Finding a Broken Sprinkler Pipe in Your Underground Irrigation System

If you spend most of your time in your garden, you know that sprinklers are a godsend.

It means saying goodbye to waking up early to water your plants before heading to work, and no more rushing back home to keep them alive during particularly hot days.

However, there may also come a time that your sprinkler system will turn into a nightmare.

Leaks, an outrageous water bill, and a ruined landscaping… it’s unfathomable! And, it’s something terribly possible if your sprinkler system is not working as it should.

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More often than not, a broken pipe is the culprit. In fact, many of the issues with sprinklers can be traced back to it. And because its pipes are underground, it’s difficult to where exactly is the problematic pipe – you suspect there’s a leak somewhere, but you won’t be able to find it by sight alone.

If this is your dilemma, you have come to the right place.

Lucky for you, we came up with this article that explains in detail how to find a broken pipe in a sprinkler system, the importance of immediately getting it fixed, and how this is resolved.

So, let’s get to it!

How to Tell if an Underground Sprinkler System is Leaking

sprinkler system

If there is a leak on your roof, pipes, or even your basement, you can easily tell it by any dripping water you see.

This won’t be the case for your underground sprinkler system, since the water will be absorbed by the ground. Unless the soil is completely dry, it will be hard to tell just by looking around if there are leaks in the sprinkler system.

Although difficult, finding a leak in your sprinkler system is not an impossible task. You just need to be aware of the common signs pointing to it, namely:

  • Obvious wet spots – if it has been sunny all day and the ground is dry, save for a certain area, this may be due to a leak. To confirm this, check if that spot will eventually dry up after some time. If it remains wet without any reason, it is probably a leak.
  • The ground feels soggy – do you notice the squishy feeling whenever you step on wet soil? If you feel this when stepping over a spot or two on the ground on a hot day, you might want to investigate that spot because it may be a sign of a leak.
  • Uneven ground – an overly saturated ground will eventually cave in or be lower than the rest of your lawn that gets just the right amount of water. If you see or feel this happening, it may be due to a leak.
  • There are fungi growing in certain spots – it’s quite uncommon to see fungal growth, such as mushrooms, on a lawn due to the abundance of sunlight that inhibits its growth. But, the sun would be no match to the growth of fungi if a section of your lawn is constantly moist.
  • Your or walkway is always wet – unless it constantly rains or someone keeps spilling water over it, there is no logical reason for concrete surfaces near your lawn to remain wet. Water will evaporate quickly on such surfaces; if it doesn’t, water may be steadily flowing from a leak on your sprinklers.
  • Water pressure seems to have changed – water should flow evenly and overlap with each other whenever the sprinkler system is active. But if they don’t or it flows lower than usual, a leak in may be affecting the water pressure.
  • You hear hissing, bubbling, or gurgling sounds – if you suspect a leak is present on your underground sprinkler system, literally keeping an ear to the ground may clue you in. Leaks on an in-ground sprinkler system can make noises. It’s not just your that you should be aware of to avoid , you should also be paying attention to the noises coming from your garden.
  • Unexplained spike in your water bill – if you’re sure that there are no significant changes on your household’s water consumption and there are no leaks in your home, an underground leak may explain why your water bill is way higher than usual.
  • Some plants are green and thriving, while some are brown and dying – sprinklers help make sure that your landscaping gets ample and equal amounts of water to thrive. But if there are some areas that seem to be dying out or wilting, those areas may no longer be getting enough water because the pressure is not enough to reach them.
  • Water is pooling – the earth will eventually absorb all the water it receives, no matter how much it is. But if you see water pooling on the ground that shows no signs of being absorbed, it water may be coming from a leak.
  • The water that comes out is dirty – leaks in your sprinkler system not only release water in less than ideal spots, they also allow soil to enter the pipes and mix in with the water that gets released by the sprinkler heads.

If you notice any of these signs, you need to get it fixed without delay. It’s not just a high water bill and a ruined garden you will be dealing with – leaks on your sprinkler system can also be dangerous.

Dangers of An Underground Leak

Some people think that a leaking sprinkler system doesn’t pose any real danger. After all, the water coming from the leak will only be absorbed by the earth. Isn’t this a good thing, since it means your plants will get more water?

