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April 28, 2010

Where I come from, there’s rain a-plenty. I’m used to basements that need sump pumps and dehumidifiers. I’m used to lawns that don’t really need to be watered.

I suppose that if you wanted an über-green lawn in Illinois, you would still have to water. And a lot of people do.

I remember running through the sprinkler when I was a kid. I also remember the occasional water use restrictions when there was a drought. The lawns would go brown and dormant, but seemed to bounce back just fine when the rain came back. (I also remember the sad, telling moment when, in college, I commented “mmmmm, it smells like spring,” and someone replied “that’s the smell of Chem-Lawn.”)

But maybe I’ve just never paid enough attention. I’ve always been a renter up till now. As a renter, when I was responsible for lawn care, my philosophy was “don’t water the lawn; it will just grow faster and you’ll have to cut it more often.”

In fact, the whole idea of a “lawn” is silly to me. I love this imagined conversation between God and St. Francis. I would be happy to have nothing but garden in my yard.

But, I’ve since landed on this alien planet called “home ownership,” where people do things to “maintain property value.”

On that planet, a home without a green lawn is a sad sack indeed.

As we learned in our home search, a standard feature for properties in the Panhandle is a UGS — underground sprinkler system. We don’t get enough rain to keep a lawn healthy, especially not the standard Kentucky bluegrass / fescue lawn. Our real estate agent told us of a home sale that fell through because the UGS got turned off and the lawn died. See? Lawns are Important.

When we bought our house, we were unable to check whether the system was functional because it had already been “blown out” for the season. (Water has to be removed from the underground, plastic pipes lest it freeze, expand, and crack the plumbing.)

As springtime rolled around, we began to see one, then another, then another of our neighbors’ lawns erupt in mini UGS geysers. Hrm. Probably time to check out our UGS system.

Some UGSs are connected to wells, and some (like ours) are connected to the municipal water supply. We knew from our home inspection that there was a lever for the UGS next to the water shutoff valve for the house.

The real estate agent told us that the complicated-looking doohicky in the garage controlled the UGS. It did not come with a for-dummies version of an instruction manual.

Someone told us that the green box in our yard (which a friend refers to as a “spider hole”) was for the UGS valves. Upon actually paying attention, we discovered that there were two such boxes in our yard, one in the front, and one in the back. Ah. So is that what the “A” and “B” sections on the dial refer to? Front yard and back yard? And what, exactly, are all those switches and knobs for inside the green boxes?

Front yard green box innards

Back yard green box innards

We scoured the interwebz for information on how to get our UGS up and running. We found an instruction manual for the control box, but it had absolutely no information about how to operate the system as a whole. The information we did find about re-starting a sprinkler system in springtime involved warnings about knocking pipes, open drain valves, debris in the system, checking the check valve, being careful not to unscrew the “risers” when replacing a head.


We decided to call in a professional: Perry from P & G Enterprises, whom I’d met at a home and garden show over at the county fairgrounds. The cost of the service call was money well spent.

Perry figured out how the control box worked and explained it to me (times, zones, programs, total water per week). He said that it was no wonder that we couldn’t find a check valve or a drain valve: our system didn’t have either! He didn’t bother to baby the system with flushing; he just turned on the water and activated each “zone,” one by one. We have six zones: four in front, two in back. The “A” program in the control box handles all six zones. Still don’t know the purpose of the “B” program.

It was revealing to me to see where sprinkler heads popped up in the yard when the water was turned on. I hadn’t been able to find that many sprinkler heads upon initial visual inspection.

Perry explained to me how the UGS system was set up: plastic tubing is run through under the lawn, holes are punched where sprinklers should be, a “riser” is cut to size so that the sprinkler head will be at the proper height and is attached to the pipe, and a sprinkler head is screwed onto the riser.

The sprinkler heads rely on water pressure to pop them up, and rely on a spring to pull them back down out of the way when the water is turned off. Here’s a picture of a sprinkler head with the popup pulled up (this one has an old, brass nozzle).

The sprinkler heads in the front yard have a fixed spray, and the extent of coverage can be determined by the nozzle chosen. They can spray across different angles; our selection includes 360, 180, 120, and 90 degrees. You can tell the orientation of the spray by looking for the little slash marks on top of the nozzle. The sprinkler heads in the back yard have rotor heads that move the water stream back and forth. Here’s a fixed sprinkler head with a spray pattern of less than 90 degrees (see the slash marks on the “center ring” on the left?).

I’m also glad we called in a professional to check the system because our UGS was in sad shape. Two sprinkler heads had been sheared off by the neighbor’s snow plow over the winter, and the pipes were choked with dirt and sprinkler-head shards. Several other sprinkler heads were loose, cracked, clogged, or had broken springs. I don’t think I could have properly fixed all that by myself. Perry was happy to explain what he was doing to fix the system, and he even threw in some advice on a problematically overenthusiastic shrubbery in the yard.

And, as soon as the UGS was properly operational, it rained. Hard. For several days. (Sorry, guys. My fault.)

Now that the UGS is working and I have a reasonable understanding of how to maintain it, I look forward to ripping it out someday. I want to replace the backyard with drought-tolerant xeriscaping and a garden watered by drip irrigation from a rain barrel (which I’m sure will have to be supplemented by tap water). For the sake of keeping up appearances and property value, I guess I’ll keep the front lawn. But I’ll convert it over to low-maintenance buffalo grass.

But I hear that buffalo grass isn’t so tolerant of foot traffic. Now, how to get the mailman to stop cutting through the lawn and trampling a path though the grass . . .

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2010 10:18 pm

    Loved the God & St. Francis conversation–funny!

  2. May 2, 2010 7:36 am

    When I first lived in Scottsbluff, I didn’t have a car, so I walked everywhere I could. One of my big annoyances was how many people not only watered their yards, but also the sidewalks! It was almost impossible to get anywhere without getting wet or having to walk in the street a lot! Thank goodness the air is so dry there that even if you get into the sprinklers, you’ll dry off pretty fast. One other thing though, don’t put your car where the sprinklers might wet it. My friend’s husband once thought it was hilarious to put his movable sprinkler near my car. The combination of hot sun and very hard water left white drop marks on it that only came off when I paid to have it detailed!

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink
      May 2, 2010 8:43 am

      I second your annoyance with all the folks who water their sidewalks. I feel bad for my paperboy. I imagine some of the sprinklers on early-morning timers catch him from time to time. Thanks for the advice about the car-sprinkler problem. I’ve noticed some buildings around here with a white haze from sprinkler hard water deposits.

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