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Water water everywhere

Posted by joeabbott on May 12, 2013

Lots of things have been going awry. Not earthshakingly bad, but a bit off kilter and so it was time to do what I always do in those situations: roll up my sleeves and get to work. The main problem was a leak in our sprinkler system.


imageWe have a large garden area and, to support it, a sprinkler system. The system was put in professionally some years back when the bones of our landscaping were laid in, and it’s been working like a champ since. Although (small admission here), I’m just now getting comfortable with how to program it and fiddle with the settings\water timing schedule. But, as we pressurized the system for the first time this year and were ensuring all the zones were working as expected, Suzy asked about a heavier than normal run-off in one area.

“I think it’s just collecting from these heads,” I offered weakly, and then joked about adding another “dry” streambed. Quite clearly there was a problem. And Suzy gave me a look that said, quite clearly there’s a problem. And there was. Near one head, a hole had formed and water was bubbling out of it. I was able to stick my hand into the hole, follow it for a while to see where it was coming from, and we’d then dig with shovels to that point. I’d then follow the underground flow again. It was pretty messy.


After a lot of digging in the mud and unearthing a roughly 2’x4’ area , my hand left a now large and muddy pool with part of the system: a head, connecting tube, and an elbow joint that had broken where it screwed into the water main. So we let it set and the next day I tried to find the break by enlarging the hole to see what was going on. The day before the hole was so full of mud and roiling water, I couldn’t expose the problem area.

So I dug around but still couldn’t find the parts (the muddy pool had settled and everything was buried), so I energized the system, found the pipe with my hand, and marked it with a flag. The day after that … when the water had again settled, I dug to the flag, found the problem area, and enlarged around it.


Sorry to go into detail about that, but … foreshadowing! … part of the story will return to that point.

The Fix

imageimageThe fix was actually pretty easy: just install a new elbow joint, screw the lead to the sprinkler head into the joint, and bury everything. But, let’s meet the devil.

First I had to get the broken male part of the elbow out of the female socket in the water main. The elbow was sheared off flush so I had nothing to grab with a pliers but thought I could use something like a screw extractor (used when you break the head off a screw and needed to remove the shank/body). Unfortunately, the only thing I had available that was the size of the inner diameter of the broken elbow joint was one of my woodworking chisels. Not really the job they were intended to do but, working very slowly with it, I was able to turn out the broken part without damaging the threads of the female socket.

From there it was a simple matter of turning in the new elbow joint (had I mentioned I love living within a mile from our neighborhood big box [aka, Home Depot hardware] store? … it’s like having the world’s best stocked garage), turning in the lead to the head, and testing it out.

Sure enough, the head had a bit of mud in it, but I took off the sprayer part, energized the system, and with Suzy’s help we had it cleaned out and working.

imageThe other shoe drops

In the crescendo of the glow I get at fixing something and having the fix actually work, Suzy asked how I’d managed to turn on just that one head and not the others further on in the system. And, sure enough, the three heads further down the pipe weren’t working.

Here’s what I did wrong: we energized the system … that is, we turned it on … while the pipe was still buried and at the bottom of a hole. By energizing the system, we caused water to spray out of the broken hole and lead us to the leak; so far, so good. However, by snapping off the broken elbow completely, we left a 3/8” hole in our water system and, when the system wasn’t forcibly pushing water out (when it wasn’t energized), I imagine there was a bit of backflow that pulled lots and lots of muddy water into the water pipe, and now I’m left with a system that is clogged with mud. Ye gawds.

Fixing the rest of it

We were able to flush the mud out the nearest head by removing it and turning on the water. A bunch of muddy water was pushed out but it eventually ran clean and we were able to clean up the parts and reassemble it. Sadly, the other two heads remained stubbornly clogged.

I have a couple options: 1) get a professional in to repair it; 2) continue trying to fix it myself; 3) leave it as is.

I’ve left problems as is too often in my life, so item 3) is off the table. The other option I’m removing (for now) is getting a professional in. I remember one time when I was in a hardware store looking at a lumber storage system and I mused openly to both Suzy and myself, “I think I could make something like that”. Out of nowhere a gentleman who was standing nearby said, “of course you can”. I don’t know why the unsolicited advice of a stranger was meaningful, but it was far less “only an idiot could mess that up” and more of a simple affirmation to me: of course I could. And so, while I’m often hesitant about trying things I know nothing about, since then I will more willingly take them on.

I’ll fix this myself.

I’m not sure when but my plan now is to dig up the lead to the last sprinkler, unscrew the elbow joint, and try to get the mud to flush out that way. I’m hoping with an unconstrained passage way, the water (and mud) will just flow out and clear the system. I’m prepared to back-flush the pipe (maybe with my garden hose, maybe borrowing someone’s pressure washer) and there’s a strong chance I’ll need to unearth both of the heads that aren’t working, but I can do this. I just need to mentally prepare for a muddy day of working on something that I’m a bit less confident about.


That was one of a few projects I worked on yesterday that had me a busy boy. Today it’s raining outside so I think I’ll find time to get into the shop and work on that cat post I was building; heaven’s knows I have a lot of work yet to do!

I hope that whatever breaks in your life, you can fix … because both of us know that you can. Thanks for dropping in.


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