Save time, save water and pamper your plants
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There’s an easier way to keep your plants watered, even when your life gets busy or you’re away from home — a simple, automated drip irrigation system. These systems are affordable and easy to set up.
- 1/2-in. poly tubing
- 1/4-in. vinyl tubing
- backflow preventer
- Barbed fittings
- pressure regulator
- small stakes
- watering devices
Overview of the Drip System
Whether you’re growing roses to win prizes or just trying to keep a few flowerbeds looking good, you know what a chore watering is, lugging hoses around the yard and moving them every half hour or so. Micro irrigation — a network of plastic tubing and low-volume drippers and sprinklers that reach every part of the garden — takes the hassle out of watering.
The materials are inexpensive and easy to install using nothing more than a pruning shears and a special hole punch tool. Once you lay out the tubing and connect the drippers, sprinklers or sprayers, you’ll be able to water your plants by simply turning on the water and letting it run for an hour or two.
In this project we’ll introduce you to the basics of micro irrigation, including planning tips and step-by-step installation instructions. For more details, especially in the planning phase, we recommend that you read through one of the manufacturers’ free planning guides.
Project step-by-step (11)
Where to Buy Drip Irrigation Systems
You can find kits and individual components online and at home centers, garden centers and plumbing suppliers. A basic kit that waters up to 20 containers or a 75-sq.-ft. area costs $25 to $50 and comes with everything you need except the timer. Higher quality kits may cost $70 or more.
Plan the Drip Irrigation System
If this is your first venture into micro irrigation, start small and experiment to get a feel for how the system works. Choose one or two flowerbeds or a garden and install a simple one-zone garden drip system.
The basic planning strategy is to pick the best watering device to serve each type of plant. Then determine a flow rate that supplies adequate water to every plant in the watering zone.
- Start by measuring your garden and making a simple sketch.
- Choose the type and flow rate of the watering devices based on your soil and the plants’ water needs. Mark these on the drip irrigation system plan and draw in the tubing route to connect them. This will involve a little guesswork.
- Try to cover all the root zones of your plants. Don’t worry about getting everything perfect at first.
- Add a few extra of each type of watering device and buy the watering devices, tubing and the basic parts shown in Figure B for the faucet hookup. Once you see how the drip irrigation system works, you’ll find it’s easy to relocate or add emitters to get a more balanced water flow or better coverage.
- Set up the system to run between one and two hours at a time, two or three times a week.
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DIY Irrigation System Planning Rules of Thumb
- Use 1/2-gph (gallons per hour) drippers in clay soil, one-gph drippers in loam, and two-gph drippers in sandy soil.
- Add the gph rate of all drippers, bubblers, sprayers and sprinklers you plan to use. If you’re using 1/2-in. tubing for the main line, limit the total to between 150 and 220 gallons per hour (check with the manufacturer).
- Limit the length of 1/2-in. tubing on one zone to a maximum of about 200 ft.
- Limit the total gph on a length of 1/4-in. tubing to 25 to 30.
As you add to the system, it’s best to divide your yard into groups of plants that have similar watering requirements. With this strategy, you add a separate system (zone), starting at the water source, for each group of plants or area of the yard. For help with planning a large, more complicated system (and for the best prices), work with a retailer that specializes in micro irrigation.
Parts of a Drip Irrigation System
- Battery-operated timer. One nine-volt battery will last an entire season. Costs $30 to $50 depending on the model.
- Backflow preventer. Prevents dirty garden water from flowing back into your household water lines.
- Screen filter. Traps particles that could clog the emitters. May be separate or part of the backflow device.
- Pressure regulator. Lowers the incoming water pressure to a level the drip system can tolerate; 25 to 30 psi (pounds per square inch) is standard.
- Hose adapter. Connects water source to the main line.
- 1/2-in. main line. Don’t exceed 200 ft. of tubing in a single circuit.
- Elbow fitting. Connects sections of hose to one another or other components.
- Preinstalled emitter. Spaced every six to 12 inches; good for straight rows of plants and for shrubs.
- Hole punch. Makes ports in the main line to connect watering devices and 1/4-in. tubing.
- 1/2-gph pressure-compensating dripper. Ideal for flat and hillside terrain and heavy clay soil.
- Hose end clamps. Closes off the end of the main line.
- 1/4-in. barbed tee. Allows branching to 1/4-in. from 1/2-in. lines.
- Tubing stakes and adjustable sprayer. You can mix and match watering devices, but don’t use more than 150 gallons per hour (gph) on a single circuit.
- 1/4-in. micro tubing. Good for containers, zoned areas and customizing your system. Comes in multiple colors to help hide it. Don’t exceed 50 ft. of 1/4-in. tubing in a single circuit.
- 1/4-in. barbed connector. Connects 1/4-in. micro tubing to the main line.
- Goof plugs. Plug unneeded holes when you change the placement of your tubing, watering devices or landscaping.
- Assorted emitters. Adjustable emitters, also called shrubblers and drippers, can apply as little as 1/2-gph or as much as 10-gph. The right number, type and size of emitters depend on plant type, soil and weather conditions. The yellow flag dripper shown can be taken apart and cleaned.
