How to Adjust Sprinkler Heads

close-up of sprinkler watering a lawn

A sprinkler system makes watering your lawn effortless–almost. Gone are the days of dragging out hoses and oscillating sprinklers every 30 minutes. However, to keep your system running at its best, it’s essential to know how to adjust the sprinkler heads when they need it.

How to adjust different types of sprinkler heads

Overall, adjusting your sprinklers is pretty straightforward, regardless of the type of sprinkler system

Keep in mind, there’s a high likelihood you will get wet from sprinkler spray during this project. I usually plan this project for a sunny day when the temperature will be pleasant, so I’m not freezing.

Note: Some sprinkler heads have a fixed spray nozzle, meaning they spray a specific distance and at a designated angle. For instance, an 8-ft quarter radius sprays eight feet of water at 90°, while an 8-ft half circle sprays eight feet of water at 180°. The direction of the spray can be adjusted, but the distance and angle cannot. If these heads aren’t spraying correctly, you will need to replace the sprinkler head completely instead of adjusting it.

Tools needed 

homeowner adjusting sprinkler head with pliers
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In most cases, all you’ll need is a screwdriver, regardless of the type of sprinkler head. Other tools may come in handy but aren’t necessary.

Here’s what you may need or want to have on hand:

  • Narrow flathead screwdriver
  • Rotor nozzle adjustment tool (optional, may have come with your system)
  • Hex wrench
  • Pliers or vise grips
  • Nozzle insertion collar (sometimes called a sprinkler head lock tool)

Note: Manufacturers sell special adjustment tools that work for their line of sprinkler heads. They aren’t required to adjust spray patterns but may make it easier.

How to adjust rotor sprinkler heads

person adjusting a gear-driven rotor sprinkler head in the lawn
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Gear-drive rotors can emit water from a single opening and rotate to move the water, or they can have multiple openings, so numerous streams of water spray as they turn. 

Specific instructions for adjusting these may vary depending on the manufacturer, so it’s best to check their website (or your owner’s manual) for detailed instructions.

The following are general instructions for rotor heads.

To adjust the arc:

  1. Turn the head counterclockwise to the left stop position to complete any cycle it may be running. Check where the arrow is pointing—this is the left stop.
  2. To adjust the left stop, you may be able to turn the sprinkler with a wrench to point the arrow in the right direction. If this isn’t possible, unscrew the rotor from the sprinkler, pull it out, and reposition the left stop. Then put it back in the sprinkler.
  3. Apply gentle pressure to the top of the rotor and turn it clockwise, to the right side, until you reach the right stop position and it cannot turn further. Do not force it to turn. Where the arrow is pointing shows the right stop position.
  4. Hold the rotor in this right position and insert the rotor adjustment tool into the keyhole.
  5. Turn the key to the left to increase the arc; turn the key to the right to decrease the arc.
  6. Remove the key, and watch the spray pattern. Repeat the above steps and fine-tune the arc adjustment until the arc is where you want it to be.

To adjust the spray radius:

  1. Use a flat-head screwdriver to rotate the radius adjustment screw on top of the rotor.
  2. Turn the small screw clockwise to increase the radius of the pattern or how far out from the head the water sprays.
  3. Turn the screw counterclockwise to decrease the radius, shortening how far water sprays.

How to adjust pop-up sprinkler heads

automatic lawn sprinkler on and surrounded by leaves in the yard
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This type of sprinkler head is available in varied fan widths from 30 to 360 degrees, allowing you to adjust the spray pattern, the distance sprayed, and the amount of water emitted.

  1. Use a flat-head screwdriver to rotate the radius adjustment screw on top of the rotor.
  2. Turn the small screw clockwise to increase the radius of the pattern or how far out from the head the water sprays.
  3. Turn the screw counterclockwise to decrease the radius, shortening how far water sprays.
  4. To adjust where the water hits, use your hand to turn the sprinkler stem manually, moving the arc in the right direction. You may need pliers or vise grips to move the stem to the correct position.

Note: Pop-up sprinkler heads are easier to adjust when the system is on. The water pressure pushes the heads up, and there is less risk of damaging a head versus when you manually try to pull the riser out of the ground. Once out of the ground, you can use the sprinkler head lock tool on the sprinkler body.

How to adjust impact sprinkler heads

close-up of an impact sprinkler head
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Impact sprinkler heads are a type of rotary sprinkler that sprays water in multiple directions while rotating. 

  1. To change the spray pattern and direction, move the metal stops or tabs to the left or right to adjust accordingly. You may need pliers or vise grips to grab the tabs and pinch them together to move them.
  2. Turn the nozzle to raise or lower the spray deflector to adjust the spray distance. Lowering the shield allows you to water closer to the sprinkler head; raising the shield creates a higher arc, sending the water spray further away.

