Tag Archives: Wire

Sprinkler System Design: Automation, Costs, Contractors, more…

Almost Finished!


Well, if you are working through the Sprinkler Design Tutorial, you’re now pretty much finished with your irrigation design. Here are a few reminders and additional items to consider.

Automatic controllers: For automatic irrigation systems you will need a controller (often called a “timer”) with one “station” for each valve. If you have both lawn and shrub areas you should make sure the controller has 2 or more “programs”. Multiple programs are somewhat like having several “timers” in the same controller. This allows you the flexibility to run the lawn and shrub irrigation on different days. Study the different models and features available on various controllers. Some irrigation controllers and timers allow you to add more zones using irrigation system expansion modules. They range from simple timers to extremely complex computerized units that can monitor all the functions of your entire home!  I suggest you take a look at the article on Smart Controllers if you are interested in the latest innovation for saving you time and water.

Isolation valves: It’s a good idea to install a manual shut-off valve at the point where your irrigation system connects to the water supply. I know I already covered this, but not doing it is a big regret that I hear often.  An isolation valve allows you to shut down the irrigation for control valve repairs without shutting off the water to your house.  You will have to repair a control valve at some time.  I recommend using a “ball valve” for the isolation valve, as ball valves are the most reliable and reasonably priced shut-off valves.   Most inexpensive “Gate valves” will leak.

Wires for valves: For wires going to the automatic valves use wire made specially to be buried. Most people use a special direct burial cable made for irrigation systems. The cable contains 3, or more, separate, 18 gauge wires. On commercial systems, the standard wire used is “#14-1 AWG-UF” which is a single strand, direct burial type wire. One white color “common” wire goes from the controller to every valve, and one individual “lead” wire of a color other than white goes to each valve from the controller. Be sure to read the Irrigation Installation Tutorial.  Also, there is a sketch of typical irrigation system wiring that should help you understand the wiring.

Details: To further help you there is a collection of installation details. These simple sketches will help you figure out how to assemble your irrigation system. These installation detail drawings are normally included as a part of the design drawings for an irrigation system.

Filters: I recommend you install a screen-type water filter upstream of the valves.  Drip systems should always have a filter! This helps reduce maintenance problems caused by small bits of sand which are found in almost all water systems. These small sand grains can make the automatic valves malfunction and also clog sprinkler heads over time.  A $50.00 filter may seem expensive, but it is a lot cheaper than a $100 valve repair job or replacing a dead lawn.  I recommend a “150 mesh screen” in the filter. The filter can be installed underground in a box if you don’t want it visually cluttering up your landscape. On the other hand, it is nice to have it in a more convenient above-ground location for maintenance. Remember, you need to clean the filter screens at least once a year if not more often! For tons of more information on filtration see the Irrigation Water Filtration Tutorial.

Cold Winter Precautions:  Unless your irrigation system is in an area where it never freezes you should insulate the backflow preventer and any other above-ground equipment. Backflow preventers are very expensive, you don’t want an unexpected freeze to catch you off-guard. A few years back that happened here in California and thousands of backflow preventers had to be replaced because the water froze in them and they split open! I usually use foam insulation tape to wrap the backflow preventers and above-ground valves, then wrap the insulation with a layer or two of 10mil black plastic tape to protect it. There are also some pretty neat backflow preventer blankets (essentially a big insulated bag), that are made to fit over the backflow preventer like a big coat. They work well, I use them. (I have a small one in my truck that I use to keep cans of soda cool when I’m on the road. It also makes a great pillow!) If the backflow preventer has air vents or a water blow-off outlet it is extremely important that they not be blocked by insulation! There should be instructions that come with your backflow preventer.

Winterization:  In areas where freezing weather occurs you need to take precautions to protect your irrigation system from freezing. There is a whole tutorial on winterizing your sprinkler system in areas where it really freezes hard. It covers the various methods used, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and what you will need to install as part of your new sprinkler system for each method.

Pumps: Thinking you might need an alternative water source for your sprinklers such as from a pond or lake? Check out the Irrigation Pumping Systems Tutorial.

How much will it cost?

That’s hard to say. I priced out the materials for the little sample irrigation system at the top of this page at $375.00. That included reasonably good quality sprinkler heads, “funny pipe” type risers, Cl 200 PVC pipe, anti-siphon valves, and a very inexpensive $50.00 controller. That comes to about $0.25 per square foot of irrigated area. You may need to add extra for a better backflow preventer and better controller. I would suggest in most cases that you estimate at $0.25 per square foot plus the controller and backflow preventer cost.

Professional Installers:

Irrigation system installation labor generally costs about 1.5 times the cost of the materials. So a sprinkler system needing $1000 of materials will require around $1500 of labor to install. That would be a total cost of about $2500 including materials and labor if it is professionally installed. Installation costs can vary wildly, be sure to get 3 bids.  If any bid is significantly lower than the others it should be regarded as extremely suspicious and it would be wise to use extreme caution before hiring that cheap contractor.  Never pay a deposit upfront unless you are willing to risk losing that money.  If the contractor needs upfront money insist that he/she deliver materials equal to the deposit value to your house prior to payment.  Remember if the contractor needs money upfront to buy supplies that mean the suppliers won’t sell to him on credit.  Irrigation suppliers sell to almost everyone on 30-day interest-free credit, so if they don’t trust him/her to pay them that should be a huge warning to you!  The irrigation installation business is very easy and cheap to get started in. As a result, it has a huge number of contractors that are under-financed, who don’t have the money to buy the materials needed to do the work they get and then fail.  Understand that property laws in the USA allow the supplier who provided the materials to the contractor to place a lien on your home for the value of any materials the contractor buys for your sprinkler system but does not pay for.  It does not matter if you paid the contractor already for those materials.  The supplier can still make you pay for them again.  Fair or not, that is the law.  Be smart, protect yourself!!!


Now you’ll probably want to move on to the Sprinkler System Installation Tutorial.  It covers in more detail the various irrigation parts you will use, like sprinkler risers. It also teaches you to “talk sprinklers” (so you can sound like you know more than you do!), helps you make a list of the materials you will need to buy, provides some helpful forms you can print out, explains which tools can make your day or break your back, and a few other tips and tricks! Be sure you read it before you buy anything or start digging!!! (Just when you thought you were finished!)

End of Tutorial


Tutorial Credits:
(As you will note, I’ve enlisted some assistance from my family members!)

Written by Jess Stryker, Landscape Architect, unless noted otherwise

Constructive Criticism:

  • Julie Stryker, the love of my life!
  • Nathan Stryker, my son.
  • Dan Fahndrich of Farwest Gardens, Inc.
  • The many tutorial users who have asked questions and pointed out unclear topics.
  • And even a few jerks who have kept me (sorta) humble!!!

HTML Coding and page design:

  • Jess Stryker & Nathan Stryker
  • WordPress
  • NoteTab Pro by Eric G.V. Fookes, www.notetab.com


  • Jess Stryker
  • Nathan Stryker
  • Steve Brinkman

Other individual credits are listed on the pages of the tutorial.


This article is part of the Sprinkler Irrigation Design Tutorial
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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.


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! 🙁