How to Choose the Right Type of Sprinkler for Your Lawn

sprinkler on in a yard and attached to a hose

When finding the right sprinkler, all you need is something that shoots out water, right? Unfortunately, there’s a little more to it than that. Choosing the right type of sprinkler for your lawn’s unique characteristics can reduce water waste, save time, and create the lush, healthy lawn of your dreams.

We’ll give you the lowdown on the most common residential sprinklers and the pros and cons of each so you can make the best choice. 

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What are the types of above-ground sprinklers?

sprinkler on and sitting in a yard
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Above-ground sprinklers are ideal for those who want a flexible and easily adjustable watering solution. They are often used in residential settings, temporary installations, or where in-ground systems may not be practical or cost-effective.  

Above-ground sprinklers hook up to a hose and sit on top of your lawn. They don’t have any piping or other components running underground, but you can use multiple sprinklers to create a complete irrigation system. There are many different types of above-ground sprinklers available.

Pros of above-ground sprinklers: 

✓ You can install these types of sprinklers yourself with no trouble.

✓ They’re easily movable, so you can target your desired areas.

Cons of above-ground sprinklers: 

✘ You must either get the hose out and put it away every time you water or deal with a potentially unsightly garden hose running through your lawn.

✘ Overwatering is common with many of these types, especially if you’re not using a hose-end timer.

Cost: The only cost is the sprinkler heads and a garden hose or poly tubing. You’ll spend $3-$75 per unit depending on the head type. A garden hose costs between $45 and $100.

Oscillating sprinklers

Sprinkler that is on and sitting in a yard
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You’ll probably spot many oscillating sprinklers if you walk through your neighborhood. This type consists of a metal or plastic tube with many sprinkler holes. When water pressure builds up, it sprays water in a rectangular pattern. The spray pattern on an oscillating sprinkler stays the same, like a shower nozzle, but the sprinkler itself moves, emitting water across a larger area. 

Look for a model with at least 15 jets to ensure you cover your property evenly. More expensive models can adjust the spray pattern and operate at higher speeds, reducing the potential for puddling.

  • Water pressure: Low to high 
  • Size covered: Small to large areas (up to 4,000 square feet)
  • Cost: $10 to $30

Pros of oscillating sprinklers: 

✓ If you have a classic backyard with a rectangular grass area, an oscillating sprinkler might be the best for you.

✓ They can handle lawns of different sizes as long as the area is uniform.

✓ They perform well with low and high levels of water pressure.

✓ Gentle sprinkling is perfect for newly seeded lawns.

Cons of oscillating sprinklers

✘ This sprinkler will miss some grass if you have a curved or irregularly shaped lawn.

✘ Cheaper models can create puddles and perform unpredictably with very high or low water pressure.

Stationary sprinklers

Close-up of a sprinkler head in the lawn
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Do you have a small area of grass to water? A stationary sprinkler (also called a spot sprinkler) could be an excellent option. You can choose one preset pattern in the shape of a square, rectangle, or circle. 

Look for a model with a durable metal frame instead of a plastic one.

  • Water pressure: Low
  • Size covered: Small
  • Cost: $3 to $10

Pros of stationary sprinklers: 

✓ These are great if you’re on a budget.

✓ They hold up well because they don’t have any moving parts susceptible to wear and tear.

✓ They perform well with low water pressure. 

Cons of stationary sprinklers

✘ If you have a large lawn, this isn’t the type for you.

✘ These fixed sprinklers can only water in one pattern, scoring low on versatility. 

Traveling sprinklers

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A less conventional route, traveling sprinklers are like the Roomba of irrigation systems. Instead of using electricity or gas, which is annoying to refuel, they’re propelled simply by water pressure. They ride along your garden hose and work best in large, flat lawns.

A traveling sprinkler is excellent if you’re not looking for something permanent. They don’t require any installation; they only need a hose.

  • Water pressure: High
  • Size covered: Large
  • Cost: $50 to $75

Pros of traveling sprinklers: 

✓ They can cover vast areas with no effort on your part to move a hose and sprinkler.

✓ They’re moved easily for mowing or to put away at the end of the season.

✓ They’re fun! Kids and neighbors are sure to love it.

Cons of traveling sprinklers

✘ Doesn’t work well in small lawns.

✘ Although they might do well with humans, your pet might be the type to chase and knock it over.

