Property Management Tips to Winterize Irrigation Systems


Image of a sprinkler headEverybody in the neighborhood can tell pretty quickly who left their irrigation system on during that hard freeze. The icy, winter wonderland amid brown turf and green vegetation is a dead giveaway that the water supply wasn’t cut off before temperatures fell below freezing.

Though spectacular, that scene could create a huge liability for property management teams and owners. One slip of the foot by a resident on an icy walk created by a sprinkler system left on during a freeze could become a legal nightmare.

This time of year, property management teams should make sure that “checking rain sensors” is an item on their fall and winter prep to-do lists.

Rain sensors equipped with a freeze sensor shut off the irrigation system when moisture is present or temperatures drop below freezing. Folks normally think about preventing the sprinkler system from running during the rain, but sensors should be front of mind in cold weather to help prevent unthinkable damage beyond merely coating plants with damaging ice.

An apartment property owner was liable a couple of years ago for an accident at an intersection next to the apartment community when the sprinkler system ran overnight and the overflow froze in the street. Two cars skidded their way into the property’s pocketbook, saying that if the property had not run its sprinkler system and created a dangerous situation the accident would have never happened.

It’s a hard argument to win on a night when skies are clear and 27 degrees, and a property’s driveway or sidewalk looks like a hockey rink.

Follow these property management tips to make sure your apartment’s irrigation system is ready for winter:

Perform Tests on the Freeze Sensor

The rain sensor, typically mounted to a building and exposed to the elements, usually is a flat, white or gray box the size of a deck of cards or longer with antenna protruding from it. A receiver is typically mounted next to the controller (connected by wire), where it picks up a signal from the sensor that there is moisture or cold air. Once the signal is received, an electrical circuit is broken and power to the system is shut off.

To ensure a sprinkler system equipped with a freeze sensor is working, take a can of compressed air – like that used to clean computer keyboards – and turn upside down and spray the sensor. The blast of super cold air will activate the light on the system to let you know the freeze sensor is working. No light, replace the sensor.

Check the Sensor’s Battery

Freeze sensors are generally not hard-wired and run off batteries, which lose power in extreme cold temperatures. Make sure the battery is charged. Most controllers have an indicator light that displays available battery power. Also, ensure the system is not set on the bypass mode. If the switch is set to bypass, it doesn’t matter how effective your sensor is; that information is not going to get to the controller and it’s not going to stop the system from coming on.

Turn Off the Water Source

If you know for certain a hard freeze is on the way, don’t rely on electronic devices to save a high-dollar lawsuit. While a freeze sensor helps, the fail-safe way to manage your sprinkler system in cold weather is shutting off the water source. Don’t just turn off the controller, but turn off the water source, either at the irrigation meter or at the double-check valve at the main meter.

Remind the Maintenance Team

Reminding your maintenance team to winterize the property’s irrigation system is always a good idea. Post signs near controllers during winter that remind them to check sensors, test sensor batteries, and manually shut down the system. Post a sign near the double-check valve that instructs the maintenance team to recheck the valve when temperatures warm so that the property’s landscape continues to be well irrigated.

Drain the Irrigation System to Avoid Line Fractures

While the ground acts as an insulator for pipes, draining an irrigation system is often necessary in colder, northern climates. In southern climates, winterizing a system is optional.

To avoid fractures in irrigation lines, as much water as possible should be evacuated from the system.

Most often, systems are depressurized by turning off the water source and opening a couple of valves. Water also may be purged by unscrewing the head at the lowest point of gravity in each zone. Systems in the north may have “freeze plugs,” which are removed to drain lines instead of taking off the lowest head. Freeze plugs are typically (and should always be) installed at a low point or the lowest point of the system.

The idea is to avoid fractures in the line by getting as much water out of the system as possible to minimize expansion of frozen water.

By following these property management tips, an apartment property can not only prevent damage to the irrigation system but also steer clear of potential liabilities that can lead to a much bigger expense. Nobody likes to ride a slippery slope.

How do your property management and maintenance teams prepare your apartment property irrigation system for winter?



President, Earthworks

author photo two

Chris Lee is President of Dallas, Texas-based Earthworks, which specializes in multifamily housing landscaping. He is a contributing author to Landscape Management magazine, licensed irrigation specialist and a Toro Intellisense certified technician. Chris studied business at the University of Arkansas from 1990-94 and horticulture and landscape design at Tarrant County College from 1999-01. He has been employed at Earthworks since 1998.

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