Not Just a Tool. It’s a GOOD tool…shovels, saws and the sledge hammer

Sometime around 1960, the Southwestern Bell Telephone company issued my father a set of work tools. He was a lineman and neither he nor Southwestern Bell wanted a tool to fail while he was on top of a pole. They were quality tools and he took care of them.

Fifty two years later I’m still using some of those tools. I’ve never worn one out. The ones I no longer have were “borrowed” by others. If they ever get returned (hope abides) I expect them to function perfectly.

There is no such thing as having too many good tools. A good tool will save you money in two ways. It will do the job correctly and you will not have to buy another one in the future.

A good tool should:

  1. Be well made from quality materials
  2. Be designed for the particular job at hand

A Tool Must Be Well Made From Quality Materials

True story: a car is broken down on the side of the road. Two guys stopped to help. The battery cable was loose but the nut had been rounded off. No wrench or socket would grab it. One guy walks into the “dollar store” and bought a pair of pliers. He came back to the car, opened the blister pack and they fell apart in his hands.  The look on his face was worth the dollar but the pliers weren’t.  It’s not hard to recognize a quality tool; it feels substantial, it operates smoothly and, more than likely, you will pay a premium price for it. But you’ll only do that once.

Think about the materials. For durability, weather and chemical resistance and overall strength it’s hard to beat fiberglass and polymer.  Take a look at something like the long handle drain spade.  Four foot of handle, tons of leverage. You and your neighbor can pull on this handle and it won’t snap. Speaking of neighbors, if they borrow your shovel and leave it out for weeks it won’t matter. The handle is UV resistant, waterproof, chemical resistant and their dog can’t chew through it.  Where is wood best? In absorbing shock. I hope you never have to use a sledge hammer, but if you do, get one with a wood handle. The fiberglass ones are OK but nothing absorbs shock like wood. Same with an axe or pick.

A Tool Must Be Designed For The Job At Hand

Have you heard the old saying “when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail?”  Yup. You use what you have so have the right tool.

Irrigation Tools:

Like any industry, irrigation has its own tools, some specialized, some not. Even the general, more common tools warrant a look.

The Shovel

The tool you love to hate. General requirements: the blade must have a turn-over at the top, giving you somewhere to place your foot and push. The blade must be strong, sharp, and well bonded to the shaft/handle, possibly with a re-enforcing ring. Long handles are better. People forget that the blade should be sharpened periodically. Do so.

The Sharpshooterdrain spade

Also called a drain spade. DO NOT scrimp on this shovel. You will work it to death. Make sure the D-grip is strong enough to take a great amount of pressure.  In this case I don’t like wood D-grips. The wood holds but the pins don’t. Go with a polymer D-grip. Sharpen the blade periodically.

The Clean Out Shovel

AKA a trenching shovel. You want the bottom of your trench clean to avoid pressure points on the pipe. Generally 4” wide is adequate for machine trenches, 6” for hand dug. Easy to use and, again, long handles are better.


I hope you don’t need one of these. If you do, my sympathies. Used for breaking up very hard or rocky soil. Also great zombie stoppers.  Get a pick/mattock. You will use the mattock to drag material out. Again, longer handles are better. Wood is best. Notice a recurring theme on handles? Impact = wood, leverage = polymer.


Used for cutting PVC. Many people will buy first class blades and then put them in a cheap, flexing frame. The strength/rigidity of the frame is just as important as the blade. Pay attention to the handle. Cheap ones have thin handles giving you little grip and causing discomfort. That’s known as “pain”. Get one with a thick handle.

PVC Cutters/Shears

Get the ratcheting type. Get the ratcheting type. Get the…idea? They are slightly slower on the cut but far less effort.

Things You Don’t Know You Need:

For really tough spots, get a rope/cable saw.

For semi-tough spots get a mini hacksaw. Being completely honest, I hate both of these. Partially ‘cause if I need one I’m really in a mess and partially ‘cause they don’t cut as easily and as square as the full size tools.  But they are just like a parachute: you sure better have it when you need it.

Most all purpose tools aren’t. Think of the slip joint pliers in your tool box. They do many things ok but nothing really right. All purpose tools are generally a waste of money. Except when they are specialized all purpose tools like the Poly-Gator™.  Why does it work? It is designed for a specific need: drip irrigation installation and repair. Not your car, lawn mower, etc. It’s dedicated to the ongoing success of drip.