✘ If a traveling sprinkler is knocked off track, it might flood or overwater the area it gets stuck in, so it needs to be watched or checked on periodically.

✘ Not the best for newly seeded lawns.

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Rotating sprinklers

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Also known as whirling or revolving sprinklers, a rotating sprinkler system uses a circular spray of water to quench your turfgrass’ thirst. This type of rotary sprinkler has two or more arms that spray water by spinning rapidly in circles, relying on centrifugal force to fling water outward onto the lawn.

  • Water pressure: Medium to high
  • Size covered: Medium to large
  • Cost: $14 to $35

Pros of rotating sprinklers:

✓ Good for hilly or uneven lawns.

✓ Works well on slow-draining yards such as clay soils.

Cons of rotating sprinklers:

✘ Because the spray is outwards in a circular pattern, a rotating sprinkler cannot efficiently water all the corners of a rectangular lawn.

Impact sprinklers

sprinkler on grass shooting out water
Photo Credit: Shaylor | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Impact rotors are typically recognizable due to the distinctive clicking noise they make. The click comes from an impact hammer hitting a fixed plate in the back. The pressure generated when the stream of water hits the spring-loaded arm keeps impact rotors going and rotating. 

Typically, impact sprinklers are made from brass or bronze (to withstand the pressure and force generated), a material that can make them pricier than other sprinklers. They can be set to water in partial or complete circles. 

While they won’t work well with low water pressure, impact rotor sprinkler heads are excellent for large grass areas (you’ll often find them in parks) because of their forceful spray. They can hurt newly seeded grass, so only use these if you have a healthy, established lawn. 

Pro Tip: Impact sprinklers are sometimes often called pulsating sprinklers. The names are used interchangeably.

  • Water pressure: High
  • Size covered: Medium to large
  • Cost: $7 to $30

Pros of impact sprinklers: 

✓ Because of the force produced, water can travel a long distance and penetrate the soil deeply without evaporating very much.

✓ They have options for full and partial coverage, so you can adjust what size area you want covered. 

Cons of impact sprinklers

✘ The stream’s power can damage young lawns. If you’re planting grass seed to start a lawn from scratch and if you usually overseed your lawn frequently, this is something to think about.

✘ The sprinkler’s body is exposed, which can lead to maintenance issues if dirt gets trapped.

Drip irrigation

drip irrigation system in a garden bed
Photo Credit: Sciencehacker | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

While a drip system isn’t suitable for watering your lawn, it is an excellent irrigation option for your prized vegetable garden or rosebed. A drip irrigation system is an extremely efficient way of watering that delivers water to the soil at the base of plants. Lengths of flexible tubing are installed throughout the watering area; water is delivered to plants via holes in the tubing or through emitters or spray heads attached. 

A drip system allows homeowners to tailor the spacing and reduce the water wasted by extension. As the name suggests, water drips from the device straight into the soil, so it’s more equipped for flower beds than lawns.

A drip system will run much longer than a standard sprinkler system but uses less water.

  • Water pressure: Low to medium
  • Size covered: Small
  • Cost: If you DIY, expect to spend around $80. Most professionally installed drip irrigation systems cost $295 to $775.

Pros of drip irrigation: 

✓ Drip systems are an irrigation method that promotes water conservation by watering at specified intervals and directing water straight into the ground. Spray systems waste more water because some is lost to evaporation as it’s shot into the air. 

✓ Deeper waterings help plant roots grow deeper. 

✓ Good for hot areas where droughts and strict watering restrictions are common.

Cons of drip irrigation

✘ Mowers can slice tubing, and pests can chew through it.

✘ Regular maintenance is required to keep everything operating smoothly.

✘ High calcium and magnesium in your water can clog the system with hard water deposits.

Flood (bubbler) sprinklers 

Regular sprinklers spraying a stream or mist of water can sometimes miss the roots of individual trees and shrubs. That’s where bubblers come in. They’re built to flood an area rather than spraying water at it.

Bubblers, also known as flood sprinklers, water at ground level, like a mini waterfall. These slow-watering sprinklers work by water pooling down from the head spout as the water bubbles up and then overflows, watering the roots directly. 

You can get a bubbler nozzle to convert an existing sprinkler head if you already have a sprinkler system.

  • Water pressure: Low
  • Size covered: Small
  • Cost: $1 to $10; $24 for a conversion kit

Pros of bubbler sprinklers:

✓ They can target specific plants that need extra attention or their own watering schedule. 

