Help! My system won’t shut off!

The sprinklers are running for some reason when they’re not supposed to and you’ve tried everything. You’ve turned off your controller. You’ve unplugged your controller. You’ve ripped the controller off the wall and smashed it with a baseball bat and still those sprinklers are going!

You have a stuck zone valve. A piece of debris is stuck inside preventing the rubber diaphragm from closing.  This is ususally dirt,  rocks, and pipe shards that get in the mainline if there’s a break. I will normally find the last valve on the mainline and open it up to flush it after a mainline repair.

Okay, so we know shutting off the controller didn’t work. So you need to go shut off the sprinkler mainline. Just like you should have a red wrench thingy by your gas meter for emergency shut off, you should know where your sprinkler main shut off is and have a valve key if necessary to shut this off. You DO have that gas wrench, right? You HAVE changed your smoke alarm batteries and have three days  of food and water ready RIGHT?? Well if not, you better ask your sprinkler guy to show you where and how to do this. After shutting the water off, call your trusty sprinkler guy to figure out the problem.

If you have an older system with hidden or buried valve boxes, or a mature landscape that has obscured them- have your sprinkler guy locate ALL of them. You want to know where they all are BEFORE something like this happens. You wouldn’t want to own a car with a hood that didn’t open. Valves periodically need to be serviced. Moving parts wear out- just like your car.


See that rock there inside the valve on the left? It’s a good thing I installed that red shutoff valve there on the right. I can shut off the mainline and flush the valve right here, instead of running back and forth to the main shut off. You can see here I’ve flushed the valve, but that pesky rock is stuck in the intake channel of the valve. Gonna need  a tool.

This handy Rainbird pop up tool is designed to hold sprayhead risers in place for nozzling. It also works great for getting into tight spaces and tweezing out rocks. Remember playing Operation as a kid? Butterfingahs!

Aha! After much swearing I have extracted the errant pebble, and berated my co-worker to tears for not working clean enough.

I always wondered as a kid what if the kids told that woman, “NO, YOU CAN’T PLAY, STUPID GROWN-UP! GET LOST!”


City Rain Fan Letter

City Rain Fan Letter

When we recieved this letter with a recent payment we immediately thought “Uh-oh”. Letters attached to invoices are usually long rants about the bill. We were pleasantly surprised this time.

Continue reading

Precipitation Rate For Dummies (Myself Included)

“Why should I care about what ‘precipitation rate’ is?” The short answer is so you can impress all your friends at the next fancy soiree or neighborhood block party as you rattle off the difference between fixed arc pattern sprayheads and gear-drive rotors.

Precipitation rate is the amount of water put down by a sprinkler in a certain amount of time. It’s measured here in the metric system hating U.S. of A. in inches per hour (iph). The reason we care about it is because we want all of the heads on the same zone to have ‘matched’ precipitation rates.

This makes sense, right? You want an area to be evenly watered, not soggy in one spot and dry in another. Some beds or turf areas are irregular in shape, varying in distances to be covered. Varying radii of sprinkler heads are therefore required within the same zone.

A ‘zone’ is a group of heads activated by one station on the clock. This may have been obvious, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Lets talk about the two common  types of sprinkler heads; sprays and rotors.

Picture of a half circle sprayhead, stolen from the Rainbird website.

Sprayheadshave fixed pattern nozzles broken down into parts of a circle: quarters, thirds,  halves, two-thirds, three-quarters, fulls. The most common radii are 8′, 10′, 12′, and 15′. There are also specialty nozzles available from most major brands with shorter radii and adjustable arcs for tricky angles. I’ll discuss some drawbacks to adjustable arc nozzles later on.

The impact head. Making less of an impact in the sprinkler world these days.

