Irrigation equipment needs attention, too

Ken Sodders, foreground, and Josh Hibdon of Ernst Irrigation perform winter service on a linear sprinkler. Their 16-member team services 5,000 customers, making off season maintenance key in avoiding down time when it counts.

Though a farmer may have invested tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands— of dollars in an irrigation system, it is often the most neglected equipment in the operation.

“I compare most farmers’ attitudes toward off-season irrigation equipment service to that of a typical male with their own health,” Thomas Lear, irrigation service manager at Ernst Irrigation in St. Paul, Ore., said. “They don’t go to the doctor for a tune-up until something is broken. … They wait until an unfortunate health event happens and then deal with it, which is never convenient.

“The same goes with irrigation equipment,” he said. “They don’t break down when you’re not using them. They break when you need them, at the worst possible moments.”

The most universal and important out-of-season service to all irrigation equipment — pumps, motors, linears, pivots and travelers — involves fluid management. Draining the old and adding protective liquids where appropriate minimizes stress points and resulting leaks in a system.

“Good off-season service consists of visually and physically inspecting equipment for wear, damage and alignment and making repairs where needed,” Lear said. “You deal with the fluids and clean and lubricate everything.”

There are many things that can go wrong with travelers, including bearings, electronic controls, wiring and hose cracks, so it’s important to do a thorough inspection to determine what needs immediate attention and what can wait, he said.

Pivot and linear sprinklers have tires, drives and gearboxes to be checked over, and variable frequency drives and panels should be examined for loose connections or water damage.

Ernst Irrigation offers a preventive maintenance schedule for pivots and linears that is based on the number of hours on the machine.

“It’s amazing how many bees and bugs get into the control boxes and short out electrical connections,” Lear said. “It’s wise to have equipment checked out in the off-season when service people aren’t busy running around chasing service calls.

“Something may have worked fine when you put it away but there might have been something on the verge of breaking and now you’re not going to realize that until you start watering in the spring,” Lear said. “We’re really trying to get a routine maintenance plan in place on our dairy side; they’re as guilty as any farmers; they’ve got this pump that should be getting the grease every 10 hours or so and it goes without grease for years until it breaks.”

Perennial leaks or otherwise inefficient systems squander a valuable, finite resource crucial to most farmers’ survival.

“Water’s a pretty valuable resource that everyone’s starting to realize is more valuable than it used to be,” Lear said.

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