✓ Their low-pressure water flow is gentle enough for newly planted trees and shrubs that aren’t established yet.

✓ Considered eco-friendly by conserving water resources.

Cons of bubbler sprinklers

✘ They’re a poor choice if you need a sizable area watered. 

Soaker hoses

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For homeowners who don’t want to deal with a sprinkler system, there is always the alternative option of using a soaker hose. They are typically best used for landscaping plants, shrubs, or trees. 

Like a drip system, soaker hoses slowly drip water into the soil, soaking directly into the ground close to the roots. Soaker hoses are made of a porous material, so they simply need to be attached to a water source, and then the water will ooze out of the porous material. 

  • Water pressure: Low
  • Size covered: Small
  • Cost: $10 to $36

Pros of soaker hoses:

✓ Soaker hoses are flexible and can be moved wherever you need them, allowing them to reach hard-to-reach corners of the yard.

✓ They can be hidden underneath mulch.

✓ They are eco-friendly, and they conserve water. 

✓ The gentle dripping of water reduces soil erosion. 

Cons of soaker hoses:

✘ Soaker hoses are made of a porous sponge-like material that deteriorates quickly, giving them a short lifespan. They can easily tear or be cut, so be careful when moving a soaker hose.

✘ They have limited reach compared to conventional sprinklers, so soaker hoses are best for garden beds. Otherwise, you must move them several times during a watering session to water your entire yard. 

What are the types of in-ground sprinklers?

The key factor of an in-ground sprinkler system is that its water source is below ground. In-ground sprinkler systems connect to your waterline via underground pipes, so all the piping supplying water to the sprinkler heads won’t be visible. The sprinklers emerge (or “pop up”) when it’s time to water, then return to the ground when they’re done.

They can be designed to cover irregular shapes or strips of land. You can program them to spray in a full arc, half-circle, quarter-circle, or strip. You can choose between spray pop-ups or rotor pop-up sprinklers. 

Pros of in-ground sprinklers: 

✓ Everything is out of the way. The chance of accidentally tripping over a sprinkler head and injuring yourself is significantly reduced. This makes them especially good for pets and kids.

✓ Underground components make mowing and trimming easy. 

✓ You don’t have to deal with pulling out a hose or putting it away after watering.

✓ Increases your home’s curb appeal. 

Cons of in-ground sprinklers: 

✘ Expensive to install.

✘ Challenging to remove.

Cost: Professionally installed in-ground sprinklers cost anywhere from $1,800 to $3,800.

Pro Tip: A critical note about pop-up sprinklers is that they must be tall enough when they’re running to distribute water over the top of your grass. You may need to add a riser to your pop-up head to get it high enough. Below are common grass types and their corresponding pop-up height.

Grass TypePoop-up Height
Bermudagrass (dethatched less often)4 inches
Fescues4-6 inches
Kentucky bluegrass4-6 inches
Ryegrass4-6 inches
St. Augustine grass5-6 inches
Zoysiagrass2-4 inches
Bahiagrass5-6 inches

Fixed spray sprinklers

automatic lawn sprinkler on and surrounded by leaves in the yard
Photo Credit: Victor Furtuna | Unsplash

Fixed sprinkler heads have a stationary nozzle that produces a tight, constant fan of water and directs it in a fixed pattern and direction. The nozzles on these heads dictate the distance and radius of the water spray and typically can’t be changed. For example, you can purchase a fixed spray head with a 45-degree spray pattern that sprays 10 feet.  

Fixed sprinkler heads are commonly used for small lawns or water irregular sections needing customization. 

  • Water pressure: Medium to high
  • Size covered: Small to medium
  • Cost: $3 to $12

Pros of fixed spray sprinklers: 

✓ A wide range of options gives you great control and customization of your watering setup. 

✓ The heads are inexpensive and relatively easy to replace. 

✓ Having no moving parts means no mechanical failure.

Cons of fixed spray sprinklers: 

✘ Small emitters can become easily clogged with debris or hard water buildup.

✘ Much shorter spray distance than other pop-up sprinkler heads.

Multiple stream sprinklers

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Another common type of pop-up sprinkler is a multiple stream sprinkler head, which produces thin water streams distributed as the head rotates. Compared to fixed-spray heads that emit a fine mist, multiple-stream sprinklers are more water-efficient, losing less to evaporation. 

