Maintaining Your Central FL Lawn Sprinkler System

Utilizing an with an underground sprinkler system can account for up to 50% of your total water use. I can tell you as an irrigation contractor that it can add up to a lot of money.

So how would you like to take control of your water costs and still take pride in a great-looking yard? By properly creating and maintaining a water efficient sprinkler system you can reduce your water usage and maintain an attractive landscape. Normal wear and tear on your sprinkler system can lead to valve and sprinkler head repair as well as water waste.

The key to efficient water use is regular ongoing maintenance. If you can tackle the basics it’s pretty simple first. Let’s look at the typical layout of an Orlando Florida sprinkler system.

Irrigation Sprinkler System Overview

A city water meter connects to either potable or reclaimed water. That is the point of connection to the water source. The backflow preventor protects your drinking water by separating it from the house water. Underground PVC piping carries the water throughout your system and sprinkler heads either sprayers, typical rotors or MP Rotators that deliver the water to your landscape.

backflow preventerUsually, the water solenoid valves are operated by an automatic controller which activates the valves to water the sprinkler zones. Last but not least a rain sensor will interrupt the 24 volts leading to the valves when significant rainfall has recently occurred.

Irrigation Equipment, Tools and DIY Know How

Now let’s take a look at some of the supplies and tools you might need to keep your sprinkler system in good working order. A shovel or hand trowel, a PVC pipe cutter or handsaw, blue PVC wet/dry cement, a mini screwdriver or rotating sprinkler adjustment tool, adjustable pliers, flags to mark the location of your sprinklers, poly cutoff risers for raising heads in St. Augustine turf, half-inch PVC flex hose or flexible tubing and sections of PVC pipe.

By the way, PVC pipe used for irrigation systems comes in many different sizes. The good news is most everything you will need to keep your sprinkler system operating in good order is available at your local home improvement store. Their knowledgeable staff can be a big help. Just like your car needs regular maintenance to keep it running smoothly, your sprinkler system requires attention and you should expect to make adjustments to your system due to worn-out parts, plant growth and of course changes in your landscape.

Monthly Sprinkler System Inspections

So where do you begin? Step one is to perform a monthly visual inspection of your sprinkler system. Be on the lookout for broken and missing irrigation parts, leaks and obstructions like over grown plants. There’s no better way to spot waste or conserve water.

Lawn sprinkler heads in particular should be checked at least once a month. If something is not working properly, or if you see a problem fix it. If water is squirting out around the sprinkler head, check the sprinkler piping and fittings under the sprinkler for leaks. Check the rubber or plastic seal inside the top of the sprinkler for debris and wear. If it’s damaged or worn replace with the recommended seal. Broken and missing sprinkler heads may need to be replaced to make sure it works as intended. The replacement head should match the other heads precipitation rate on the zone under repair.

A zone by the way is a group of sprinklers that operate at the same time and are controlled by a single automatic solenoid valve. Using a hand trowel, dig out the soil around the head and be careful not to let any dirt or debris fall into the pipe. Now unscrew the broken sprinkler head. If you need to raise the sprinkler head to the level of your lawn, use a riser between the pipe and the bottom of the sprinkler. Measure the length needed on the poly riser and then trim it with a PVC pipe cutter or scissors along one of the easily marked cutoff spots. Screw the replacement head on to the riser to test the repair and make any adjustments. Turn the zone on and off. If there are no leaks and it operates properly, level and tamp in the soil.

Sprinkler Head Adjustment

If the sprinkler is watering the driveway or the sidewalk you’re wasting a lot of water. To correct this problem you need to adjust the spray pattern with the water on carefully rotate the spray nozzle or rotor head left or right to direct the water away from any hard surfaces.

hunter rotor adjustment toolYou may need an adjustable wrench for Hunter rotors or a mini screwdriver for Rainbird and K-Rain rotors. To make this adjustment it might take a few tries but setting a new spray pattern is easy on closed case rotors. On Rainbird rotary impact sprinklers the radius pattern can be changed by adjusting the trip clips located just under the sprinkler head. The arc of a spray head sprinkler can be changed by using different adjustable nozzles.

For example; instead of a full 360 degree spray pattern this nozzle makes a 180-degree pattern. Just make sure to match the new nozzle to the existing sprinkler. All that wasted water is now being redirected to your yard and your landscape will love you for it.

