The Ultimate Guide to Sprinklers and Irrigation Systems

sprinklers and irrigation

Installing a sprinkler or irrigation system in your yard is a great way to keep your lawn and landscaping healthy, green, and beautiful. With the right system and proper maintenance, you can ensure your plants get the water they need without wasting any. In this guide, we’ll walk through everything you need to know about sprinklers and irrigation systems to help you determine if installing one is right for your yard.

Sprinkler System Basics

A sprinkler system, also known as an irrigation system, is a network of pipes, tubes, and sprinkler heads that distributes water over your lawn or landscaping. The system is connected to your main water supply and controlled via valves and a timer that turns the water on and off on a set schedule.

The main components of a sprinkler system include:

  • Pipes: Underground PVC pipes deliver water from your main line throughout the system.
  • Sprinkler heads: Mounted above ground, these distribute water in set spray patterns and ranges. Common types are rotary, spray, and rotor heads.
  • Valves: Control the flow of water to different zones in your yard. This allows you to customize watering schedules.
  • Backflow preventer: An important safety device that prevents contaminated water from siphoning back into your home’s water supply.
  • Controller: The brains of your system, this timer automates when your system turns on, for how long, and how frequently. New smart controllers adjust schedules based on weather.
  • Water source: This is the main water supply line your sprinkler system will connect to. This may be your home’s main water line or a separate water meter dedicated just for irrigation.

When installed correctly, a sprinkler system should provide uniform coverage to all areas of your yard, with each zone receiving adequate water based on the type of landscaping planted there. Proper installation is key for efficiency and preventing issues like dry spots or flooded areas down the road.

Benefits of Installing a Sprinkler System

There are many good reasons to invest in installing sprinklers and irrigation:

Healthier Grass and Plants

Sprinkler systems provide consistent, uniform watering that keeps your lawn healthy and green as well as nurtures gardens, trees, and shrubs. Manual watering with a hose simply can’t match the coverage of an in-ground system.

Customized Schedules and Zones

With an automated system, you can customize watering schedules down to the day and time per zone based on each area’s watering needs. This prevents overwatering in some spots and underwatering in others.

Efficiency and Water Savings

Sprinkler systems are far more efficient than watering by hand, reducing unnecessary runoff. Smart controllers with weather tracking capabilities provide even more efficiency by automatically adjusting watering based on conditions. This can lead to impressive water savings over manual watering.

Convenience and Time Savings

Say goodbye to dragging hoses and manually moving sprinklers around your yard. A sprinkler system does the watering for you, freeing up your time for other weekend projects and hobbies.

Improved Property Value

An attractive and healthy lawn and landscape does wonders for curb appeal. Sprinkler systems keep your yard looking its best year-round, which can boost your property value upon selling.

Sprinkler System Design Considerations

Designing a sprinkler system for your unique yard involves evaluating several important factors:

Yard Size and Shape

The size, shape, and topography of your yard determine how complex your sprinkler system needs to be. Large or oddly shaped yards may require more sprinkler zones. Sloped areas may need drip irrigation or specialized heads for proper coverage.

Plant and Landscaping Types

Consider the watering needs of your lawn as well as any gardens, trees, or shrubs when planning your system. Some plants need more frequent, deeper watering than others. Zone your system accordingly.

Water Pressure

Check that your home’s water pressure is sufficient to operate multiple sprinkler heads at once. Low pressure may limit your coverage and require a pressure booster.

Sprinkler Placement

Proper sprinkler head placement ensures consistent coverage with minimal overlap between spray patterns. Follow manufacturer guidelines for optimal spot selection.

Pipes and Zones

Plan pipe layouts and zone divisions strategically for areas of your yard with different watering needs. This allows customization of each area’s watering schedule. Maximize efficiency by keeping zones concise.

Taking these factors into account upfront will ensure your system is built to meet the unique needs of your yard and landscaping for years to come.

Types of Sprinkler Systems

There are several types of sprinkler systems available, each with their own pros and cons. Choosing the right system depends on your budget, lawn size, landscaping, and desired convenience features.

Underground Sprinkler Systems

This traditional system has PVC pipes and sprinkler heads installed below ground. Heads pop up when the system runs. Though more labor intensive to install, it produces a beautiful, hidden system. Best for larger lawns.