Rotors pop up and rotate in an adjusted arc, or points from which they go back and forth. The radii of rotors goes beyond that of sprays, usually 15′-60′. In the old days rotors were ‘impact heads’, the kind that people create dance moves around, and most often imitate with mouth noises: “chick, chick, chick, buhddddddddddduh.” Impact heads make us smile and think of simpler times. They were fun to run through in those summers of the ’70s as you tried to avoid stepping on beer can pull-tops in your bare feet. Nowadays they are going the way of the fanny pack and pager. You still see them around, but they’ve been largely replaced by the ‘gear drive’.

The Hunter™ PGP gear drive rotor- pretty much the best. Picture stolen from the internet

The gear drive is no fun at all. It just pops up reliably and quietly shoots a steady stream of water slowly across its arc. All of its moving parts are boringly safe inside the riser assembly, and don’t get jammed with grass and dirt. It has no interesting noise, and does not inspire one to dance.

Okay, now that we know the difference between  rotors and sprays, we ask ourselves, “Could these two types of heads work together in harmony on the same zone?” The answer is: nope. They have different precipitation rates. Rotors have a much lower precip rate (I’m going to start saying ‘precip’. That’s how sprinkler guys talk). That means it takes a lot longer for a rotor to put down the same amount of water that sprayheads would in the same area. So if you have rotors covering a large section of lawn coming on with sprays covering a smaller section- one section will always be too dry or too wet, depending on the run time. That’s why well designed systems have the same type of heads on individual zones.

There are some exceptions to the rule that work in a pinch. I have personally put a sprayhead or two on a rotor zone. Usually it was because there was an irregular small piece of a bigger lawn. In this situation we have to use a spray nozzle with a low precip rate- such as a micro spray or the Toro Precision™ series which are pretty cool.

Some guy's hand adjusting a VAN. Picture stolen from the internet.

As promised earlier, we’ll  discuss variable arc nozzles, or VANs. The arc (part of a circle, think of a pie wedge) can be adjusted from just a sliver of a few degrees to almost a full circle. These work good for angles less than 90 degrees, and curved edges that are a few degrees short or more than common fixed patterns. The problem with VANs is their precip rates are higher than regular nozzles. More than double in the case of an 8′ half circle. The Rainbird™ charts say their regular 8H has a flow of a half gallon per minute at 30 psi (pounds per square inch- the measurement of operating water pressure at the nozzle), and a precip rate of 1.56 iph. The 8′ VAN set to half circle at the same pressure is 1.2 gpm and 3.58 iph! This would be handy if you needed extra water in a spot, but would make it soggy if you didn’t.

Another drawback to the VAN is their intake ports inside the nozzle are tiny and easily clog. They are about the size of the mesh opening of the screens- so small debris ends up there. I’ve seen systems installed with all VANs, a rookie move by someone who wants to stock just one type of nozzle.

Now that you know all about prccip rates, iph, psi, gpm, and VANs, prepare to be the life of your next party! If guests drift away from you, its because they want to return well stocked  on hors dourves to give you their full and rapt attention.

Why Does My System Keep Coming On?

You programmed your controller to start watering at 5am. Let’s say you have five zones and they water ten minutes each. The cycle should be finished by 5:50, right? So why are the zones still watering at 8:30?

What most likely happened is you confused program start times with zone run times. This mistake is common, and understable, because the language is counter to intuition. Don’t feel dumb, the industry is slow to correct user unfriendliness the more they advance the features. It’s too bad Steve Jobs didn’t live long enough to create an irrigation controller.

Most newer controllers have a feature called “stacking” which will run programs consecutively in their entirety in case start times are overlapped. I will explain this further after we go over the difference between ‘start time’ and ‘run time’. ‘Start Time’ refers to the time of day you want the ‘Program’ to begin. In the example we’re using the start time is 5am. A ‘program’ is the consecutive zones chosen to water for the duration set for each.  Most controllers will have options for Program A,B,C, etc. We are sticking with the default Program A, and we’re not going to clutter our minds with those other options- we’ll talk about them later. So we have zones 1-5 all assigned to Program A, and Pgm A is set to come on at 5am. That means the program starts at 5am and each zone waters consecutively .