Sledge Hammer

No, you probably don’t need one in irrigation. However, as someone with GREAT EXPERIENCE using a sledge I have some advice for you. First, 8 and 10 pound hammers are useless. They cause more work than they fix.  Get at least a 12 pound and you should get a 16 pound. More weight = more force on the hit.  Old joke: “Gent watching a road-mender swinging a sledge: ‘I say, my man, do you get paid money simply for bringing a hammer down onto some rocks?’  ‘No, sir. I get paid for lifting it up. It comes down on its own.’” With a 10lb you work bringing it around and you add force bringing it down. With a 16lb you get to the top of your swing and just let the dog run.

Wire Strippers

Yes, real men just use their pocket knife. I use wire strippers. Blood scares me. Strippers cut the wire and pull the insulation without damaging the strands. Thick grips are best.

Obviously a lot of the advice in this blog is based on personal experience. Many people have different opinions about handle materials. Polymer handles will last longer and generally take more strain than wood handles. They are impervious to weather and won’t rot away on you. I can’t remember the last time I saw one break.   I have driven literally hundreds of stakes with a sledgehammer, broken many a concrete block (no, I wasn’t in prison. It was a job).  I dug ditches in construction and dig ditches now as an irrigator. I’ve never found a material that beats wood for impact absorption and never had a wood shovel outlast a polymer one.

Thank You

Memorial Day weekend is here.

We want to thank all veterans and all active duty military personnel for their service.  Without them we would not be here.  It is because of you that we are free to vote, travel, argue with our officials, work in our chosen career, and live a life of freedom.

We want to thank the families who have supported our military through the years. Because of your support they can do their job. It is difficult to raise a family when a spouse is away for months at a time. It is hard to watch your child or spouse leave knowing they are going into danger. And it is hard to explain to your children why Daddy or Mommy won’t be home for Christmas.  A lot is asked of you and you come through. Your support is indispensable.

Finally, the last veterans of WWII are disappearing fast. They are truly a generation that saved our nation. Please take a moment to thank them while you still can.

We wish one and all a great Memorial Day weekend.

Soldier holding baby in front of American Flag

How to use a Multimeter to Determine if You Have a Bad Controller, Valve, or a Wiring Problem

Multimeters are handy for testing many kinds of wiring or electrical problems. Considering their versatility they are amazingly affordable. While they vary in complexity from basic to how-many-functions-did-you-say-it-had levels, we only need the basic here.

The most important thing to know if you have never read one: read the instructions. Two or three times. Make sure you understand the symbols and connections. There are few things as interesting as trying to test a 110AC wall outlet when your meter is set for low voltage DC. You’ll know you messed up.

Your problem: your valve won’t come on. And we don’t know why. There are really three electrical reasons it might not: bad controller, bad wires, bad solenoid. We always start with the simplest test first.

When testing to see whether our problem is with the controller the question we are really asking is “does the controller put power out to the valve?” To check this we’ll simply test two connections inside the controller. So open your controller so that you can see where the valve wires connect. You should have one COMMON, usually white, and any number of zones, usually red but any color is possible.

Turn your Multimeter to the proper VAC setting. Turn the problem zone on with the manual start on the controller. Here we will say it is zone 1. Touch one lead to the common and one lead to the zone 1 wire/screw. You should get around 24V. Usually 22 to 28 works. If you get lower than 22 you have a problem. Check another zone even though the other zones are working properly. It only takes a second and verifies that the Mulitmeter is set and functioning correctly.

Let’s assume the voltage is good. Now let’s check the wires. We’ll check for continuity, which is testing the ohms or resistance of the zone. Turn to the Ohms setting. It might look like (Ω). Check your manual to be sure. This will test for a short in the circuit. First, turn off the controller. You don’t want to check resistance with a live circuit. Disconnect the zone wire. Place one lead on the common terminal and one lead on the zone wire/screw. Depending on the valve brand you should get a reading from 20-60 ohms; every manufacture’s valves will have a slightly different reading. Low signals indicate trouble with the solenoid. On the other hand, any reading above 60 means you have a wiring problem, either stripped insulation, nicked wire or bad connection. Wire problems can be involved so, before we get the shovel out, let’s go test the solenoid and other wire end. Before you start walking, manually turn the zone on again.

At the valve disconnect the wires from the valve. Now set your multimeter back to the proper VAC setting. Touch one lead to the common and one to the power. You should get the same reading here (24v) as you did at the controller. If you continuity test you did in the last paragraph failed you probably won’t. We are double checking the wire to make sure of problems before we tell you to start digging.

