Question: The exterior (garden) pipes at my house froze. Now what? I turned off the main to the exterior garden, then used a brief warming period to thaw the pipes enough so I could open the spigots and allow the thawed water to flow out. But if any pipes were broken, they will leak when I turn the exterior main back on. How do I identify potential leak points and minimize damage? In the worst case, what has to be done to fix broken pipes? --Ashburn
Answer: Now that the weather is warmer, you can hire an irrigation company or a landscaper who services irrigation systems to turn on the main and check for leaks, or do it yourself.
The usual way is to close the outside taps and turn on the water main, wait a while, and then look for mushy places in the yard. But you might be able to rule out a leak just by watching your water meter. Turn off all spigots inside and out and verify that no water is flowing through the meter. Some meters have a small rotating wheel that shows when even a small amount of water is flowing. Others have just a series of numbers, so you might need to wait an hour from one reading to the next to be sure there is no flow. (If there is a flow, you may have a leaking toilet, a burst pipe underneath your house or some other repair to attend to.)
Next, turn on the main for the outdoor system and check the meter again. If there is no flow, the pipes are fine, though you still may find damaged sprinkler heads when you go to use the system. If there is a flow, leave the system running until soggy ground points you to the problem area.
Once you identify where a pipe burst, the repair involves digging up that area and patching the pipe or replacing the broken section. One easy fix uses a repair clamp, a clamshell fitting with a rubber gasket inside that bolts over the broken section. Or, for plastic pipes, there are glue-in repair fittings with couplers that allow you to install a patch that's exactly as long as the damaged section you remove.
If you want to hire someone to deal with your woes, look for irrigation contractors. Hydro-Tech Irrigation Co., a firm in Sterling that services your area (703-263-2266, www.hydro-techirrigation.com), typically charges $95 to $150 for repairs, says customer service representative Mike Groves. A winterizing service call, which involves shutting off the water main and blowing compressed air through the system to remove any trapped water, typically costs about $130 to $150. One benefit of the winterizing: Besides protecting the pipes, it also protects valves, sprinkler heads and other parts of your system from frost damage.