screws) mentioned in this article at this page:  Anti-Siphon Valves with Parts Labeled.

  • Is the water supply turned on?
  • Is there a shut off valve on the water supply that may have been closed?  Once I had a system I couldn’t get to work, couldn’t find any closed valves, but still no water to the sprinklers.  Turned out the city water company had closed a valve in the street for street work they were doing and forgot to reopen it!
  • Check the flow control on the valve to make sure it isn’t closed or partially closed.  It is often desirable for the flow control to be left partially closed, but if it is restricting the flow too much that could be the problem.  On some valves the flow control doesn’t have a handle, it is just a small screw in the valve lid.  If unsure, look up your valve model at the manufacturer’s website to see if they have a drawing of the valve showing a flow control device location.  Unfortunately, some inexpensive valves do not have a flow control device.

Manual Operation Test

Try manually opening the valve, using the on/off lever on top of the valve body.  Some valves use a bleed screw to manually open them, so if you don’t see a lever labeled on/off or open/close, look for a screw, typically the screw has a knob handle to allow it to be twisted by hand.  Do not fully remove a bleed screw!  Just turn it about 1-2 to 1 full turn, water will squirt out from under the screw and the valve should open.  Some valves have both a bleed screw and a on/off lever, on those valves I generally use the bleed screw as I have found it works better if the valve is being stubborn.  If the valve opens correctly and fully when using the manual open lever or  bleed screw, then the problem may be electrical.  If the valve does not open fully when using the manual open feature, skip over the next section on electrical problems.

Basic Electrical Tests

If you don’t have a valve actuator test unit, start by making yourself a home-made valve activator using three nine-volt batteries.  See my page with full instructions for making a irrigation solenoid valve activator (it’s easy and only takes about 2 minutes!)

Valve Electrical Tester
Home Made Valve Actuator for Testing Solenoid Valves

Now use your actuator to test your solenoid and wires:

  • NOTE:  make sure you are using fresh, brand new batteries in your actuator!  It takes a lot of amperage to open a valve and worn or old batteries won’t do the job.  Don’t waste your time tracking down false results caused by bad batteries!!!
  • Note #2:  24 VAC does not feel good if you shock yourself with it, especially if you are wet.  Don’t touch bare wires without rubber gloves on!
  • Disconnect the wires from the valve solenoid.  Touch the valve solenoid wires to the terminals on your activator.  The valve should open.  If the valve fully opens then the problem is NOT the valve, the problem is with the wires leading from the controller (timer) to the valve, or possibly the controller is broken.  Continue with the next step.  If the valve does not open, then skip the rest of the electrical diagnosis items.  The problem is with the valve or the valve solenoid.
  • Controller problems are very rare, it is much more likely the problem is a broken wire.  Do NOT try to test the controller by using a wire to create a short-circuit “spark” between the terminals!  You may fry your controller!  First reread the controller manual on how to wire the valve circuits and make sure you don’t have them wired wrong.   Optional: You can test the controller using a multimeter if you have one and know how to use it.  The controller output to the valves is 24 VAC.  Most modern controllers will show a positive test for 24VAC even if the circuit is off, you need to test the circuit with a load.  Don’t panic if you don’t know what that means or don’t have a multimeter.  Just go to the next step.
  • You can test the wire very simply.  If the wires from the controller to the valve are disconnected from the valve reattach them to the valve solenoid now.
  • Next remove the wires for the common and the “lead” wire circuit to your valve from the controller terminals.
  • Attach your valve actuator to the 2 wires at the controller end, just like you did to the solenoid wires.  The valve should come on.  If it doesn’t open, or only opens partially, the wires from the controller to the valve are either damaged (cut or short circuiting), or you are testing the wrong wires.  Are you sure you have the correct pair of wires for this valve?  That’s often the problem with a newly installed system!  It’s pretty easy to get the wires mixed up, especially if they do not have color-coded insulation.  Another source of the problem may be damaged insulation on the buried wire.  If the insulation on the wire has been removed or damaged someplace along the length of the wire it can cause a voltage leak.  A nick or partial cut in the wire may cause resistance to the current in the wire.  These wire problems cause the solenoid to not receive sufficient power to fully open the valve.
  • If the valve does turn on fully the problem is the controller.  Most modern controllers are not user repairable.  If it is under warranty contact the manufacturer for instructions.  They may ask you to do some additional tests.  If the controller is not still under warranty you can contact a professional irrigation repair outfit for a repair quote.  For most low-cost homeowner controllers it is cheaper to just replace the controller with a new one.  If your current controller is not a Smart Controller you should consider replacing it with one.  A self-adjusting Smart Controller will save you a lot of water and effort.

 

Valve Cleaning and Repair

If you’ve tested the controller and wires and they are OK, then the problem is with the valve itself.  You have two choices:  remove and replace the valve, or  disassemble the valve to look for problems.  Which way you go depends on which is easier for you to do.  I generally try to clean the valve rather than replace it at this point.

Replacing a valve:  Removing and replacing a valve can be a big job if the valve is fully installed.  Basically this is a swap out, take a photo of the old valve before you remove it, then remove it and install the new one in it’s place.   You probably will need to cut the pipe on the outlet side of the valve so you can turn the valve body to unscrew it from the inlet pipe and get it out.   Some valves are installed so close together that you need to cut the pipe on both the inlet and outlet sides, this is especially true of anti-siphon valves.  Once the old valve is out, you install a new one in the same location.  Finally you need to repair the pipe if you cut it.  If the pipe is PVC they make special couplers for repairing pipes that make the job easier.  Remember to completely water proof all the wire splices!

Note: a lot of anti-siphon valves are not properly installed.  Even sprinkler installation companies don’t use the care they should to insure correct installation, and a incorrect installation may be the source of your valve problems.  See the article on How to Properly Install an Anti-Siphon Valve to help you get it  in right this time!

Clean & Repair a Valve: Most people try to repair the valve rather than replace it.  I really think a repair is often easier at this stage.  If you do proceed with disassembling the valve be sure to notice how all the parts fit together so you can reassemble it when done.  Tip: take photos of the valve and how the parts fit together as you disassemble it!

  1. If the valve is more than a couple years old you might want to purchase a repair kit for the valve make and model (see bottom of this page for examples of what to look for.)
  2. Turn off the water supply to the valve.  Remove the solenoid by unscrewing it.  Note: each manufacturer’s valve is slightly different, but the basics are the same.  Your valve may look different from the Water-Master brand valve shown in these photos.
    Remove solenoid
    Remove solenoid

    The bottom of the solenoid has a spring-loaded plunger in it.  After removing the solenoid hold it in one hand and press the plunger in with your little finger.  The plunger should spring back out when you release it and move freely in and out without catching or jamming as you press on it.  If it doesn’t the solenoid is defective, see the manufacturer’s warranty info for how to proceed with replacement.  If the solenoid is fine clean the bottom of the solenoid with a clean towel.

    Check solenoid plunger
    Check solenoid plunger. Warning: plunger may spring out on some models!

