Types of Irrigation

person holding a glass of wine while sitting in a chair outside, watching the sprinkler water their lawn

Understanding the different types of irrigation is essential if you’re adding a system to your yard. You can water by flooding the surface, using sprinklers, or choosing more intricate methods that deliver water at the base of the plant or right to the roots, like drip and subsurface irrigation. 

Read on to learn more about the different irrigation systems so you can determine which is best for you!

What is an irrigation system?

Irrigation systems come in many different forms and complexities, but they all have a similar purpose: distributing water to places where it’s needed. They are used in farming, orchards, greenhouses, gardening, and landscaping. 

But irrigation isn’t a new concept. 

For as long as crops have grown, people have controlled the flow of rainwater and rivers or streams, directing it to plants through levees or dams. Some of these low-tech irrigation methods are still used widely worldwide. Some irrigation systems are also much more technologically advanced. 

Today’s farmers, gardeners, landscapers, and homeowners use intricate systems to open valves and control water flow, moving it through pipes to be sprayed from sprinkler heads. 

Commonly used home irrigation systems

Whether an irrigation system is used to water vast fields of potatoes or a half-acre patch of Kentucky bluegrass, it follows the same basic principles — water is moved to an area where plants grow. Here are ways to keep your landscape well-watered.

Surface irrigation

Surface or flood irrigation is the simplest method for watering your yard or garden and is the most common system used worldwide. This type of system dates back more than 6,000 years and is one of the first human engineering innovations.

In flood irrigation, water is directed from a source and flows over the ground, leaching downward into the soil.

There are three subtypes of surface irrigation: basin, border, and furrow. Each type supplies water slightly differently. 

Basins are the most commonly used surface method for lawns and gardens, especially in the western United States, where annual rainfall amounts are low, and irrigation canals are prevalent. Water from a canal or river is diverted—typically by opening a gate that leads to the basin—until the ground is sufficiently flooded. 

Furrow and border irrigation are more common in field crops and orchards.

Pros

✓ Low initial equipment investment
✓ No energy costs
✓ Can be used to leach salts out of the root zone
✓ Runoff water can be reused to improve efficiency

Cons

✗ Least efficient irrigation due to evaporation and runoff
✗ Land has to be flat for uniform water distribution

Sprinkler irrigation

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Sprinklers are the most well-known type of home irrigation commonly used in lawns across the United States. With a sprinkler system, pipes or hoses run underground or are set on the soil surface, feeding water to different sprinkler heads. Water is forced through these emitters and falls to the ground like rain.

Sprinkler irrigation systems are more efficient than surface irrigation but experience more evaporation than subsurface irrigation. 

Kristine Lang, assistant professor & SDSU Extension Consumer Horticulture Specialist, says this about sprinklers: 

“While sprinklers lessen the burden of hand watering, they do have some disadvantages. Using sprinklers means there is potential to lose a significant amount of water to evaporation, as water is sprayed into the air before landing on the ground.”

However, they offer great customization, allowing you to create a system tailored to your yard and needs. A sprinkler irrigation system can be run manually or by an electronic controller that turns it on and off at programmed times. 

Above-ground sprinklers

It’s safe to bet that most of us are familiar with above-ground sprinklers, especially the ever-popular hose-end sprinkler. Above-ground sprinklers range from inexpensive stationary units to heavy-duty impact sprinklers that can throw many feet of water. 

These systems can attach to your hose, or you can construct a system using flexible tubing or PVC pipe. You can turn the water on manually or use a timer to water on a predetermined schedule. 

The most common ones include oscillating, stationary, and impact sprinklers.

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  • Oscillating lawn sprinklers have a hollow curved sprinkler arm adorned with a row or rows of holes. As water is pushed through the arm and out the holes in streams, the force causes it to rock back and forth, creating a fan of water. They cost $10 to $30.
  • Stationary sprinklers cast water in a fixed pattern, usually a square, rectangle, or circle, to a specific part of your lawn. They typically cost $3 to $10, come in metal or plastic, and are a quick way to water an area precisely.
  • Impact sprinklers deliver water in a circular pattern and can throw water longer distances. The sprinkler head pivots on a bearing and is driven in a circle by the force of the outgoing water. Impact rotors are recognized by their distinctive clicking noise. Impact sprinklers cost $7 to $30.

