Choosing the Right Type of Sprinkler for Your Lawn

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sprinkler on in a yard and attached to a hose

All you need is something that shoots out water, right? Actually, taking some time to pick out the right sprinkler system for your lawn’s unique characteristics can reduce water waste, save you time, and create the lush backyard of your dreams.

We’ll give you the lowdown on all the most common household irrigation systems and the pros and cons of each so you can make the best choice. 

Why irrigate? A sprinkler system is much more environmentally friendly than watering with a hose. It provides more uniform coverage and can be scheduled to the ideal time of day. Some systems come with a rain sensor and seasonal adjustment program to determine the right amount of water to produce a healthy lawn. 

Things to consider

Before you go through your options, start by answering some questions about your particular landscape and needs.

  • Do you have a small backyard or a big plot of land?
  • What’s your budget?
  • Are you planning to stay at your current property long-term?
  • What’s your home’s water pressure? You can buy a pressure gauge for about $10 and hook it up to your water line to test it. 
  • What type of soil do you have? Does it contain sand or clay?
  • Are you looking for something that’s easy to use?

Figuring out these questions will help you make a more informed decision and narrow down your options. Speaking of options, let’s go through them.

Above ground vs. in-ground lawn sprinklers

This category is simply whether your system is connected to a water source below or above the ground. In-ground systems connect to your waterline via underground pipes. Above-ground systems hook up to a hose and sit on top of your lawn. Most sprinkler heads can be fitted as either option (except for pop-up sprinklers, which are exclusively in-ground). 

Above ground

sprinkler on and sitting in a yard
Mohammad Rezaie | Unsplash

Pros: 

✓ You can install this yourself with no trouble. 
✓ They’re easily movable, so your watering plan doesn’t have to be set in stone.

Cons: 

✘ You either have to take out and put away the hose every time you water or deal with a potentially unsightly garden hose running through your lawn. This can be mitigated by using tubing, but you’ll still have some hardware visible.

Cost: The only cost is the sprinkler heads and potentially a garden hose or poly tubing. Depending on the type of head, you’ll spend $3-$18 per unit. A garden hose or tubing both cost between $45 and $100. 

In-ground

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

Pros: 

✓ The chance of accidentally tripping over a sprinkler head and injuring yourself is greatly reduced. 
✓ This makes them especially good for pets and kids. 
✓ You also don’t have to deal with putting away a hose after watering.

Cons: 

✘ They’re expensive to install. 
✘ They’re difficult to remove. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth it — just make sure you plan to stick around long enough to get your money’s worth.

Cost: Professional installation can cost anywhere from $2,000-$3,500.

Spray sprinkler heads

Spray sprinkler heads are your classic choice. Their spray pattern stays the same, like a shower nozzle. They come in pop-up or above-ground options. The ones listed here are traditionally above ground, though could be made in-ground as well. 

These systems are great for smaller lawns that contain hard-to-reach areas. If you have a lot of corners, hardscaping, or areas with different water needs (like a vegetable garden and a lawn), then these might be your best option. 

Oscillating

Sprinkler that is on and sitting in a yard
steve p2008 | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

You’ll probably spot lots of oscillating sprinklers if you take a walk through your neighborhood. This type consists of a metal or plastic tube with lots of sprinkler holes that goes back and forth. 

Look for a model with at least 15 jets to make sure you’re covering your property evenly. More expensive models featuring a greater ability to adjust the spray pattern and operate at higher speeds, cutting down on the potential for puddling.

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

Pros: 

✓ If you have a classic backyard with a rectangular area of grass, an oscillating sprinkler might be the best sprinkler for you. 
✓ They can handle a range of sizes as long as it’s a uniform shape. 
✓ They also perform well with low and high levels of water pressure.

Cons: 

✘ If you have a curved or irregularly shaped lawn, this sprinkler will miss some of your grass. 
✘ Cheaper models can create puddles and perform unpredictably with very high or low water pressure.