    Next clean the little socket area in the valve lid that the solenoid screws into and make sure there aren’t any sand grains or bits of plastic loose in that area.  Using compressed air (that canned air used to dust computer parts works great, some people can blow sufficient air with their mouths using a drinking straw…) gently blow air toward the ports (tiny holes) in the bottom of the solenoid socket.  Keep the air outlet a couple inches away from the ports.  Do not place the end of the air outlet against the ports!  If you jam the air outlet down on them and blast air from a can or air compressor into the valve you will burst the rubber valve diaphragm inside the valve!!!  You just want to gently blow any loose debris out of the ports and socket.   Now screw the solenoid back on hand tight.  Do not over-tighten it, do NOT use a wrench.  It has a seal so you don’t need to crank on it to keep it from leaking.  If you over-tighten the solenoid and force it too far in it will distort the plastic and the plunger will jam.  Now with the solenoid back on, don’t bother to rewire it yet.   Turn on the water and check to see if the valve works manually.  Sometimes the solenoids aren’t installed correctly and this is all it takes to fix the problem.  If the valve now works rewire it and you’re done.  If the valve still doesn’t work go to step 2.

  3. Remove the solenoid again.  Now remove the valve’s lid or cap.  The lid or cap may screw off like a jar lid, or it may be held in place with screws.  If it is the jar lid type you may need a strap wrench to remove the lid.  (They market these jar lids as “easy to remove”, I’ve found few of them actually are.)
    Solenoid Valve Lid Screws
    Solenoid Valve Lid Screws
    Remove lid screws or turn lid to remove if a "jar top" lid.
    Remove lid screws or turn lid to remove if a “jar top” lid.

    A rubber diaphragm sits under the cap and there is a spring between it and the cap, watch for the spring that it doesn’t get lost.  Be very careful not to let dirt get into the valve body while the cap is off, put a piece of kitchen cellophane wrap or something similar over it to keep out dirt.

    Remove the lid, watch that the spring does not pop out and get lost!
    Remove the lid, watch that the spring does not pop out and get lost!
  4. Once the cap is removed look at the cap.  There are tiny holes, called ports, that go from under the solenoid to the bottom side of the cap/lid.  Make sure none of those ports are blocked by a bit of manufacturing plastic or dirt.  You can use a tiny piece of wire to clean them, be very careful not to scratch the plastic or enlarge the hole.  Sometimes one of the ports is not drilled all the way through.  In that case the valve is defective, see your warranty information for how to replace the valve. I have known people who have successfully used a tiny drill bit held in their hand to very carefully drill a blocked port clean.  If you are very careful this may work, BUT it may void your valve’s warranty!   One guy had 6 valves all with the same partially drilled port, clearly a manufacturing error.  He drilled them by hand and every one of them worked afterward.  Your call on that one.

    Check the small ports in the lid for obstructions in them.
    Check the small ports in the solenoid valve lid for obstructions in them.  The shape and location of the ports varies with each valve make and model,  there will be two separate ports.
  5. The lid or the diaphragm may also have s small screen filter built into it.  Look carefully they are small and hard to see.  This is a feature found primarily on a few more expensive brands.  At the time I am writing this most Rainbird valves have a tiny filter molded into the diaphragm, so if it is a Rainbird valve be sure to look for it.  If there is a screen be sure it isn’t clogged up.  A toothbrush works good for cleaning the screens.

    Clean two sided white plastic filter with a toothbrush.
    Clean two sided white plastic filter in Rainbird valves with a toothbrush.
  6. Check the rubber diaphragm for any cracks, tears, rips, or holes in it.  It should be flexible and in very good condition.  If not, replace it.  Repair kits with replacement diaphragms are sold at some hardware stores, all irrigation stores, or may be obtained online.
    repair-valve-07
  7. Reassemble the valve when you are finished cleaning the parts and checking for blocked ports.  Everything goes back in the same place it came from.  Be very careful not to get dirt into the valve when reassembling it.  Lubricate all the o-rings using standard KY Jelly (not the heating/stimulation types.)  Do not use oil or silicone lubricants!  KY Jelly is water-based and will not destroy the rubber seals like oil based products will.

    Standard KY Jelly, purchase at any drug store in the feminine hygiene dept.
    Standard KY Jelly, purchase at any drug store in the feminine hygiene dept.
  8. It should work correctly now.

Ads for Typical Repair Parts:

(Amazon has lots more repair parts, for many brands, this is just a start! Hardware & home improvement stores in some areas also carry valve repair parts for a few common models. Dedicated irrigation stores usually stock common brand parts and can order just about any brand or model.)

How to Find Buried Pipes, Wires, and Valves

If you have an underground sprinkler system (drip systems too), somewhere out in your yard there are buried pipes, wires, and maybe even valves.  But where are they?  Sometimes they are above ground, so all you need to do is look around a bit.  If not, then they aren’t visible because they are buried.  (Big sigh.)  You have perhaps the toughest problem there is in the irrigation repair business.  There are no easy and inexpensive ways to find a valve, pipe, or wire.  While this article addresses primarily valves, the methods for finding pipes or wires are basically the same.

Before we get going on how to find a valve let me make a couple of comments about what to do when you do find it.

Digging it Up

Once you find the valve you will probably need to dig it up.  If you’re lucky it will be in a valve box and the box will not have been filled with dirt by some gopher.  If there is a box be prepared to find critters inside the box when you open it!  Use a shovel to pry the lid off from a safer distance.  If the valve is not in a box, you need to be really careful when digging.  Electric solenoid valves have wires attached to them that are very easy to cut with a shovel and very hard to repair once cut.  Also if you hit the solenoid with a shovel you will probably break it and possibly break the valve as well.  Even the valve body is easily cut as well as the pipe.  So go slow and easy.  Dig around the valve using a hand trowel.  Better yet (I know this makes a mess!) you can use the stream from a garden hose with a patio cleaning nozzle on it to dig and use the water blast to loosen the dirt around the valve and wires.  A plastic drink cup (ie; a McDonald’s cup) works good scoop out the muddy water and is unlikely to damage the valve.

If you cut or even nick the insulation on a wire, splice it back together using a water-proof splice kit made for underground wire splices.  It is really important that the bare metal not be exposed to soil or water.  Electrical tape alone will NOT work as a splice water-proofer!  If the metal wire itself is not damaged you can seal the damaged insulation on the wire by coating the damaged area with several thick layers of PVC cement (glue).  Let it dry then wrap the entire area tightly with plastic electrical tape, extending several inches beyond the damaged insulation.  Then coat the tape with pvc cement.  This is not the best solution, but it usually works.

If the metal wire is damaged (even if it is just partially cut) you need to cut out the damaged section and splice in a new section of wire.  Use special water-proof splice connectors you can buy at any hardware store for ALL your irrigation wire splices and connections.   Even ones above ground!  If any water leaks into the splice it will corrode the wire.  Even if the wire is not corroded through, the corrosion can block enough electric current to make the valve not open.  If the wire breaks or corrodes it will be a major pain to find where the problem area in the wire is.  You will probably have to replace all of the wire.  You do not want to have to do that!  Water-proof those splices.  Got it?

