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Getting Started with Drip Irrigation

How to choose the right components for a water-efficient drip irrigation system

As the drought in the Western states wears on, water conservation and efficiency are increasingly common topics of discussion nationwide. Though nothing new, the severity and impact of this latest drought has brought water issues back into the spotlight, and with them a renewed mindfulness about individual water usage.

Those who treasure their plants and trees are in a tricky position. Lush, green lawns are already frowned upon in widening circles, and many seem to assume that healthy plants mean water waste. As any good gardener will attest, this is highly inaccurate: smart water management is the only way to healthy, happy plants. Among the many methods and tools available to manage water wisely, drip irrigation remains one of the most popular and effective.

Also referred to as low-volume or micro irrigation, drip systems are ideal for virtually all landscaping applications:

  • Trees and Shrubs
  • Ground Cover
  • Vegetable Gardens
  • Flower Beds
  • Patio & Container Plants
  • Medians & Pathways
  • Indoor Plants

What components or equiment will I need to set up my drip irrigation system?

Adjustable emitterDial-A-Flo emitters allow flow rate and spray patterns to be adjusted by rotating the cap

Drip irrigation consists of emitters inserted into polyethylene tubing. Though "drip" is how we usually refer to low-volume/micro irrigation, there are actually four prominent types of emitter:

  • Drip - The most precise option, delivering water directly to the soil at the root zone at very slow rates. Drip emitters are suited to shrubs, trees, hanging baskets etc. Because of the low discharge rate, the watering cycle is usually longer.
  • Bubblers - Most often used for shrubs and trees. With their higher discharge rates, they have short watering cycles. Because bubblers can operate at high pressures they are particularly useful for conversion from conventional sprinkler to low volume systems.
  • Micro-Sprays - The suggested method when low volume, overhead irrigation is desired. Ground covers, ice plant etc. are often irrigated with micro-spray emitters. Plants like ferns, which prefer some humidity, will benefit from this method as well.
  • Laser-Drilled Emitter Line - Best suited for watering closely spaced plants, hedges, vegetable gardens, etc. New plantings of ground cover could also use this type. Other applications include planter boxes, rings for large pots and containers and loops around large trees.

Adjustable Dial-A-Flo emitters are also available, which can be adjusted from a drip emitter to a stream bubbler as the discharge increases. The unit is calibrated so that the desired discharge can be selected by rotating the cap. The emitter can also be taken apart for cleaning.

Learn more about the different styles of drip emitters, bubblers, micro-sprays, and laser-drilled tubing we offer

These options can be combined in a system, but keep in mind that each method may have different watering cycles. It's generally recommended that the different types be put on separate circuits and operated independently, either manually or through a multi-station timer. Timers are an especially good idea for drip systems, since their long cycles make it easy to be distracted and forget to turn them off.

In addition to emitters and tubing, you'll need a vacuum breaker installed to keep contaminated water from being siphoned into your home's water supply. You'll also want to include a filter to prevent clogging from sediment and other particles. And unless you have very low water pressure, a pressure regulator is often another necessary addition: drip systems perform best with a 20-25 psi supply pressure.

Before you start anything, you need to determine the water needs of the plants and trees you're looking to address. This will help you determine the proper flow rate for the emitters you end up using. Too fast a flow in the wrong soil can lead to runoff and waste, while a slow flow in quick-draining soils may not provide enough water.

It's helpful to map out the system, making sure to include measurements and other information you'll need during installation (or even purchasing). Pay extra close attention to tubing and emitter sizes, as they can be tricky. This is also important should you need any adapters or additional fittings to make your system work.

Installation Tips

Example of using a hole punchGet a free deluxe hole punch when you buy
$200 or more in drip supplies!

Installation itself is a pretty straightforward affair: tubing is laid out next to the plants, a special hole-punch is used to pierce it, and an emitter is placed in the hole. In most applications, 1/2" tubing is used to supply individual 1/4" feeder lines. Stakes are usually used to keep the tubing in place and close to the ground. Most tubing can be buried, but this runs the risk of clogging or collapsing the line; look for UV-resistant tubing that will not break down when exposed

Another reason why drip systems are great? Goof plugs. Beyond remedying hole-punch mistakes, goof plugs allow you to utilize old tubing in good condition for new layouts. Simply replace unnecessary emitters with goof plugs, and make new holes. Another plug that comes in handy is a bug cap, which is installed at the end of a line. This allows water to still flow through, but prevents bugs from getting in and clogging or damaging the line.

Quick Tip: For new installations, we recommend leaving the end of the tubing uncapped and flushing the system before installing emitters and caps. This will help you find any leaks, and flush out any sediment.

If you're converting an existing sprinkler system into a drip irrigation system, we offer riser fittings that will cover the 1/2" pipe usually holding sprinkler heads. You'll remove the heads and attach the riser fittings to run your drip tubing from there instead.

As we seek out smarter ways to use water and deal with shortages, it's likely that sacrifices will be made as priorities are reassessed. But don't worry: your garden doesn't need to be among the things given up. By using less water more wisely with a drip system, you can make both plants and people happy!

Ready to set up your new drip system? We've got everything you need!

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