Stationary

Close-up of a sprinkler head in the lawn
ryaninc | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Do you have a small area of grass to water? A stationary sprinkler (also called a spot sprinkler) could work for you. You can choose one pre-set 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-$10

Pros: 

✓ These are great if you’re on a budget. 
✓ They hold up well because they don’t have any moving parts that will take wear and tear. 
✓ Also, they can do great with low water pressure. 

Cons: 

✘ If you have a large lawn, this isn’t the type for you. 
✘ They can only water in one pattern, so they score low on versatility. 

Traveling

A less conventional route, traveling sprinklers are kind of 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.

If you’re not looking for something permanent, a traveling sprinkler is great. They don’t require any installation, and the only set-up they need is a hose.

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

Pros: 

✓ They can cover very large areas with no effort on your part. 
✓ They’re removed easily. 
✓ They’re fun! Kids and neighbors are sure to love it.

Cons: 

✘ They aren’t necessary for a small lawn. 
✘ Although they might do well with humans, your pet might be the type to chase and knock it over.

Rotor head system

Some people have a talent for identifying bird sounds in their backyard; we have a talent for identifying sprinkler sounds. If you’ve ever heard a clicking noise from your neighbor’s yard, it’s probably a rotor sprinkler

A rotor system features a type of sprinkler head that spouts water in a circular pattern. The speed of rotation increases the force of the water, making rotors best suited for large lawns with uninterrupted areas. They’re best used when spaced 18-55 feet apart.

For rotors, the pounds per square inch (PSI) level should approximately equal the space between each unit. If you space them 35 feet apart, you’ll need 35 PSI of pressure plus about 15 PSI to account for pressure lost between the water source and sprinkler. This means they use more water pressure than spray systems, which is something to consider. 

Some models just sit on top of your lawn, while more expensive ones have spikes you can hammer in so they don’t move. If you have a freestanding one, be careful not to turn the water on too high or it’ll start doing acrobatics across your yard. 

Let’s get into the two different types of rotary heads: impact rotors and gear-drive rotors

Impact rotor

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

Here, 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 is what keeps impact rotors going. They come in stationary and fixed types and can be set to partial or full circles.

Impact rotor sprinkler heads are great for big areas of grass (you’ll often find them in parks) because of their forceful spray. On the flip side, they won’t work well if you have low water pressure. They also can hurt newly seeded grass, so only go for these if you have a healthy, established lawn. 

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

Pros: 

✓ 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: 

✘ The stream’s power can damage young lawns. This is something to think about not only if you’re starting a lawn from scratch, but also if you usually overseed your lawn frequently. 
✘ The sprinkler’s body is exposed which can lead to maintenance issues if dirt gets trapped.

Gear-drive rotor

In a gear-drive rotor, water enters through the base of the sprinkler, passing to the turbine which powers a set of gears responsible for turning the sprinkler nozzle. You can usually change out the nozzle size and adjust a radius reduction screw to get greater control.

These heads have greater control than impact rotors. They can give a better radius and distance and more uniform distribution of water. Their flow is gentler, which makes it a better option for newly seeded lawns as well as clay-type soil.

If you’re getting a “donut hole” on your lawn where a circular outline of brown grass is present, your water pressure is low and you need to fiddle with the radius adjustment screw so it breaks up the stream. 

  • Water pressure: Medium to high
  • Size covered: Medium to large
  • Cost: $8-$30

Pros: 

✓ You have a high level of control over the coverage size, water flow, and arc. 
✓ The body is enclosed, which protects it from debris. 

Cons: 

✘ If your water pressure isn’t just right, you might need to hire a professional to fix the problem. 
✘ They don’t spray as far as impact rotors.

Pop-up sprinklers

Pop-up sprinklers are a fan favorite. There’s no unsightly hose snaking across your lawn or sprinkler heads left out too long. They emerge when it’s time to water, then go back into the ground when they’re done.

They’re great for small areas with a 5-35 foot radius and 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.

Look for a model with a double pop-up function where the nozzle emerges after the riser is extended. This protects it from dirt and debris.

  • Water pressure: Medium
  • Size covered: Medium to large
  • Cost: The heads cost $2-$5. Installation runs between $2,000-$3,500.