I strongly recommend that if you splice or repair a underground wire you put a valve box over the repair rather than just burying it.  Any splice or wire repair is going to be a likely source of future problems.  The box will help protect it and will allow you to more easily locate the splice/repair in the future if you should have problems.  If you can’t put a box over it put something else there that will help you locate it, like a metal tent stake driven fully into the ground at the splice location.  You can find the stake with a metal detector.  Make a note diagramming the location of the splice/repair and put it in the irrigation controller case.

Be Prepared to Replace the Valve

There is a pretty good chance that if you can’t find the valve you will need to replace or repair it when you do.  That’s just how the odds stack up.  If the system is in such bad shape that you can’t find the valves, usually the valves are in bad shape also.  So prepare yourself now for that expense and effort.

Box It!

Once you find your valve, put a valve box around it!  Irrigation valves are often marketed as “direct-burial”, but as you now know (or will soon discover), finding one that has been buried directly in the dirt is very difficult.  It doesn’t need to be a big fancy box, they make nice little inexpensive ones that work fine.  Even a used plastic bucket or gallon size paint can flipped upside down will make a decent temporary valve box until you can afford something better.  It just isn’t a good idea to bury a solenoid valve directly in dirt.  Besides the problem of finding it later, burying it can also make it fail faster.  Plus you are a lot more likely to damage a valve buried in dirt when you dig it up for repairs.  And all valves are going to need to be repaired someday!  So put those underground valves in boxes, and while you’re at it, put 4″ of gravel under the box!  The gravel keeps gophers from digging into the box from underneath and filling the box with dirt.  You can buy a small bag of gravel at most home improvement stores.   (Decorative rock works also, especially that rough surface lava rock.) You might also want to measure and write down where the box is located as measured from a couple of fixed locations, such as a house wall or fence.  That helps you find it if grass grows over the top of it… if you don’t lose the measurements!

OK, time to get to work.

 

How to Find a Buried Valve

1. Start by trying to figure out what the most likely place is where the valve would be installed.  To do this you need to try to “get inside the head” of whomever originally installed the system.   This helps cut down the “search area”. Do you know where other valves are in the yard?  Are they each inside the area they water? If so, the others are probably inside the area they water also.  Are they grouped together?  Then the others may be nearby.  Maybe there is a pattern to the placement of the valves, all on one side of the yard perhaps, or all in a row?   If you don’t know where any of the valves are, you still know a pipe takes water to them.  Find where that pipe connects to your water supply.  Now try to figure out which way the pipe goes from there.  Sometimes if you look real close you can see a slight indentation in the soil where the trench for the pipe was dug.  Another tip, the grass is often just slightly greener where the trench was dug.  For lawns, if you mow the grass short and look across the surface you can often see slight “troughs” where the trenches were dug and the soil has settled.

If you have the original plans for the sprinkler system they may help you find the valves, pipes and wire locations.  If this is a commercial irrigation system the local building inspector or planning department may have a copy of the plans.  However, even if you do have the plans, chances are the valves aren’t located where the plans show them.  So I wouldn’t waste too much time looking for plans.  In 35 years of practice and thousands of irrigation systems, I seldom saw the contractors install the valves exactly where they were shown on my plans.  Even when I required my contractors to label and dimension the valve locations, I often discovered they just made up the dimensions!!   At best a plan might give you a hint as to where to look.

2. If the valve you are looking for is an electric valve that actually still works, try turning the valve on and see if you can hear the solenoid buzzing or water whizzing through the valve. Try using a mechanic’s stethoscope placed on the ground to listen.  Or cut the bottom out of a paper cup, place it upside down on the ground, and put your ear over the top.  Do this late at night or in early morning to reduce background noise and make it easier to hear. Note; if the neighbors see you they will think you’ve lost your mind!

3. Try a metal detector if you own or can borrow one.  I’ve honestly never tried this, but some people tell me it works, and it seems logical.  Most valves have at least a little metal in them, although the cheapest ones have very little.  The solenoid on an automatic valve has a bit of metal in it also.  If you have, or can borrow, a metal detector you may be able to locate the valve or the wires with it.   If the valve or wire are buried deep, a low cost metal detector will probably not find them. In my opinion the chances of success using a metal detector probably are not good enough to make it worth the expense of buying one. But if you have one or can borrow one, why not try it? I’d love to get your feedback on use of a metal detector if you try it!

Try following the pipe to the valve using a metal detector.  According to reader James P. you can trace the location of a pipe using a metal detector and a “fishing tape” (aka; draw wire or draw tape).  A fishing tape is a long tape used by electricians, they inserted the tape into conduits to pull wires through them.  The tape needs to be metal or at least it needs to have a metal section at the end of the tape that you can detect.  You need to cut the pipe open, then you insert the tape into the pipe.  A high-quality metal detector (he warns the cheap ones aren’t powerful enough) can then be used to trace the location of the end of the tape from the ground surface.  You may have to follow the route in sections depending on the length of the tape.  Also if there are any tees or ells in the pipe the tape will not easily slide past them, so you may need to dig a few potholes to cut into each new section of pipe after a tee or ell.  Repair the sections of pipe you cut out to insert the tape using repair couplings or compression couplings.  You will find these at any hardware or home improvement store.

4. Use a valve chatterer. This won’t work if the wires to the valve are cut or broken. So if you’re trying to find an automatic valve that won’t open, a chatterer is not likely going to help.  A chatterer is a electrical device you put on the valve wire that makes the valve rapidly turn on and off.  The result is that some brands of solenoid make a loud clicking or chattering sound that will give away it’s location.  Unfortunately some valve brands don’t make much noise at all. And the deeper the valve is buried, the harder it will be to hear it chatter. Most irrigation pro’s have valve testers that include a chatter function along with other testing tools.  These are handy tool for diagnosing valve electrical problems, but tend to be priced beyond what is justifiable for a homeowner to buy.  (See ads for typical chattering devices at right. Also see my review of the Armada Pro48, which is the one I use.)  To use a chatterer you disconnect the valve’s wires from the controller/timer and hook them up to the chatterer device. Turn the chatterer on and the valve should rapidly open and close and create a noise.  Just like with listening for the water running through the pipe, you will have to go out in the yard and listen for the chattering, and it will help if it is during a quiet time of the day.

Make your own chatterer.  All you will need is three 9-volt batteries and a friend with dexterous fingers.  Someone who texts a lot on their phone is perfect!  Start by making a valve actuator. Here’s how to make one out of three 9-volt batteries.  To chatter the valve simply attach one of the valve wires to one terminal of your home-made actuator and tap the other wire against the other terminal of the actuator.  Tap the wire at one second intervals. It doesn’t matter which wire goes to which terminal. The valve should turn on and off with each tap and make a clicking sound.  I don’t recommend tapping the wires on the controller/timer terminals to chatter the valves. If you slip up while trying to tap the wires against the terminals and short circuit the wires you can damage the controller/timer.  Destroying an expensive controller will ruin your day!

5. Water Dowsing,  aka; water witching.  This is a method of finding a water filled pipe by walking slowly while holding a branched stick or a couple of bent wires in your hands.  I won’t try to explain how to do it, you can look it up if you want to try it.  I’ve never witnessed it done successfully firsthand.  But I have met several people over the years who have either seen it done successfully or done it themselves successfully.  This includes people I trust, so I’m not in doubt of their claims.  Did they see or do what they thought they did?  The answer to that thorny question I will leave to you to decide!

