Drip Irrigation Winter Care

Drip irrigation winter care is vitally important if you live in a climate that experiences freezing temperatures. As temperatures drop the ground freezes and if there is standing water left in water lines they are at risk of cracking or being damaged. A proper winterizing will help ensure that your system stays in peak operating system every year. If you chose to install a drip irrigation system for the low maintenance you'll be glad to know that winterization of a drip irrigation system can often be completed in under 30 minutes. 

drip irrigation winter care

The ease and simplicity of drip irrigation winter care largely depends on the planning and design of the initial installation. We've included installation tips that you'll see as your read this article that highlight the importance of incorporating maintenance into the overall design of your irrigation system. If you add zones to your existing system or upgrading to xeriscaping you will find the tips listed below very helpful. 

The time of year you should carry out the winterizing process will depend when you get your first frost in the winter. You can look up the expected date of the first frost by learning about the hardiness zone frost dates. It's a good idea to winterize two to three weeks before the threat of frost to avoid damaging the system in the event of an early frost. We're going to explain drip irrigation winter care in step by step format so anyone can follow along regardless if you are a beginner or experienced landscaper.

Drip Irrigation Winter Care Step by Step

The goal of drip irrigation winter care is to remove all water or enough to prevent damage from freezing water as it expands. This can be done by simply opening a drain valve and letting gravity draw water out, using pre-installed automatic drain valves or forcing pressurized air through the system. In addition to making sure the main water supply has been turned off for the winter we recommend wrapping the main shut off valve in insulation; using either insulation tape or insulating foam tubes. 

We are going to discuss the 3 methods of drip irrigation winterizing in more detail below. After reading through each of the following methods you should also have a really good idea of how to design your drip irrigation installation to allow for easy winterizing.

Manual Drain Valves
Automatic Drain Valves
Compressed Air Blowouts

Manual Drain Valves

Manual drain valves use the power of gravity to allow water drainage when it's needed. This can be necessary during winterizing, repairs or routine maintenance. Since manual drains rely solely on gravity they need to be positioned properly or they won't be effective. When you design your drip irrigation installation plan it's important to incorporate manual drains on every low point that could potentially collecting water. 

Manual gravity draining of the system won't remove water trapped inside some valves. Check with your irrigation system manufacturer for information about specific valve winterizing: including whether manual draining is adequate. It may be enough to expose them to forced air from a compressor or they may need to be disassembled, drained and sponged dry. This involves removing the bonnet, solenoid and diaphragm and reassembling all components except for the solenoid which should remain in the open position over winter. 

Manual Valve Winterizing Step by Step

  1. Turn off the irrigation system using the master shut off valve on the mainline.
  2. Start by opening one control valve manually or by using a timer or wireless controller to relieve pressure on the mainline of the irrigation system.
  3. Open the manual drain valves slowly and proceed to open the rest of the manual drain valves on the system mainline.

Drip Irrigation Installation Tip

Manual drain valves should only be located on mainlines with a slope that allows water to drain out. It's important to note that automatic drain valves should only be installed on lateral lines, which we discuss below. The basic manual drains can consist of a ball valve, gate valve or a simple threaded pipe with cap. If they are located outdoors be sure to create a pit or well of gravel to allow for drainage when draining water from the system. 

Automatic Drain Valves

Automatic drain valves are a very effective and low maintenance way to continually purge water from a system. The spring loaded devices are forced closed when the system is pressurized and when the water is turned off they open and release water. An automatic drain valve ensures that anytime the system is powered off there is no water left in the system, making them ideal for easy drip irrigation winter care. 

Drip Irrigation Installation Tip

Incorporate automatic drain valves on low points, downstream from any control valves while making sure to only install on lateral pipe networks and not on a mainline. Automatic drain valves can be installed as part of an inline tee junction or they can be added or built into some sprinklers. In either case it's recommended that you remove organics and soil directly the drain valves and fill with gravel for drainage. 

Compressed Air Blowouts

If you use the blowout method with compressed air for your drip irrigation winter care there are some important steps to follow. Always open the flush valve or valves before starting and don't exceed 50 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure and keep air volume between 10 to 25 cubic feet per minute (CFM). If you exceed this pressure you could damage the fittings, emitters or tubing, check with the manufacturers recommended psi limit for your specific system. A pressure regulating valve should be used to avoid over pressurization of the system.

Always wear proper eye protection and exercise extreme caution when blowing out any sprinkler system. Physical injury can result from flying debris, don't stand over pipes, valves or sprinklers during the winterizing blowout procedure.