Clogged Sprinkler Heads

If the nozzle on your sprinkler spray head doesn’t work properly, the spray nozzle and filter may need cleaning. With the system off, unscrew the nozzle from the sprinkler head. Many nozzles can be taken apart by hand but others may require a screwdriver or special tool. Hold the nozzle under a faucet to rinse off any debris. For stubborn residue you may need to use a brush or let it soak for a while. Rinse out the filter basket or screen.

The screen is located in different places depending on the type of sprinkler you have, If the filter screen is old and brittle you may need to replace it. With the obstructions dislodged, reassemble the head, filter, and nozzle. Now turn on the water and adjust the nozzle and head as needed to properly cover the landscape.

For efficient coverage or “head to head coverage” the sprinkler should throw water over 80% or more of the distance to the adjacent sprinkler heads. Try to flush the filters at least once a year. If the nozzle or filter is not clogged with debris, check the water pressure and adjust it if it’s possible.

Low Pressure

If the water pressure is low it may be the result of a leak in the system. Look for any wet spots, erosion or bubbling water on each zone and make the necessary repairs. If you get a much higher than normal water bill, take a look at your city water meter. If the meter dial is slowly spinning, turn off the isolation valve where the water goes into your house. If the meter stops the leak is in your house. If it doesn’t its in the lawn irrigation system.

It could be a leak in the sprinkler system main line, but more commonly you have whats known as a “weeping” valve. This is when the valve does not close all the way shut. Typically you can identify which zone valve is leaking as the tops of some sprinklers will be wet even if the system hasn’t run.

Finding Valves

To repair or replace the valve you first have to find it. Every home is different. Sometimes they are all together in one large square valve box near the backflow device. Other times they are scattered throughout the yard in individual 6 inch boxes. Often you need a specialized underground valve locator tool which tracks the wires from the irrigation controller to the valve you are searching for. This is a situation where it may be wise to call an irrigation contractor near you as these tools have a learning curve and the signals are best interpreted by someone with experience.

High Pressure

If the pressure is too high the sprinkler heads will emit a fine mist blown by the wind instead of a steady stream a water. This is a waster for sure.

If the entire sprinkler system shows excessive pressure and there’s some way to reduce the pressure (an adjustable pressure reduction valve) adjust it to the pressure range recommended by the sprinkler manufacturer.

If just one zone has too much pressure you may be able to adjust the zones valve with the pressure regulation device if it has one. If that’s not possible try turning down the flow control stem until the misting disappears. Installing pressure regulating sprinkler heads is another possible solution. If the nozzles and filters are not clogged and you’ve determined the water pressure is correct and the sprinklers are still not operating properly you may need to flush out the sprinkler lines.

Flushing PVC Lines and Irrigation Heads

Turn off the sprinkler system at the irrigation clock and carefully remove all the spray head nozzles. Be very careful not to let any dirt fall into the sprinkler pipe. You can use “blow out caps” with come with spray heads not containing pre-installed nozzles. You can just buy one new head and replace the nozzles one at a time with the blow out cap. Start with the heads closest to the valve and then work downstream. Turn the zone on and let it run until a solid clean stream flows from each head and then repeat.

Rainbird 1804 spray head blow out capHopefully one of these solutions is the key to getting your sprinkler system back to operating at maximum efficiency, if not call in a pro. In Sanford FL you can find one here, and in Lake Mary here. You’ll make up the cost with the water you save.

Landscape Obstructions to Proper Watering

Water may not be getting to your landscape because a sprinkler is blocked by a plant or some other object. Getting out your pruning shears that should do it most of the time. To eliminate obstructions caused by an overgrown landscape keep problem plants and bushes pruned and check their growth regularly.

Another solution to an obstructed sprinkler is determining if a sprinkler is even needed in that location. A landscape changes over time so if a sprinkler is not necessary remove it and seal the connection with a cap. Trimming back a plant isn’t always practical but there’s always a solution.

Consider elevating the sprinkler to raise a sprinkler above an obstruction. To add an extension or poly riser to the PVC pipe start by unscrewing the sprinkler from the top of the PVC pipe measure a length of pipe extension or cut a riser that will raise the sprinkler above the plant or obstruction.

If the PVC pipe is too narrow or too tall the sprinkler and pipe will wobble and move around when the pipe is under pressure and the movement is even worse. In this case you’ll want to install a sturdy support by snuggly attaching it to the extension to prevent any problems.

By raising the height of a sprinkler the water meant for your landscape will go up and over any obstruction. Sometimes the plants are too tall to realistically raise the head above them, so in this case you will go in front of them To learn how to do this yourself watch the video below.