OK, the science behind dowsing is very shaky- at best.  Most explanations I have heard are that those with the talent are able to read subtle signs on the ground surface that indicate the location of water or the pipe.  They then subconsciously transfer that information to the movements of the sticks, like a Ouija Game.  Maybe.  But most of those I’ve talked to say that the force on the stick/wire is very strong and not likely to be from anything subconscious.

Everyone I know who claims dowsing works or that they have the ability to do it IS an expert who has worked in the industry many years.  I can tell you that with 35 years of experience I can often look at an irrigated area and tell you where the pipes are with reasonable accuracy.  No sticks needed.  Just lots of experience looking at irrigation systems, and hints like those I’ve already covered, dips in the ground surface where trenches have settled, areas that are greener than others, etc.    At any rate, I don’t want to get into any arguments over dowsing.  I present it as an option that many believe works.  If you can find someone with the talent, they may, or may not, be able to help you find the pipes, valves, or wires (yes, some dowsers claim they can find wires too!)

6. Use a wire locator (aka; wire tracer) device. This is how the pros do it, but if you notice the cost of a wire locator (ads on right), you will probably find that if you are a homeowner it is not within your budget! Some tool rental places, especially those that cater to professional contractors, have wire tracers they rent.  (Sprinkler Warehouse rents wire tracers using overnight shipment.) You use a wire tracer to follow the path of the wires to the valve, starting at the controller/timer. Again, if the wire is broken you may not be able to follow it (although the better units can even jump the signal over small wire breaks.  However, it will find the location of the break so you can repair the break in the wire.  Then you can continue tracing the wire to the valve– or the next break in the wire! )  Also be aware that it takes a bit of practice to use a wire tracer, but it can be mastered in a few hours.  The way it works is that you attach a signal generator attached to the valve wire.  Then you use a receiver that senses the signal.  The receiver beeps when you are near the wire.    A word of warning on wire tracers. You need a tracer with a signal generator that is powerful enough for the sensor to be able to pick up the signal through 24″of dirt depth. While most residential irrigation wires are not installed that deep, they are supposed to be!  The wire tracers made for use by electricians to find wires in house walls are not powerful enough to detect buried wires, even if they are only a few inches deep. I have one made for detecting wires in walls, that also lists irrigation systems as a suitable use, and it will NOT detect wires buried even 1″ below ground!!!  So before you spend money, make sure the device is suitable for wires that are buried underground.

Hey, do you know someone who works as a line-person for a phone or cable company?  They may have access to a wire locator since they often use them for repairs.  Maybe this weekend they might trade a few minutes of their time for a couple of beers?  hmmmm?

Now for the “this is a lot of work” solutions!  Start with a trip to the store to stock up on Advil and Ben-Gay.
7. Probing for valve boxes.  Before you try digging, first try a shallow probe for valve boxes. If valve boxes were placed over the valves when the system was installed, they are probably just below the surface. Often the only reason you can’t see them is that grass grew over the top of them. A pitch fork is ideal for probing for the boxes, just gently stab the ground until you hear the clunk of a fork tine hitting the plastic box top. If you don’t have a pitch fork a metal yard rake works for some people (others can’t get the motion right to plant the rake tines through the grass), a stick with a long nail-spike on the end of it works good to probe the ground, and last resort is to use a screwdriver on your hands and knees (ouch!)  Again, use logic to figure out the best place to start probing.

8. Probe or dig to find the pipes. (My back is hurting just from writing about it.)  If no valve boxes were used, then you will need to probe deeper. Now, just to warn you, it is highly likely you will cut or break a pipe or wire while you are doing this.  So just be prepared for that as a cost of the process of finding the valve.  OK.  Fortunately installers who don’t use valve boxes also tend to not bury the pipe and valves very deep, cause they’re lazy and cheap.  Normally the pipe from the water supply to the valve is buried deeper than the pipe from the valve to the sprinkler heads. (This pipe is called the “mainline” and is supposed to be at least 18 inches deep!) Plus the wires normally are thrown in the same trench with that mainline pipe going to the valves, and you don’t want to cut or nick a wire with a screwdriver blade.  So it’s best to start at a sprinkler head and work backwards toward the valve.  Use a long blade screwdriver to gently probe for the pipe around the sprinkler.  Try to pick a sprinkler head you think might be close to the valve. If you can turn on the sprinklers, the one closest to the valve will often come on slightly quicker than the others, and have more pressure, so it will have a more “powerful” sound and forceful spray when it is operating. Be gentle when probing, don’t break or pierce the pipe! Once you find the pipe keep probing and follow it back to the valve.  If the ground is really dry and hard, you might want to water it to soften it up first. As you follow the pipe consider marking the pipe locations on the grass or dirt using some of that special marking spray paint or the little sprinler flags they sell at irrigation supply stores.  Marking the pipe location will help you track where you found pipes (ie; this could be a multi-day project!)  Tip;  draw yourself a diagram of the sprinkler pipe locations for future use as you find out where the pipes are!

What if you can’t find the pipes with a screwdriver? Well, in that case it’s time for a shovel. Have fun digging up the yard! 🙁

 

Hydro-Zones, Valve Zones, & Sprinkler Pipe Layout

Sprinkler System Hydro-Zones:

The next step in designing your irrigation system is to identify the individual hydro-zones that exist in the area to be irrigated. Different areas of your yard have different water needs. Each of these areas is called a “hydro-zone”. You need to irrigate them separately from one another to keep from drowning some plants while others are dying of thirst. For example, a grass lawn will almost always need more water than a shrub bed. Plants in the shade of a house need less water than those in direct sun. Tropical plants need more water than desert plants. Remember that over-watering plants can be as harmful to them as underwatering. Many plant diseases are the direct result of over-watering, particularly fungus and molds.

  Using a pencil lightly outline the different hydro-zones in your yard on your plan. Some hints:

  • Lawns and shrubs should NEVER be in the same hydro-zone, so start by creating two hydro-zones, lawns and shrubs.
  • Shady and sunny areas should not be in the same hydro-zone. The shadiest areas are typically in the shadow of buildings where little or no direct sunlight reaches all day long. Go out and walk around your yard. Look for places where the soil stays moist when compared with the rest of the yard. Separate the sunny and shady areas of the lawn area into different hydro-zones. Do the same for the shrubs areas.
  • Plants with different water requirements should not be in the same hydrozone. Show a separate hydro-zone for any grouping of plants that need more or less water than the others. If you’re not familiar with the water needs of various shrubs look them up in a good garden encyclopedia. You can also tell a lot just by observation. Do some plants in your yard seem to wilt easier than others? On large projects you may also have different soil types in various parts of the irrigated area. These may also need separate hydro-zones. This is very common for golf courses and parks.
  • Never combine spray heads, rotors, or drip irrigation in the same hydro-zone. The water application rates are different for each of these, which will cause either dry or wet spots. For example, rotors often apply water at half the rate as spray heads. So if you were to combine spray heads and rotors on the same valve, and then turned on the water long enough to apply just the right amount of water in the spray head area, the area with rotors will only get half the water it needs.