This type of sprinkler applies water more slowly, making it useful for sloped lawns and uneven ground because there is less runoff. Heads are available with a 45-degree to 360-degree spray pattern.

  • Water pressure: Medium to high
  • Size covered: Small to medium
  • Cost: $5 to $10

Pros of multiple stream sprinklers: 

✓ Thin water streams are less prone to evaporation than a fine mist.

✓ The body is enclosed, which protects it from debris.

✓ They are inexpensive.

Cons of multiple stream sprinklers: 

✘ Hard water buildup can impede rotation, affecting performance.

✘ They have a shorter throw distance than gear-drive rotors.

Gear-drive rotor sprinklers

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In a gear-drive rotor, water enters through the base of the sprinkler and passes to the turbine, which powers a set of gears responsible for turning the sprinkler nozzle. The rotation speed increases the water’s force, throwing water a greater distance. Thus making gear-drive rotors a fantastic choice for large lawns with uninterrupted areas. 

Rotary heads move at a uniform speed, distributing water evenly across the grass. They also offer more adjustability than fixed or multiple-stream sprinklers, giving you greater control. A gentler water flow makes them a better option for newly seeded lawns and clay-type soil.

  • Water pressure: Medium to high
  • Size covered: Medium to large
  • Cost: $10 to $30

Pros of gear-drive rotor sprinklers: 

✓ You have high control over the coverage size, water flow, and arc.

✓ The body is enclosed, which protects it from debris.

✓ Uniform distribution of water. 

Cons of gear-drive rotor sprinklers: 

✘ If your water pressure isn’t high enough, you might need a professional to fix the problem.

✘ It costs more than other types of pop-up sprinkler heads.

Things to consider when choosing a sprinkler system

A sprinkler system is a beneficial addition to your yard. It’s much more environmentally friendly than watering with a hose nozzle, provides uniform coverage, and may offer full automation to make your life easier. 

At the same time, it’s also something you shouldn’t just walk into the store and grab the first sprinkler that catches your eye.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the available options. Assessing your particular landscape and needs will help narrow it down so you can make the best decision.

  • Do you have a small yard or a big property? Different sprinkler heads have various ranges of coverage. You’ll want to look at sprinklers with longer throw distances (impact sprinklers, gear-drive rotors) if you have a large area.
  • What’s your budget? It will limit your options if you’re looking for a cheaper option. Above-ground sprinklers are much cheaper than installing an in-ground system; stationary ones are the cheapest. 
  • Are you planning to stay at your current property long-term? Homeowners planning on moving soon might not want to invest in an expensive in-ground sprinkler system since they won’t fully have time to benefit from such a home investment. A cheaper hose-end sprinkler may be a better option. But, on the other hand, if you are moving soon, an in-ground system can boost curb appeal and increase the property’s resale value.
  • What’s your home’s water pressure? Impact and gear-drive rotors need a minimum water pressure to throw water greater distances. If you have low water pressure, look at oscillating or stationary sprinkler. You can buy a pressure gauge for about $10 and hook it up to an outside faucet to test your water. 
  • What type of soil do you have? Does it contain sand or clay? Clay soils retain water longer but absorb water slower—gear-drive rotors deliver water slowly, allowing it to soak in. Sandy soils absorb quickly yet tend to dry out quickly; impact sprinklers are a good choice for sandy soils because they deliver a lot of water. 
  • What type of grass is in your yard? Different types of turfgrass have different water requirements. In general, cool-season grasses need more water than warm-season types. If your grass has high water needs look at something durable, like an in-ground system or impact sprinklers that are rugged.
  • Do you live in a climate that frequently experiences drought? Impact and gear-drive rotor sprinklers shoot water in a stream versus a fine mist, so less water is lost to evaporation. They’re a good choice for hot climates or areas that experience a lot of wind. 
  • What is the shape of your yard? Some sprinklers cover a square or circular pattern, and triangular spray patterns work best for irregularly shaped yards.
  • Are there typically restrictions on water usage in your areas? Certain cities, counties, or states have water restrictions to conserve water, so you might want an in-ground sprinkler system that uses less water. At a minimum, invest in a hose timer for above-ground sprinklers.
  • Are you looking for something convenient and easy to use? Do you mind moving a hose around your yard at intervals to water your lawn thoroughly? If the work doen’t bother you, look at hose-end options. If you don’t want the hassle, look for a system you can program with a timer or controller.

