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Drip Irrigation System Buying Guide

When you combine the words drip and water you normally think of waste, as in a leaky faucet. But when you're talking about an irrigation system, drip is a good thing. In fact, drip, trickle and bubble are all quite appropriate words to use when describing a drip irrigation system. It's easy to build a system of your own.

Drip Irrigation System

Introduction to Drip Irrigation

What's commonly known as drip irrigation is actually a combination of several types of low-pressure, low-volume water delivery systems. The correct term for these systems is microirrigation. Each microirrigation system is distinguished by a different style of emitter (the part that discharges the water). These microirrigation systems originated with commercial growers and farmers. With the ever-increasing desire and necessity of water conservation, drip irrigation is a great idea for the home gardener.

Some of these systems deliver water literally one drop at a time. This type of system is the best way to maximize your water resources and get the most from your plants. By keeping the plant's roots moist (but not to the point of saturation), you actually use less water than with conventional watering techniques. Other systems can be configured to mist and provide humidity.

Made from flexible vinyl or polyethylene pipe, drip systems are commonly installed in the subsoil in commercial agricultural applications. At home, you can hide the system with a layer of mulch. Leaving it on top of the ground is fine, especially if you're troubled by mice or voles (they sometimes seem to think of the tubing as a snack). As smaller plants mature and spread, the water supply lines are less visible. To help prevent clogging, make sure that any part that emits water remains above ground.

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Why Use a Drip Irrigation System?

The list of the benefits of using drip irrigation over hand-watering applies to plants and gardeners. A drip system:

  • Saves water — you could experience up to a 50% reduction when using a properly installed and maintained drip irrigation system
  • Connects directly to the hose bib and doesn't require cutting water supply lines
  • Enables you to avoid randomly watering your plants (and the weeds)
  • Targets the exact area where you want the water (for example, the roots) and allows you to deliver it at the exact time you wish (using a timer)
  • Installs easily, plus the system components are relatively inexpensive. Kits are available or you can purchase individual components to customize and expand your system
  • Delivers water without creating an overly moist environment that promotes fungal diseases
  • Adapts easily to changes in landscape. Systems can be used for containers, raised beds, vegetable rows or balconies. Drip irrigation can circle a tree or shrub at the dripline
  • Reduces erosion on slopes (remember to place the emitter upslope, above the plant)
  • Improves water-holding capacity in sandy soils

    Drip irrigation systems conserve water, but still may be under restrictions in some areas. Learn your local water regulations before buying and installing a microirrigation system.

Drip Irrigation System Components

Drip Irrigation System Components

The irrigation system will only be as efficient as its components and the way they're assembled. Make sure you buy components from the same manufacturer to insure compatibility.  You may want to start with a kit and work your way up to your own customized system. Here are the basic parts:
 
Backflow preventer — or anti-siphon device is required to prevent water from the system re-entering your water supply when the system is turned off. Backflow prevention devices are required in most areas.
 
Pressure regulator — or pressure reducer regulates pressure. The typical home water supply has too much pressure. If the pressure is over 50 psi (pounds per square inch), you'll need a pressure regulator.
 
Hose fitting — connects the tubing to the pressure regulator

Tubing — 1/2, 1/4, 3/8, 5/8 or .710, depending on the needs and manufacturer. Used for the main supply line and smaller lines for individual plants and containers. Tubing is usually made from black polyethylene. The smaller microtubes can be used in tight spaces and are easily disguised.
 
Fittings — there are four types:

  • Straight — connects one section of tubing to another
  • Elbow — allows right-angle turns
  • Tee — splits the direction
  • End fitting / figure eight — closes the system at the end of the line

Emitters — available with different flow rates to accommodate the needs of the plant. Located at soil level or elevated on stakes or risers. There are several types. Choose based on where you want the water to go.  All are rated by their GPH (gallons per hour) delivery.

  • Bubblers — often used for trees and shrubs — deliver more water in less time
  • Dripper — slow, low-quantity delivery right at the root system
  • Mister — provides humidity

Hole punch — makes insertion points in the tubing where emitters are located

Goof plugs — securely stops up the hole you punched by mistake (or allow you to move an emitter without replacing the tubing)
 
Barbed adapter —
connects tubing and emitters

Riser — allows emitters to be placed above the plants

Stakes — elevate and prevent clogging by soil or bugs

Pin or hook — attaches the tubing to the soil if necessary to anchor it

Timers — mechanically or electronically turns the water on and off. Timers offer a more foolproof means of control than simply turning the faucet manually.

Things to Remember

Fine-tuning your system to your plants and soil may require a few days of observation and tinkering. Monitor the soil moisture. Adjust the watering time and placement of emitters accordingly.        

Larger plants need more water and may require more than one emitter. As plants mature, they may need additional water.

When cutting tubing, use a sharp blade. Make sure the cut is square (not angled).

If you bury the lines, mark the spot where the end is located. This helps you locate it for flushing or draining.

Attach a Y-coupling to the hose bib to allow use of a regular garden hose without disconnecting the system.

Good to Know

Although they're not considered true microirrigation systems, soaker hoses are considered a form of drip irrigation. If you use a soaker hose, use a timer to avoid wasting water.

System Maintenance

Maintaining sufficient pressure throughout the system is critical to success. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for the maximum length of tubing the system can accommodate, as well as the proper spacing of emitters.

A stopped line or plugged emitter can virtually shut down a microirrigation system. To maintain a clog-free irrigation system:

  • Flush the line before closing the system to clear debris.
  • Flush the system and clean filters regularly, especially if your water supply contains a lot of minerals.
  • Drain the system before freezing weather arrives.