The average cost of professionally installing an above-ground system ranges between $1,800 and $2,000 for mid-sized lawns.

Pros

✓ Good for small yards
✓ Good for larger yards because they can cover large areas
✓ Can be used on any terrain
✓ Inexpensive
✓ Come in various types and sizes

Cons

✗ Labor-intensive
✗ Inefficient water use
✗ Uneven water distribution

In-ground pop-up sprinklers

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An in-ground sprinkler system is much more complex than an above-ground or surface irrigation system but offers excellent convenience and much more efficiency than above-ground sprinklers. 

With an in-ground system, a series of water supply lines and sprinkler heads are buried underground. Water moves through the lines when the system turns on via a control panel, forcing the heads to pop up. They water for a designated time and then drop back below the lawn. 

While the basics of an in-ground system are the same, you can customize it with different sprinkler heads. Common pop-up sprinkler heads are fixed spray heads, multiple stream heads, and gear-drive rotors. 

  • Fixed sprinkler heads produce a constant fan of water in a fixed pattern and direction. The head’s nozzle dictates the spray’s distance and radius; it typically can’t be changed. For example, you can buy a fixed spray sprinkler head with a 45-degree spray pattern that sprays 10 feet. They cost $3 to $12.
  • Multiple stream sprinkler heads produce thin water streams, spraying them as the head rotates. They are more water-efficient than fixed heads that emit a fine mist, losing less to evaporation. Multiple stream heads cost $5 to $10.
  • Gear-drive rotor heads have an internal turbine that helps spin the head, throwing water further. As water enters the sprinkler’s base, it passes the turbine and powers gears to turn the nozzle. The rotation speed increases the water’s force, throwing it farther. These heads cost $10 to $30.

The average cost of sprinkler system installation is $3,270, with most homeowners paying $2,200 to $4,600. Lawn size and sprinkler system type influence the cost; expect to pay $0.20 – $1 per square foot of yard.

Pros

✓ Efficient
✓ Even water distribution
✓ Programmable
✓ Easy
✓ Very customizable

Cons

✗ Expensive
Requires more maintenance, including winterization

Subsurface irrigation

Subsurface irrigation is like an in-ground sprinkler system without the sprinkler heads that pop up and spray water everywhere. Irrigation lines and emitters are buried several inches below the soil surface, so water is distributed to the root zone. It has the potential to be the most efficient irrigation method — water can’t be lost due to wind or evaporated before it percolates into the soil. 

Having everything buried also means the system has less maintenance needs and a longer lifespan. Heads can’t get cracked from being stepped on or hit with an aerator or mower. On the flip side, though, they are more challenging to repair when problems arise because you always have to dig.  

Pros

✓ Minimal evaporation
✓ Great for windy or arid locations
✓ Less maintenance than sprinkler irrigation
✓ Helps control soil-borne diseases and weed pressure since the topsoil stays drier

Cons

✗ Difficult to repair leaks
✗ May inhibit seed germination since the soil surface stays dry
✗ Can cause drought stress in seedlings
Requires more maintenance, including winterization

Drip irrigation

soaker hose above ground
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A drip irrigation system is a highly 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 supplied to plants via holes in the tubing or through emitters or spray heads attached.

These irrigation systems deliver water slowly and more efficiently to the roots, reducing evaporation and runoff. 

A drip irrigation system is also easy to automate and control; if set up correctly, you can add it to your in-ground sprinkler system and control it through the control panel.

Most professionally installed drip irrigation systems cost $310 to $815.

Pros

✓ Very efficient
✓ Easy to use once set up
✓ Improves plant health
✓ Good for drought areas or places with strict watering restrictions
✓ Extensive customization

Cons

✗ Takes time to install and configure
✗ Emitters clog easily
✗ Requires more maintenance, including winterization

What are smart irrigation systems?

Smart sprinkler systems use technology to up your watering game. They utilize a digital controller that is programmable and adjustable through a smartphone app, allowing you complete control over your irrigation at all times. 

Some smart systems also utilize real-time weather or soil moisture sensors or local weather data to adjust your irrigation schedule. They can delay or reduce watering for rainfall events or cooler temperatures that slow soil moisture evaporation. Your grass and garden get exactly the amount of water they need when they need it. 