Run Time refers to the length of time each zone waters, i.e. zone 1=10m, 2=15m, 3=7m, etc.

Now, here’s where some people make the Big Mistake. Since a lot of controllers have more options than any user needs, the Start Times setting will display “Start Time 1, Start Time 2, Start Time 3..” This will lead folks to think, “Oh, I have to assign a start time for #1, 5:00, and that is going to run for 10 minutes so I better program Start Time 2 for 5:10, that’s going to run for 15 minutes so I program Start Time 3 for 5:25 …” and so on.  What happens next is your water bill increases 500%. Start time 1 is all you need. All 5 zones water one after the other with just one start time.  If you program 5 different start times, the controller is going to water the whole program 5 times.

You may ask, “Wouldn’t the controller get confused if a program was already running at the time another start time was programmed?” That’s where ‘stacking’ comes in. The controller will  start the next program as soon as the first one is finished., and any others programmed. So in our very first example the system would water a total of 4 hrs 40 min. instead of 50 min.

I think stacking is STUPID.  Name brand controller brochures boast about this feature. I’d prefer them to have an error message appear the moment the user adds a conflicting start time. Then they would be forced to rethink, or call a sprinkler guy to explain  what’s going wrong, and avoid a big water bill.  I can’t think of any reason a controller should have more than 3 start times anyway.

Multiple start times are appropriate in a handful of scenarios. Pots and hanging baskets need a little bit of water more than once a day.  If you water too long, water just runs out of the bottom. So you water a short time, a few times a day, every day. New grass seed needs short watering times, more often. You want it to stay wet but avoid run-off. The same thing applies to steep slopes.

There is a far better feature for these situations called ‘Cycle And Soak’. I know the Weathermatic Smartline (The controller we currently use in all new installations) has it, as well as the Hunter Pro-C, and Rainbird ESP-LX to name three. This feature allows you to program a length of time to water, and length of time to wait. Say your new grass seed needs 30min. of water a day, but it starts puddling after 10min. Say it takes 20 min. to dry out sufficiently. You program the zone for 30m, set the Cycle/Soak for 10/20 and the zone will run for ten minutes, wait 20, water 10, wait 20, then finish watering the last 10. A much better solution in my opinion.

What about those different programs I mentioned earlier? Oh yeah, Program A, B, C etc. Another avenue to confusion. The only reason to have a separate program is to divide a zone or zones into different schedules. Say you have some lawn and shrub zones that only need watered once a week, but a drip zone to your pots you need to water every day, twice a day. Then you would program start time, run time, and days to water for all shrub and lawn zones while set to A, then switch to B and program start, run, and days for the drip zone. Then you have C and or D for whatever other crazy thing you need, say a pond fill line that only needs to run once a month.

Good luck sprinkler cadets!  I’d love to get emails from anyone left more confused after having squandered five minutes reading this post.

City Rain Helps Build “Water Drum” at NW Garden And Flower Show

What is this crazy thing Craig is working on? This was the first prototype of a manifold of small solenoid valves that open up to drip water droplets onto different drumheads, creating A Floral Symphony. Craig volunteered to assist Heidi Skieveski  in the construction of her garden at the upcoming Northwest Flower and Garden Show. The idea was inspired by a design  by Dan Corson at Cedar River Watershed Education Center.

Steel strapping drums created by Steve Farris

What Are These So-Called “ET” Controllers?

First of all I have to give it to Weathermatic for this brilliant piece of guerilla marketing. They are based out of Dallas, and here they’ve gotten their product featured in some Texas local news story for free. Good work.

Anyroad- This is the very same controller and weather station we install here at City Rain Inc. We’ve been using this product since around 2007. There were some issues with the first batch of weather monitors we installed. They worked for about 3 years and then just stopped working. Fortunately Weathermatic has made improvements and gave us replacements hassle free.