 

The irrigation for each of these hydro-zones will need to be controlled by its own valve. This way the watering times can be individually adjusted for the specific needs of each hydro-zone. Nothing gets over or under watered. Over and under-watering is a major factor in promoting plant disease, and it wastes water. In some small yards it may not be practical to create separate hydro-zones for all the different water needs. This is an individual decision that you will need to make. Another option is to relocate or replace plants that don’t fit in well with others in the area. I often adjust the outlines of lawn areas to avoid small areas I know will have a different hydro-zone than the rest of the lawn, such as in the shade of a building, or under a large tree.

 

Drip Irrigation Systems:

If you use drip irrigation for your shrubs you can much more easily mix plants with varying water uses together. The best way to do this is to install two separate drip systems in the same area, one irrigating just the high water users and one just the low water users. Another cheaper, but less effective, way is to install more emitters at the plants which need more water. The disadvantage of this second method is that most water loving plants don’t just want more water, they want it more frequently, which is not possible when everything is on the same system. Irrigating too frequently is a major cause of plant disease so be warned!

 


Valve Zones:

Previously you wrote down your “design flow” on your Design Data Form. As you remember that was the maximum amount of water available for the irrigation system measured in gallons per minute (GPM). Hopefully you also noted on your plan the flow (GPM) for each sprinkler head. Now you need to divide the irrigation system into valve zones that do not exceed that amount of water. Remember that the valve zones can’t cross over the boundaries of the hydro-zones you drew previously. (Hydro-zones can’t overlap valve zones.) Here’s an easy way to do this:

  1. Add together the GPM for all the sprinklers in a hydro-zone.
  2. If the total GPM of all the sprinklers in the hydro-zone exceeds the design flow GPM, you will need to divide the hydro-zone into more than one valve zone.
  3. The total GPM for each valve zone should never exceed the design flow GPM.
  4. Drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation may NOT be mixed together in a single valve zone. Fixed spray type sprinklers may NOT be mixed with rotor type sprinklers in the same valve zone. You need to create separate valve zones for each of these.

Repeat this procedure for each hydro-zone.

Lightly circle on your plan the heads that are in each valve zone as shown below.

 

Now identify the location where your valves will be installed. If the valves will be above ground pick somewhere they will be hidden, like behind shrubs. Usually they are placed near the water source but there is no reason they need to be. Remember that if you plan to use anti-siphon type valves they must be installed at an elevation 6″ HIGHER than the highest sprinkler head, so they will probably need to be on the uphill side of the irrigated area. The valves do not need to be grouped together in the same location, you can place them where most convenient. Placing the valves in small groups of 2 or more, close to the areas they will water, can often save money by reducing the amount of pipe needed.

 

Draw in a valve symbol on your drawing for each valve zone. This will represent the valve that turns on and off the sprinklers in that valve zone. See the illustration on the next page of the tutorial for a typical valve symbol.

 


 

Sprinkler Pipe Layout

Now that you have the valve zones shown on your drawing it’s easy to add the pipes going to the sprinklers. Start with one of the valves and draw a line to the closest sprinkler in the corresponding valve zone. Then draw a line to the next sprinkler in the valve zone, and the next, etc. Some helpful tips:

  • For small residential sprinkler systems try using a different color pencil for the pipes in each valve zone. This will make your plan easier to understand.
  • Where possible you can minimize the amount of trenching by placing pipes together in the same trench. Show these pipes side-by-side on your plan.
  • Run the pipes as efficiently as possible. In most cases this will be the shortest possible route between each sprinkler, but this is where you need to just look at your plan and think about it a bit. You may find it easier to run one pipe down the center of an area and spur off of it to each sprinkler. Or it may be easier to split the piping with one pipe going to half the sprinklers and the other going to the other half. Some may want to minimize the number of trenches, even if it means using a less direct route for the pipe so two pipes can share a trench. There is no set routing pattern that you must use for the pipe. If for some odd reason you need to route the pipe all the way around the yard to get to a sprinkler only a few feet away from where you started that’s O.K. Try several different layouts until you find one that YOU like, that fits YOUR needs.

Proper Pipe Connection Alignments

  • Show no more than 2 pipes connecting to a sprinkler head– one coming into the sprinkler, and one going out. If you need to branch off from the sprinkler with a 3rd pipe, show the 3rd pipe branching off of the 1st pipe just before it goes into the sprinkler. There is no part made that will allow 3 pipes to connect together at a sprinkler head location. Study the sample drawing below for examples.
  • Try to avoid running pipes within 5 or 6 feet of existing trees. The roots will make it hard to dig trenches for the pipe. With really big trees I try to keep the trenches out from under the canopy of the tree. If I need a sprinkler in that area I run the pipe around the perimeter then go straight in toward the trunk to the sprinkler head. Of course, this may not always be possible. Sometimes you will just have to go through an area with tree roots.

Splitting flows or splitting hairs? You may have heard that the flow from each valve should always be split just after the valve, with one pipe going to half the sprinklers and the other pipe going to the other half. The reasoning is that this “balances” the system. Good designers can balance the flows without resorting to this old method. You are well on your way to becoming a good irrigation designer, so you can forget about such amateurish methods! Route the pipe however you want to route it!

Draw pipes between sprinklers

Draw the lateral pipes between the sprinklers and the valves. If you haven’t drawn the mainline pipe from the valves to the water source, draw it now also.


Determine Flows in Pipes:

In order to determine the pipe size we need to know the flow rate (GPM) of the water in the pipe. Calculating the water flow in each section of pipe is extremely easy, but many people have problems with it. They try to make it too complicated. Just observe the layout of the sprinklers and ask yourself which sprinklers are DOWNSTREAM of this pipe section. It’s simple logic, the water must flow through this pipe to reach the sprinklers downstream. Add the total GPM of those sprinklers together and you have the GPM that will be flowing through the pipe.

    1. Start at the valve. The first section of pipe goes from the valve to the first sprinkler head. All the water for every sprinkler operated by this valve must flow through this section of pipe to get from the valve to the sprinklers, right? So the flow in GPM for this section of pipe is the total of the GPM of all the sprinklers operated by the valve added together.
    2. The remaining sections are just as easy. The total flow through each section of pipe is the same as the total GPM of all the sprinklers downstream from that pipe section. Add together the individual GPMs for each of those sprinklers to get the flow through the pipe section. Don’t make it harder than it is! If you have a short spur pipe leading off to a single head, then only the water going to that head will pass through the spur pipe! So the flow for the spur pipe is the same as the GPM of that single head. Carefully study the sample design below.

Using a pencil, write the flow for each pipe section down on your drawing next to the pipe.

Show flow in each pipe section.


This article is part of the Sprinkler Irrigation Design Tutorial
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Automating a Rain Barrel Irrigation System

Automatic Valves for Rain Barrels:
Standard solenoid irrigation valves don’t work well with a typical rain barrel.  The standard solenoid valves used for irrigation systems simply need more pressure than you have available from a typical gravity fed rain barrel.  The higher pressure requirement for the valve is a function of the hydraulics that makes the valve operate.  You either need more pressure or you need a different type of automatic valve.  If you want to create more pressure you need to raise the height of the rain barrel.  For every foot you raise the rain barrel you will create 0.433 PSI.  The minimum operating pressure of most irrigation valves is at least 15 PSI, that means the barrel needs to be 34 feet above the height of the valve.  That is simply not practical in most cases!  Now you understand why those water towers you see in some communities are so tall!

