Home Irrigation System Basics

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Your home’s landscape is a big investment. Taking good care of it starts with regularly scheduled watering of plants and grass. The best way to accomplish that is with a home irrigation system. Here’s how to operate and maintain your sprinkler system correctly.

How an irrigation system works

Let’s take a tour of your home irrigation system components. First, find the box that holds your water meter. It’ll be in the ground near the street. Your water supplier measures your monthly usage and bills you based on the amount of water that passes through the meter. If you don’t have a home irrigation system, water goes from the meter straight to your home to meet your drinking, cooking, bathing and cleaning needs. But when a home irrigation system is installed, it intercepts part of the water supply line just downstream from the water meter but before the house.

Water in the home irrigation system next flows through a backflow preventer valve. This valve allows water to go only one way, a mandatory precaution that prevents backward surges of water from contaminating either your home’s water supply or the city system.

From there, the water flows to a master valve that distributes it to branches of a grid. These “lateral lines” flow to each sprinkler group or zone. Each zone has its own valve which opens and shuts off water flow to that zone when the control panel sends a signal.

The control panel is installed on a wall of your home. This is where you schedule the days and times you want your home irrigation system to run and how much water you want sent to particular areas.

Water comes out of the system in one of two ways: drip irrigation and spray irrigation. With drip irrigation, which is best for flower beds, water seeps from tiny holes in a flexible tube either above or below ground. Overhead sprayers can also service beds but are more commonly used for lawn areas. These sprinkler heads, which rotate, come in pop-up and gear-driven styles.

Maintenance and repair

At the start of the growing season, when it is time to begin watering, do a maintenance check of your system. Start the system manually at the control panel, with water running slowly. Run each zone for just a few minutes to see if any nozzles are broken. Also check how well the nozzles are spraying and whether they are on target for their assigned areas. After you have checked a zone, mark any broken heads that need to be replaced by digging them loose from the soil and unscrewing them from the lateral line in the ground. When you shop your home improvement center for replacement heads, take the old ones with you to find a match.

During cold weather, your lines should be safe from freezing if they are buried below the freeze line. If not, or if the forecast is for an unusually hard and prolonged freeze, winterize the lines by starting the system, then cutting off the water at the backflow preventer or master irrigation valve. When the water has run out, the flow will dwindle and stop. Then turn off the system. Put insulating foam in the ground around the master valve box and the backflow preventer. Also wrap aboveground valves with foam.