Spring Into Gardening Season With These 9 Sprinkler Start-Up Tips

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated March 24, 2022
A girl running in the front yard while getting sprayed by sprinkler water
Photo: Yellow Dog Productions / DigitalVision / Getty Images

De-mist-ify your sprinkler start-up in the spring with a steady flow of tips

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With robins appearing on the windowsill and winter finally behind you for good, it's time to dream of warmer and greener days ahead. If you decide to forgo a professional sprinkler turn-on service, it's important to fully understand how to activate your sprinkler system without causing damage. Before you flip the main water valve back on and let the water flow, use these nine tips to make sure your grass and your system are ready to come out of hibernation.

1. Wait for the Final Frost

Timing is crucial when it comes to sprinkler system activation. The last thing you want to do is fill the pipes with water and have it all freeze after a surprise frost. Additionally, your lawn likely doesn't need water until the ground fully thaws and early spring rains let up. This is particularly true with cool-season grasses up north that go dormant in the winter.

Check out your farmer's almanac for estimated final frost days, and test your soil for signs that it has fully warmed up for the year. You only need to water your lawn sparingly in early spring anyway, so waiting to turn on the sprinkler system won’t cause any harm. Use a shovel to check the softness of the ground. It should be easy to pierce and soft beneath your footsteps.

2. Inspect for Winter Damage

Even if you properly winterized your sprinkler system, sprinkler heads, valves, and pipes face harsh elements in the colder months. Walk through your yard to remove debris or dirt from sprinkler heads, and inspect the pipes, valves, and related mechanisms around your main valve, drain valves, and backflow preventer. 

Keep in mind that the smallest amount of frozen water left in the system can lead to cracks, so you may not detect issues until you're ready to turn it on.

3. Switch the Panel to Manual

Head to your sprinkler control panel and turn all the settings to manual for the time being. This step will allow you to test your system zone by zone instead of filling the whole system at once and potentially missing problems when you switch it back on. Turn off all the zones before opening the valves.

4. Schedule a Backflow Preventer Inspection

Your local municipality may require annual backflow preventer inspections. Your backflow preventer does just what it says—prevents the backflow of water. Water from any irrigation in your home has a system in place to keep chemicals from infiltrating your drinking water.

If you’re allowed to inspect this yourself, you'll need to locate it in your basement, crawl space, or along the side of your home, typically close to your water shut-off valve. Ensure that all screws on your backflow preventer are tight and all ball valves are set to the “on” position (typically parallel to the pipe).

5. Reverse Winterization

After hiring a pro to winterize your sprinkler system, it's best to let the pro open it back up for the spring. However, if you feel confident about the parts of your water valve, backflow preventer, and vacuum breaker, you can reverse the process on your own in just a few hours.

The valve for your sprinkler system typically lives in your basement, crawl space, or a valve box set in the ground. Begin by closing the drain valves opened in the winter to empty your system. You may also need to reinstall bleeder caps to the end of the valves. You can then close the vacuum breaker test cocks. Lastly, open the shut-off valves so they’re parallel to the pipe.

6. Open the Main Valve—Slowly

Close-up of a sprinkler watering the lawn
Photo: Zelma Brezinska / EyeEm / EyeEm / Getty Images

Now it's time to—very slowly—open the main valve to your irrigation system. Open the valve by only turning it a part of the way. With each small turn, wait several minutes to hear the pipes fill properly. If you move too quickly, you can cause the water to rush the system too quickly, causing what's known as a water hammer—or a shock of water that’ll send your sprinkler heads flying.

After several turns, ensure the valve is fully open and parallel to its pipe.

7. Run Each Zone Individually

With the water at the ready, run a test manually from your control panel for each irrigation zone. Watch and listen to the sprinkler heads for any issues before moving on to the next one. While the sprinkler head may take a moment to flow freely, it shouldn't sputter after a few minutes. Keep your eye out for water pooling in one area or coming up from under the ground through a potentially burst pipe. 

After cycling through each zone, re-check your valves and water main pipes in the basement to ensure everything is still intact and tightened.

8. Address Repairs Now

If you’re concerned about potential damage during your initial inspection, call your local irrigation repair specialist before setting up your system for frequent waterings. A broken sprinkler system wastes water, can cause water damage to your landscape and foundation, or wear down your current system. 

Major sprinkler repairs cost an average of $260, but there are plenty of small fixes that range as low as $10. Addressing repairs early is the best way to avoid the cost of replacement, which can range upwards of $2,500.

9. Make an Irrigation Plan

You've done your due diligence, and your sprinkler system is up, running, and ready to go. Now it's time to customize its setting to avoid water waste and overwatering different parts of your landscape. 

Assess if your sprinklers are in the right positions as well. Does the water end up wasted on the sidewalk or patio? How about areas the sprinklers miss altogether?

We recommend working with a local gardener to set your initial settings properly for your flower and veggie gardens and lawn. You can also speak with your pro about increasing water in the summer and when it's best to taper off irrigation when fall arrives.

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