Unfortunately, leaks, including those that involve your underground sprinkler system, will always do more harm than good. Also, we all know that overwatering plants is the quickest way to kill them.

You need to know that a leak in your sprinkler system is more than just about overwatering, ruining your garden, and having a high water consumption that results in astronomical water bills. You may not realize this but underground leaks can also be dangerous.

To be precise, an underground leak that doesn’t get resolved immediately can cause the following:

  • Formation of sinkholes, as well as below-ground cavities that may cause injuries, or even death
  • Flooding not just on your property, but also on your neighbor’s
  • Structural issues to your home. Some of the water may be absorbed by your , which will weaken it
  • Formation of cracks on decks, patios, and sidewalks that can affect its durability, making it unsafe for use
  • The floor of your house and other structures may become uneven, which may later cause it to collapse
  • Ruined utility lines
  • Growth of mold and fungus that may affect your health
  • Rot on wooden structures near the leaky spot, which will eventually cause it to deteriorate
  • Can cause cracks to form in the walls and foundations of your home if the leaking happens near it. When this happens, water may also enter your home

While resolving leaks on your underground sprinkler system because you don’t want to ruin your garden is a valid reason, what’s more important is for you to get it fixed to avoid experiencing any of these dangers.

How to Locate Irrigation Lines

If there’s something wrong with your sprinkler system, the first course of action is to find out exactly where the issue is. And unless it has something to do with the exposed sprinkler heads and valves, the problem is often underground.

Unless you’ve asked the plumber who installed your sprinkler system to mark where your irrigation lines are or you were given a map indicating where the sprinkler lines are, you’ll have a hard time tracing its path. Sprinkler systems are placed underground and buried under all that earth and grass, hidden from sight.

You’re probably wondering if you need to do a lot of digging on your entire yard just to find them. The short answer is, yes, you’ll have to dig around.

But if you don’t want to completely dig out your lawn just to find all those pipes, you need to know some facts about irrigation lines:

  • They will run straight and will only turn at 90-degree angles due to the t-joint pipes. Irrigation lines are only comprised of straight and t-joint pipes.
  • Pipes are only shallowly buried, so you won’t spend too much time digging around in one spot. However, you also need to be careful when digging, as you may accidentally hit the pipes and damage them.
  • Sprinkler pipes can be either made out of metal or plastic, particularly PVC. Older sprinkler systems use metal, while PVC is more widely used nowadays.

It will be easier to locate the irrigation lines with the help of specialized tools. Some pipe and cable detectors, as well as metal detectors for metal pipes, can aid you in this task.

So, where should you start digging? Here are your options:

  • From the area near your valve box, as this box is connected to the irrigation lines
  • Area around the sprinkler heads
  • Recessed ground, especially straight ones, that appeared due to leaks, as these recessions often follow the path of the sprinkler lines.

Since sprinklers have short distances between each other and are interconnected, you can already guess the spots where irrigation lines that connect them to each other are placed. And to find the lines that connect the valve box to your sprinkler, you should gauge the shortest path between them; this is where irrigation lines that connect them are installed.

If you are wary of digging your way through the pipes, you can use a soil probe rod first. Insert this on the ground until you hit a pipe or water gushes out because of a leak. Although the risk of hitting a pipe and damaging it is minimized, you still need to be careful when poking around with it, especially if it comes with a sharp edge.

Once you have a general idea where the lines are located, this is the time to do some digging. Most irrigation lines are found around 8 inches or so below the ground, while the main supply lines are buried deeper. Angle your shovel when digging and make sure to only do shallow digs to lessen the risk of damaging a hit pipe.

Also, it’s good practice to shut off the water first and have careful and deliberate movements when digging. Some homeowners learn this the hard way when water starts gushing out like a geyser once they accidentally hit and damaged the pipes.

How to Find a Broken Sprinkler Pipe in Your Underground Irrigation System

Once you are familiar with the locations of your irrigation lines, it’s easier to check if any issues you are having with your sprinkler system is due to a broken pipe. Leaks happen as a result of this, and signs of leaking are what you need to keep an eye out for.

An annoying thing about leaks is the fact that they can be misleading. That is, where you can see water coming out is not necessarily where the source of the leak is located. This is true as well, even for sprinkler systems. Even if you managed to narrow down where the water is coming out from, the actual source may be a couple of inches, or even feet, away from it.

