While many winter events have been canceled, the season itself has not. We can count on it to roll around right after fall. If you’re an irrigation contractor in a part of the country where the snow falls and the ground freezes, you’ll still need to prepare irrigation systems against the coming cold season.
Efficient scheduling is crucial, though. Scheduling software helps a lot. Mathew Wendell, owner of The Sprinkler Guy, Anchorage, Alaska, a one-man operation, uses HindSite Software to make sure he gets to all 270 of his commercial and residential clients.
You have a short window of time to service everyone, and you’re racing against the weather, which can always blindside you. “One night of freezing temperatures isn’t a big deal,” says Ty Van Ryswyk, owner of Hawkeye Irrigation LLC, Marine, Illinois. “But if it’s going to freeze hard for four nights straight at the end of October or very beginning of November, we’ll be scrambling.”
How early you start depends on how far north you are. For Wendell, the start date is Sept. 10 “so I can be all done by Oct. 1. Some areas will already have started to experience freezing temperatures by then.” He still gets caught by the occasional early snowfall, though.
Van Ryswyk also starts in September. “We’ll send out mailers or blast emails reminding people about it in August. We’ll do some in the last couple weeks of September for snowbirds that leave town by the beginning of October. We like to have everybody shut off by the first or second week of November. But that depends on Mother Nature and how much of a push we get from her at the end. If it looks like she’s going to start freezing quickly we have to move quickly too.”
Van Ryswyk says some of his clients will claim they won’t need winterizing until Thanksgiving. He reminds them that just a few years prior, the area saw an early hard freeze in the first week of November.
How it’s done
Winterization is a simple concept. It’s all about blowing as much water as possible out of the system with an air compressor before it can freeze, expand and break something.
Whether the water comes from a lake pump, a well pump or a city main, the first step is to shut that water supply off at the source. “The air chuck on the compressor fits into one of the holes on the pump or one of the test cocks on the backflow device,” says Van Ryswyk. “We just hook the compressor up to that and then start running through the zones” setting the controller to run a two- to five-minute test cycle for each zone.
“If there are five heads in a zone, you wait for all of those heads to start blowing air. Then you go to the next zone, wait for all those heads to blow out and then you go on to the next,” says Van Ryswyk. “By the time you get done with however many zones there are, you know that the main and lateral lines are blown out at that point. Then we’ll turn the irrigation controller to ‘off’ or unplug it if they prefer.” If the backflow device is left outdoors, the test cocks should be left halfway open, at 45 degrees.
Winterization includes a full inspection to discover what needs to be fixed next spring. “Be consistent and use a checklist,” says Wendell. “Examine all the heads and look for leaks.”
The pounds per square inch of pressure the air compressor produces during a blowout is crucial. James Makris, owner of The Waterboys LLC, Manchester, New Hampshire, usually sets his psi at about 80. “But the volume of air — the cubic feet per minute — is actually more important than the psi,” says Makris. So he keeps the cfm between 135 and 185 depending on the system. If it is too high, it can cause too much friction, and friction produces heat that can melt pipes and couplings.
In reality, you have to watch both the psi and the cfm. “You have to be careful not to over-pressurize the system,” warns Wendell. “I once hooked up to a system and failed to correctly shut off the house main. The pressure in the pipes in the house was normally about 50 psi. Well, I pumped 60 psi into it during a blowout, and it caused a leak in the basement ceiling.”
What about a drip zone or system? Those should be blown out at a much lower psi, around 35. “I often do the drip part last, and I either pull the caps off the ends and blow out the dripline the regular way, or turn the psi real far down on the machine and let it run longer to clear the lines,” says Dustin Reitzer, owner of Abiqua Irrigation and Backflow LLC, Salem, Oregon. “Otherwise, you could definitely damage something, especially if your compressor isn’t sensitive to pressure changes.”
Pitfalls and pain points
Even the most efficient winterization schedule ever created can be confounded by locked gates, snarling dogs and homeowners who aren’t home when they said they’ll be. And there can be still other snags to what should be a fairly straightforward process.
Van Ryswyk says many blips occur when you take over a system for the first time. “There might be a leg of main line that goes to a quick coupler with a hose attached that you don’t know about. Then you’ve got a whole stretch of main that’s still got water in it.” Or someone could have hooked up the system to the house or to the backflow without using a gravity drain.
“Another problem is when someone’s system hooks straight up to a water meter, and the city hasn’t gotten out there yet to shut it off,” adds Van Ryswyk. “You can’t really do anything because by law we aren’t allowed to touch the meters.”
