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Underground Irrigation Repair Without Digging – All it Takes is a Heat Gun!
I developed this irrigation repair technique out of desperation. A sprinkler head shot out of the ground right next to me and landed in a potted plant. The resulting geyser was spectacular, but the place was terrible!
The area around this particular sprinkler head was surrounded by cobblestone and brick, and worse, right up against a fence. To complicate matters, I installed a french drain just a foot away! The rising one’s nipple was missing. Probably, a replacement standpipe wouldn’t even begin to screw in! Obviously, the broken part of the nipple was fixed in the t-connector – deep underground! Before I developed this technique, I would have had to dig side trenches about 2′ long on each side of the connector, cut the supply lines from each end of the connector, add a sleeve and spacer, then glue in a replacement t-connector. . Not this time! Too much work digging this connector out of the ground!
I have a special tool that I bought from The Home Depot just for this problem. It is the PVC variant of “easy exit.” Unfortunately, it wouldn’t work! I couldn’t get enough pressure (the connector was buried almost the entire length of the extractor), and I kept scraping my knuckles against a fence post. The stand pipe was not PVC, it was vinyl. It was so slippery that the knife edges of the extractor did not bite into the inner rim.
But vinyl melts! i have 1200 watt heat gun I bought for paintless. The tip of the extractor is metal and using this heat gun, I heated the tip of the extractor. Really hot. Breast hot! Pushing the extractor straight down the hole, it gently melted into the broken nipple – deep underground! I let it set and cool for a few minutes before turning it over. Two seconds later, the broken nipple was pulled out!
After screwing in a replacement lifter, I cycled the irrigation pump to that zone to flush out all of the dirt that had fallen into the connector. I put a new sprinkler head on the replacement lifter, and guess what? That irrigation repair was done. Not only done, I didn’t have to dig a single shovelful of dirt!
The trick was to heat the tip of the extractor hot enough to melt into the broken vinyl nipple to grip.
A few weeks later, I had a different problem. I was installing new window boxes along one side wall of my home and wanted to use my indoor irrigation system to water the new flowers. I had a capped riser right where I need to put a 4′ riser. Unfortunately, this was an old steel lifter that I bumped several times with the mower, and when I removed the tube, it left the threads of the t-connector exposed and choked with rust scale! Unlike most of my irrigation repair projects, this line is very shallow. Shallow enough for me to scrape the top off to really see the damage.
There wasn’t anything I could do to thread the new lifter into place, I’d have to replace the t-connector – or maybe not. I have a fairly complete shop and I have metal working tools for tapping holes for screw threads, or cutting external threads for bolts. Since I had to go to The Home Depot or Lowe’s for a replacement t-connector anyway, why not see if they have a tool for pipe threads?
The staff at Lowe’s laughed when I asked them for a tool to cut an internal 1/2″ pipe thread for an underground PVC tee connector! Their only advice was to dig it out and replace it. No way! The staff at The Home Depot didn’t laugh out loud, but they also offered replacement armor.
I did buy the fittings, but I also found the perfect tool – an 18″ length of 1/2″ steel pipe! Again, the 1A 200 watt heat gun came to the rescue. By heating the tube end, the thread section, I was able to plunge it into the buried t-connector. It hissed as it sunk in and I quickly deepened it as I screwed it into place. Not letting it sit, I unscrewed the steel tube to prevent it from welding into place. I repeated this operation several times until the entire threaded section of the pipe was inside the nipple of the t-connector.
Guess what? The new replacement 4′ PVC riser threaded right in! Using heat, pressure and steel threads, I was able to partially melt the underground t-connector and cut new threads. Not even a spade full of dirt was dug up for this irrigation repair!
Since then I have helped neighbors with their irrigation repair projects that have left them amazed – “you can actually cut new threads underground without having to dig” – Wow, thanks Bill, thanks!
Not all irrigation repairs can use this technique. Let’s face it, if the t-connector nipple or connecting tubes crack or break, you’re going to have to dig. But try this tip first and see if it works. You’ll know within minutes if there’s a bigger problem. You’ll get wet standing there, but you’ll quickly see an updraft around the spray head working if there’s a broken tube or cracked nipple. Well, at least you tried it!
I had this a cheap $20 heat gun for more than twenty years. Not only does it do a great job of lifting paint, I’ve used it for boat electrical repairs (heat shrink tubing), remove self adhesive vinyl tile, contact paper and sand discs, and even start fires in my coal pit. This is NOT a hair dryer – keep it safe, keep it away from you at all times!
In conclusion, I was able to use mine cheap heat gun and cheaper steel pipe to apply enough heat and pressure to remold from stripped internal threads, and enough raw heat to let the edges of another tool cut into material that, without that tool, would have required digging up a lot of dirt for these simple irrigation repair projects!
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