Handyman Hell

[Note: As you read the following, consider this question: what is the worst household chore that you refuse to hire someone else to do?]

I spent five hours this afternoon replacing the valve diaphragms on my lawn sprinkler system. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being take-out-the-trash easy, this job rates a 12 in my book. It’s not a task that has to be done very frequently — even with Midland’s hard water, diaphragms last 5-8 years — but that’s also part of the problem. More on that in a moment.

If you’re fortunate enough not to need a sprinkler system to keep your lawn alive, you may not have any idea what I’m talking about. The valve diaphragm is a flat rubber disc, about 3 inches in diameter. It moves up and down to allow or stop water flow to the sprinkler head. You can tell when the diaphragm needs to be replaced when the sprinkler heads don’t pop up properly, or when they continue to leak after the watering cycle is over.

In my system, the valves are located in underground boxes, about 2 feet deep. There are three such boxes in my yard; two of them have three valves each and the third has one valve. In order to replace the diaphragms, I have to (a) locate and uncover the boxes, (b) dig out the valves from the years of accumulated silt, dead bugs and other gunk, (c) disassemble the valve, replace the diaphragm and reassemble, (d) put the valve box and lawn back into pre-excavation condition.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? In actuality, it’s a horrible job, partly because of inherent installation difficulties and partly because of inevitable operator incompetency. The act of working in a tight space, 2 feet below ground level, complicates things. Plus there are creepy bugs to deal with (I’m not ashamed to say I’d rather commune with a rattlesnake than be in the same county with a black widow spider).

Also, the valves have six screws that have to be removed, and there are many opportunities for scraped knuckles due to the lack of adequate working space.

Then there’s the fact that I can’t remember from time-to-time exactly how to do the job. Eight years is a long time between practice sessions. Inevitably, I disassemble the first valve incorrectly, costing time, energy and patience. Fortunately, this mistake is rarely serious enough to derail the whole process (as in, “I gotta run to the store and buy a new valve, dear; this one seems to be, um, worn out.”).

But what really complicates the job is the fact that my 20-year old system has a master shut-off valve that doesn’t…shut-off completely, that is. I could shut off the water supply to the entire house, but there are some things I fear even more than spiders. ‘Nuf said, I think.

Anyway, what this means is that once I removed the valve cover, I have mere seconds to take out the old diaphragm, install the new one and re-attach the cover before the valve box floods.

I get better at this as I go through each valve, but it’s still a big problem in the box with only one valve, as there isn’t enough volume in the box to keep the rising water level at bay. Interpretation: I installed the last valve completely under water, working by feel (and trusting that spiders don’t have access to tiny little scuba outfits).

Now, the real point of this post is not to bore you with sprinkler system trivia (too late, you say?). I just wonder if others are like me in this regard: there’s a pretty clear demarcation line between “handyman” tasks that I will take on, and those which I’ll contract out. The valve job here is on the bleeding edge of that line.

I consider myself to be fairly proficient at household chores, including some things requiring a bit of skill (or, at least, patience). I install garbage disposers, kitchen sinks, toilet valves, garage door openers, etc. I installed my own satellite TV dish, and I welded together a very functional sailboard rack, starting with nothing more than a picture in my mind and 60 feet of square tubing.

But, as they said in Cool Hand Luke Dirty Harry, a man’s got to know his own limitations, and there are some jobs I refuse to take on. I don’t do any projects for which the use of a voltmeter is mandatory equipment, and I don’t work on anything that requires me to close the valve at the gas meter. I would be extremely embarassed to kill myself and blow up the neighborhood while attempting to install a new water heater.

I also avoid working on my car; I was never any good at auto repair. I stopped changing the oil and filter myself when proper disposal of used motor oil became so difficult. I don’t care to take on major projects like replacing a roof or put down ceramic tile throughout the house. For some things, time is just more valuable than money. (I would argue that the question of installing a new roof in west Texas in August is really an intelligence test.)

I suppose it boils down to whether the time and effort associated with a job justifies the sense of satisfaction that comes from completing it. In the case of the above-described valve job, I grudgingly admit that it does. But, ask me again in 8 years.

Now…back to the question I posed at the beginning. What are jobs that push you to the limit, that represent the last stop before picking up the Yellow Pages and dialing for help? (And, ladies, this question doesn’t just apply to guys.)

Categorized as Shopware...


  1. This is a timely post. I have a 10 station system, and anytime I turn one station on…the front yard system goes on, and then won’t shut off. I’ve been stopping it from the master shut off valve.
    You sound like you are very skilled at this..would you come over and replace my diaphrams, I’ll watch and know how to do it the next time. My biggest problem seems to be locating the valves…..I don’t have any schematics of the system. Let me know when you can come.

  2. I am a vast contract-outer, and I think you’ve just added another to my list. I had no idea about these valves and diaphragms, and I know from experience I’d end up shooting one of them just to fix it’s wagon after it pissed me off. Automatic sprinkler systems are a pure mystery to this wrong-side-of-the-tracks boy.
    But to the point — my damnable swimming pool maintenance. I have so far refused to give in and get a pool boy. I even went so far as to disassemble and clean out the filter last summer. Filthy, disgusting work. And regular maintenance is just a PITA, with chemicals, skimmers, backwashing, evaporation, etc. I’ll you the story about the dead possums in the skimmer some day.

  3. You know, Wallace, I *almost* titled this post “Jobs That I Wouldn’t Even Do For My Closest Friend.” As Pogo would say, it’s a separate but equal answer.
    I would say that your system is definitely showing symptoms of diaphragm fatigue (although I wouldn’t entirely discount the possibility of a bad solenoid). The bigger problem, of course, is the fact that you don’t know where to find the valve box(es). You might have to bring in the experts, because I think they have detectors for just such situations. And, heck, as long as they’re there…

  4. Scott, if you can do pool-work, you can do sprinkler-work. But I pity the guy that has to do both. My suggestion to him would be to get a bigger pool. Sufficiently sized, a pool pretty much eliminates the need for a sprinkler system, if you catch my drift.

  5. Yes, this is one job for the experts.
    I won’t mention the last time I tried to save money on a tricky repair job. Well….ok I will. I was going to put a new disposal in an old house I owned in Dallas. Usually not a big job on a newer home. But after I got the old disposal out the old copper drain pipes broke off inside the wall of the kitchen. The cheap disposal replacement ended up costing me $300 for a plumber to come tear the wall up and put in new drain pipes.

  6. Wallace, you raise a very valid issue. The probability of a do-it-yourself disaster rises in direct proportion to the age of the house.
    A couple of years ago, my wife decided she wanted new faucets for the kitchen and bathrooms. We bought ’em at Home Depot and I read the instructions, and looked over the current installation. After viewing the effects of 20 years of Midland water on the lines, I made one of my smartest decisions ever, and called a plumber. I had him replace all the valves at the wall, and all the lines to the faucets, as well as the faucets themselves. After seeing the “professional grade tools” he employed (and hearing the muttered “professional grade” profanity), I didn’t mind a bit forking over the extra cash. Plus, we’re set for another decade or two.

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