Also, in the rush to get everyone winterized, things can get overlooked, “like skipping a whole valve box when they don’t know exactly how many zones there are,” says Makris. “Or spigots — I have one house that has 13 of them all around the property. They have to be blown out too. And there are simple things like forgetting to shut the controller off, and it dry-fires the solenoids all winter.”
Then there are the wild-card things that Wendell sometimes encounters, like an Alaskan moose stepping on a valve box and crushing the valve inside.
“Every once in a while, I’ll blow a pipe off that isn’t clamped down right, so I’ll have to fix that,” says Makris. But with 20 winters of experience under his belt, he’s prepared. He carries an inventory of parts with him just in case.
The biggest problem Makris faces is a seasonal shortage of rental compressors. “In the Northeast, when winterization time comes around, it can be very hard to find one,” he says. Many contractors rent compressors, as they’re only needed once a year, and they’re expensive. Makris recently rented one that retails for $23,000.
He is, however, planning to purchase his own soon. “I’m grossing $20,000 to $25,000 every winter with that service alone, so it’ll pay for itself in one season. And the government is helping small businesses this year, so that’s a plus.”
A major pain point for Reitzer is working with irrigation systems cobbled together by homeowners. “You have to try and figure out how the water gets to the system and how to shut it off,” Reitzer says. “It’s like they said, ‘There’s water to this bathroom, so I’ll just access it from under there.’ Then you have to crawl underneath the house just to shut it down.”
The quarantine factor
Though it didn’t directly slow down business, one impact of COVID-19 for contractors is a shortage of available parts, says Wendell.
“The factories being shut down did slow the supply chain for irrigation parts, though,” says Wendell. “As it is, there are no distributors up here in Alaska, so we have to have everything shipped to us from the Lower 48.”
Having virtually everyone at home has been both a good thing and a bad thing, Wendell says. “It’s made scheduling easier,” he says. “But people are bored, so they’re going out and working in their yards, and sometimes they cause problems, installing things improperly or digging too deeply.”
As some homeowners have struggled with jobs during the year, it’s important to be up front about the program costs.
“I tell everyone, this is what the job is, I’ve been doing it a long time, and I’m giving you the best price,” says Makris. “I’ll always try to give you the best value.”
Offering multiple levels of service with winterization is an option, says Van Ryswyk. “I offer four or five different service tiers,” he adds. “They can have the bare minimum, just turn-on, turn-off, if they want.”
Doing a winterization can be a gateway to providing other services throughout the year. If customers like how you did the job, they can become recurring clients.
“Especially for a new customer using us for the first time, where the winterization is our initial visit, we’ll go through the whole system and take notes so we’re prepared for next year,” says Van Ryswyk.
A reminder that winterization season is ahead also doubles as a sales prompt. “In January we send out our spring flyer with our annual agreement that offers them all of our services,” he says. “We tell all our existing customers to look for this mailer which we send by both email and snail mail to make sure they don’t miss it.”
Be careful of backflow
The backflow device, the crucial component that keeps contaminants like fertilizer, herbicides and waste from flowing back into a city water main can be a bit delicate.
“In the Midwest the winters get pretty harsh,” says Ty Van Ryswyk, owner of Hawkeye Irrigation LLC, Marine, Illinois. “The brass parts inside can freeze and any water left inside can start expanding and breaking things. That’s why we mount all of our lake pumps and backflows on unions. That allows us to take those apparatuses out and store them inside the client’s business or garage where it’ll be protected from the elements. Then we cover the holes to the pipes that are left outside so no varmints can get in there.”
He added that a backflow that is installed on the wall of a heated house or that is surrounded by insulating bushes will handle a cold night better than one that’s sticking out there unprotected, but to be absolutely sure, he still removes them.
Two years ago, when an early-November freeze hit, Van Ryswyk hadn’t yet finished winterizing all of his clients. “We called those people and told them they didn’t need to worry about anything in the ground just yet, but we did tell them to wrap their backflows up in blankets or towels,” he recalls.
You’d think that a contractor based as far north as Alaska would remove backflows. But Mathew Wendell, owner of The Sprinkler Guy, Anchorage, says he rarely does so, nor does he cosset them with insulating materials. “As long as the backflows are empty of water, there’s nothing inside to expand or break,” he says.
James P. Makris, owner of The Waterboys LLC, Manchester, New Hampshire, affirms the importance of leaving the test cocks on the valves open 45°. “That way, if there is any little bit of water in there, it doesn’t get trapped between the valve’s nylon ball and the copper wall and freeze.”