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How I Killed a Weekend Fixing Sprinklers, Why I Did It, and 10 Tips I Learned Along the Way

There are some repair projects that you start and you wish you hadn’t. For me, those projects always involve plumbing. Usually, I don’t do any home repair project without at least three visits to the hardware store. But plumbing projects should earn me hardware store frequent flyer miles … and a couple extra bags of the free popcorn.

This, by the way, wasn’t my first plumbing rodeo. I’ve done the sink, the toilet, and now—the sprinklers.

Sprinklers look so easy—that’s what gets you. PVC is like Tinker Toys and Water Works, all in one. Just cut and glue a few pipes to fix the broken bits. No big deal, right? Wrong. After six sets of soaked clothes and a half-dozen trips to the hardware store, my sprinklers finally work again.

Somewhere around replacing the 15th “T”, I thought about ripping up the whole system and starting fresh. No more fighting with 15-year-old pipes. No more digging up knotted roots to find breaks. It was so tempting. PVC is so cheap. But you can’t allow yourself to be beaten by plastic piping.

Also, I did some Googling, and looked at how PVC is made. It’s pretty recyclable, but PVC is a petroleum product. Plus, it has chloride right in the name. Neither of these substances make top ten lists for sustainable manufacturing. There aren’t a lot of other environmentally-friendly piping options (at least ones that are within my budget)—so I rolled up my sleeves and fixed the old pipes instead of buying new pipes.

I replaced every broken joint and section I could. I retained as much of the original pipe and reused pieces I had cut off.

And to tell you the truth, I was proud. I was soaked, but I was proud. We live in a world that doesn’t always have easy, cut-and-dry answers—but it feels good to do something. To know I made a better choice, even if it wasn’t perfect. I have to believe small steps will get us there, one wrench at a time. Plus, I’ll waste less water now that my sprinkler system actually holds water.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what I learned about working on sprinklers, here’s my top ten tips:

  • Install a manual valve first—and if you can, find a buddy you trust to stand by it. I do not recommend giving this job to anyone, particularly small children (or grown-ups that act like small children) who think it’s funny to watch you get soaked.
  • Dry-fit everything first, especially if you’re working with older pipe. Sometimes it needs a bit of sanding or reshaping to fit securely.
  • Read the bottle of glue—most PVC glues take 10-15 minutes to fully dry. If you get too excited, your freshly laid pipe will be the next geyser attraction for the aforementioned small child.
  • Keep your ear to the ground. Oftentimes, it is easier to hear a leak or break, than it is to see it—especially in overgrown areas.
  • Don’t glue wet pipes. Sure, they make glues that can handle it, but it just seems to work better when it’s dry.
  • Use spare pieces to support old pipe when cutting it. If your pipe cutter is deforming old pipe near a break, sometimes you can slip on another piece like a coupler, to help it retain its shape while you cut it.
  • Flush your system before you add sprinkler heads to your risers. If your pipes have been sitting, they’ve likely accumulated some gunk and debris. You’ll want to run the system without sprinkler heads to flush all this out so it doesn’t clog your sprinklers.
  • Be prepared for gushers—keep your face and body away from the tops of risers when you turn on the system to test it. Safety: it’s simpler than you think.
  • Keep a few extra caps handy. They make testing, assessing, and troubleshooting issues loads easier.
  • Give yourself plenty of time. Seriously. Rome wasn’t plumbed in a day.
  • Bonus tip: be sure to thank your crew (thanks, guys—you know who you are!) for helping, getting soaked, and laughing along the way.