How to Winterize Your Sprinklers DIY (and other musings about FI)

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Attention: when you see the word “musings” in the title of a post it’s bound to become lengthy. I promise there is an actual step-by-step DIY with pictures showing sprinkler winterization process. If that’s all you are looking for, just scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, let’s begin…

When we lived in our previous house we did not have a sprinkler system. Consequently, our lawn looked pretty sad because it’s impossible to grow green grass without regular watering in the summer months in the Southeast where we live. I tried a slew of sprinkler models that attach to a regular hose, but it was a huge pain to move them around the yard while keeping track of watering times per each lawn area. After one season spent trying to make it look better we just got used to living with a lawn full of weeds as those seem to not care much about water at all.

Our current home already had a 5 zone irrigation system installed that covered front and side yards but not the backyard. Not surprisingly, the grass covered by those 5 zones was fine while the backyard had lots of bare spots and weeds. Since we spend a lot of time in the backyard I wanted to address the grass situation there and started by adding another irrigation zone. Once that was done, I tilled the whole backyard, added some topsoil and seeded it with a tall fescue blend. It turned out very nice and we now have a good looking lawn where we can play with our son.

I’ll be the first one to admit that typical American lawns are a huge waste of time and money. I can name plenty of things I’d rather do than mow the grass, for example, but it’s a something you can’t escape in the land of picturesque suburbia and HOA. However, it IS a fact that a nice lawn will sell a house quicker and for more money and I DO enjoy a good looking yard. To compromise, over the last couple of years I’ve been continuously making small changes to reduce the amount of time and money spent on recurring lawn maintenance while improving the overall look of our yard. I plan on writing about specific changes I made in future posts so if you are interested in learning a few tricks, stay tuned!

In this post I wanted to provide step-by-step instructions for one task that is commonly outsourced to a local irrigation professional. When we moved into our current house and turned on the sprinklers for the first time there was a huge leak from one of the heads. Turns out that the previous owner did not winterize the irrigation system the winter before they sold the house to us causing water to freeze and expand, cracking the pipe underground. It was a pain to fix because I had to dig out a huge hole to have enough room to replace a piece of broken pipe. This incident was all the convincing I needed to put sprinkler system winterization on my annual To Do list.

Later that fall I found out that it would cost $100 to $150 for someone to winterize the system. It takes them 30 minutes tops. Some companies offered such creative options as “pre-aeration flagging visit” where a “specially trained technician” would come out and put a flag next to each sprinkler head so that another company you hired to do aeration would not damage them in the process.  This is not a joke! I guess there are people out there who would rather pay $40 for this service rather than spend a total of 5 minutes that it takes to do this yourself.

Below you will find a step-by-step DIY method and pictures for sprinkler winterization and start up that I’ve been using for over 5 years and counting now saving at least $100 each time. If you don’t already own a suitable air compressor there is a small initial investment required but you should be about even after your first winterization and after that it’s 100% savings for as long as you own a house with an irrigation system. If you already own a compressor you’ll start saving right away.

I guarantee that if you have to buy one you will be amazed at how useful an air compressor is around the house for other things besides sprinkler winterization. I bought mine with a once a year task in mind because it made total sense financially but I’m constantly using it around the garage to inflate car/motorcycle/bicycle tires, balls and kid toys. It’s also great for anything that can benefit from a quick shot of compressed air for cleaning – vacuum filters, car parts, computer parts etc.

Don’t overlook one other important aspect of learning how to take care of your sprinkler system, besides the obvious and substantial monetary savings. You are gaining another valuable skill that cuts yet another umbilical cord that keeps you dependent on others. You can winterize your system in under an hour with minimal effort with most time spent standing around (I usually clean up the garage or rake the leaves) while the compressor is doing its thing. You no longer need to call anyone, arrange their visit and then pay yet another bill. You are one step closer to creating a self-sustaining household system that is not dependent on your ability to produce money to exchange for services provided by someone else.

I posit that DIY attitude and skills are fundamental in reaching Financial Independence faster.  They also help you stay Financially Independent. There are very few people in this world who can truly “afford” the $200+ per hour rates you are essentially paying for someone to come out and blow some air through a bunch of pipes. Unless your net worth is in the millions already it would be silly not to learn how to maintain the things that you own.

Tools

  • Air Compressor. I use this Porter-Cable C2002-WK compressor that also comes with a useful accessory kit. SCFM and gallon size are important for sprinkler winterization and while on a smaller size, this Porter-Cable compressor is up to the task. You could get a more expensive model, but Porter-Cable is a really good compromise that will still complete the job in under an hour while being inexpensive, portable, reliable and low maintenance. I’ve had no issues after 5+ years of use and can recommend it without hesitating.

