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How to Change an Inground Sprinkler Head

Inground sprinkler systems are fairly inexpensive to install and very simple to use. They also require very little maintenance other than making sure your lines are clear from water each fall before the ground begins to freeze. The convenience they lend to keeping your property watered is invaluable as well, and your grass and garden beds will be thanking you for the consistent spread of water they receive through the growing season.

With continued use, you may eventually find that a sprinkler head isn’t working correctly, or that you don’t need a sprinkler in a particular area due to landscaping changes. Luckily, changing out a sprinkler head, or even capping it off, is an easy and quick job to complete. Below, I’ve outlined a step-by-step guide with a few helpful how-to hints to change an inground sprinkler head.

What You Will Need

  • Shovel: a simple pointed or rounded digger shovel for digging is all you need to get to your sprinkler connection. You also may want to use a small hand shovel because as you get  closer to the connection, if your soil is hard, it could be difficult to dig through.
  • Work Gloves: I always suggest you use gloves when working with a shovel. Not only does it provide a better grip but will prevent splinters. Plus, you will be working in the dirt and it’s much easier to get at the sprinkler connection with gloves on.
  • New Sprinkler Head or Cap: Most of the connection sizes are ½” diameter. You can usually read the brand on the exposed part of the sprinkler and look it up to be sure, but if you are unsure, simply dig up the connection and check before picking up a new head or cap. These are not expensive to begin with, but it will save yourself a trip to the hardware store if you check first.
  • Pipe Sealant Tape (optional): If you are concerned about leaks from your connections, you can also wrap them with tape prior to screwing the new head, or cap, on.
  • Channel Locks (optional): PVC unthreads with very little pressure and can be done by hand. But if you happen to have a tight joint you may want a little leverage. Just be careful not to apply too much and crack the pipe.
  • Plastic bag to line hole (optional): You will want to avoid getting dirt into the pipe while changing out the head. You can water any loose soil down to help keep it out of the way, or place plastic around the inside of the hole to keep the loose soil from falling back.
  • Steps to Change an Inground Sprinkler Head

    Spring comes early here in the Southwest, so I generally start to periodically water the yard in February. I noticed early on that not much water was coming out of one of my heads, and after messing with it for awhile, figured it had either been kicked or nicked during yard maintenance at some point. As you can see, only a trickle of water is coming from the head, and even after many adjustments I still couldn’t get it to do much more.

    Luckily, I had a few good sprinkler heads left on hand from when I capped a few due to some landscaping changes. I simply went and got one of my old working sprinklers from my toolbox to replace the old one. The following tutorial will show just how easy it is to change out heads, or cap it off, as you need.

    Step 1: Mark Head Placement

    No matter how familiar you are with your sprinkler placement, once those suckers sink back into the ground they can be difficult to find again. You definitely want to know the exact placement to avoid having to do more digging than needed. If you place a stick, or other markers, in the ground next to the head you are sure to spot it again quickly once it retracts.

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    Helpful hints

    Keep in mind the direction your main water pipe runs and mark those, especially if they run in more than one direction to keep you mindful of their location once you begin to dig.

    Step 2: Dig in an 8 to 10-inch Radius from the Center

    Dig a radial circle of 8 to 10 inches around your sprinkler to loosen the soil and take the dirt out in layers. If you are not sure of how deep your pipe is you will need to keep from driving your shovel in too deep with each scoop. Most soils around sprinklers are pretty easy to dig simply because they are kept fairly damp. If you angle the shovel towards the head you can more easily scoop out shallow layers to avoid any accidents.

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    Helpful hints

    If you do happen to accidentally hit your pipe with any kind of force, you will want to dig around that area and check for leaks. Usually, PVC is used to lay lines and is easy to repair in case this happens.

    Step 3: Take Your Time Digging Down to the Connection

    Take your time digging this out. As mentioned in the previous step: do not drive your shovel in with too much force, and if you angle it in you avoid running straight down into the pipe. You also will want to avoid hitting the existing head with the shovel to avoid damaging the connection.

    Once you have removed a good amount of soil, you may want to use a hand shovel or gardening trowel to remove smaller amounts of soil from around the head. Work from the outside in to get closer to the connection, removing all the dirt from the hole as you go.

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    Helpful hints

    Use those glove-covered hands to scoop out and clean around the head as you expose it. If your soils are loose, either wet them down to keep them from sliding in the bottom of your hole or line the sides with plastic to keep it out of your way.