Compressed Air Irrigation Blowout Step by Step

  1. Turn off the main sprinkler shutoff valve by closing it. 
  2. Slowly open the manual shutoff valve to relieve pressure in the system. Activate the zone or circuit furthest away from the air connection if you are using a timer or controller.
  3. Connect the compressor hose to the blowout adapter. 
  4. Set the compressor to operate at 50 psi or lower. 
  5. If you are using a timer or controller, turn on the zone you want to blowout. 
  6. Turn on the compressor. Slowly increase the air pressure until the sprinkler heads pop up or water flows out of the emitters in a drip irrigation system. The amount of pressure required will depend on the size and amount of heads or emitters in the system. 
  7. Turn the compressor off after 2 minutes to allow air to purge from the compressor and irrigation system. Turn on the next control valve you want to winterize and turn off the valve that was just blown out. We recommend not blowing out a specific circuit for more than 2 minutes at a time due to potential damage from over heating. In an automated system switch to another zone using the timer or controller every 2 minutes, making sure to never turn the controller off before first turning the compressor off. 
  8. As you blowout every zone you want to run the compressor for 2 minute intervals until there is a fine mist emitted from sprinkler heads or the emitters run dry. If 100% of the water is removed you could damage internal components of the sprinkler including the drive mechanism. 
  9. Turn the compressor off after each zone has been blown out. In an automated system controlled by a timer, leave on zone while turning off the compressor. 
  10. Disconnect the compressor hose from the blowout adapter. Turn the timer off or set to rain mode. 

Drip Irrigation Installation Tip

A quick-connect fitting, manual gate valve, plugged tee or a simple capped threaded pipe should be installed on the drip irrigation system mainline for attaching the compressor air hose. The connection should be located as close as possible to the water source and compatible with your air compressor. 

Drip Irrigation System Maintenance

Drip irrigation maintenance consists of regular checks, yearly maintenance and winter care if you live in an area that experiences freezing temperatures. Any drip irrigation system part of a large system should be followed up with a system flush every two weeks for the first six weeks. Any debris in the water could mean the back flow preventer isn't working properly or you may have a leak somewhere. The system should be flushed every season at a minimum and any time there are repairs made. 

After flushing the lines it's a great idea to check every every emitter, sprinkler or tubing for leaks and any signs of reduced water flow. Clean the emitters with a soft brush and replace broken emitters with equal flow rated emitters. You should monitor and compare the pressure readings at the supply and flush headers to the readings at the time of installation. If you notice a pressure drop or increase it could be a sign of a faulty pressure regulator or clogged filter.

It may take more time to maintain low-volume irrigation because problems aren't as obvious or visible as traditional sprinkler irrigation but it's important for preventing costly issues down the road. If you have questions about maintaining your drip irrigation system we recommend contacting the manufacturer, local landscaping dealer or irrigation expert.

drip irrigation troubleshooting

Drip Irrigation Troubleshooting

Drip irrigation troubleshooting can be frustrating especially when the problem isn't obviously visible. If the issue is affecting the health of your garden, plants or landscape area you want to fix it as soon as possible and we are going to help with that. It can be something as simple as turning the main water line on or something a bit more complex like programming the irrigation controller properly. This is a list of some common problems that can cause drip irrigation systems to not work properly.

Clogged Emitters

The tiny micro-openings in the drippers can become clogged even with the cleanest water and careful installation. Whether the blockage is caused by mineral or fertilizer build up or organic debris, they can be cleaned or replaced quite easily. Cleanable drippers can be cleaned by unscrewing the top, rinsing all parts including diaphragm and rebuilding. 

If the drippers aren't cleanable and become clogged you may need to replace them. This can be done easily if you are using 1/4" tubing by simply removing and replacing with a new emitter. If you are using 1/2" tubing, carefully tug the dripper off of the mainline. We recommend using a pocket punch or something similar if the line can't be removed easily. It may need to punch a new hole in the mainline, if this is the case use a goof plug to block the hole where the old dripper was attached. 

If you are aware that your local water supply has hard water or known contaminants it's a good idea to use a cleanable dripper and clean the filter regularly to prevent blockages.

Not Enough Pressure

If drippers don't have enough pressure or varying flow rates it could be an indicator that there is pressure loss. This can be the result of a line break or the limits of the system have been exceeded. After eliminating the possibility of a line break we need to look at the flow rate of your water source and the requirements of the drippers or sprayers in the system.

  1. There may be too many emitters on one line or zone. It may be necessary to add a zone and use them separately in order to provide adequate flow to each specific zone. 
  2. The flow rate of your water source is too low for the installed system. This can be easily avoided by using a flow rate calculator when planning the drip irrigation installation. 
  3. The system piping will have upper limits of the amount of water it can carry in a given time period often referred to as tubing capacity. It's important to understand flow rates for different size and length of piping in a given system. 
  4. The inline filter is clogged and not allowing adequate water to pass through the system.

A pressure regulator is vital to any drip irrigation system. It will help prevent clogging of downstream components, improve irrigation consistency and filter debris from the water source. 

No Water

If the drippers aren't dripping it could be a sign the water pressure is too low or high. If this is the case, refer to not enough pressure troubleshooting above. Most drippers are designed to function optimally in certain ranges of pressure and if the source is outside those ranges, they won't operate properly. If you are using a pressure regulator it may need to be cleaned and check to make sure it's fastened securely.

If the drip irrigation winter care wasn't carried out it's possible the lines froze and ruptured. If a compressor was used with a pressure above 50 psi it's possible the emitters or other internal components were damaged. We recommend checking the flow rate of the main water source before installing a system to prevent any flow or pressure problems down the road. 


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