  • Adapter to connect an air compressor hose to the irrigation blowout. This is a key piece that I ended up assembling myself out of some accessory parts that came with the compressor as well as a couple of PVC fittings that I bought at Lowe’s. You should be able to print out the pictures below, take them to a local hardware store and assemble a few PVC pieces that will fit your sprinkler blowout size. Use some teflon tape on the threads as you assemble reducers all the way to the metal quick connect fitting for the compressor. Total cost should be just a couple of dollars.

Concept

There are plastic pipes underground supplying water to each of the sprinkler heads. Winterizing an irrigation system means evacuating most of the water that is always sitting in the pipes before the temperature starts dropping below freezing to prevent water damage. To summarize, you shut off sprinkler system water supply, connect a compressor hose to the special blowout and then blow water out of each zone.

Part of the “start up” can be done at the same time and involves putting Teflon tape on the blowout threads before putting the cap back on. Sprinkler companies will do this in the spring when they return to justify their service charges, but you can do it when you winterize since the cap will already be off. Another part of the “start up” is turning on sprinkler system water supply and running each zone while checking that all sprinkler heads are still spraying correctly. You will find that most of the time no adjustment is necessary in the spring but if it is, a manual for your sprinkler heads should have detailed instructions on how to do it.

How did I learn?

  • I paid one of the professional sprinkler guys to come out and I took notes and asked questions.

  • I came up with my own version of the blowout adapter you see in the pictures all assembled from off the shelf hardware store parts.

  • I modified this method over the years and what you see here is the final result.

*As always, this DIY documents what works on my particular system. While most irrigation systems are similar in design and function, yours might be different and may require additional steps or an entirely different approach altogether. Take responsibility for your actions and don’t try this if you are not confident in your abilities and are not willing to accept risks inherent in any Do It Yourself project.

In-ground Sprinkler Winterization How To

You will need to make a blowout adapter that should look like the one below. If you buy the recommended air compressor it will come with an accessory kit that will include the metal quick connect fitting you see here. The plastic PVC couplings can be picked up at your local hardware store.

(You can enlarge each picture by clicking on it).

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Find sprinkler water shut off valves. In my house they are in the crawlspace split off the main waterline. In the picture below, a blue metal valve is a shut off for the whole house and there is no need to touch that. The red plastic valve is what I close by turning it so it’s in a vertical position. In this picture it’s still in the open position. Note the blowout cap in the lower right corner.

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There are two more shut off valves for my sprinkler system shown here in an open position – green handles.

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Here the two green handles are in a closed position and so is the red plastic handle.

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Now that no more water is supplied to the sprinkler system it’s time to twist off (counterclockwise) the blowout cap with a pair of pliers.

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A little bit of water will drain out which is normal.

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Once the water drains, twist on the blowout adapter you made and tighten with pliers. Then connect the air compressor hose so it looks like this:

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Set the sprinkler system control box to OFF position. In this picture it’s set to Auto and OFF would be one click to the left.

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It’s now time to run the compressor to build up tank pressure. It will auto shut off once the tank reaches around 150 psi. Using the plastic knob we need to bring the regulated pressure to the connected hose to 60 psi. This is important – you don’t want to send more than 60 psi into the pipes or you can damage the system. Here compressor is properly set and ready to go to work.

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Go to the control box and activate the first zone you want to blow out. In my case I would move the round selector to AUTO position then press MAN START button on top right which would activate Zone 1.

Once activated you should see the sprinkler heads pop up and start shooting water. Compressor will start losing pressure and will automatically turn on to compensate and send more air into the zone.

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You will wait until sprinkler heads start spraying mist or air instead of water or even pop back down. This sprinkler head is shooting air as there is no more water to expel.

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At this point we need to go back to the control box and set the system to OFF position. Sprinkler heads will then go back down and the compressor will continue running until it automatically shuts off again. While the compressor is building up pressure I usually adjust the time allotted for the zone that I just finished to 0 minutes. Continuing our scenario I would go to Zone 1 in the blue semi-circle at the bottom and set “Watering time per station” to 0 using the down arrow. This allows the system to skip the completed zone when I start the next zone and it’s a good reminder of which zones were already done.

Once the compressor auto shuts off again we are ready to do the next zone. In this scenario I would again move the round selector to AUTO position and then press MAN START button which would now activate Zone 2 since I changed Zone 1 to be 0 minutes in the previous step so the system would automatically skip it.

These steps are repeated until all zones are finished. I usually do all 6 zones two times just to make sure all the water is out. If you also decide to do all zones twice remember that you would need to change the “Watering time per station” back to something like 5-10 minutes per zone before starting the second blowout round. Also remember that you will need to re-set your watering program before you start watering in the spring.

After all zones have been finished you will need to disconnect the adapter and put new teflon tape on the blowout threads as shown in the next picture.

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Then all that’s left is to put the cap back on and tighten it with a pair of pliers.

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At this point the sprinkler system is winterized and ready for start up in the spring. All you would have to do is turn the sprinkler water supply back on and turn on the control box.

I hope that this DIY is helpful to someone who usually outsources their in-ground sprinkler system winterization and start up. Feel free to post up any comments or questions below.

