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Check your watering system before using

By Stan Mapolski

for the Mail Tribune

I love the rapid advances we make toward summer gardening at this time of year. I know you're thinking that I'm crazy, now that we're a whole two days into spring, but I fear that spring can be an unforgiving taskmaster for the unprepared.

We are not far away from the rigors of daily watering and now is the time to be sure that our equipment is in tip-top shape.

Driving around this past week, I've noticed the deep emerald color being exhibited in many lawns. Plum trees have literally blasted into bloom with the arrival of 70-degree-plus days. The first legions of bulbs are already fading as more and more of their later-blooming brethren send up their flower stalks.

The long sunny days seem to be even longer than usual with the earliest start to daylight-saving time in history. Can 80-degree weather be far behind?

Whether you have a timed sprinkler system or you use hose-end watering devices to do your watering, all systems need to be checked for winter freeze damage before they can be entrusted with their watering duties. Let's look at automated systems first. No matter how elaborately you winterized your system, you will have to look for cracking and leaking throughout your piping systems.

First, you must turn on water to your irrigation system, this is usually done by opening the isolation valve that separates the irrigation piping from the rest of your potable water system. Directly downstream from that manual valve should be a backflow prevention device that prevents contamination of your drinking water from the landscape watering system. That device needs to be tested periodically to be sure it is functioning properly. You can find qualified testers in the phone book under "Backflow Prevention Devices." Checking the rest of your system is up to you.

If you have an irrigation timer, now is a good time to check it for accuracy. Has it held time and watering programs over the winter? If it is an older model and relies on a battery for program saving, now is the time to install a new 9-volt battery. Make any necessary adjustments to time/date information and see if it holds them. You may now be ready to turn on your sprinklers.

First, walk out to all your valve boxes, and with the water on through your backflow device, inspect all your valves for signs of cracks, breaks and leaks. If all appears well, you're almost ready to test each zone.

Before that, with all water shut off in your home, go to your water meter or to your pressure gauge on a home well pumping system and check for any sign of water usage. If the meters are holding steady, you're fine. If they are moving, you have a leak somewhere between your isolation valve and your electric solenoid valves.

Find the leak and fix it. Boy, that sure is easy to say. A fully broken pipe may expose itself quite evidently in short order. Some small leaks around can take a while to diagnose. Either way, you'll probably get wet and muddy and begin to have an appreciation of what irrigation contractors do to earn their money.

If all is well to this point, it is time to run each circuit, valve or station to look for problems. These can include plugged nozzles, nozzles facing the wrong direction and rotary heads that fail to turn. Clean each thoroughly and re-adjust as necessary. If heads are not popping up or spraying as far as they used to, look for broken lateral piping or substantial leaks.

If your zones run well but fail to turn off, you most likely have debris lodged inside the irrigation valve. It will have to be taken apart and cleaned. Unless you are somewhat handy, you might want to call in a pro.

Next week: We'll look at some of the other devices we gardeners use to water to see we are getting the most out of them and to be sure we have the right tools for the job.

Stan Mapolski, aka The Rogue Gardener, can be heard from 9-11 a.m. Sunday mornings on KMED 1440 AM and seen in periodic gardening segments for KTVL Channel 10 News. Reach him at stanmapolski@yahoo.com.