Pros: 

✓ Aesthetically, they have a big advantage over above-ground sprinklers. 
✓ They also reduce the chances of tripping and injuring yourself, which is especially dangerous if you have above-ground sprinkler heads that sit on spikes. 

Cons: 

✘ They’re definitely a bigger investment than your average sprinkler. 
✘ You probably won’t want to DIY this installation. 
✘ They’re much more difficult to remove, too. 

The type of grass you have affects how tall you want your pop-up head to be. Below are common grass types and their corresponding pop-up height. 

Grass typePop-up height
Bermudagrass (dethatched yearly)3-4 inches
Bermudagrass (dethatched less often)4 inches
Fescues4-6 inches
Kentucky bluegrass4-6 inches
Ryegrass4-6 inches
St. Augustinegrass5-6 inches
Zoysiagrass2-4 inches
Bahiagrass5-6 inches

Bubbler

Sometimes regular spray sprinklers can miss the roots of individual trees and shrubs. That’s where bubblers come in. They water at ground level, like a mini waterfall. If you already have a sprinkler system in place, you can get a bubbler nozzle to convert an existing sprinkler head.

  • Water pressure: Low
  • Size covered: Small
  • Cost: $1-$8, $24 for a conversion kit

Pros: 

✓ 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.

Cons: 

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

Drip system

Is your vegetable garden your prized possession? Drip irrigation will keep it looking (and tasting) its best. A drip system consists of a series of tubes with holes in them at custom intervals. Being able to tailor the spacing reduces the amount of water wasted. Like the name suggests, water drips from the device straight into the soil, so it’s more equipped for flower beds than lawns.

  • Water pressure: Low to medium
  • Size covered: Small
  • Cost: If you DIY, expect to spend around $80. Professional installation ranges from $200-$400. 

Pros: 

✓ Drip systems promote water conservation not only by only watering at specified intervals but also by directing water straight into the ground. Spray systems waste more water because some is lost to evaporation as it’s shot into the air. 

Cons: 

✘ Mowers can slice tubing and pests can chew through it. 
✘ Regular maintenance is required to keep everything operating smoothly. 
✘ High iron content in your water can clog the system.

Call a pro or DIY?

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. 

If you’re going 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. Another option is using poly tubing and running it along the side of your house and even partially underground. You’ll need poly tubing, a compression adapter to connect it to the spigot, and tubing staples to keep it in place. Drip irrigation is similarly easy to install, though there are a few more steps. 

In-ground installation gets a little trickier for the average homeowner. You’ll need to read up on your building codes and check if your state requires a licensed professional installation. While it’s not impossible to take on, we recommend you hire a pro for this.

Using your sprinkler system to your advantage

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

Tips for watering your lawn:

  • Water early in the morning (before 8AM) to reduce water waste.
  • Routinely check for puddles or signs of poor drainage to prevent fungal disease.
  • Inspect for wet patches on your driveway or road and adjust your spray pattern accordingly.
  • Know what type of soil you have. Clay soil prefers longer watering sessions at lower rates while sandy soil needs short but frequent watering.

After spending money and time on irrigation installation, you want it to last as long as it can. Regular maintenance checks will save you a headache down the road. Once you’ve chosen the right system for you, get familiar with it. That way, you’ll be able to spot problems when they start.

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

Sprinkler FAQs

1. What’s the best sprinkler for a lawn with an irregular shape? 

Pop-up sprinklers will cover hard-to-reach corners.

2. If I live in an area that experiences drought, what kind of sprinkler should I get?

Impact rotor sprinklers lose less water to evaporation and penetrate dry soil deeply. They’re a good choice if you need frequent watering sessions.

3. I have a large area of land to cover. What type should I get?

A gear-drive rotor will have enough force to cover big yards.

4. What’s a good low-maintenance option?

An above ground, oscillating sprinkler is a breeze to set up. For something more permanent, gear-drive rotor sprinklers have a protected body which means less cleaning.

5. If I have a specific area to water like a tree or shrub, what kind of sprinkler should I get?

A bubbler system focuses on a small area. 

If DIY sounds like a headache, contact a landscaping company in your area to help install and maintain your sprinkler system.

Main Photo Credit: bluebudgie | Pixabay

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