How to determine your sprinkler head type

Before we can really dive into this project, you have to figure out what kind of sprinkler heads you’re working with, so you can determine how to adjust them properly. Figuring out which type you have is pretty easy, and you may know without even taking a look outside. 

There are three main sprinkler heads types:

  • Gear-driven rotors
  • Pop-up sprinklers
  • Impact or multi-trajectory sprinklers

They differ based on how the head moves and the resulting stream of water. Impact sprinklers are always above-ground, pop-ups are underground, and gear-driven rotors can be buried underground and pop up when turned on or installed so they are above the soil surface. 

Type of sprinkler headMovement of sprinkler headSpray pattern
Gear-driven rotorRotates back and forthSingle or multiple streams
Pop-up sprinklers Pops up but stays stationaryCircular spray
Impact sprinklersSprays in different directionsMulti-trajectory

Hunter, Orbit, and Rain Bird are the three most common brands of irrigation products. Chances are, especially if you had the system professionally installed, you are working with one of those three. It isn’t necessary to know the manufacturer to adjust sprinkler heads, but if you’re interested, look at your sprinkler control panel for the brand name.

How to tell when sprinkler heads need adjusting

Sometimes, all it takes is a quick look out a window or your back door, and you can see a problem with your sprinklers. For me, a telltale sign something needs adjusting is when I start to see a patch of lawn turning brown or looking pretty withered when the temps start climbing. 

While this grabs my attention and alerts me to an issue, I still need to go outside and do some groundwork to figure out which head is the culprit. So, throw on your shoes, and head outside. You’re going to need to turn the sprinklers on for this part. 

Follow these steps to figure out which sprinkler head is causing the problem:

  1. Turn the system on at the control box, the hose bib (if you’re running impact sprinklers via the garden hose), or the in-ground valve box. I like to use the valve box because it’s right in the backyard, versus running back and forth into the garage where the control box is located. 
  1. Ensure the water flow is at the same pressure level as if you were running the irrigation system. Then let it run for a few minutes. 
  1. As the sprinkler system runs, watch to see how it covers the lawn. Check for heads that aren’t rotating, ones that aren’t turning as far as they should be, and ones that aren’t reaching far enough in their spray pattern.
  1. Once you’ve got a good idea of where the dry spots are, turn the water off. At this point, I like to take a quick walk through the lawn where I was just running sprinklers and look for soggy, swampy-looking areas; these spots obviously need less water, or you’re dealing with a broken head or water line.

If it seems like you need repairs instead of a simple adjustment, check out our guide to sprinkler repair costs. And for general questions about keeping your sprinkler system in tip-top shape, see our complete sprinkler system maintenance checklist.

Why is it important to adjust your sprinkler heads?

Even under the best circumstances, chances are your spray heads may become misaligned over time, and they will need readjustment. Sometimes they become obstructed or buried during the off-season, and movement from your lawn mower, kids playing in the yard, or even routine use can cause alignment problems.

When irrigation heads aren’t aligned correctly, your lawn might not get enough water when you turn the system on, and you’ll see patches of dying or dead grass. 

Adjusting the heads isn’t a difficult DIY job, although it does take some time, depending on the size of your yard and the number of heads you are working with. I try to adjust my lawn sprinklers at least once a year when I turn my system on in late spring.

There are different types of systems, and the intricacy will (likely) depend on which system you have. Sprinkler heads buried underground are a touch more challenging to work with, but they aren’t impossible. If you need a little hope, know that over the years, I’ve learned how to adjust the heads on my sprinklers and can troubleshoot most small problems on my own.

FAQ about adjusting sprinkler heads

Do I need a special tool to adjust my sprinkler heads?

No, you don’t necessarily need a special tool. In most cases, sprinkler heads are adjustable using a small flathead screwdriver. There are some exceptions to this, typically if you have specialized rotor heads that come with adjustment tools. It’s always best to consult the instruction manual for your system if you have questions.

What are the different types of sprinkler heads?

There are three main types of sprinkler heads, each with different spray patterns. 

Gear-driven rotors have individual sprays (or a single spray) of water and rotate when running. 
Pop-up sprinklers emerge from the ground, stay stationary, and emit water in a circular or semi-circular pattern. 
Impact sprinklers rotate back and forth, spraying water in multiple directions.

Can I adjust sprinkler heads myself?

Yes, you can adjust sprinkler heads on your irrigation system. Before you start, determine which type of heads your system has so you know what you’re working with and how to adjust the specific type. 

Feeling out of your element?

With some knowledge and a flathead screwdriver, you should be well-equipped to take on your sprinkler heads and keep them properly adjusted. However, if you need professional help, reach out to a lawn care expert! Lawn Love can connect you with a local pro to help you keep your lawn looking its best, whether that means sprinkler repair or regular lawn maintenance.

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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.