Gardening Irrigation

6 Effective Ways to Winterize Your Sprinkler System

By the editorial team at Sprinkler Supply Store

Winter is upon us, and before long, we’ll be saying hello to coats, scarves, and mittens. While it may not seem time to think about gardening, this season is a critical time to do the things you did not get a chance to accomplish during the growing season. It’s also the perfect period to prepare for the onslaught of winter and protect your garden from damage during the season’s freezing temperatures.

One of the major considerations during this time is preparing your sprinkler system to withstand the colder months. You won’t want to welcome spring with unwelcome surprises, like repairing your irrigation system when it has frozen over and got its pipes cracked, damaged, and broken into pieces. Even worse, you won’t discover this fiasco until spring!

Short of calling a sprinkler winterization service, you will find that many of these preparations are easily manageable on your end. All you need is ample knowledge and these valuable tips in winterizing your sprinkler system.

Shut Off the Water and Timer

You won’t need to water your lawn during winter most of the time, especially if it snows heavily in your area. Therefore, start your sprinkler system winterization by shutting off the water and sprinkler timer (if you have one). Shut off the water before the temperature drops to below freezing. Doing so will protect your system from damage. Water expands when it freezes, so you don’t want any in your pipes and valves lest they crack. 

Depending on where you live, you may have to turn off your sprinkler timer entirely or leave it in rain mode. Lawns in areas that experience heavy snow will not need watering, so you should turn off your water and timer before the cold sets in. If your area experiences lighter winters, you may still need to water your lawn, so keep the timer on rain mode.  

Drain Your Sprinkler System at the Right Time

Once the freezing temperature approaches, you’ll know it’s time to drain your sprinkler system. Do this during the fall when you’re expecting the first frost, just early enough to ensure that you’re not leaving it at risk for damage. When you shut down the flow of water early on, allowing it a few weeks of hot and dry weather, you may be ensuring that your sprinkler system will survive the onslaught of the winter season.

Before doing any sort of sprinkler work or winter maintenance, make sure to wear proper protective equipment, such as high-grade nitrile gloves, coveralls, goggles, and boots. Draining your irrigation system can get messy, so you don’t want to be wearing nice clothes. 

Draining your sprinkler system can be done in several ways, depending on the type of valves and system in place. For one, automatic valves require you to turn off the water supply to the system first before turning on the sprinkler head and letting the water out. However, manual valves would need you to shut off the water and open the valve.

Others try what they call the “blow-out” method. This trick requires you to force compressed air into the piping. This will push the water out of the sprinkler heads. Just a word of caution, though. This method requires expertise because it can lead to a damaged system if done wrong. If you’re unsure about what you’re doing, it’s best to leave this job to professionals to ensure effectiveness and safety.

Install a Freeze Sensor

You might also want to consider installing a sensor that can detect freezing temperatures. Not only does this allow you to save water and money, but it’s also a reliable tool that can suspend irrigation when the phenomenon unfolds. A freeze sensor can protect your plants from overwatering and damage while reducing the risk of ice on driveways and sidewalks, alleviating possible injuries and accidents.

The sensor often detects both rain and freezing temperatures. Usually wireless, the freeze sensor is mounted to your house, unblocked from tree limbs, leaves, and other obstructions. It can communicate with your sprinkler system’s controller.

Every year, it’s advisable to inspect if your sensors are still functioning properly. The lead-up to winter is the best time to do this. One of the best ways to ensure your sensors are working well is to clean out the debris forming around the sensors, such as dirt, cobwebs, and leaves. You should also check the battery before testing the sensor.

Insulate Your Sprinkler System

Apart from shutting off the water supply to your irrigation system, it’s also essential that you take steps to protect the shutoff valve against freezing. You can do this by wrapping the valve with insulation, such as foam insulation and a plastic bag. This will help protect the valve from freezing temperatures.

You should also keep in mind to do the same for any above-ground piping. You may consider using self-sticking foam insulating tape. There are also insulating tubes for this purpose.

Winterize Your Automatic Controller

Automatic controllers need to be winterized too. This requires you to disconnect the standard wire from the controller. Find the wire marked as “COM” or just “C.” In the case of outdoor mounted controllers, leave the power on and the dial off. The enclosure will be kept warm through the heat emanating from the transformer, keeping condensation from forming.

Of course, you must invest in a quality controller that gets the job done while allowing you to save on costs, just like the Hunter Pro C controller, for example.

Protect Outside Faucets

Tuyau d'arrosage sur un enrouleur.
Photo: Mike, Pexels

Exterior faucets are common in many household gardens. During the winter season, shut down exterior faucets from the water supply. You might also want to consider removing and draining garden hoses attached to these faucets to avoid damaging them. While turning the valves off is recommended, you need to leave the taps open as this trick can break the air vacuum and allow water to drain thoroughly.  

Doing this will let all the water between the shutoff valve and outside faucets drain, reducing the chances of freeze damage.

Wrapping It Up

A good sprinkler system is essential to keep your garden in pristine condition during the hot and dry summer season. However, once fall is around the corner, you will face a looming deadline that compels you to prepare for the winter months. After all, cold temperatures can put your sprinkler system in danger of freezing and getting damaged in the process.

That is why a proper and thorough winterization preparation is necessary. It’s the only way to ensure your sprinkler system will remain in great shape throughout the changing seasons. You need to remember that this process requires timing, effort, and commitment, year in and out. It’s not something that you can skip unless you’re prepared to face some nasty surprises come spring, not to mention mounting costs to repair the damage.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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