- Tee fitting. Creates branch lines to expand and customize the system.
- 1/2-in. universal coupler. Allows you to cut out damaged tubing and install new line.
- Hose end clamps. Closes off the end of the main line.
Begin at the Outside Faucet
The Y-splitter with shutoffs allows you to keep the drip system on all the time (and operated by a controller) and still use your regular garden hose. You don’t have to use a controller, but you must use a backflow preventer.
- Mount a ‘Y’ with shutoff valves to your faucet.
- Then attach the optional timer, backflow preventer, filter, pressure regulator and adapter.
- Pro tip: Some of these components are available with hose thread or pipe thread, so make sure to match the thread type when you buy parts. Joining hose thread to pipe thread will result in leaks.
Lay Out the Tubing
- Connect the 1/2-in. poly tubing to the faucet end, then lay the tubing through the garden according to your plan.
- Stake it down about every five or six feet.
- Remember, you can cover the tubing with decorative mulch later to hide it.
- Pro tip: Soak the tubing in warm water or lay it out in the sun for a little while to soften it and make it easier to work with.
- Cut the tubing with a pruning shears.
Install the Fittings
Use T-fittings to create branches and elbows to make 90-degree bends.
- Buy fittings to match the brand of tubing you’re using. If you need to join two brands of tubing or you’re not sure which you have, you can buy universal fittings that will work on all diameters of tubing.
- You can bury 1/2-in. poly tubing in a shallow trench to conceal it as it crosses a path or small section of lawn. But for longer lengths, especially in high-traffic areas, we recommend substituting 1/2-in. PVC pipe instead.
- Buy adapters to connect the 1/2-in. poly tubing to the ends of the PVC pipe.
- Pro tip: Check with your local plumbing inspector before burying any pipe to see whether special backflow prevention is required.
Install the Connectors
- Punch holes in the tubing wherever you want to install a watering device.
- Push and twist until the tip of the punch creates a clean hole.
- Pro tip: Hold the hole punch at a right angle to the tubing when you punch a hole for an emitter or a connector. This makes a round hole that will seal tightly around the barb of the emitter.
- Press a barbed connector into the hole in the 1/2-in. tubing.
- If the 1/4-in. tubing isn’t already attached, add a length of 1/4-in. tubing to reach your dripper, sprayer or sprinkler location.
Install the Drip-System Watering Device
You can buy sprinklers and sprayers as assemblies that include a barbed connector, a short length of 1/4-in. tubing and a plastic stake, or buy the parts separately and assemble them yourself.
- Press pressure-compensating (PC) drippers, sprinklers or sprayers onto the end of the 1/4-in. tubing.
- Use a stake to support the dripper and anchor it in the root zone of the plant.
- When your DIY irrigation system installation is complete, flush the drip irrigation system by running water through it.
- Use end cap fittings to close the open ends of the 1/2-in. tubing.
Types of Watering Devices
One of the first things you’ll notice when browsing the brochures or Web sites is a wide variety of watering devices. Here are the basic types and a few things you need to know about each one. While the ones shown here are the most common, there are many other, more specialized emitters. See the micro irrigation catalogs for the other types and their uses.
Use these to water container plants, individual plants, or buy “inline” drippers and use them in a series with a 1/4-in. tube.
- Drippers are color-coded for different flow rates between 1/2-gph and four-gph. In general, use lower flow rates for less porous soil, like clay, to allow more time for the water to soak in. Buy pressure-compensating (PC) drippers to maintain a steady flow despite the water pressure.
A cross between drippers and sprayers, many bubblers are adjustable for flows up to 35-gph and diameters to 18 inches.
- Since they put out more water than drippers, they’re good for larger plants like roses, tomatoes and shrubs.
These are miniature versions of sprinklers you might use in the yard. Most have flow rates between 14- and 40-gph and cover a radius of three to 30 feet.
- Since most sprinklers have a relatively high flow rate, you can’t use more than about 15 or 20 in one zone of 1/2-in. tubing.
These are like sprinklers without moving parts. You can choose a spray pattern from a quarter circle up to a full circle, or buy sprayers with adjustable spray patterns.
- They spray from four- to 34-gph and up to a radius of about 12 feet.
- Use sprayers to water ground cover or densely planted flowerbeds.
Soaker Drip Line
Also called emitter tubing, drip line consists of 1/2-in. or 1/4-in. tubing with built-in drippers. It’s available with emitters spaced different distances apart for different flow rates.
- Drip line is great for vegetable gardens or rows of plants. You can use it to encircle shrubs and large plants, or lay it out in a grid pattern as a substitute for sprinklers in a densely planted flowerbed.
- Pro tip: Use 1/4-in. drip line for maximum flexibility.
Maintaining Your Drip Irrigation System
- Clean the filter once a month (more often if you have well water with a lot of sediment).
- Inspect the drippers occasionally to make sure they’re working.
- In cold climates, prepare for winter by removing the shutoff Y-splitter, backflow preventer, controller, filter and pressure regulator and bringing them inside. Remove end plugs and drain or blow the water out of the system. Replace the caps and plug the faucet end of the tubing as well.