Pros

✓ Improved watering efficiency
✓ Automatically adjust watering schedules based on rainfall
✓ Puts the controls at your fingertips

Cons

✗ Expensive
✗ Needs a WiFi connection

Choosing a home irrigation system

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Having an irrigation system for your yard is helpful. It makes it easy and convenient to keep your landscaping looking good, especially if you’ve invested significant money in creating a beautiful yard and garden. 

But with all the options available, deciding on the best system can feel overwhelming. To help make it easier, consider these questions and determine your particular needs. 

Assessing your landscape and needs will help narrow your choices so you can make the best decision.

  • What’s your budget? How much money you can spend significantly impacts your choice. Above-ground sprinklers may be the best fit if you need a cheap option. They’re much more affordable than installing in-ground pop-up sprinklers or a subsurface system. 
  • What is your water source? If you have access to a canal next to your property, surface irrigation may work well for your situation. Homes with well water or low water pressure will need to check and see if the PSI is high enough to throw water from an impact sprinkler or in-ground system.
  • Do you have a small yard or a big property? A small yard is much easier to water with a simple above-ground sprinkler, especially a hose-end oscillating type. It doesn’t take as much effort to drag a hose around. But if you have a big yard, you might want to look at impact sprinklers or in-ground pop-up sprinklers. 
  • What kind of plants are you watering? Drip irrigation is an excellent option for homes that only want to water a garden, flowerbeds, or trees. You can deliver water right to the roots of the plants, so you’re using water very efficiently. 
  • How long are you staying at your current property? If you plan on selling your home soon or are just renting, you might want to avoid investing in a permanent system. You won’t reap its full financial benefits. A cheaper hose-end sprinkler may be your best option. On the other hand, an in-ground sprinkler system may boost curb appeal and increase the property’s resale value.
  • What type of grass do you have? Different turfgrass species have different water needs. Cool-season grasses typically require more water than warm-season types. If your grass has high water needs, you’ll water more often, so look at something durable, like an in-ground system or rugged impact sprinklers.
  • Do you live in an arid climate with little rainfall? Impact and gear-drive rotor sprinklers distribute water in a thicker stream versus a fine mist, so less water evaporates in the air. They’re a good choice for hot or windy areas. 
  • Are there water use restrictions in your area? Certain cities, counties, or states have restrictions in place to conserve water. Consider options that use less water, like an in-ground sprinkler system, or invest in a hose timer for above-ground sprinklers.
  • Are you looking for convenience and something easy to use? If you want a set-it-and-forget-it irrigation system, look for options you can program with a timer or controller. Many of the above options can be set up to water automatically. If you don’t mind hauling hoses, use a cheap above-ground sprinkler.

FAQs about types of irrigation

How often should you irrigate your lawn?

How often you water your grass depends mainly on your soil type and local climate. In general, wait until your soil starts drying out before irrigating. Heavy clay soils hold water longer, so they can go longer between waterings. Sandy soils dry out quicker, so they need water more often. 

We have a helpful guide to help you determine how often to water your lawn with an irrigation system.

How do you handle rain with an irrigation system?

Some smart systems use local weather data to turn off the sprinklers if rain is forecasted; some smart sprinklers use soil moisture sensors to delay watering if the soil moisture is adequate. However, if you aren’t using a smart irrigation system, you’ll need to adjust the watering schedule yourself.

Grass usually needs 1 to 1.5 inches of water weekly through rainfall or irrigation. Check how much rain you got using a rain gauge or weather app, and supplement with sprinklers as needed to ensure your lawn is not overwatered or underwatered.

If you’re concerned you’re watering your grass too much or too little, look through our article, “How Long Should You Water Your Lawn.

How long should you water your lawn with an irrigation system?

Water duration depends on grass species, climate, and soil type. Grass usually needs 1 to 1.5 inches of water weekly. You should determine how long your irrigation system takes to deliver an inch of water and then create a watering schedule. As said above, water less often for heavy clay soils and more frequently for sandy ones. 

If you need help determining how long it takes your sprinklers to deliver an inch of water, check out our article, “When and How to Water Your Lawn.”

Interested in adding irrigation to your yard?

With so many different home irrigation options, finding the right one for your yard and budget is essential. If you’re unsure what would work best, or you’ve already decided and are ready for installation, contact us at Lawn Love. 

We’ll put you in touch with a local, highly-rated lawn care company to handle all your irrigation 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.