 

22 thoughts on “How to Winterize Your Sprinklers DIY (and other musings about FI)

  1. Great article. I don’t think our area get that cold so we don’t really need to do that. I haven’t seen anyone offering that service.

  2. Totally agreed on the DIY ethic being related to FI/ER. I’ve really been resting on my laurels this year so going to make it my aim to gain some more skills in 2014. Just by reading your site and waiting for some relevant articles most probably!

    Lucky(?!) for me I live in rainy old England so need neither a sprinkler system nor the skills to winterize one 🙂

    • There is no way we could live in this nice house, drive two cars and still maintain 60-80% savings rate every month if I did not DIY. High savings rate is key to FI so DIY is one of the main ingredients in this formula.

  3. Practical DIY articles are one of the main reasons I keep coming back to this site. Well done. I have reluctantly been paying the sprinkler company to winterize my system each year for lack of proper equipment. I think I’ll remedy that issue next year – and I might need to check back with you to figure out how to make the pvc attachment.

    On a side note, I recently bought an OBD II code reader via your referral. I plan to continue using your list to increase my tool chest.

    Thanks and keep them coming!

    • Glad you are finding some of these posts useful! I’ve got a few other DIY ideas and will post them up as I get time to write. For the sprinkler DIY the hardest part was figuring out how to make this PVC attachment. With the pictures in this post you should be able to come up with something similar and if you have questions, get in touch!

      How do you like the OBD reader? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the post about auto tools: http://insourcelife.com/recommended-tools-for-a-diy-auto-mechanic/

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  7. Thanks for this, very useful. I was planning to do something just like this with the same compressor, but I’ve read that it’s dangerous to pressurize the system in this fashion. Everything I’ve read tells me that I should never connect the compressor unless a zone is open/activated, and that I should never close/deactivate a zone until the compressor is shut off. But it sounds like you’re doing the exact opposite without any issue? Thanks for the post!

    • No problems so far! This is exactly how the professional sprinkler guy did it so I feel pretty confident that this is a good way of winterizing the system.

      • Are your lines PEX or PVC? My main line is copper, and I don’t think it has a blowout on that line. To be honest I’m not even sure where the blowout is…could be outside as part of the of the backflow device (a PVB), or in the main control box on my front lawn, or somewhere else inside that I’m just not seeing.

        • My house water lines are copper and all sprinkler lines are PVC. The blowout is on the sprinkler line in the area where it connects to the main house water line. You can see how it works in the pictures above… In picture 9 you can see the city water line (big black pipe) connected to the house water line (copper) with the sprinkler blowout right above (white PVC). If you are still stuck, you can always get a professional to come out and watch them do it once so you can see where everything is.

          • Yeah your setup looks a lot easier to follow. Looked around some more and still don’t see the blowout. I’ll probably pay them this year, but hopefully for the last time!

  8. Great post!!! Am saving money from the advice you gave here. Winter ozone my law Works like a charm with it – I made adapter for about 4 bucks from various components available from Home Depot!!
    The porter cable air compressor above is working nicely too.
    Thanks a lot. My friends are asking me already, and I send them the link to this page right away.

  9. Thanks! I made that attachment, but when I turn on the compressor – I hear the noise of the air – but dont know where its going. The heads dont pop up!

    Thanks again!

    • Disconnect the compressor and turn the irrigation system on – do the sprinkler heads pop up? If yes, turn the water off and start the irrigation system again – sprinkler heads should NOT pop up. Turn the irrigation off and connect the compressor as instructed. Set the pressure at 60 psi and try the procedure again.

      If you follow each step to the T the sprinkler heads should pop up. If they are not popping up then something is not hooked up correctly or there is not enough pressure (but don’t go over 60 psi) or the valves controlled by your irrigation system are not opening as they should to allow the compressed air to push the water out.

  10. Thanks for your reply!

    I tried doing part 1 and the sprinkler worked fine. The heads did not pop up after I shut the water. Then I reconnected my 20 gal 175 psi compressor & let in 60 psi of air.

    While I hear the air going through the pressure vacuum breaker, but the sprinkler heads dont pop up at all.

    I dont think the pressure is the issue because they would pop a little. What do you recommend that I try next.

    Thanks for your expertise!

    • Are you sure that you are connecting the compressor hose to a correct blowout? Sometimes you can have more than one spot that looks like it can be a blowout. If that’s not the issue, I’d try to find where the air is coming from. It sounds like the air might not be getting to the heads. You should be able to hear air coming from the heads in the zone that’s open. Even if they don’t pop up there must be air at the heads or it’s simply not getting there.

  11. I dont hear any air coming through the heads. I only see one place for a blowout. Is there a way that I can send you a picture?

    Thanks again!

    • I’m guessing then that there is a problem with the compressor hose connection to blowout or possibly an improper water shut off. On my system there are 3 valves that I have to shut off for the compressed air to get to the heads.

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