You should first determine if the leak is due to a broken pipe or an issue with the valve or sprinkler head. Its proximity to those will clue you in; the nearer the leak is to a valve or sprinkler head, the more likely it is caused by those parts.

Another indicator of a broken pipe is if you noticed little water pressure present, or no water coming out at all, on two interconnected sprinkler heads. To confirm this, you need to:

  1. Shut off the valve for that particular zone
  2. Cover up that zone’s sprinkler heads with caps
  3. Allow the ground to dry up
  4. Turn on the valve once the ground is dry
  5. Check the ground above the irrigation lines for signs of wetness

Finding a broken pipe in your system involves the process of elimination. You’ll have to dig around a suspected leaking spot on the ground to find which of the pipes is broken.

Leaks are the best clues for you to find a broken pipe in your irrigation system. Find a leak, and you’ll likely find a broken pipe.

Irrigation Leak Detection Equipment

Let’s admit it, we like taking shortcuts when faced with troublesome tasks. And since work on an underground irrigation system is always complicated and takes a lot of time and effort to do, we all want to find ways to finish the task via the easiest and quickest ways possible.

If you already have a hard time finding where all that dripping is coming from inside your home, you should be aware by now that it is nothing compared to finding a leak underground. Fortunately, there are now some specialized equipment that can help you with this task.

If you’re thinking that these are like x-ray machines that allow you to see what’s underground, including leaks, you’re in for a disappointment. There’s no device yet that can do that (but maybe you can invent one in the future!). Equipment that can aid you in leak detection will focus on the sound of leaks. These will include:

  • Leak noise logger
  • Electro-acoustic testing kit
  • Water leak microphone
  • Headphones for it

They act like stethoscopes that let you hear the sounds of leaks. We know for a fact that leaks can make sounds, but not all of them can be heard without using these special equipment.

Using such equipment will also help determine if there is a leak in a particular area and where it is approximately located. This means less digging is needed, since you already zeroed in on its possible location.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. These tools are expensive and will set you back by several thousand dollars. That’s why most of those that use this are the pros, and not the ordinary homeowner. Not only that, these leak detectors are quite complicated for an amateur to use.

Some analog and digital water meters also come with a leak detection feature that will indicate if there is a leak somewhere in the water lines; all you need to do is check your meter’s leak indicator. While it can detect leaks, it may not be able to pinpoint if the leak involves the water lines of your home or your irrigation system.

But if your water meter does not have this feature, you can get a dedicated irrigation meter that is directly connected to your sprinkler system installed. That way, you will be alerted once a leak happens in your irrigation lines. Do note that this kind of meter may also be unable to detect small leaks in the system.

Sprinkler Shut Off Valve Leaking When It’s Off

The best thing about sprinklers is that we just have to tweak their settings and they will automatically activate and deactivate at chosen times and intervals. However, there may be times when we need to completely shut them off temporarily and manually, and this is where the sprinkler shut off valve comes in.

Normally installed inside the house, this valve allows you to shut off your sprinklers manually whenever you want. Even if they are supposed to be dry all the time, they are not immune to leaks. Leaking on a shut off valve occurs even when it is switched off.

It happens due to these:

  • Cracks on fittings due to the cold temperatures, as well as frozen pipes because of the winter season
  • Normal wear and tear
  • A component of the valve stem area or a threaded fitting loosened up

To fix a leaking shut off valve, plumbers will first check the condition of the fittings and tighten up loose ones. But if the leak persists even after tightening them up, or some components are irreparable, the only way to fix it is to replace those fittings.

Even if your entire sprinkler system has been shut off, you may notice a sprinkler head or two that seems to still be releasing some water. But before you think it is broken, know that this is a common issue that can be fixed.

This kind of leak happens due to any of the following:

  • Stuck debris, particularly on its nozzles and filters, that prevents water from flowing normally
  • Issue with the zone control valve, which can be traced to either a worn-down valve or debris that got stuck in its mechanism
  • Damage in the pipes
  • Low head drainage, which is due to the sprinkler system being installed on a slope. Gravity will work against the sprinkler head at the lowest location, because the remaining water when the sprinkler shuts off will flow downwards. This causes leaks on that particular sprinkler head
  • Connections of your sprinkler system are poor

Troubleshooting these will require:

  • Cleaning the sprinkler’s zone valves and sprinkler heads
  • Replacing old and damaged parts
  • Installing a drain check valve or adjusting the position of the sprinkler system in a slope
  • Finding and fixing bad connections

From all these, it’s safe to say that a leaking sprinkler head can be considered a minor issue that can get immediately fixed, especially by a professional.

