Top 10 irrigation system problems & solutions

Over the years we’ve visited hundreds of gardens in Gauteng, and have seen our fair share of irrigation problems. In this article we’d like to discuss some of the most common problems we’ve encountered, and provide some advice on how you can go about fixing them. Note that every system is unique, and there may be valid reasons why your installer has installed your system the way they have. Use this list as a guide, and as always we’d welcome your feedback.

Herewith are our top 10 irrigation problems and their solutions:

1) Inadequate trenching

By far the most common problem we encounter in home irrigation systems is inadequate trenching. Trenching is the most labour intensive part of an irrigation installation, and is therefore often neglected. Many installations are only trenched to the depth of the pop-ups (usually 20-30 centimeters), because this makes it easier, and cheaper, to join the pop-up to the pipe. Unfortunately though, poor trenching can result in pipes being frequently punctured (either by yourself or your gardener), and can lead to frequent maintenance of the system. As a general rule – and unless there are extenuating circumstances such as rock or house foundations – pipes should be trenched to a minimum of 400mm below the surface, and pop-ups joined to the pipe via swing-joint risers or flex-pipe. Not only does this keep the pipes well away from ordinary gardening tools (such as garden forks), but swing-joints allow you to easily adjust the height of the pop-ups if the height of the soil changes in the future.

2) Lack of head-to-head design

Perhaps the most common design flaw we see in installations is the lack of head-to-head design, which results in dry-spots, over-watering or under-watering of certain areas of the garden. It’s a common misconception that if water from a sprinkler is ‘reaching’ a particular area, then that area is being watered. In reality though, the area covered by the sprinkler is not watered evenly, because for most sprinklers more water is put down at the head of the sprinkler. The water profile of most sprinklers looks like this:

And underground:

This being the case, the key to having an even precipitation over an area is to add a return sprinkler, which just touches the outer radius of the first. Now, your water profile looks like this:

This is known as head-to-head, and – provided each sprinkler has the same precipitation rate – creates an even precipitation over the area.

Here are the two scenarios from a top-down/design perspective for a rectangular section of lawn:

*Note: if you are watering a narrow strip of garden, you can use strip nozzles and do not need to use a ‘head-to-head’ design. Likewise, if you are watering a narrow bed with shrubs or a wall at the end of the radius, use sprinklers that reach double the distance. Water then hits the hedge or the wall and trickles down, helping to even out the underground water profile.

3) Incorrect pipe sizes used

Another common problem in home irrigation installations is the use of incorrect pipe sizes – specifically pipes that are too narrow for the distance required. When water flows through a pipe, a certain amount of pressure is lost due to friction – otherwise known as ‘friction loss’. Factors affecting this include the diameter of the pipe, the length of the pipe, and the rate of flow (litres/min), amongst others. (Fittings, roughness of the pipe, and water temperature are also factors). Unfortunately, all too frequently, we see narrow pipes – usually 20mm LDPE pipe – used over too long a distance, resulting in a loss of pressure to the sprinklers. All sprinklers have a specific pressure rating at which they work most efficiently, and a loss of pressure degrades their performance and reduces their area of coverage. Take a standard 17ft cone nozzle for example, which has a recommended pressure rating of 2.1bar. If used at this pressure, this nozzle covers an area of 5.2 meters (17 feet). However, a 1bar drop in pressure due to friction reduces the radius to only 4.6m, thereby compromising its performance and the coverage of your plants. Likewise gear drives (rotors) require sufficient pressure in order to rotate, and may stop turning if the pressure in your system is too low. Unfortunately, pipes are sometimes undersized in order to save costs, but this really is a case of being ‘penny wise and pound foolish.’ Calculating friction losses requires a friction chart or excel spreadsheet (available online), but is an important step in the design of a system. If you currently have pressure related problems due to incorrect pipe sizes, you could try switching to nozzles that use less water (i.e have lower flow rates), which may help increase the pressure in your pipes. Ideally though, pipes should be sized correctly to begin with, so removing old pipes and replacing them with new ones is more often than not the most appropriate solution.

4) Poor quality cabling

Comms cables such as these on the right can cause electrical problems on your system and could void your manufacturers warranty

Automated irrigation systems make use of solenoid valves, which open and close to release water to your pipes and sprinklers. Power to the solenoid coils is supplied from the controller through cabling, with each station having its own cable and a shared common wire. Unfortunately many systems are installed using inferior cabling, most frequently communications (comms) cables, which are unsuitable for underground use.

Comms cables used on this system were left unprotected and exposed to moisture in the irrigation box. Apart from breaking easily, they shorted one of the solenoid coils, requiring replacement and repair

These cables frequently cause problems with irrigation systems, including breaking easily, shorting of coils, or even shorting of a controller. In some cases manufacturers may void your warranty if it is found that communication cables were used on a system where their controller has blown. For most systems, 1.0mm GP wire should be used for connections from the controller to the valves, and these cables should be placed in conduit (either 20mm or 25mm PVC or LDPE). Connections at the valves should then be waterproofed, preferably with silicone connectors. Finally, the cables should be trenched appropriately, and – where possible – laid in the same trenches as the irrigation pipes, 400mm below ground.