  • Long-lasting, durable system
  • Pipes protected from weather
  • No hoses or obstacles in yard


  • Higher upfront cost
  • More complex installation

Drip or Micro Irrigation Systems

Ideal for watering gardens and shrubs, drip irrigation applies water directly to the roots using a network of small tubes with drippers. Very efficient and customizable.


  • Most efficient sprinkler type
  • Easy to direct water just where needed
  • Good for irregular or small areas


  • Won’t water lawns
  • Prone to clogging
  • Smaller coverage area

Oscillating and Rotary Sprinklers

These easy-to-install systems use above-ground, movable sprinklers connected to hoses and timers. A good temporary or affordable option.


  • Low cost to buy and install
  • Easy to move or change system


  • Less durable than in-ground systems
  • Hoses can be tripping hazard
  • Limited customization options

Smart Irrigation Controllers

While any system can be upgraded to have “smart” features, these advanced controllers really maximize efficiency and convenience. Automatic adjustments of watering times and easy remote access via phone are prime features to look for.

Sprinkler System Components

As discussed before, a complete sprinkler system contains a variety of working components beneath the surface, each serving an important function. Understanding the role each part plays will help you select optimal products and spot any issues needing repair down the road. Key components include:


PVC is the standard pipe material used for commercial and residential sprinkler systems today. PVC stands up well to weather, soils, and water pressure within the system. For DIY installs, opt for thick-walled PVC over thinner options for added durability.

Mainline and Lateral Pipes

The mainline pipe carries water from your home to the valves and system. Lateral lines then deliver it to each zone containing sprinklers. Proper mainline sizing prevents pressure issues further on. Laterals should be 0.5 to 1 inch diameter pipes in most cases.


These short vertical pipes connect buried lateral lines with above-ground components like sprinkler heads. Risers position heads at the optimum height above your lawn for the right spray pattern reach and clearance.


These essential fittings open and close to control water flow to different sprinkler zones. There are several valve types:

  • Zone valves: Turn flow on/off to a set zone
  • Anti Drain valves: Prevent all water from draining out after shutoff
  • Control valves: Allow manual on/off control via a second valve for repairs
  • Pressure regulating valves: Maintain optimal pressure throughout system

Backflow Preventer

This vital device connects your sprinkler to the main water supply line while stopping contaminated water from backing up into your home’s drinking supply in the event of a malfunction downstream. Your city may require specific approved models, so verify before installing your system.

Sprinkler Heads

Available in a range of spray patterns, flow rates, and features, sprinkler heads distribute water over the surrounding area when the system is on. Popular types include:

  • Rotary: Rotate steadily over a set arc and distance
  • Spray heads: Spray water in a stationary pattern with a consistent flow rate
  • Gear drive: Provide high-power, full rotation coverage for large areas
  • Micro/drip irrigation: Slowly emit water over a small area, good for trees/plants

Proper head selection and spacing ensures complete coverage without wasted overlap between heads.


The irrigation controller is the brain directing when valves open to run the sprinklers according to your set schedule. Smart controllers can self-adjust schedules based on weather changes while also offering remote access via your phone. Determine how much control flexibility you want when selecting a controller.

Backflow Preventer

This vital device connects your sprinkler to the main water supply line while stopping contaminated water from backing up into your home’s drinking supply in the event of a malfunction downstream. Your city may require specific approved models, so verify before installing your system.

Designing and Installing Your Sprinkler System

The planning and installation process for a new sprinkler system involves careful attention to design, permitting, equipment selection, and proper installation. Taking shortcuts here can lead to inefficient coverage and costly repairs down the road. Here are some best practices to follow:

Create a Design Plan

Map out your property to identify all planting beds, grass areas, slopes, and obstacles. Decide how to group areas into zones based on similar watering needs. Sketch proposed head and pipe layouts. Having a detailed plan is crucial before purchasing any system components. Consider hiring a professional designer for large or complex yards.

Obtain Local Permits

Most municipalities require permits before installing or altering irrigation systems connected to your home’s water supply. Ensure you have all required permits before starting any work.

Select Components

Choose components that meet the size, pressure, and coverage requirements of your yard’s design. Opt for durable, high-quality materials from reputable brands, particularly for vital components like valves.