How to Fix a Broken Sprinkler Line

Once you were able to narrow down the cause of a leak on your sprinkler system to a broken or damaged pipe, it’s time to get it fixed. And just like any other household leak, it needs to be addressed asap.

Professionals usually have these tools in their arsenal for this kind of task:

  • Shovel
  • Repair coupling, replacement pipes, and/or couplers (if needed)
  • Purple PVC primer
  • Hacksaw or PVC cutter
  • Sandpaper
  • Measuring tape
  • Rags and buckets
  • PVC solvent or cement

Here’s the usual way of repairing a broken PVC sprinkler line:

  1. Find the damaged pipes and turn switch off the valve for that zone to stop water from flowing throughout the task.
  1. Carefully dig around its surroundings, making sure that there is some space around it to work on. Around 4 to 6 inches of space between the pipe and the soil is recommended.

If the pipe is under your lawn, it’s possible to camouflage the repair and make it look like no work was done. To do this, you need to dig out the sod with several inches of soil underneath it to avoid damaging the roots. Do this in square patches.

  1. Clean around the area of the pipe and remove as much water that leaked out as you can.
  1. Apply some purple primer to the contact points of a PVC pipe. The primer will soften the PVC, making it easier to disconnect later.
  1. Remove the damaged section either by using a hacksaw for longer sections or a PVC cutter for smaller ones, or unscrewing it if possible. Once the damaged sections have been cut off, clean the remaining ends.

Aim to remove as little of the pipe as possible. If only a small section has been damaged, you can just remove an inch or so, or even a foot long, of the pipe, as long as it covers the entire span of the damaged section.

  1. Use sandpaper to smoothen out the edges of the pipe’s ends.
  1. Depending on the length of the cut section, you can install the replacement pipe just by gluing its ends to the ends of the cut sprinkler line using the solvent for short sections, or installing a repair pipe or new pipe and couplers if the cut section is quite long.

Repair pipes are extendable, so you only need to extend it to cover the length of the cut section and glue it in place. But if you are using a new pipe, glue a coupler on each side, and then glue the couplers connected to the new pipe to the ends of the cut sprinkler line.

  1. Let the new pipes adhere and set by leaving it undisturbed for a few hours without switching on the sprinkler valve. Afterwards, switch on the valve and observe if leaks are still present. If not, you can now cover it up with the soil and sod that was removed.

Getting Help from Pros

While a broken sprinkler pipe can be fixed by DIY work, those who do so are surprised that it’s very time-consuming and harder than it looks. It can also get messy, and you risk ruining not just your sprinkler system that you are trying to fix but also your landscaping.

Not only that, fixing a broken sprinkler pipe also involves using some sophisticated tools that are not available in most households. Sure, you may use some alternative tools for this task, but it will more than likely take you longer to finish it, not to mention make it harder for you to do so.

So, what do you do if you don’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time working on it, want to have little or no damage at all to your lawn afterwards, and don’t have the right tools for it, nor willing to spend thousands of dollars buying those tools you will hardly need afterwards?

You call a plumber, of course!

In fact, this is the most practical solution. The work gets done fast, you don’t have to buy those costly equipment since they already have them, and they will make sure that your landscaping looks undisturbed after working on your sprinkler system. You don’t have to get your hands dirty.

Sounds like an amazing deal, doesn’t it?

And once you decide on getting help from them, you need to find the reliable one who will give you the best value at a very fair price. So, how do you do that?

You can choose to ask for recommendations and spend days going around your area in hopes of finding one. Then you’ll have to negotiate with them and compare their rates, before choosing the one to hire.

Or, you can choose to just sit in front of your computer, fill out our form, and wait until up to four plumbers get in touch with you with their offers, including their quotations, without breaking a sweat.

And, here’s a fun fact: this is free of charge, and you are also free to turn down the offers you got from the plumbers who contacted you.

You have nothing to lose with our service, right? So, fill out that form right now and get your problematic underground irrigation system fixed asap!

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