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Winterize your irrigation systems now
Leaving irrigation equipment out in the elements over the winter can be costly. Here are 10 things to do to get your systems ready for the season, according to Lyndon Kelley, an Extension ag engineer with Michigan State University and Purdue University.
The most common sources of winter damage are wire theft, wind, and rodent infestations. Consider these factors when you park your pivot. Make sure it's in a less visible area of a field, lined up with the most common wind direction (not perpendicular), and away from tree lines where rodents and other pest animals are more common.
Parking pivots away from trees is just one way to avoid rodent damage. "Squirrel and chipmunk damage to span-wire and gaskets can be minimized by removing limbs near equipment parked for the winter," Kelley says. "Trimming trees and removing brush near control panels and disconnect boxes reduces the chance of rodent damage."
Make sure your pivots and solid-set systems are drained. Most systems today do have automatic frost drains, but they can plug. "Plugged automatic frost drains can lead to major repairs if not caught in a fall inspection. Rock traps need to be cleaned and drained; some designs may accumulate water condensation in the pipe over the winter leading to freeze cracks in rock traps that are emptied and put back in place," Kelley says.
Don't worry about completely draining underground pipe systems, but lower the water levels to 2 or 3 feet below the soil's surface. This will prevent freeze damage, Kelley says. "Water can be pushed out of the system by compressed air pumps available from most irrigation dealers, or it may be pumped from the underground pipe system using a common fertilizer style transfer pump," he adds.
Drain sprinkler heads, travelers, and stationary big guns. "Travelers and stationary big guns often have portions of their system that hold water. Drain and roll up hoses; unhook and drain end couplers; and drain water-drive piston and motors/impeller drive systems that may be damaged by freezing," Kelley says.
Drip tape and trickle lines are designed to be "self-draining," Kelley says, but that doesn't mean pockets of water can't remain. And, mind the rodents with drip tape, too. "Winter rodent damage can turn usable drip tape and trickle line into junk rapidly. Lines that are to be moved for next year are best stored in the barn," he adds.
Underground pipes for center pivots are usually deep enough to prevent freezing. But risers and pump manifolds aren't, so you'll want to pump some water out. "This is typically done by purging the system with air or modifying a fertilizer transfer pump to pump system at its lowest outlet or inlet points. Remember to cap all pipe inlets and outlets to prevent animals from entering," Kelley says.
Don't forget the pumping plant and irrigation motor. Drain pumps and manifolds to their lowest points, replace drain plugs, and inspect gauges and wiring. Also, conduct a thorough engine service, focusing on engine oil plus bearing and seal lubrication. And don't forget to check antifreeze levels and drain the fuel tank, Kelley says.
Pivot electrical boxes can be perfect nesting spots for rodents. Make sure yours are sealed up tightly and the wiring isn't damaged. "Both snakes and mice have even been known to crawl into electrical boxes and control panels through small hole or underground conduit with unprotected ends resulting in electrical fire and damage," Kelley says. "Now is an excellent time to inspect grounding and system test resistance and to also make repairs."
As you're going through the entire process, take note of what you do and observe. "While it is fresh in your memory, list the improvements and repairs needed for each system. As you are inspecting and winterizing your system, add any other areas needing attention to the list of repairs needed," Kelley says.
Late fall is the perfect time to get your irrigation systems and equipment ready for Old Man Winter.