You’ll notice the difference in no time as you can see part of this landscape bed isn’t receiving any water at all because of a blocked sprinkler head. One solution would be to install a swing joint or flexible poly tubing to physically move this go ahead and eliminate the obstruction. A swing joint is made from two elbows and flexible poly tubing or PVC pipe cut to length with to slip by thread couplings on each end.

Another long-term solution for dealing with obstructions is to replace sprinklers in a plant bed with low-flow micro irrigation tubing. The beauty of micro irrigation is the potential to save water and its portability when plants start growing you can move the tubing if your plants and lawn don’t appear healthy.

Testing the Irrigation System Efficiency

Often it is not easy to diagnose the horticultural problems in your landscape. You could have insect damage or maybe your landscape needs to be fertilized or the problem could be with your sprinkler system. The landscape could be suffering from too little water being applied by your sprinklers or even too much water.

catch can deviceOne way to find out about the basic efficiency of your system is with the catch can test. You’ll need a bunch of straight edged containers all the same size like these shaped rain gauges or you can use tuna cans plus a ruler and a timer of some kind. You’ll also need a record sheet to write down your findings. Place the cans randomly underneath the spray pattern of a sprinkler zone. Be sure to put some cans in any wet or dry areas to identify problems with spray distribution. You’ll repeat the same test for each zone. Turn on the sprinklers in the zone and let them run for ten minutes. Now turn off the sprinklers and measure the depth of the water collected in each can with the ruler.

Record in inches the amount of water for each container. By the way, the more cans you set out the more accurate the test is going to be. What you’re striving for is a sprinkler system that applies water uniformly in each zone so you’ll need to compare the water level in each can to determine if the amount collected is the same. If it’s not the same you’ll need to make changes to the sprinklers or even the underground PVC piping to assure your landscape is watered evenly.

Your findings will let you ask some revealing questions such as: Are there areas in a zone receiving less water than others? Are there areas receiving more water? Do any sprinklers need to be added or changed so the water is applied evenly? Are there sprinklers throwing water over 80% or more of the distance to adjacent sprinkler heads? The answers will tell you a lot about your sprinkler system but there’s even more to learn.

To finish up the catch-can tests take the total inches of all containers and divide by the number of containers this will give you a zones average water depth in inches. Multiply the zones average water depth by 6 to obtain a zones hourly water rate. From this last bit of calculation you can now determine if you’re over watering or under watering within a particular zone.

Most plants and lawns only require 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch of water to keep from showing stress. You’ve figured out a zones hourly application rate so you can adjust your sprinkler systems timer to deliver the right amount of water in each zone.

For example; if you wanted to determine how long it would take to apply 3/4 of an inch of water a zone applying an average of 5 tenths of an inch an hour would have to run for 90 minutes to deliver 3/4 of an inch of water. By comparison a zone operating at 2 inches an hour would only have to run for 23 minutes to deliver the same 3/4 of an inch. The application of 1 inch an hour would require 45 minutes of run time.

Repeat the catch can pests for each zone and you’ll end up with a true picture of your sprinkler system and more importantly you’ll know the adjustments you may need to make so the system will operate more efficiently.

Understanding Lawn Sprinkler Components

A sprinkler system includes many components such as underground PVC piping, sprinkler heads, eclectic solenoid valves, a rain sensor and backflow preventer. But the real brain of the operation is the irrigation controller. Once set, the system practically runs itself.

The controller is a clock that automatically turns valves on and off through electronic signals. It gives you the ability to divide watering up into zones depending on the schedule you devise. You can program when each zone will come on and how long the sprinklers in a particular zone will stay on. The controller is an essential tool for applying the right amount of water at the right time. It allows you to sustain your landscape in the most efficient way possible.

Lawn Sprinkler Irrigation Controllers

If you’re in the market for a controller here’s a few things to consider; look for a timer that can accommodate multiple independent zones, enough to run all the stations in your yard with flexibility for expansion. A controller should include a backup battery or non-volatile internal memory in case of a power failure as well as an off automatic and manual mode of operation. Make sure it can also accommodate a rain sensor (more on rain sensors later.)

sprinkler timer controllerProgramming the controller should be easy. The buttons and dials sturdy well-organized and simple to use and a large easy to read display screen is a big plus. As to whether your controller is installed by an irrigation contractor or by you the homeowner hangs on to the instruction manual and keep it handy.

Operating manual PDF’S may also be available online from the manufacturer. one additional feature that’s a big plus is a controller that allows for seasonal adjustments to your watering schedule. here’s why; in Central Florida where the average rainfall is over 50 inches a year, typically about two-thirds of our annual rainfall occurs between June and October. For your landscape that means during the rainy season supplemental watering with your sprinkler system may only be needed every seven days or so and maybe not at all in the cooler winter months.

