Mercer’s Irrigation Masters

By Jamie Hartwell, Volunteer Coordinator

If you’ve ever worked on a suburban sprinkler system, you can understand the maintenance required to keep it in optimum condition.  

 Imagine what it takes to maintain Mercer’s massive underground maze of PVC pipes branching out across 60 acres, along with thousands of sprinkler heads, rotators, and complex electrical and timing boxes placed strategically throughout the gardens. 

Fortunately, Mercer’s licensed irrigators – John “Cap” Caplinger, Mikewell Tolbert, and T.J. Brewer – keep the water flowing year-round to thousands of plants and trees at Mercer Botanic Gardens.

Ongoing maintenance means replacing sprinkler heads, adjusting watering zones, and repairing pipes. But with Mercer’s history of flooding and the freezing temperatures during Winter Storm Uri in February, there are always new challenges.

Mercer irrigators Mikewell Tolbert (left) and TJ Brewer

“Hurricane Harvey caused a berm – a raised embankment that helps protect Mercer from Cypress Creek – to collapse, which took out a major system of pipes, lateral lines, sprinkler heads, and more,” says Brewer. “The system had to be rebuilt from the ground up, as most everything was destroyed or ended up in Cypress Creek.”

The crew’s most recent undertaking has been relocating and updating the pipes that previously ran underneath Storey Lake.

“In the past, if a pipe broke, repairing it meant draining all or part of the lake,” says Tolbert. “We’ve replaced the old irrigation system with a 3-inch pipe that circles the entire lake. This will make any future repairs much easier.”

 Although their work keeps them in the dirt, mud, and water, they admit that the most demanding part of their job is keeping the sprinkler heads working.

“We have thousands of sprinkler heads at Mercer,” says Tolbert. “They get run over by construction vehicles and endure a lot of wear and tear. You can see how that keeps us busy.” 

Top Photo: Mercer irrigators Mikewell Tolbert (left) and TJ Brewer repair a broken water pipe on a property at Mercer under development.