Yes, they do make motor-operated valves that will work with almost zero water pressure.  So if you have a drip system already installed on your rain barrel and it is working well, then skip over the pump part below and take a look at the options for Motorized Rain Barrel Valves further down this page.

Drip Emitter & Tube Selection
Most people use drip irrigation with their rain barrels, so this article assumes you are using drip irrigation.  (If you want to use sprinklers you will probably need a lot more water pressure, and therefore a larger pump.)  The best emitters for the very low pressures in a rain barrel fed system are the most simple emitters, such as those commonly called a “flag emitter” or “take-apart emitter”.

Another popular choice for emitters when using a rain barrel is the adjustable flow emitter/bubbler.  These use more water and are even less uniform than the Flag Emitters, but they are particularly good for watering pots of various sizes as you can adjust the flow needed for each pot.

Stay away from higher cost emitters and those labeled as “pressure compensating” as they tend require higher pressures to operate efficiently.

Example of a Flag Emitter:

Use 1/2″ tube if you can and keep the drip tube lengths short.  Smaller diameter tubes (especially 1/4″ tube!) and longer tube lengths both increase the amount of water pressure needed and lower the water uniformity between plants.  To put it another way;  if you use long, small tubes the plants on the end of the tube closest to the rain barrel may drown from too much water while the plants at the far end of the tube may not get any water at all.

Gravity fed drip systems from rain barrels are going to have less uniform water distribution.  That’s just the way it is, with minimal water pressure it is very hard hydraulically to maintain uniformity.  To make the best out of a bad situation you use larger diameter tubes and keep the barrel as close as possible to the plants so the tubes are not too long, as described above.  If that isn’t for you, then the alternative is to use a small pump to create more water pressure.  Most people just elect to be content with the low uniformity.

If you want to test the uniformity of your drip system it is very easy to do, simply build your drip system and attach it to your rain barrel.  Then place a disposable plastic cup under each emitter and run the system for a few minutes.  All the cups should have about the same amount of water in them.  If the water in the cups varies greatly then the uniformity is pretty bad.  If the uniformity is bad enough that you think it will create uneven watering you can do a simple test to see if more pressure will help by hooking your drip system up to a garden hose.  Be careful, the garden hose will provide more pressure than you need, so turn the valve on slowly and don’t turn it on all the way.  Empty out the cups and run the test with the cups again.  Usually the higher pressure from the garden hose will result in more uniformity between the water in the cups.

Consider Using a Pump for your Rain Barrel!
The best way to automate a rain barrel irrigation system may be by not using a valve at all!  Consider using a small pump placed on your rain barrel outlet hose.  Most irrigation systems do not work very efficiently at the low water pressures typical of rain barrel systems.  Thus a pump is often the best solution as it may provide the added benefit of more water pressure.  But it’s not cheap to add a pump.  If your #1 concern is low cost and you don’t care about things like water uniformity between plants, skip down to the section on Motorized Rain Barrel Valves!

Selecting and Installing a Rain Barrel Pump
Make sure the pump is rated for enough flow to supply your emitters, and enough lift to get the water needed for your irrigation over the top of the barrel.  Add the flow rate of all the emitters together to determine the flow rate needed for the pump.  For example if you have 15 emitters that are rated at 1gph (gph means “gallons per hour”) then the pump will need to supply at least 15 gph.  If the barrel is 5 feet tall then the pump will need to lift the water 5 feet just to get it out of the barrel.  But you need to do more than get the water out of the barrel.  You need pressure to move the water efficiently through the tubes and push it out through the drip emitters.  That requires another 45 feet of elevation.  So add your rain barrel height to the elevation needed to power the drip system.  5 + 45  = 50 feet.  So you want a pump with the capacity to move 15gph of water and lift it 50 feet.

Some pumps are rated using PSI (pounds per square inch of pressure) output value rather than feet of lift.  A simple formula converts feet to PSI.  Just multiply feet x 0.433 to get PSI.   So a  pump with a 50 feet of lift becomes 22 PSI.  (50 feet * 0.433 = 22 PSI)  So if the pump is rated in PSI it needs to produce 22 PSI.

If you can find one the right size, a submersible pump is the easiest and best method.  Unfortunately most are made to be fountain pumps or sump pumps and they don’t create enough water pressure.  If you find one that will work for you, attach your irrigation hose to the pump, put the pump in the bottom of the barrel, and run the tube up over the top of the barrel.  You will need a air vent at the high point on the tube near the top of the barrel (above the maximum water level) to prevent water from siphoning out of the barrel through the tube when the pump is not running.  You can buy an air vent from any drip irrigation store.  Or… a very simple and cheap way to create an air vent is to add a drip emitter on the hose at the top of the barrel, so that the water from the emitter drips back into the barrel and is not wasted.  When the pump turns off, this emitter will allow air to flow back into the tube and the air will stop the water from siphoning out.

If you don’t use a submersible pump then the pump will be attached to an outlet at the bottom of the rain barrel.  Make sure the pump is bolted or screwed down to a firm surface or it will jump all over the place when it runs.   The tube from the pump outlet will need to be looped up above the top of the barrel and an air vent (or emitter as described above) installed at the high point to prevent all the water in the barrel from draining out through the pump when the pump is off.
Here’s an example of a pump:

The Little Giant 35-OM pump is made for high pressure applications like commercial carpet cleaners, but it produces good pressure at a low flow, a combination that is great for small drip systems. Amazon doesn’t list the performance chart for this pump so here it is:

 40 gph at 70 ft hd
60 gph at 65 ft hd
80 gph at 58 ft hd
100 gph at 54 ft hd
120 gph at 45 ft hd
140 gph at 30 ft hd

Controlling the Rain Barrel Pump:
The pump can be turned on and off by using a timer.  A simple lamp or other household electricity timer will often work for an extreme low cost option, however lamp timers are pretty limited.  Most timers of this type will only turn on  and off the pump once a day, and do it every day.  Most people don’t need to water daily, so this could waste water.  If you do use a simple timer make sure it is rated for a voltage and amperage that is equal to or higher than the input of your pump.

If you want to use a standard irrigation timer to control the pump you will need to buy a pump relay unit.  Irrigation timers output 24 VAC, most pumps use 120 VAC.  So the pump can’t be connected directly to the irrigation timer.  A relay is used to allow the pump to be turned on by the timer.  You can purchase a pump relay made for irrigation timers at almost any irrigation supply store.  Make sure the relay is rated for the correct voltage and amperage for your pump.   Instructions for installing and wiring the pump relay should be provided with the pump relay.