Usually November through March plant growth slows down considerably so the water requirement for your landscape is much less demanding. Running the sprinkler system every 10 to 14 days should be more than enough. An irrigation controller with a 365 day calendar enables you to make those seasonal adjustments automatically. Just make sure you always keep it up-to-date and follow the current Seminole County water use restrictions.

If the sprinkler system controller stops working there are a couple of things to troubleshoot. Make sure it’s plugged into a working electrical outlet and make sure it’s switched to on or automatic. Check the backup battery for corrosion or a low charge. Check the fuse in the controller. If you do lose power for some reason and the battery is dead all your controller settings will be lost. If that happens install a replacement battery and then refer to a copy of your controllers schedule when you reprogram all your settings.

Rain Sensors

There’s another possible cause for a controller that seems to be on the blink and that is if it’s rained recently the rain sensor could still be damp and it’s temporarily preventing the controller from operating the valve.

But no worries; when the rain sensor dries out your sprinkler system will be back on and working. The rain sensor is found typically on a roof line or on the top of a fence post. This little contraption is wired to the controller so when it’s raining it tells your sprinkler system not to turn on.

Florida law requires irrigation systems to have some type of automatic rain shutoff device and there’s nothing worse than seeing a sprinkler system wasting water during a downpour.

rain sensorEnter the rain sensor. There are many different kinds of rain sensors. Here’s one that’s commonly used to check the operation of your rain sensor. Turn on the time clock for a zone near the sensor. When you press and hold down the button on top of the sensor for several seconds the zone should shut off.

Release the button and the zone should come back on. If it does, the sensor is working perfectly. If the zone doesn’t turn off when you press the button then there’s likely a problem with the sensor. What if it’s raining and your sprinkler system still comes on? That too can be an indication something’s wrong.

Check to see if the rain sensor is obstructed in some way. It may need to be moved away from under the eaves or away from plants or from a particular building or fence. Another solution is to adjust the rainfall setting or vent ring. It’s very simple to do. To make a change just twist the sensor adjuster to a tighter (lower) level. For instance from a half inch to a quarter inch of rainfall.

Another possibility is the rain sensor is broken or needs to be replaced. Ideally the rain sensor is in perfect working order but not enough rain has fallen to activate the cork disk sensor. A rain sensor is a very important part of an efficient sprinkler system. To make sure the rain switch continues to operate properly give it a check at least once a year.

Efficient Sprinkler Systems in Florida

The aim of an efficient sprinkler system is to provide the right amount of water to a landscape at a prescribed time. When that goal is achieved you’ll not only realize substantial water savings but you’ll have a healthier landscape. From a visual inspection to replacing broken or worn parts to making the necessary adjustments, we’ve covered some of the basic steps that will keep your sprinklers operating efficiently. Since the purpose of a sprinkler system is to distribute the right amount of water in the right place, another sure way to maintain a tip-top system is to periodically inspect your plants.

Over and Under Watering

Be on the lookout for signs of over watering and under watering. Over watering produces periods of standing water that can be as harmful to your yard and plants as too little water. Too much water can make leaves turn yellow brown or drop prematurely. Leaves can droop and individual branches may die back. Over watering especially with turf grass can lead to roots that are wet mushy and extra dark. Over watering can bring on the potential for root rot fungus and disease. In short; too much water can harm or even kill your landscape.

Under watering starves a thirsty landscape. It places dry plants under stresses that cause damage to roots, leaves and stems. The signs leaves that turn pale or light green, leaves that droop or wilt or leaves that turn brown. Starting first around the edges, stems will have a wrinkled look, eventually turning yellow or brown. The soil around the roots will feel dry and dusty. The ultimate in smart water use is to combine an efficient sprinkler system with a Florida-Friendly landscape. Planning your yard around plants and turf grass meant to grow in the demanding Florida climate including putting the right plant in the right place and will create a colorful yard that uses less water, less fertilizer, and fewer pesticides.


Aside from a good-looking yard, it’s the green of another kind as I mentioned at the beginning of this article that watering lawns and plants can account for up to 50% of a homeowner’s total water use depending on how much other water you use around your home.

Irrigating a typical 5,000 square foot yard with an in-ground sprinkler system could cost from $12 to $70 per application. It adds up fast. So by properly installing and maintaining a water efficient sprinkler system you can actually reduce your water usage, save some cash and still be proud of an attractive landscape. Learn more on our FAQ page.

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