Sprinkler Fix’em

A simple tutorial for fixing a broken sprinkler stem

Sprinkler Graphic
Difficulty: Easy
Time to Complete: ~2 hours for an absolute beginner. 15 minutes if you’ve done it before and have the parts
Parts needed:

 

Spring has come and with it a whole bunch of house chores. I’m a developer and I don’t care much for this sort of thing, but I gotta take care of it so that my house doesn’t turn into a junk pile. I’m not especially handy. I’m pretty averse to fixing just about anything because I’m that incompetent with house things. 

I’ve decided that I would give this a shot and to my surprise, fixing sprinklers isn’t very hard at all. I completed this fix in about an hour or two including driving time to get the parts and going back to get more parts.

Evaluate

First thing you need to do is evaluate what the problem is. Obviously, for this article, we are covering a broken stem, but a sprinkler leak could be anywhere from the sprinkler head to the pipe itself. 

If you’ve got a big puddle when you turn on your sprinklers, you’ve almost definitely got something broken in your pipe or in my case, the elbow joint.

Second, you gotta dig it up! This is great! You always wanted to dig as a kid. Now you get to dig up a yard which your dad always was mad about before. Sorry dad, it’s my yard now! You can dig however you like here, but a couple things will make your cleanup easier if you’re interested in that. If not, kick your adult to the curb and do it your way! 

 

  1. Bring a bucket, or tarp of some kind. I had a plastic bin I put the dirt in. It’s very hard to get dirt back if you just set it on the grass next to the hole. If you don’t put it in a bucket, you’ll find you can’t fill the whole all the way back up. I imagine if you’ve got a garden with dirt you can just fill it with that if you don’t have a plastic bin and don’t mind the bumpy yard.
  2. Dig out the grass first by cutting 6 inches or so around the sprinkler and digging under the roots of the grass. After you put the dirt back in, you can set the grass back on.
  3. Start digging! I only had to dig about a foot down but some people may have their pipes deeper. If yours is deeper, you may need to be careful while digging so as to not puncture any utilities. It sounds like fun, but I bet that it’s not actually very fun to fix those. Dig a couple inches under the pipe so you have some room to work with your hands
This was my pipe after digging down (my sprinkler was next to the curb, hence the wall of concrete)

Considerations:

Now that you’ve dug up the sprinkler head and sprinkler and discovered the cause of the leak, there are a few other things you should take note of before you head out to your local Home Depot or Lowe’s. 

  • What’s the size of the sprinkler pipe/tube? In my case, it is ½” of irrigation pipe. This pipe is flexible and small. This is common for newer homes. On older homes you may encounter PVC or pex pipe and that will be more difficult to work with. This article assumes you have irrigation pipe
  • In my case, the stem of the pipe that connects to the sprinkler had been broken and needed to be replaced.
    • For that stem, there’s a number of “configurations” that those stem/elbow joints come in. 
      • Size: I needed ½” for the side that connects to the pipe, and ½” for the side that connects to the sprinkler. Ideally, bring along the sprinkler head (the piece that shoots out the water stuff), so that you can test if the size of the head fit
      • Type: There are quite a few different types of elbow joints that you can purchase and the one that you need for a simple elbow up to a sprinkler head is a male to male elbow joint. 

Looks something like this but, you know, not broken on the end. Here’s one you could buy online. You can buy up to 20 if you want… don’t know who wants that unless they’re making like a sprinkler macaroni art piece or something

The Fix

If you haven’t already, remove the old sprinkler head. If you have a full break in the pipe, it won’t leak much at all when you remove it (because it already leaked out). You just have to screw it off. Lefty loosey for days.

Once you’ve got your new elbow piece, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got a pair of pipe cutters so that you can cut off the end of the old pipe. You can find one on Amazon if you don’t already have one. You could probably cut carrots or something with it too if you wanted.

Because the stem broke off in the pipe, I couldn’t just insert the new elbow in. The old stem was still in the pipe. Instead of trying to pull it out which would be really hard, I just cut about an inch of the pipe which worked well.

Inserting the new stem is a little challenging, but with constant pressure/force, you can jam it in. It’s supposed to be tight so that, you know, the water stuff can’t come out. I wiggled it a bit to help it get over the grooves that help seal the opening.

Re-attach the old sprinkler head back on.

Test your work!

BEFORE filling the hole back up, test your work. You’ll likely find that either the fitting isn’t tight enough or that the sprinkler isn’t screwed on tight enough. Turn on the sprinklers and mosey back on over to see if the hole is filling with water. Turn back off the water and make any necessary fixes.

NOTE: because you turned the water on just barely, if you unscrew your sprinkler head to fix your work on the elbow joint, the hole will quickly fill with water that sits in your sprinkler system after you turn it off. 

Once it isn’t leaking, make sure it is facing the correct direction (if it is a directional sprinkler) and covering the correct part of the lawn

Fill 'er up!

As you fill back up the hole with dirt, make sure the sprinkler head is level with the ground and flat. It is easy to fill up the hole and have the sprinkler sit too high (and get hit by a mower and require another fix) or to have it sit at an angle and cover more/less of your yard than it was before. 

A little tip. Fill the hole partially with water if you can. This will help the dirt compact quickly. If not, you may end up thinking you have too much dirt. Because when you originally dug up the hole, all of the dirt was compacted, and now it is all loose. Water is a quick way to recompact the dirt.

Once you’ve filled the hole back, place the grass back on the dirt. You may need to water that piece of grass daily for about a week to help the roots get hold in the dirt again. Otherwise, the grass may dry up and die. Your call. Maybe you are a grass murderer and prefer that sort of thing. No judging here.

Get Back to Playing Video Games

Now that you’ve fixed your sprinklers, you can quietly glow with pride about what a good homeowner you are. Don’t worry, you aren’t actually a good homeowner, but you’ll feel like one and that’s all that matters. You can now spend the rest of your Saturday playing God of War like you originally planned because you got it done and it’s not even noon yet. Good work.