Irrigation Start-up Procedures - from Your Local Irrigation Pros

Now that we are past the concern of freezing, it’s time to wake up your irrigation system from its winter slumber! Prior to winter, you drained your irrigation system to safeguard your investment. You worked hard to protect your system prior to freezing, so it’s worthwhile to protect it as it awakens for spring. There is more to spring irrigation start-up than just “turning it on”, however. Before cranking the water back on again, it’s critical to follow several key steps to ensure your system is functioning properly. Whether you are a landscape contractor, or a commercial, agricultural, or golf course manager, you can easily de-winterize your irrigation system by following the key steps below.


Step 1: Inspect and prepare backflow preventer

Outside at your backflow preventer, take a good look to make sure there is no damage from the winter. If everything appears the way you left it in the fall, the first step is to tighten the drain plug. Recall that when you winterized your irrigation systems last fall, the ball valve regulating water to the backflow meter was only half-closed, remaining at a 45-degree angle. This prevented any remaining water from doing damage. Temporarily close this valve, as well as all the ball valves that you left at 45 degrees over the wintertime, including the test cock valves. Once all drains are closed on the outside and the ball valves on the backflow preventer are shut off, head inside to where the turn-on valve is for the water.


Step 2: Turn on the water

Inside the building, it’s now time to turn on the water and charge it up to the backflow preventer. The handle to the main water control system should be horizontal, indicating the water is off. With care, turn the water back on very slowly to prevent water hammering. If you open it up too quickly, the water could enter the pipes with too much force, resulting in cracking or a ruptured pipe. This scenario is easily preventable. Turn the handle to crack the water on until you can just start to hear it flow. Once you stop hearing the sound of water moving through, you know you have a good solid charge to the backflow preventer outside. Next, it’s time to head back outside to the backflow control device. 


Step 3: Charge the backflow device

The water is on and flowing to the backflow device. Consequently, it’s time to charge the backflow device itself. Slowly open the backflow valve all the way. As you open the valve, you should be able to hear water gurgling through it. At this point, the device itself is charged between the backflow valve and the main control valve. Just as you opened all previous valves, open the main control valve slowly, until you can hear water coming through it. Once you hear the water flow stop, slowly complete opening the valve. It’s worth taking a moment to recognize the important role of the backflow preventer and the critical need to winterize and de-winterize it every year. Having a backflow preventer on your irrigation system prevents dirty water from coming back into your building’s water supply. This keeps harmful materials such as pesticides and fertilizer from getting into the water system. Once you turn on your system each spring, it is recommended to have a professional from Vanden Bussche Irrigation come in and test the device to make sure it is working optimally.


Step 4: Activate individual zones

At this point, the water is turned back on and charged to the zone control valves. It’s time to use the zone control valves to introduce water into your irrigation system. You can either manually turn on all the different control valves and zones, or alternately you can utilize a controller. The controller can be set so each zone can come on for 5-7 minutes. On a large property such as a farm or golf course, ensure that you have enough crew members on hand to monitor each zone.


Step 5: Visual walk-through and inspection

Like a routine annual physical, your irrigation system needs a quick checkup to ensure all is functioning properly. Zone by zone, each sprinkler head will poke its way through the ground. You now have an opportunity to walk around the property as each zone starts up, inspecting for broken or bent sprinkler heads. Allow each sprinkler head time to rotate through its full pattern in order to catch any sticking points. Occasionally, if you encounter a problem, you will need to shut off the water to tend to the problematic sprinkler before you are ready to start up the system again. 


Step 6: Address potential problems

Spotting signs of trouble during irrigation start-up will help thwart costly mistakes. What are some of the most common irrigation start-up problems?


Broken lines or leaks: Even with the best winterization of your system, leaks and rupture can happen. Perhaps a small volume of water remained in a tight space, or water found its way through a crack. Sometimes a leak occurs due to a low spot in the pipe, where water was unable to blow out properly. If water introduction occurred too quickly into the system, water hammer can create substantial damage to mainline elbows and turns. 

Alternatively, when the ground contracts, a weak or poorly glued joint might pull apart. Sometimes, a broken line or leak will be obvious. Other times, the problem will not present itself until one portion of your yard or field reflects the effects of water imbalance. Squishy regions of turf often indicate an underground leak. If no leaks are immediately obvious, listen for the indicative sound of water constantly circulating through a backflow, or a pump continuously cycling. If possible, detecting this problem now will significantly reduce the potential for water waste.


Broken sprinkler heads: If snowplows frequent the edge of your property over the winter, there’s a chance for sprinkler head damage. It’s also fairly common to find a sprinkler head that won’t retract all the way. In a commercial or golf course setting, this becomes a problem when it encounters a lawn mower. In an agricultural setting, tractors and other large equipment may mistakenly take out a sprinkler. Occasionally, the sprinkler head might shoot water into the air like a geyser, causing significant malfunctions to the sprinkler head, and misdistribution of the water. If this occurs, turn off the irrigation zone until you replace the damaged head.

Trapped air: When you open up a sprinkler valve to turn on a zone, you also allow the zone to bleed out any air trapped in the system. If the operating pressure is low, this could indicate that there is still air in the line. Low pressure could also indicate either a missing sprinkler or line break, but a quick check for open valves and sprinkler heads will rule this out.

Trapped debris: A poorly performing sprinkler may have debris in its filter. Clean filters are crucial to a well-functioning irrigation system. Check and clean any filters on sprinklers with weak output. You may remove the filter and clean it by hand. To clean a clogged sprinkler spray head, remove the head and rinse it in a bucket of water. Some screen filters have flush outlets and can essentially clean themselves. If that is the case, simply open the flush outlet and allow the water to flush the screen. These systems are designed to open a flush valve whenever the system gets charged. 

Dysfunctional rain sensors: Rain sensors enable your system to automate based on watering needs. A dysfunctional rain sensor results in costly water waste. As you walk through each zone, be sure to inspect rain sensors to ensure they are clean and not filled with debris. This is also a good opportunity to change the batteries. If the rain sensor controller remained unplugged over the winter, the battery is more than likely to need recharging or replacement.


Step 7: Set your controller

Reprogram the controller with the automated watering settings that suit your plant crop or surface’s watering requirements. This is a good time to run a quick diagnostic check on your controller. Your controller may come with sensors that can detect power input, as well as power leading from the transformer into each of the zone terminals. Checking functionality now assures full function and connectivity. If the system does not come on, mice or other rodents might be nesting near the controller box and chewing on solenoid or zone wires. 


Consider replacing your conventional controller with a smart controller. Smart controllers save water by adjusting the watering schedule according to the weather. These Wi-Fi enabled devices create more efficiencies to help a user manage water remotely, saving time, energy, and hassle. Municipal and provincial water authorities often offer financial incentives for property owners to make the switch. This is also a good time to replace the back-up battery to the controller to prevent future issues.


Mindful irrigation start-up practices are critical for good water management. With careful seasonal maintenance and troubleshooting, your irrigation system will continue to serve you for many years. If recharging your irrigation system gets confusing, or if you’ve got questions about spring irrigation start-up procedures, give our Vanden Bussche team a call


Our experienced crew has the knowledge and skills to assist with proper sprinkler system layout, hydraulics, parts replacement, and all the right equipment for your job. We can help ensure and safeguard a water-efficient and trouble-free irrigation system.