Multiple Watering Circuits:
Most rain barrels don’t hold enough water to supply more than a single irrigation watering circuit, but in some cases they might.  If you need more than one “valve circuit” you can simply duplicate the pump solution above and use two pumps.  Multiple pumps may be the least expensive solution for as many as 3 or more irrigation circuits.  As an alternative, you can use multiple motorized valves (see below) with or without a pump.   Another alternative is to use a single pump that is sized to provide enough water and pressure for a standard irrigation setup using solenoid valves.  I would suggest that the pump for this would need to create a minimum of 25 PSI in addition to sufficient flow to supply the largest irrigation circuit.  Use a standard irrigation controller that has a “pump start” feature to turn on and off both the valves and the pump.  The pump will require a pump relay to control it as described above for the single pump system.

Motorized rain barrel valves:

They do make mechanical motor-operated ball or butterfly type valves that will open at any pressure.

One of the least expensive solutions is a combination timer and valve made for garden hoses.  The Toro #53746 Battery Operated Hose End Timer is an example of this type of timer/valve.  There are likely other brands available as well.  This Hose End Timer uses a motorized ball valve to control the water flow.  Most of the time the hose end timer gets the job done when used with a rain barrel… but this is a low end market product and be aware that the quality is low.  It may very well quit working after a year or two.  On the other hand you can buy and replace a lot of these for the price of a full blown commercial quality motorized valve and timer unit like the ones they use on home floor heating systems.

Here’s a link to the Toro Hose End Timer:

For a more expensive, but more reliable and longer lasting method, use a motorized ball valve made for home hydronic heating systems.  This is a method shown to me by “Randy G.” who says he has successfully used the motorized ball valves that are made for hydronic heating systems on rain barrels.   I haven’t tested these valves, but I looked over the literature on the Taco valve Randy mentions, and it seems to indicate the valve would work.   Per Randy, “the Taco Sentry series are motorized ball valves…, and can be had for $70 or so at most online stores…  Honeywell, White-Rodgers, and several other companies also sell ones with similar prices.  You can get the Honeywell ones dirt cheap…, but I’ve heard their reliability is lower, so I haven’t tried them – something about oxygen breaking down the rubber over time.  And, of course, make sure you get a motorized ball valve, not a heat motor valve, unless you really want to use lots of power and take several minutes to open or close…”

Randy also suggests “Virtually all modern (heating) zone valves are 24VAC, and thus directly compatible with standard irrigation timers, especially the Taco electronic ones that draw relatively little power, good for cheap electronic timers.”  So when using a motorized heating valve make sure the motor operates on 24VAC as they come in a variety of voltages and the irrigation controllers only work with 24VAC valves.   To find these motorized valves do a search for “hydronic zone valve”.  Be sure to note the connection types for the valves, most are made to connect to PEX pipe or be soldered onto copper.  You may have to install adapters to fit them to your irrigation system pipes or tubes.

Special thanks to Randy for supplying this helpful tip!  If you try these valves for your system I would love to hear your thoughts on them as well.

How to Use Pressure and Flow Switches with Irrigation Controls

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.

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.  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.

All Valves Come on and Stay On Continuously

Q.  I just restarted my sprinkler system after it had been winterized. When I turned on the water to the system, all the valves stations came on at once, as if by-passing the timer unit.  Even when I turn the timer unit Off, the sprinklers keep running.

A.   This is a common problem when restarting after your sprinkler system has been winterized, or after the system has been turned off for an extended period of time.  It also often occurs with brand new solenoid valves that have just been installed.  There are a  couple of possible problems that can cause this, so we’ll look at a couple of solutions.  One of the tricks below should get your irrigation valves opening and closing properly again.

Air Trapped in the Valve:

The valves may have air trapped in them.   A small bubble of air becomes trapped in the tiny water ports of the valve, this stops the water from flowing through the port.  Since the water flowing through the port is what holds the valve diaphragm closed, the valve stays open.

1. Turn on the main water supply.

2. Now go to the individual valves and using the manual open & close control on the valve.  The manual open & close control is either a lever on the valve (most often it is under the valve’s solenoid), or it may be a screw on the top of the valve bonnet.  If it is a screw don’t fully remove it, just open it until water starts squirting out.  Set it to open, wait a few seconds, then set back to closed.  If the valve doesn’t close within a minute, try it again.  It may take several tries to get the air bubble to “burp” itself out.  Try tapping the valve to dislodge the air while the valve is open if needed.  Note: old plastic valves may become brittle and crack when tapped, so if the valve is plastic and old don’t tap on it except as a last resort if the air doesn’t come out.

3. If that doesn’t fix the problem, you can almost always force the air out using the manual flow control on the valves.  Unfortunately, some inexpensive valves do not have a flow control.  The flow control is a handle, similar to what a manual valve has, that is on the top of the valve.  It works just like a regular faucet, turn clockwise to close.  Most flow controls have a hand operated flow control, others have a cross handle that is turned using a tool (pliers will work if you don’t have the special valve opening tool.)  A few valves have a screw for the flow control that requires a screwdriver to turn.  Try completely closing and then reopening the manual flow control on each valve.  That should force the air out and fix the problem.

Valve Needs to be Throttled:

If air in the valve doesn’t seem to be the problem it is possible that your valves don’t have enough pressure differential and they need to be throttled in order for them to close by themselves.

Here’s how to throttle them using the flow control adjustment:

Note: some inexpensive valves do not have a flow control adjustment feature on them.  If that is the case you are not going to be able to do this.  You will need to replace the valve with a better quality valve that has a flow control.

1. Use the manual flow control on each valve to close all of the valves.  Now the main water supply should be on, but none of the valves should be allowing water through.  So no sprinklers are running.
2. Start with just one valve at a time.  Rotate the manual on/off lever to the on position.  Open the manual flow control knob all the way (turn as far as it will go counterclockwise). The valve should come on and sprinklers run.
3.  Next rotate the manual on/off lever under the solenoid to the closed position.  The valve should close (it may take it a minute or two to close) but probably won’t, because that is the problem, they won’t close!   If the sprinklers turn off the valve is working correctly, go to the next valve and start again with step #2.  If the valve does not close by itself, you need to throttle the valve.  Continue to step #4.
4. To throttle the valve you partially close the flow control knob.  Start by turning it one full turn clockwise.  Wait a minute for the valve to close.  If it doesn’t close, turn the handle another half turn clockwise.  Wait again.  If the valve still doesn’t close turn it another half turn.  Keep doing this, at some point the valve should suddenly make a whooshing noise and close.  If the valve is broken it will never close by itself and eventually as you close the flow control more and more the sprinkler radius will start becoming noticeably reduced.  If that happens you need to repair or replace the valve.  But in most cases the valve will close by itself after you have partially closed the flow control.  It might take 4-5 complete turns before this happens.

You shouldn’t see any significant change in the sprinkler performance with the valve flow control in the partially closed position, except that the sprinklers may mist a little less (which is a good thing.)  This is called “throttling the valve” and some valves won’t close by themselves unless they are throttled.  The way a solenoid valve works is that the pressure differential as the water goes through the valve is what the valve uses to power itself into the closed position.  If there isn’t enough pressure differential the valve will not close by itself.   Often there is not enough pressure differential when there aren’t very many sprinklers on the valve circuit. When you throttle the flow control you are simply increasing the pressure diferential.

You can leave the flow control in a partially closed position permanently, it will not hurt the valve.  The valve is designed to allow you to do this.  The sprinklers should still operate well as the amount of water throttled when you partially close the valve is not significant.