Hire a Licensed Pro

Unless you’re very handy, consider hiring a professional installer. They have the expertise, equipment, and certifications to properly install all components to code while minimizing damage to your yard.

Perform Pressure Tests

It’s critical to pressure test the system with water before backfilling the trenches to check for and correct any leaks. Also test sprinkler coverage across zones to identify any poor coverage areas needing adjustment.

Schedule Regular Maintenance

Like any complex system, sprinklers require regular maintenance for optimal performance and longevity. Inspect components before each season, clean heads, check for leaks, and perform any needed repairs.

Operating and Maintaining Your System

Once installed, a bit of regular maintenance and proper operation keeps your sprinkler system working efficiently for years of reliable service. Follow these tips:

Inspect Seasonally

Do a walkthrough inspection before first using your system each spring. Look for cracked or leaning heads, leaks in valves or pipes, drainage issues, or winter damage that needs repairing. Tighten and adjust any heads as needed.

Test Coverage

Run each zone manually to ensure heads are providing complete, uniform coverage without dry patches or excessive overlap between heads. Make adjustments as needed.

Adjust Schedule Seasonally

Your watering schedule will likely need fewer days per week with reduced runtimes in spring and fall compared to the heat of summer. Adjust controller settings accordingly about once per season.

Clean Heads

Remove any debris clogging outlet holes in sprinkler heads. Algae, dirt, and mineral buildup can distort spray patterns. Rinse with water and use a soft brush to gently clean.

Monitor for Leaks

Watch for unusually wet spots when the system is off as these may indicate underground pipe leaks. Identify the source and repair promptly to prevent wasted water.

Winterize in Cold Climates

In areas with freezing winters, you’ll need to winterize your system by draining pipes, blowing compressed air through lines, and covering above-ground components. Your local irrigation company can provide winterization services.

By keeping your system well-maintained and adjusting operations according to weather and plant needs, you’ll keep your yard healthy and your water bill optimized for years to come.

Troubleshooting Common Sprinkler Problems

Even properly installed systems can develop issues over time that prevent them from effectively watering your lawn. Learn to recognize and fix these common sprinkler problems:


Gushing leaks in pipes and fittings can lose huge amounts of water. But even small, unnoticed leaks waste water over time. Inspect connections and shorten watering times to reduce leaks.

Low pressure

Heads don’t pop up fully, mist, or have short range? This points to low water pressure. Check for kinks in pipes, undersized supply lines, or issues with your home’s main water pressure.

Poor coverage

Dry patches surrounded by soaked areas indicate poor head spacing or adjustments are needed. Improve consistency by rearranging heads, switching nozzles, or upgrading head types.

Clogged or broken heads

Clean and inspect heads annually. Replace any broken heads right away to maintain even coverage. Keep grass and roots from growing into heads.

Malfunctioning valves

Zones won’t turn on, turn off, or leak when shut? The issue is likely with the valve, which may need cleaning or replacing. Inspect valves annually.

Controller problems

Erratic system operation, especially right after a power outage, points to a controller issue. Reset it, check settings, replace batteries, or buy a new controller if needed.

Some problems require professional diagnosis and repair. But being able to spot and fix minor issues keeps your system running well.

Is a Sprinkler System Right for My Yard?

If you’re on the fence about installing an underground sprinkler system, consider these key questions:

  • How large is your yard? Systems become more worthwhile for properties larger than half an acre.
  • Do you have varied landscaping? Zoned systems excel at individually watering lawn, plant beds, trees with different needs.
  • Is your water pressure sufficient? You’ll need 45 to 60 PSI for proper sprinkler operation.
  • How often do you travel? Automatic systems are extremely helpful when you’re away often.
  • Are you up for installation and maintenance? DIY-installed systems require more effort but cost less.
  • Does your region lack rain in summer? Drier climates see bigger benefits from the convenience and consistency of sprinklers.

For yards needing frequent, zoned watering that an automated underground system provides, the considerable upfront investment of $2000 to $4000 on average pays dividends over time in water savings, convenience, and healthier landscaping.


Installing a sprinkler or irrigation system takes your yard’s health and beauty to the next level while saving you time and effort. By understanding the basics of how systems work, carefully planning the design, using quality components, and performing routine maintenance, you can keep your system operating flawlessly for years. The result is a stunning lawn and landscaping that will be the envy of your neighborhood.

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