If all that passes we are left with two things: either the twist connection for the controller wire to valve was bad or the solenoid is bad. Let’s test the solenoid first. Go back to your Ohms setting. Touch one lead to one wire from the solenoid, the other lead to the other. Again, you should get between 20 and 60 ohms. If not, replace the solenoid. If it passes the only thing left is a bad connection. Re-connect the wires using waterproof connectors, see if it now activates. Remember that the controller has that zone on so 24V should be going through those wires.  Careful. Might want to turn the zone off then reconnect and test.

If you have not found the problem at this time there may be a mechanical problem in the valve. You can replace the valve but first just open it and clean the internals.

We tested the controller for output, the wire for continuity, the connections for, well, connection and the solenoid for resistance. All with the handy-dandy Mulitmeter.

Solenoid Chatterer and Wire LocatorIf you plan on doing this on a regular basis, consider the Pro 48.   The Pro48 TechTool incorporates a solenoid activator to hold valves open; a chatterer to locate lost valves; a continuity checker to identify cut or shorted wires or solenoids; and a 24 VAC detector to ensure proper clock power output. Operation is simple as LEDs indicate tests and conditions. Truly a workhorse product for any landscape professional. This, along with a valve locator, can be purchased or rented at Sprinkler Warehouse.

Drought? There ain’t no stinkin’ drought. Waiter! Two drops of water, please.

So let’s talk about money. Yours, mine, yours and yours. I do want to go over one water fact first. It’s a surprising fact to many people, even though it’s obvious. Fact: the Earth will never, ever run out of water. Ever. Never. Can’t happen until the Sun novas or the asteroid-to-end-all hits.

Great news, huh? Sure beats the ‘not enough water to water the crops’ and ‘not enough water to drink’ rants you hear all the time now.  Want water? We have water.

All you have to do is pay for it. And it’s going to get very, very expensive. Costs are going up. Eden Prairie, Minnesota: +7%; Clay Center, Kansas: +26%; Hershey, Pennsylvania: +14%; Sacramento, California: +27%.

Eyes glazed over yet? Mine did and I’m writing this. Don’t want to pay? Fine, go get the water. It’s in the ocean (remove salt and fish before use) or the nearest lake (long walk in Arizona) or deep underground. Start digging.

The problem is not the lack of water. It’s the lack of drinkable water in particular areas. Lots of it today in Houston, Texas.  Not so much in San Antonio, Texas.  Or parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, etc. Getting water from one place to another costs lots of money. Lots. Whether you are pumping from underground (now discouraged), piping in from near or distant lakes, or pulling from a river, it’s expensive.

And it’s not just the drought that’s causing prices to increase. Sometimes you are just mussel bound. No, not the gym kind. Mussel. Like aquatic animal. Zebra Mussels have clogged up water pipes at numerous municipal water supplies. The Great Lakes has them. Lake Takoma in Texas has them. They are clogging the water supply lines and are expected to cost the US $5 billion in control efforts and reparation. How big is this monster? About the size of a dime.

What else is causing your water bill to go up? Surprisingly, the fact that we are using less water. Water districts have fixed costs/overhead, such as electricity, payroll, insurance, equipment, fuel, supplies, etc. All budgets are figured on a estimate of how much water is sold divided by overhead equals cost per gallon.  Gallons sold/fixed costs = cost per gallon.

Well, when you use less water (you meaning everyone as a whole), the quantity of gallons sold goes down. This means the district does not sell enough to cover its costs. It now has to raise the cost per gallon to match the fixed costs. So cost per gallon goes up and usually stays there.

Confused? Use the donut idea. Pretend you sell donuts for $.05 (5 cents) each and you clear $.01 per donut. Now say it costs you $1.00 to operate. You have to sell 100 donuts to break even. If Weight Watchers moves into your neighborhood and half your neighborhood joins, you can only sell 50 donuts. This means you only make $0.50.  That’s not $1.00 by a long shot. So you have to raise the price of each donut to $.06 to keep your $1.00  (ain’t finance fun!).

Water costs are going up. Conservation does help, as it means we need fewer pumps and less piping. But, as you can see, it’s not a cure. The reasons are varied and the drought is involved but it’s not the only thing.

That’s it. Not trying to sell anything, except possibly water conservation. Just trying to help you understand where your money is going and why.