    Step 4: Expose Connection and Leave Approx. 2 inches Exposed

    Expose at least 2 inches of the connection, if not all the way to the pipeline. Do this with your gloved hands and wipe the pipe clean as much as possible. You want to leave some space to help keep any dirt from falling into the hole once you remove the head. My soils are very clay-like and also well saturated from the sprinkler not working correctly, so I was able to pack it to the sides and away from the pipe. You can also dampen your soils and line with plastic to keep your work area clean.

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    Helpful hints

    If your gloves become too bulky or get too packed with dirt to be effective, you may want to use your bare finger to wipe the connecting pipe clean.

    Step 5: Gently Unscrew Old Head

    Do not approach the removal of the head with force. Rather, first feel if it will start unscrewing on its own with a gentle left turning motion. This should easily turn as it was not forcefully attached to begin with and it was very protected underground. If you are unable to unscrew your old head, gently take some channel locks and hold the CONNECTING pipe to the line still as you try to remove the head again. Sometimes that pipe will begin to loosen and when that happens it needs to be stabilized to avoid removing it and getting dirt on the main line.

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    Helpful hints

    My heads always come loose with very little effort, but that doesn’t mean one won’t get stuck occasionally. If this happens, don’t force it. Instead, dig down to and around the main line to expose the entire connection. If you can remove the vertical male connector from the main line then you will be able to work it off the old head much easier above ground.

    Step 6: Gently Screw New Head on Until Snug, or Cap to Block Off

    Now, all you have to do is screw your new head or cap back onto the exposed male connector. Don’t over tighten. You want to leave a little play left either way (unless you are capping it off, then you can tighten it down) in order to make adjustments in the next step. You could use pipe sealant tape if you are worried about a poor seal. The tape will help keep the threads snugs and create a good tight fit overall, but personally, I never saw the need.

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    Helpful hints

    This is a good time to check how tight the connection pipe is also, or if you accidentally loosened it when removing the old head. If it turns easily, tighten it to a snug fit.

    Step 7: Check the Spray of Water, Adjust and Fill in Hole

    Don’t get too excited and fill in your hole just yet. To start, you will most likely have no idea if you have the sprinkler facing the correct direction, hence why you didn’t want to tighten it down in the previous step. Also, you want to be assured it works. Even brand-new sprinklers can be flawed and you don’t want to have to dig back up what you just buried. So, go ahead and run your sprinkler for a bit and get it set in the direction you need it facing before tightening it down to a snug, but not overly tight fit.

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    Helpful hints

    Mark the tip of the head where the water comes out with a piece of chalk so you can tighten the sprinkler after it retracts.

    Step 8: Level Dirt Around Head

    Once you know you have your head pointed where you need it, you can fill your hole back up. Be sure to pack it down and keep the head straight up and down. PVC has a little bit of flex to it and as pressure works against it the connection can become slightly angled. But this will generally straighten right back up if you pack dirt around it bit by bit and work your way upwards. Don’t be afraid to get the dirt up and over it a little. It will most likely settle even more and your head is more than strong enough to poke its way back through when turned back on.

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    Helpful hints

    Make sure the head is well-leveled. A small amount of soil helps ensure you don’t accidentally damage it with normal yard maintenance.

    Conclusion

    The next time you think you have a sprinkler head problem, don’t call the sprinkler company! This entire job only took me a half hour, and mainly only that long because I had one of my children insistent on helping to fill back in the hole with dirt. Locating the sprinkler, exposing the connection, and replacing the head is an inexpensive and simple task that requires no more than a little bit of patience. Just be careful to avoid hitting the main line and fitting the connections. The task certainly doesn’t warrant the bill a home visit from a maintenance man will charge.

    If you discover that there’s something else defective than just the head, or things are still not working as they should – at least you have narrowed down what the problem is NOT and can call in more help. But chances are if all the heads are working except one, then that is the culprit. Hopefully, this has been a helpful tutorial, and if you have any questions or comments, please leave them below for us to answer. And, as always, please share!

    About The Author

    Danielle McLeod

    Danielle McLeod cuts a tragic figure in the High School English classroom teaching literature by day, and moonlighting as a writer and graphic artist by night. Published in a variety of travel magazines, and now a blog, Danielle enjoys coming up with home and garden projects to complete with her two young boys. A native of Michigan, she resides in Southeastern New Mexico with her variety of horses, poultry, and variable mix of rescue dogs (there’s a cat or two in there as well). In her free time she enjoys travel, art, photography, and a good book!

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