Published on 12/20/02

Don't wait to winterize your irrigation system

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Homeowners should winterize outdoor pipes soon, and don't forget about the lawn sprinklers. A few precautions now can save a lot of time and headaches come springtime, says a University of Georgia expert.

Winter temperatures dip well below freezing, even in Georgia. It's simple. When water freezes, it expands. Freezing temperatures can cause the water in a small, exposed pipe to expand. If the water expands too much, the pipe bursts, says Kerry Harrison, an irrigation expert with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"With home irrigation systems, you wouldn't know you had any pipe damage, probably, until you turned it on for the first spring watering," he said.

The past few Georgia winters have been relatively mild. This winter, however, is predicted to be a bit cooler, Harrison said.

Two-inch freeze

Most built-in-ground sprinkler pipes will be OK, because only the top two inches of the ground freezes in most of Georgia. Pipes should be well below this level. Other irrigation components, like backlog prevention valves, are at ground level, though, and could be in danger.

If there are any exposed valves or pipes around your home, tape them up or "use a good ol' sack to wrap them," Harrison said. Home-improvement stores have many tapes, foams and gadgets to keep these pipes warm on cold, winter nights.

The tips of sprinkler heads can hold water. When frozen, they can rupture. The whole sprinkler system holds water, too, even when it isn't being used, like in the winter. Don't forget to drain the system, he said. If you don't drain it properly in the winter, your sprinkler could be a geyser when you turn it on next spring.

"Arrangements should have been made in the installation process to have a way to drain those lines that would hold water," he said. If you've bought a home with an installed irrigation system,find this drain valve. Some systems are equipped with automatic drain valves.

Manual care

Don't forget about the manual, or "hose-dragger," systems. You can do two things:

* Leave the hoses hanging outside. But disconnect them from faucets.

* Disconnect, drain and store hoses someplace with a constant temperature. This will prolong the life of the hoses.

Whatever you do, if you leave hoses undrained outside in the winter, don't move them or touch them. You could be the one to break them. Frozen hoses are fragile, Harrison said.

Pump pipes

Private water users and rural residents with wells should check out their main water pump. There is usually a half-inch pipe connected to the pressure switch. If it's metal, it probably won't freeze. If it's plastic, it might freeze and burst. This could cause the water pump to fail or continue to run and cause some major winter repairs.

But if all these precautions fail and a pipe bursts, there's still one thing to remember. "Know where your main water cutoff is," Harrison said.

Farmers should start preparing irrigation systems for winter weather, too.

"Obviously, farmers need to make sure that all of the drain ports have been opened and the water that could be held in that cavity is drained out," he said.

Farmers should check all the wiring in an irrigation system and contact a trained electrician to repair or replace frayed or loose wires during the winter, he said. This can prevent a time- consuming breakdown next spring.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.