Call a pro or DIY?

senior man sitting in a lawn chair with his back to the camera and spraying his yard with a garden hose
Photo Credit: Laney Smith | Unsplash

If you’re on a tight budget or like to get things done on your own time, it can be tempting to tackle installing your sprinkler system yourself. It’s essential to be realistic about your capabilities, though. Installing some systems — especially an in-ground setup — is more complicated and time-consuming than others. 

Don’t think twice about doing this yourself if you go the above-ground route. All you need to do is hook up the sprinkler head to a garden hose that’s connected to an outdoor spigot. Look for a kink-proof hose to make this easier. 

Drip irrigation is also reasonably easy to install, though there are a few more steps, and it takes some extra planning. 

In-ground installation is where it gets tricky for the average homeowner. You must read local building codes and check if your state requires a licensed professional installation. Remember that you’ll need to tie into your home’s main water supply and do minor electrical work.

Think about whether you’re comfortable with these tasks. You can always hire a professional to tap into the main water line and finish the rest of the project yourself. 

Tips for watering your lawn with a sprinkler system

So you’ve found the perfect sprinkler system for your lawn — what next? Following good cultural irrigation practices for watering your grass will keep your turf looking its best. 

Here are some lawn watering tips:

  • Water early (before 10 a.m.) to reduce water waste.
  • Water deeply but less frequently to encourage root growth and better drought tolerance. A typical lawn requires 1 inch of water a week, and lawns should be watered about two to three times a week. 
  • Know what type of soil you have. Clay soil prefers longer watering sessions at lower, slower rates, while sandy soils need short but frequent watering.
  • Adjust your watering schedule according to the seasonal needs of your grass type. Warm-season grasses require more water in the summer and less during the spring and fall. Cool-season grasses grow the most during spring and fall, so they need more water then; their growth slows in the summer, but they still need supplemental water.
  • Routinely check for puddles or signs of poor drainage to prevent fungal disease.
  • Inspect your driveway or road for wet patches and adjust spray patterns accordingly.
  • Use a timer for your sprinkler. That enables you to preprogram a preset time for your sprinklers to go off. 
Map of the United States showing cool-season grass, warm-season grass, and transition zones.
Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

Sprinkler maintenance tips

After spending money and time on irrigation installation, you want your system to last as long as possible. Regular maintenance checks are a good practice to save you money and headaches. 

  • Once you’ve chosen the right system, get familiar with it. That way, you’ll be able to spot problems when they start.
  • Periodically check for leaks in hoses or sprinklers.
  • Watch your sprinkler heads to see if they’re rotating correctly. Hard water buildup can impede movement over time.
  • Clean grass and debris from around in-ground sprinkler heads so they pop up and set back down smoothly.
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FAQs about the different types of sprinklers

How long should I water my lawn with a sprinkler?

How long you should water depends on the type of sprinkler you’re using. One of the simplest ways to determine this is by using tuna or cat food cans and see how long it takes to fill 1” of water in the can. If it takes 40 minutes, you’ll want to water twice a week for 20 minutes, or three times a week for about 13 minutes to give your lawn one inch of water.

How often should I water my lawn using sprinklers?

It’s best to water your lawn every other day or about three times a week, versus giving it a drink every day. Watering less often but applying more water each time encourages the root system to grow deeper in the soil, making your grass healthier and more drought tolerant.

How far should sprinklers be from the house?

You want to avoid having your sprinklers spray the house or down into window wells. Keep the spray 18 to 24” from your home. After watering, the water will move through the soil to wet the areas the sprinklers didn’t hit.

Need help with your well-watered lawn?

With so many different types of lawn sprinklers, finding the right one for your grass and budget is essential. If you’re unsure of the best lawn sprinkler, you can always ask a pro for recommendations and see what they suggest for your yard. 

Once your sprinklers meet your watering needs and your grass grows like crazy, contact us at Lawn Love. We’ll put you in touch with a local, highly-rated lawn care company to handle all your lawn care needs!

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Amanda Shiffler

Most comfortable with soil under her fingernails, Amanda has an enthusiasm for gardening, agriculture, and all things plant-related. With a master's degree in agriculture and more than a decade of experience gardening and tending to her lawn, she combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.