For valve repair instructions see  how to fix a solenoid irrigation valve.

Valves Downstream from Anti-siphon Valve?

Q.  I have manual shut-off valves installed downstream from my electronic anti-siphon valves.  I installed them to turn off the water to parts of my yard where I grow annuals and only need to water for a few months out of the year.   I would really appreciate it if you would explain why valves downstream cause the anti-siphon valve backflow prevention to fail.

A.  If there are some sprinklers that are not shut off by the downstream valves (ie; there is always a sprinkler that will be on when the anti-siphon valve is on) then you should be fine.  The key to this is that when the anti-siphon valve is closed the water remaining in the pipe downstream of the anti-siphon valve MUST become depressurized.  Depressurizing normally occurs when you shut off the anti-siphon valve and the remaining water pressure in the downstream pipes is released through a sprinkler.   But if you have a valve downstream of the anti-siphon valve it will trap pressurized water in the pipe between the anti-siphon valve and the downstream valve and not allow it to “depressurize”.  Note that sprinkler heads with built-in check valves will also hold the water pressure in the pipe.  That is why when using anti-siphon valves you should remove the check valve from at least one of the sprinklers on each valve circuit (normally you would remove it from the sprinkler on the circuit with the highest elevation.)  the check valves are easy to remove from the sprinklers, normally you just unscrew the sprinkler cap and lift out the riser assembly.  You will see a rubber washer attached to the bottom of the riser assembly, pull it off.  That rubber washer is the check valve seal, with it removed the check valve won’t work.   Now reassemble the sprinkler.

How an anti-siphon valve works:
The  anti-siphon valve works by use of a little air vent that is located on the downstream side of the actual valve.  Look at the anti-siphon valve you will see there is a large cap directly above the water outlet of the valve, the air vent is under this cap.  If you look closely at the lower perimeter of the cap you will see holes or slits that allow the air to move in and out of the vent.  When the anti-siphon valve is turned off the pressure drops in the pipes downstream from it as the remaining water flows out of the sprinklers.  When the pressure drops the little air vent drops open and lets air into the pipe right behind the valve.   This air goes into the pipe and breaks any siphon effect (“anti-siphon”) so that sprinkler water can’t be drawn backward through the valve into the potable water supply.

(Water from the sprinkler pipes can be siphoned back into the water supply system when pressure is lost in the water supply system.  For example, the water company might depressurize their pipes to make repairs.  It doesn’t happen frequently, but it does happen.  When the pressure drops the flow reverses and water from the sprinkler pipes, along with dirt and other yucky stuff, can be sucked in through the sprinklers and then into the water supply system.  When the pressure returns that dirty sprinkler water may go back into the sprinkler system, but it may just as easily go to your kitchen or bathroom sink.  So why wouldn’t the closed anti-siphon valve stop this from happening?  After all the purpose of a valve is to stop water from flowing through it when it is closed, right?  Yes, of course, if the valve is a manual valve.  But electric solenoid valves are “directional” valves.  What that means is they are designed to stop the flow when the water is flowing in one direction only.  When the water flows backwards they don’t fully close!)

What the downstream valve does:
If you have another shut-off valve after the anti-siphon valve, then the water on the downstream side of the anti-siphon valve will stay pressurized even when the anti-siphon valve is closed.  This water pressure holds the little air vent in the closed position so it can’t let in air, and therefore the siphon effect is not broken.  This means the anti-siphon part of the valve will not work.  Even worse, when the little vent is held closed for days at a time due to the constant downstream pressure, it eventually just sticks in the closed position.  Then even if the pressure drops the anti-siphon won’t work.

My Friend or Irrigation Person Says This is All Just Something  YOU Made Up!
Unfortunately, this wrong practice of installing valves after an anti-siphon valve is pretty common in the irrigation industry.  I’ve been called some pretty ugly names over this issue.  Fortunately for me, you don’t have to take my word for it.  Tell your friend/buddy/pal to read the box the anti-siphon valve came in.  It says right on it “do not install valves downstream” or something similar.  If you don’t have the box or it didn’t come in one, then go to the manufacturer’s website and find the anti-siphon valve installation instructions.  You will find that same warning.  Here’s a sample from Rainbird if you want to check for yourself:  Rainbird Anti-siphon Valve Operation Manual. See the section that starts with the heading “CAUTION”.

Can I Run Two Irrigation Valves at the Same Time?

Q.  Is it possible to have two valves on at the same time or to run two irrigation valves at once?

A. Yes, it is often possible to run two valves at once.  However there are several problems that can occur.

You must have a sufficient water supply for both valves to run at once.  If the performance of the sprinklers suffers and you start seeing dry spots in the landscape, you obviously don’t have enough water.  You may need to do some adjusting of the sprinklers as the water pressure operating them is likely to be less when two valves are on.

Both valves running at the same time may require more water than the pipe supplying them can reasonably handle.  This can result in water hammer, or premature pipe wear/failure, due to high water velocity.

Water Hammer: Listen for a loud water hammer “thump” or “bang” noise when the valves close.  A gentle thump is fine, but if the pipes reverberate from it that is not good.  Run just one valve and listen to the sound when it closes.  Assuming the irrigation is properly designed, that should be the “normal” closing sound.  Now listen to the sound when both valves are closed together to see if it is significantly louder.  If it is significantly louder, that is not good.  You can possibly reduce or eliminate the water hammer problem by closing the valves separately, one at a time.

High Velocity: Premature wear due to velocity is harder to figure out.  It generally isn’t a problem unless the water is really flowing fast through the pipe, like 8 feet per second or higher.  The only way to determine if it is a problem is to do a couple of calculations.  Start with the sprinklers.  On top of each sprinkler is an identifying names and part numbers that tell you the brand, model, and hopefully the nozzle size. Write down that information for each sprinkler, then look up the water use (GPM value) for that sprinkler and nozzle at the sprinkler company’s website.  (You may need to call the company’s help line to assist you, each brand and model is different so I can’t give exact instructions.)  Now add together the GPM values for all the sprinklers that are running at the same time when two valves are turned on.  This will tell you how much water the two valves require when running together.  Next find the size and type of the water pipe that leads to the valves.  (For example it might be a 3/4″ copper tube, or maybe a 1″ PVC pipe.  It may be several different sizes and types of pipe, in which case you would use the smallest pipe size and type.)  Using that information you can calculate the velocity of the flow in the pipe using the Friction Loss Calculator at https://www.irrigationtutorials.com/formulas.htm#sec8.  Just enter the pipe type, size, and GPM into the calculator and it will give you the velocity.

If you decide to use a controller to operate the valves the controller must be a brand that provides sufficient amperage to run two valves at the same time (most do.)  If you want the controller to run the valves at the same time, but start and stop them about one minute apart to reduce water hammer, you will need a controller that allows you to run two separate valve zones at the same time.  Most controllers have a “stacking feature” that prevents them from doing this.  You will need a controller that allows you to turn off the stacking feature.  Most controllers can’t do this.  You will probably need to enlist a knowledgeable controller salesman at a professional irrigation supply store to assist you in finding a controller that will work for this unique situation.