Zen and the Art of Sprinkler Maintenance

At 515AM I ran into a neighbor and started talking about two of my favorite things.

Dogs and Sprinklers.  The dogs were doing their own thing, watering the ground when I casually mentioned

that I had to be back before the irrigation started at 6AM.  We spotted a random rogue sprinkler head in a strange spot and I wanted to look for fountains.

It was at that time that I ended up going into a reverie of sprinkler geekdom.   It’s really rather simple technology but it needs a lot of maintenance.

You see, when I was a wee brat, on the open Prairie land of South Jersey, a sprinkler was an entertainment device.

You would use it on those days that the temperature was up into the 90s, sometimes nudging up to 100, and go run through it.  Kids everywhere know what I mean.  They’d see you had yours out, wait until the grass got good and wet and then join you for a good splash.

You never really used them to water the grass.  The only time you’d consider it was when you had just planted seeds and wanted them to sprout.  Then the International Sign for Do Not Cross would appear – small stakes and some white cotton string.  It would draw a boundary around the area and you knew that you just were NOT allowed to be there.  The sprinkler would then get dragged out, usually with the green hose crossing the sidewalk somewhere, and get turned on so that every prospective grain of grass seed would get a drop.

New Jersey got 40 inches of rain each year, and the only real time you felt it was “dry” was in August.  Even in August you’d get the Thunderstorms rolling in from the west down the street in a battleship grey cloud.

South Florida gets 50 inches of rain.  Or so they tell us.  It falls mostly in the “Wet Season” of May to December.  You may get a storm here and there in the other months but they’re the exception.  This is also the land where you don’t need an umbrella because if you get caught out in it, you’re drenched.   If not, you just huddle under an eave somewhere for 15 to 20 minutes and it’s done.

The other six months or so – welcome to the dry season, also known as the Desert.

In order to keep those lawns green so that the people from other places like New Jersey, and other places in the country would expect, we have to water frequently.  It’s illogical.  The British Habit of keeping rolling hills of green grass work because it rains practically every day and is cooled by clouds and never really gets what I’d consider warm.  Our winter temperatures are a good warm day in Britain.

So how do we do it?  I’m considering a degree in hydrology next.  Really.  Because in order to keep our grass as green as we do, we do a dance of watering, timing it just so, and three separate zones of plastic pipes, fittings, tubes, and bubblers of all shapes and sizes.

But it all is fairly simple, even if it is annoyingly “fiddly”.  There is a well that goes down into the higher ground water aquifer.  I know we don’t suffer from salt intrusion because the other day when I was adjusting a sprinkler head, it flew off at full speed into my left eye, and sprayed directly into my mouth.

Mmmm tasty, tasty ground water!  Full of things like Iron, Monsanto produced garden chemical “leechate”, and bacteria!  Yay! Bacteria!  Right in my mouth!  Ugh, never mind that.

Also sand gets brought up.  I know that because my mouth crunched some after that little shower.  It also collects in the low spots along with all that slop that gets in my precious bubblers and sprinkler heads.

The water goes into a manifold that shuttles it between the three zones, and then into a distribution system that each zone is more complex than what it takes for my house to give me that daily shower.

The first two zones are full flow – all out watering so they’re restricted.  Water the grass in front, hedges and grass in the rear.  As such I can only use them twice a week during set hours.  We do it in the morning on those days since the grass is most thirsty then and it keeps the roots from rotting in water that sat in the beach sand that passes for top soil here, 2.5 miles from the briny Atlantic Ocean.

Zone 3 is the pots and flowers.  Everything there is on drip feed.  My farmer relations out in Nebraska would know exactly what I’m talking about.  Each “drip” is limited to 1 gallon per hour.  Zone 3 runs only 30 minutes a day so each pot gets two quarts of water, roughly.  There are currently 18 pots in the backyard, along with a perimeter soaker hose that spot waters the hedges.  All of that puts water exactly where it is needed.

Everything has joins, unions, and elbows.  Reduced down to smaller than a drinking straw, all that wonderful bacterial water has a nasty habit of slowly plugging up.  I have a precision tool made up of a piece of copper telephone wire, 24 gauge I think, that I run through each head when they plug to knock out the collected plug of bacterial muck, ground water chemicals, and general ooze.  After that it’s soaked in white vinegar to get more of it out and returned to duty.

All of this so I can remain scrupulously legal in my watering and keep things green.

But all of this requires maintenance.  The faster the water moves, the less maintenance it requires.  The large “Golf Course” sprinklers in the front yard will knock a small woman over with the flow, but they rarely need attention.  The midsized ones under the hedges need rather a lot.  The pot bubblers?

Every morning coffee time with Rack.  We go outside to the backyard while they’re running.  He runs around the yard, I look at sprinkler heads.  Every blasted one.  Or rather the ones that aren’t blasting water all over my Mango, Ruellia, Milkweed, and Banana trees.

All so that we can have it nice for the Monarch Butterflies that munch on the Milkweed, the random Bananas that I used to get before the plant got overgrown, the deep purple Ruellias I’m starting in that pot.

Yeah, it’s a lot of work but I like it.  So if you have a problem with the sprinklers, just ask around.  It’s pretty simple.  But skip the cotton thread.  We’ve got turf here!