Choosing an Irrigation System

Learn how to choose a good system for your watering your landscaping.


By: Laura Fisher Kaiser

On average, 30 percent of your water bill is dedicated to outdoor use, so it makes sense to incorporate water-saving strategies into your landscape plan. Using native and drought-tolerant plants greatly reduces your need for supplemental irrigation, but you still need an efficient way to irrigate when necessary, particularly for vegetable gardens and container plants.

In-Ground Sprinkler Systems

If your landscape project calls for a new in-ground irrigation system, it should go in last, after the plants are in the ground to ensure that the right kind of head delivers the appropriate amount of water. Make sure to organize your plants into hydrozones—grouped according to low, moderate and high water use.

"The plant material should be watered by a specific sprinkler head adjacent to it," says Robert Schucker, president of R&S Landscaping in Midland Park, N.J. Pop-up spray heads are designed to be installed in a zone with plant material of similar watering needs.

The lawn sprinklers should be on a separate grid from perennials and shrub beds because they don't have the same water needs. For perennials and shrubs, a drip irrigation system is more efficient because it delivers water to the roots, where they need it most. If you already have an irrigation system, you can make it more efficient by changing sprinkler heads in flower beds to drip heads and adding a timer.

A rain sensor turns off sprinklers when it rains or adjusts the settings to account for the amount of water that falls. An evapotranspiration (ET) controller uses real-time weather and other data, including sun angles, to adjust the watering schedule.

Irrigation Options

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Above-Ground Sprinkler

Above-ground sprinklers are a popular method for irrigating large, open areas like lawns. Typically connected to a hose, these systems distribute water in a uniform manner and come in stationary, oscillating and rotating models.

In-Ground Sprinkler

Often set on an automatic timer, in-ground sprinklers can be installed flush to the ground, only popping up when they're in use. These systems are connected to a network of pipes underneath your yard and should typically be installed by a professional. If you plan on using in-ground sprinkler system, be sure to organize your plants into hydrozones — grouped according to low, moderate and high water use — to ensure that the right kind of head delivers the appropriate amount of water.

Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation systems provide plants with smaller amounts of water during an extended period of time. The slower process allows water to penetrate deeper into the soil to a plant's roots, making it an efficient method for watering perennials and shrubs. Unlike conventional sprinkler systems where a significant amount of water is often misdirected and wasted, drip irrigation works to directly impact specific plants, greatly reducing water waste.

Photo By: Ken Brown

Soaker Hose

Like drip irrigation systems, a soaker hose allows water to seep slowly into the soil during longer periods of time. Tiny holes are inserted throughout the length of the hose, enabling smaller quantities of water to trickle out continuously as needed. These hoses come in multiple lengths, offering the ability to water great distances, and can be set above ground or hidden beneath mulch. Photo courtesy of Rittenhouse

Rain Harvesting

Rainwater collection systems can be used to store rainwater, which can later be used for irrigation. Installing a rain barrel directly under a downspout is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to harvest rainwater. More complex systems, which are often installed underground, require excavation and electrical hook up for the pump.

Rain Harvesting

Installing rain barrels or cisterns to collect rain reduces your water bill and helps the environment by reducing the amount of stormwater runoff. Rain barrels are relatively inexpensive and easy to incorporate into a landscape, even as an afterthought. However, cisterns, which often go under patios or decks, require excavation and electrical hook up for the pump, and you need to incorporate it into your design from the beginning.

To figure out what size rain-harvesting system suits your landscape, analyze your weekly irrigation needs between and January and July, and how much rain your property can capture.

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