What is ET? ET is short for evapotranspiration- which is basically the transfer of water from soil and plant material into the air. ‘ET controllers’ are designed to replace just the amount of water lost to ET.  They do this  by calculating real time weather data along with the soil type, plant type, sprinkler type, slope angle, and latitude. The way this particular controller works is, you decide which days of the week and what time of day to water- the controller decides for how long, or if at all, per each zone. When I say zone I refer to a section of landscape watered by a single station on the controller.

Watching this video you get the sense that after setting this up  you can forget all your cares and spend your free time in the yard sipping wine and admiring the peonies. Not quite. First, you should be confident your sprinkler guy or gal is savvy enough about the programming and placement of the monitor. Secondly, you need to be vigilant throughout the first season you use a ‘smart’ controller. The margins of error can be big at first. You are dialing in a bunch of factors to YOUR specific yard. The soil may not be as sandy or loamy as you think, or some areas may be shadier or sunnier than you realize, etc. Have your sprinkler person check and review the system mid-season.

For those of you in the Seattle area that have crappy 20th century era controllers, you are eligible for up to around $275 in rebates for upgrading to an ET controller. Visit the Saving Water Partnership website for more info, then call me at 206.778.5752 or email

Who Doesn’t Love Dazzling Before And After Pictures?

This is an account we’ve had for years in Broadmoor. They had an automatic sprinkler system in the  backyard, and an old manual  zone in front. The front lawn was watered by old brass heads that didn’t pop up high enough, oversprayed, and generally wasted water. I’ve met some people that are fond of these old heads. They are brass, they seem ‘vintage’, right? Well, would you want ‘vintage’ electrical wiring in your house?

Installed correctly, new 4″ (for turf, taller heads for shrubs) plastic pop-up heads are far superior. The best sprayhead in the industry, hands down, is the Rainbird 1800 series. There’s some brands that come close to its quality, but I haven’t seen a match for its patented wiper seal. The wiper seal is a white rubber gasket surrounding the riser in the center of the collar. It prevents ‘blow-by’ which is water leaking around the riser upon activation. Blow-by can prevent risers from building the required pressure to pop up and spray properly.  If the head is  installed at the right grade, the Rainbird wiper seal’s smooth design allows the riser to  pop up  and retract dependably. If a head is too low, it can retract dirt or sand into the seal which will cause the riser to stick.

So- here we converted the old manual valve in front to a new main shut-off for the system. We installed a PRV, or pressure regulating valve which brought the existing high static pressure down to 55psi. Pressure higher than 60psi degrades sprinkler performance. Water is wasted by misting and floating off in the air. After the PRV we installed a double check valve backflow preventer, as per code. Backflow preventers keep your drinking water safe from heads siphoning icky lawn water contaminated by fertilizer, chemicals, doggy do, etc. Next we install a new electric valve for the front yard zone, and run new lateral lines to new heads, as seen in the top picture. We extended the new mainline to the backyard system making it backflow protected.

The middle picture shows the trenches backfilled, grass restored, and heads spraying. The grass looks pretty bad from the inadequacy of the old system. Now look at the last photo, taken about a year later. Nice new truck, huh?

What Every Citizen Of Earth Should Know About Gate Valves

Any time you see a valve with a wheel type handle it’s more than likely a gate valve. It’s called that because it has a gate that raises and lowers inside, as opposed to a ball that rotates, or a stopper with a gasket. Gate valves are used as main shut-offs and for isolating sections of pipe or manifolds.

The one thing every citizen of Earth should know is that gate valves need to be opened ALL THE WAY. That means turning that handle counter clockwise until it won’t turn anymore, lazy earthlings. The reason why is that moving water is a powerful eroder of things in its way. If the bottom of the gate is not raised up out of the way completely, ithe exposed lip will get worn away. When closed water will seep through the worn edge. Imagine a knight in shining armor charging out of the castle on his horse. Some castle door raising guy is slacking and doesn’t quite raise the gate all the way. The knights helmet nicks the bottom of the gate and takes out a chunk just big enough for mice to get through when the gate is lowered.

