Four smart sleuthing skills

Yogi Berra could have been describing water-wise landscaping when he proclaimed “Little things are big.” It may seem counterintuitive, but that is particularly true for irrigation leaks.

The big culprit is not the once-in-a-blue-moon, attention-getting gusher but rather a myriad of little, insidious leaks. A gusher can waste thousands of gallons in a few hours or a day before caught. Just one small hole in a drip line can waste that much each time its zone runs, week after week, month after month.

Keep your eyes wide open as you perfect the four proven investigative methods below. You’ll spot leaks before those gallons spiral out of control.

#1. Diagnose anomalies.

Read and track the meter. The data doesn’t lie. An unequivocal sign of waste is irrigation that takes more than normal, or a day that takes more than anticipated. This scrutiny uncovered 4 old subsurface pinpricks that when fixed saved 15-25% of those zones’ prior use. Unexplained overnight surges each month unmasked programmed water softener recharges that squandered 1/3 our indoor consumption.

When the meter’s arrow is moving but nothing should be calling for water, track it down. Unexpected twirling revealed a running toilet that flushed 50 gallons/hour down the drain as well as weeping hose bibs, and resulted in changes to prevent recurrences.

#2. Walk the lines.

Make a habit of walking each irrigation line at least once a month as irrigation runs. You’ll occasionally spot red flags such as puddles, overly moist areas, or just seepage. You may even spot plugged emitters denying needed water to plants.

Walk the lines other times too while working or strolling through your gardens. Any sign of atypical moistness indicates something is amiss, such as newly loosened couplings.

#3. Test after changes.

Run a short test for a zone where any change has been made to the drip line. Inspect every emitter, coupling, and plug to make sure all is working well. If new plants replaced dead ones, check them the next time that zone runs. Emitters can become dislodged or errant shovels can ding drip lines, both of which will cause new leaks.

Estimate the effect of changes made for that zone and then read the meter to compare before and actual consumption. That will either confirm all is well or send you back to reinspect.

#4. Become a plant whisperer.

Plants just can’t keep a secret. They tell you when they are too wet, although in rain-deprived conditions the reflex assumption is that they must be thirsty.

Symptoms of too much or too little water are often the same. Before turning on the hose, feel the soil and use a probe to get several inches down. More often than not, the issue will be too much water from a leak, not too little.

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