Problem Solving and Sprinkler Repair
The other day Shannon called and said I should come home because water was bubbling up in the sprinkler box in the yard. I don't know anything about sprinkler systems, so with a sense of dread I drove home. Sure enough, the valve box was a puddle of water. I do know how to shut off the water to the sprinklers, so I did that and then waited for the water to soak down into the ground or evaporate.
The next day, when the water was dry, I checked the sprinkler box again and found a crack in one of the valves. I turned the sprinklers back on and saw the water shoot out of the crack. Since much of sprinkler repair seems to be hunting for the broken pipe, and digging aimlessly for it, I felt lucky to see the actual break.
I googled the problem a bit and learned that the valve was called an irrigation valve. There were a few videos on installing irrigation valves, and it looked fairly easy to do -- if all the pieces were new and exposed and easy to reach. The only problem was that I couldn't turn any of the pipes and simply unscrew the old pipe to insert the new valve in place.
I needed some advice on how to fix the cracked valve. I have a mechanical engineer friend who knows all about sprinklers, and he said I would need to dig out the ground a bit and "clip" the old pipe in order to unscrew it from the valve.
This was the first time I'd dug into the ground to find the sprinklers. I tried my best to dig, but the ground where I live is nothing but rocky clay, so after 20 minutes of using my shovel like a pick axe and getting nowhere, I soaked the ground with water, waited 20 minutes, and then shoveled again. The ground moved like butter.
I unearthed the pipes and realized the pipes and valves were more complicated than they originally appeared. Three pipes connected together in a tight space. Getting out the cracked valve would be more problematic than I thought. It all looked confusing, and I was wary of "clipping" a pipe.
At a lunch with my father-in-law, I asked him for advice on how to reconnect the pipe once I cut it, and he drew a diagram on a napkin and taught me some new terminology. The sprinkler box was a "manifold." To connect the pipes I would need a "union" or "slip joint" or "connection coupling."
I went to Home Depot and bought some spare parts according to what my father-in-law had said. The clerk gave me some more advice and told me what he thought I needed. Luckily sprinkler parts are cheap. I also bought a hacksaw and pair of channel locks.
Returning to the job, I cut the pipe that connected to the broken valve, and then attached the new valve. But to reconnect the pipe with a new coupling, I would need to bend back the pipe to make it fit. The pipe, however, wouldn't bend at all. I consulted again with my sprinkler friend, and he said that the pipe wouldn't move while it was impacted in the ground. I would need to dig a foot out on each side so that I could flex back the pipe and fit in the coupling.
After more digging, I had a big hole in my yard and another wheelbarrow full of dirt. I unearthed about two feet more of the pipe. Sure enough, the pipe now had more flex. I was still a little unclear about how to reconnect all the pipes, but I had to do something more than just stare at the problem, so I just applied the blue glue (which dries in ten seconds) and pulled the pipe back to fit over the coupling. I fit it together, but as I was screwing the pipe onto the new valve, I realized I had cut the pipe too short.
I stared at the problem again, scratching my head. Luckily the store clerk recommended that I buy an extra coupling. I asked my mechanical engineer friend for more advice (he happened to be walking down the street at the time), and he said I could cut the pipe again and add my second coupling next to the first to elongate the pipe. I did that, and sure enough it worked. Here's a little video showing the solution.
A Simple Problem Solving Method
This blog isn't about sprinkler repair. But the experience made me reflect on problem solving. Regardless of our jobs, it seems that problem solving follows the same general steps.
- Identify the real problem. In the case of the sprinklers, I located the crack in the valve that was causing the problem. But this wasn't the real problem. The real problem was figuring out how to install the new valve given the inflexibility of the pipes. Many times problems are just like this. There is a surface-level problem, but when you dig down a bit, you see that the real problem is something else entirely. Identifying the real problem, or the root cause of the problem, is the first step in problem solving.
- Research the solution. I searched online and consulted with knowledgeable people around me about the problem. I could have probably read more books and articles on sprinkler repair, but it's hard to compete with neighborly advice from people who have similar sprinklers as me and are willing to give it.
- Get your hands dirty. Sometimes to get to the area where you can fix the problem, you can't be afraid to get dirty and go places you haven't been before. Digging up all that dirt was tedious and exhausting. I didn't even mention the electrical wire that I partially cut. Whatever the problem -- fixing a website, changing the rotors on a car, repairing your broken water heater -- you're going to have to get your hands dirty with the guts of the product.
- Start trying different solutions. You can think about the problem all you want, but until you start to act, you may not get anywhere. I stared at the pipes for a long time before deciding that I just had to cut and glue something. I knew that after I started to act, it would be clear to me what I needed to truly do. It's similar to a writing maxim you may have heard: How do I know what I think until I see what I say? Once we start writing, it becomes clear in our minds what we're thinking. Once we start acting, it becomes clear in our minds what we need to do.
- Be patient. It took me three days, two trips to Home Depot, and about five separate consultations with friends to fix the problem. Having patience and being persistent even when the solution is distant can be your greatest asset in solving any problem.
Problems Are Not Always This Simple
Despite my "methodology" in the steps above, I candidly recognize that not all problems are this simple. If I could solve every problem in my life by following these five steps, life would be a cakewalk. But life is much tougher. For example, financial problems, behavioral problems, psychological problems -- these are not so easily solved in a three-day, five-step process. However, I think that the points above do provide a starting point.
In my life, I let many of the problems that surround me go unchallenged. Either I'm lazy, or I don't believe the solution is achievable, or I've become desensitized to the problem and have learned to live with it. I've given up tackling the problems as problems, if you know what I mean. It takes a little thing like a broken sprinkler to boost my confidence and spur me to tackle other, more significant problems.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.