Irrigation Systems
Irrigation Systems
 Best Ways to Save & Drought Tips
 Water Use
 Water Savings
 Benefits & Costs
 Future Trends
 Leak Detection
 Purchase Tips
 Where to Get
 Incentives or Rebates
 Installation Tips
 Climate & ET
 Timing & Seasonality
 Irrigation Audits
 Application Options (automatic vs. manual)
 Irrigation Scheduling
 Rain/Moisture Shutoff Devices


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Irrigation Systems Best Ways to Save and Drought Tips

Here are some best use water conservation tips for your irrigation system:

  • Check for and repair leaks.
  • Maintain your sprinkler heads and valves.
  • Avoid oscillating sprinklers and sprinkler heads that produce mists or fine sprays. These devices result in evaporation losses.
  • Use buckets rather than a hose or automatic system to water small gardens, flowers, plants, and shrubs. You have much more control over how much water goes on the plant and where it goes.
  • Adjust your irrigation controller at least once a month to account for changes in the weather.
  • Install a rain shutoff device, soil moisture sensor, or humidity sensor to help stop irrigation when it is not required.
  • Replace misters with drip emitters.
  • Request an irrigation system audit from your local utility. Many water providers offer this as a free service. It’s a great way to learn how you can more efficiently operate your sprinkler system.
  • Program your controller for multiple start times (see below). More frequent, shorter irrigation cycles can reduce runoff and unnecessary deep percolation.
  • Only water your landscape after the sun has gone down to reduce evaporation losses.
  • Check the sprinkler system’s required operating pressure against the actual water pressure. Differences in pressure can affect operation and efficiency.
  • Convert to low water use and drought resistant grass, plants, shrubs, and trees in you landscape.

Drought Response

During a drought emergency you may be asked to substantially restrict your outdoor watering. Drought response plans vary for place to place, but they all include irrigation restrictions. Complying with drought restrictions will almost certainly require you to reprogram your irrigation controller and possibly shutdown your system completely. Below are some tips for making the most of restricted irrigation during a drought emergency.

Alternating Day Watering

In the early stages of a drought, many response plans restrict irrigation to every other day or three days a week usually based upon your address. To comply with these restrictions you must reprogram your irrigation controller so that it only waters on the specified days. Many newer clocks keep track of the day of the week, which makes this task much easier. Older controllers may not have this feature. If your controller does not accommodate alternate day watering you have two choices: 1) manually turn your system on and off on the permitted days; or 2) get a new controller. During a drought, it may be time to consider option 2. See the Purchase Tips page for a list of features to look for in a new irrigation controller.

Water At Night
Make sure your system only operates when the sun is down to reduce evaporation losses. If you like to watch your sprinklers run, set the start time for 8:30 p.m. – there is still plenty of light outside, but the sun is usually down. Many irrigation experts feel the best time to water is between midnight at 4 a.m. because evaporation in kept to a minimum.

Repair All Leaks
Check your system for leaks. To detect a leak in your irrigation system, you must shut down all water use inside your home and be fairly certain that there is no leakage occurring indoors. Once you have done this, you can use your water meter to see if any water continues to flow into your system. To do this, follow the instructions detailed in the water meter page.

Multiple Start Times
If your irrigation controller offers the feature of multiple start times you can use this to your advantage. Most modern controllers offer the option of 2 or three start times. When this feature is implemented your system will run through the entire cycle of zones more than once per day also called cycle irrigation. Here’s an example: Instead of watering zone 1 for 20 minutes, use the multiple start time feature and set up three start times. You can then water zone 1 for 6 minutes three times for a total of 18 minutes. The shorter run times will reduce runoff and water losses and will reduce deep infiltration below the root zone. Table 1 shows a sample watering schedule using multiple start times.

Table 1: Sample watering schedule

Zone & Plant Type
Sprinkler Type
# of Starts
Minutes Per Start
Total Minutes
1 Lawn
2 Lawn
3 Groundcover
4 Shrubs
5 Garden
6 Trees

Start times: 12:30 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 3:30 a.m.

Severe Drought Actions

In a severe drought that stretches over several years automatic irrigation may be banned completely. No one hopes this day will ever come, but if it does we must all chip in and do our part. This means shutting down and possibly draining your sprinkler system. Remember, human beings throughout history have survived terrible droughts. It won’t be pleasant. It will be inconvenient. You will make it through. The actions you take will determine how much of your landscape will make it through.

OK, you no longer have an operating sprinkler system and your outdoor hose watering is all but eliminated. What do you do?

Prioritize Plants in Your Landscape
The first thing to do in this situation is to prioritize your landscape into three categories: 1) High value/must save; 2) Moderate value/try to save; and 3) Low value/save if possible.

High value plants usually include valuable trees and shrubs that have taken years to establish that will die without water. Moderate value plants might include certain perennials, newer shrubs that can be replaced, and drought tolerant Xeriscape type plants that will require little water anyway. Low value plants usually includes turf grass (which can often bounce back successfully from a complete dry out) and annuals.

The old saying is still true, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. If there is a drought forecast for your area – plant more drought resistant plants. See the Xeriscape section of this site for some suggestions.

Tap into Graywater Irrigation Water Sources
It’s time for drastic measures. It’s time to get creative. The more water you can capture from your faucets, shower, bathtub, and clothes washer the more plants you can probably help survive the drought. You don’t need to have an elaborate graywater collection and treatment system (although you might consider this option). Place basins in your kitchen and bathroom sinks to capture water that can then be put on plants outside. If you take a bath, don’t drain the water! Use buckets to haul the bath water outside for your thirsty plants. You can also keep a bucket in the shower with you to capture water. Capturing and reusing the clothes washer water may be more difficult, but it is certainly possible to do. If you do this, be sure to use laundry detergent that won’t harm your plants.

Place rain barrels at the bottom of your roof downspouts. If any rain does fall you’ll be able to use the water more effectively on the plants that really need it.

Ration Water Across Your Landscape
Use your ration of hose water to water hour high value plants and trees first. If nothing else, you want to make it through the drought with those plants alive. If there is sufficient water, move on to the moderate value plants, etc. If you do not have further water from the hose, use your graywater on the moderate value plants and then finally the low value plants.

Keep your moderate and low value plants on a starvation diet. Contact local hortaculturalists and plant experts to determine the minimum amount of water required to keep your plants alive. Some plants can survive (not flourish, but survive) on a small amount of water delivered once per week.

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