Exposed lip of gate, not opened all the way.

  I don’t like gate valves used at main shut-offs. After many years of improper use, a system cant be properly winterized if the valve doesn’t shut off completely. There’s no point risking filling the mainline back up with water as discussed in my test cock post.  Gate valves are great for isolating electric valve manifolds. In that use it doesn’t matter if they leak, you just need the water off to open other valves and flush them.

So if you have a gate valve as your main shut-off before your double-check, have your sprinkler guy check it out. It may need to be replaced.

Would You Mount A Thermostat For Your House In The Back Yard?

No? You wouldn’t? You think it would be a little inconvenient to put on your robe and slippers and trot out there in the drizzle to crank up the heat a few degrees?

Well the same idiotic logic applies to every do-it-yourselfer that thinks for some reason they need to install a sprinkler controller in some hidden recess of their basement. You’d think it had some launch codes hidden in it somewhere. There’s nothing more I love than a system where none of the valve boxes are located and I have to check out the zones from the controller hidden deep inside the home. I inspect the zone for coverage, breaks, clogs, etc. Then to the porch, remove the muddy boots, trot down the carpeted stairs through various hazards of children’s toys and stacks of National Geographics, squeeze into narrow closets, crawlspaces, etc. Advance station. Repeat.

Look at the photo above. The version of hell I wish upon the soul responsible involves an eternity in a waiting room with only one copy of Highlights, and all the hidden pictures have been circled. The displays on Hardie Raindials are hard enough to see in dim light, but here we have to get a step stool and then try to wedge one’s head and a flashlight between floor joists. Look at the messy control wires, all loose with the jacket strip string still hanging out.

Controllers should be mounted on inconspicuous exterior walls. The next best place is the garage or storage shed. Make sure there is a clear path to the controller. The controller should be mounted around 5 feet off the ground to accomodate most adult human being’s eye level. A happy sprinkler guy is a focussed and effective sprinkler guy who will want to spend his time making your system a great system, and happily return year after year.

Let’s Get One Thing Straight About Freezing Pipes.

One day I was winterizing a system in Laurelhurst. A young girl and her grandfather watched me as I was connecting my air hose to a double check. “Whatchya doin?” I love kids. They’re always with the “Whatchya doin?” followed by the never ending “Why?”

“I’m going to hook up air to blow out all the water through the sprinkler heads so the pipes don’t freeze” I say.


And before I could respond, Grandpa misleads the small child with ” So in the spring when the weather warms up the thaw won’t cause the pipes to burst.”

It’s not hard to see why in the old days folks thought the Earth was flat. It’s pretty easy to see how they could’ve thought the sun revolved around it too. I mean take a walk outside- the world looks pretty flat as far as you can see, right? And that sun moves across the sky every day reliably. If no one ever told you different you’d think that too. Most of us are busy thinking about far more important things.

I pride myself as being the kind of person that doesn’t correct an elder in front of a child, or get myself into a shouting match with a senior. Here’s what I didn’t tell Gramps that day: The water inside the pipe freezes when it gets cold enough to freeze. Water expands when it freezes. The expanding solid pushes against the walls of the pipe causing it to split and crack. Solid is the key word here. The pipe is now broken, but water is not squirting everywhere.


Because the water is still a solid. It doesn’t become liquid again until things warm up. Once it’s liquid it’s free to squirt all over the place. You see now that the thawing did not cause the pipe to break? It just happens that thawing is the only thing that lets you know that a freeze break occurred a while back.

There, I’ve gotten that off my chest. I no longer have to live with that moment eating at me, not being able to point out the truth to that youngster. It’s been a few years now. There’s no telling what amount of damage Grandpa has wrought since. Here’s hoping she sees my blog someday.