The repaired box –  a new coil and 1.omm GP wire in conduit, connected with silicone snaplocks

5) Mixing heads with different precipitation rates and pressure ratings

ABOVE: A Rainbird 12van nozzle with a precipitation rate of 40 mm/hr (square spacing)
BELOW: A Hunter MP2000 nozzle with a precipitation rate of 10 mm/hr (square spacing)

Understanding precipitation rates is one of the most important aspects to irrigation design, but is often neglected, especially when maintenance on an existing system is conducted. Different sprinklers put down water at different precipitation rates, so mixing sprinklers with differing precipitations rates can lead to overwatering or underwatering of certain areas of your garden. A 12 foot Rainbird cone nozzle for example has a precipitation rate of 40mm/hr (with square spacing). In contrast, a Hunter MP Rotator nozzle has a precipitation rate of 10mm/hr (with square spacing) – four times less water per hour. It’s not difficult to understand then that if you have mixed these two nozzles on the same station, why one area of your garden is getting more water than the other. Additionally, the above two nozzles have different pressure ratings: the cone nozzle works best at 2.1bar, whilst the MP rotator works best at 2.8bar. Running them both on the same station is therefore inefficient use of one or the other. Similar problems occur when cone nozzles are mixed with rotors/gear-drives, as gear drives can also have much lower precipitation rates – depending on the arc and the nozzle-insert selected. To avoid these problems it’s important to first understand the precipitation rates of each of your sprinklers, and to only use sprinklers with similarly matched precipitation rates and pressure ratings on the same zone. Doing so allows for efficient, even watering of all areas of your garden.

6) Overwatering

This Buddleja saligna (False Olive) – showing yellowing of the leaves – was overwatered by an irrigation system

Overwatering leads to many problems in gardens, and is a surprisingly common mistake, even for home owners with automated systems. We’ve met home owners who used to water their gardens twice a day, every day, which was a significant waste of water and was hugely damaging to their plants. Plants that have been overwatered are susceptible to fungus and disease, whilst root systems of trees may remain shallow, thereby compromising their stability. To avoid overwatering your garden it’s important to know the required amount of water for your plants per week, and to schedule your system accordingly.

Yellowing lawn is a possible sign of overwatering – here around the sprinkler head

On the highveld, the ideal amount of water for ‘thirsty’ gardens – that is gardens with large areas of lawn or species with high water requirements – is 25mm per week in summer. This 25mm should be spread evenly over the week, and only on alternate days (e.g. 7mm on Monday, 7mm on Wednesday, etc.) For established indigenous gardens, or gardens with waterwise species, this figure can be reduced to 10-15mm per week, or even less. Once again, knowing your plants requirements and the precipitation rates of your sprinklers will help you calculate how long a particular zone in your garden should run for. As an example, if the sprinklers in Zone 1 have a precipitation rate of 42mm/hr, and you only require 7mm for that particular day, then your runtime for that zone should be 10 minutes (7/42 x 60). Likewise, if the sprinklers in Zone 2 have a precipitation rate of 12mm/hr, then their runtime should be 35 minutes (7/12 x 60). Additionally, many plants go dormant in the winter months, and may not require any watering at all. In such cases irrigation systems should be set to reduce watering automatically by using the seasonal adjust settings on the controller. Lastly, new technologies are available to reduce or prevent watering when it is raining. Most automated systems can cater for the addition of a rain or soil-moisture sensor, whilst newer systems can connect to weather forecasts to pause the system if rain is expected.

7) Clogged nozzles & filters

Clogged filters should be removed and cleaned under running water. The pipe can then be flushed, and the nozzle and filter replaced

One of the most important maintenance tasks on an irrigation system is ensuring that the nozzles and filters are clear of dirt and debris. In some cases, especially after a pipe repair, nozzles and filters can become blocked with sand, something that usually occurs at the end of a line. If all the sprinklers in a zone are working fine, but the last one or two are only dribbling water, then the problem might be a clogged filter and dirt in the pipe. To resolve this, remove the head of the nozzle and clean the filter under running water, then run the system for a few seconds with the nozzle removed. This flushes out any remaining debris in the pipe and the filter and nozzle can then be replaced.

8) Pipes crimped by roots

A less common problem are pipes that have been crimped by tree roots. Unfortunately this is often due to pipes that have not been trenched correctly, and the roots of nearby trees have slowly grown together over the pipe and crimped it closed. In some cases, depending on where in the pipe this problem has occurred, crimped pipes can lead to burst pipes, because there is no longer any release of pressure via the sprinklers. Fortunately though repairing a crimped pipe is relatively simple: dig down and find the affected pipe; then cut and divert the pipe around the root. Note that it is better to leave the crimped pipe in place rather than cutting the offending root, as this might unnecessarily stress the tree. For new systems this problem can be avoided even further by using high-density (HDPE) pipe and fittings.

9) Micros requiring constant maintenance

Micro sprinklers are small emitters that are joined to your pipes via micro tubing. They are useful for difficult to reach places, such as patios and pot plants, and are easy to install and use. In most cases they are attached to stakes, which makes them easy to move around and a convenient alternative to other sprinklers. Unfortunately though they are frequently overused, often in places where other – more robust – sprinklers would be more appropriate. Micros require regular maintenance because the stakes are easily moved (often by dogs), and the tubing can easily be punctured by a gardeners fork. The heads may also pop off, or be accidentally removed, resulting in a wastage of water. Micros do have their place, but if you find they are a constant maintenance headache, ask yourself whether it would not be appropriate to have a more robust solution, like a pop-up or riser, or even a drip irrigation system (for vegetable gardens).

10) Dogs chewing sprinkler heads

Dogs are our family, but they can be a real nuisance when they start chewing our sprinklers! The biggest problems tend to occur with risers, which are permanently above ground and therefore easy targets for an energetic dog. Short of taking your dogs for longer walks (to expel that pent up energy), the easiest solution is to simply convert your risers to pop-ups, which would then be visible only when your system is running. (Set the system to run in the early morning or late evening when your pets are indoors or asleep). Alternatively, you could switch to galvanised risers and brass fittings, which are 5 times the price, but will probably (hopefully!) solve your problem.
Read our article on garden problems and solutions here for more on dogs in the garden!