Today we’re going to take a look at the different types of drip irrigation systems so that you can see what’s available and how they are used, and we’ll even through in some tips on choosing your own drip irrigation models and the overall pros and cons of this strategy.
Water is a precious commodity and for those of us with green thumbs, it’s something that we are very acutely aware of. Depending on where you live, you might well have watering schedules that determine the times and days that you can water, or even stricter rules in places.
In North Carolina, for instance, spray irrigation is off the table completely and in Colorado, you can’t even legally collect rain in barrels!
The good news is that a drip irrigation strategy can actually help you to water more efficiently, using substantially less water!
If you’re ready, then let’s take a closer look at the drought-dodging option known as drip irrigation!
What exactly is drip irrigation?
Drip irrigation, which is also called ‘trickle irrigation’, is a popular watering strategy that is designed for both efficiency and water conservation. Rather than lugging a watering can around or employing a water-hogging sprinkler system that’s basically just blasting out water willy-nilly, drip irrigation is all about a focused application.
Drip irrigation is a micro irrigation system where water is delivered through plastic tubing that incorporates specialized emitters and which is placed next to your plant rows for efficient delivery. Those emitters work their magic by dripping water where’s it needed – right on the soil at the root zone – reducing evaporation and run off while creating a moisture zone that mazimize plant growth.
It’s effective, too. Compared to standard sprinklers, which run at around 65% to 75% efficiency, Drip irrigation performs at a whopping 90% efficiency level. Best of all, this technique which was once reserved for commercial nurseries and large farming operations has become an affordable option for homeowners.
It’s a great age for gardening and gardeners, indeed!
The 4 main types of Drip Irrigation Systems
Drip irrigation systems come in 4 main types, each tailored for a very specific watering strategy. The 4 main types are as follows:
Drip tapes – Drip tapes are basically thin-walled lengths of tubing, with perforations in place, which allow water to slowly leak along its length when water pressure is increased at timed intervals. It’s quite cost effective and useful for applications such as gardening rows.
Emitter systems – Emitters are water-regulation systems that control flow to ensure delivery of water at the root zone, although they also include pressure-induced micro-sprinklers that spray instead of drip. While this sounds fancy, the emitters are essentially a network or hoses with regularly-spaced nozzles for a perfectly measured drip. They are ideal for tree and shrubs.
Micro-misting systems – A great option for trees, shrubs, and shallow-root shrubs such as azaleas, Micro-misting systems (aka ‘Micro sprinklers’ water the area by means of a pressure-driven mist and this comes with the added perk of protecting delicate buds in the case of a surprise frost.
Soaker hoses – While not suitable for sloping landscapes, soaker hoses can do an excellent job of providing water for crop or garden rows, shrub lines, or even your lawn. You’ll sometimes hear them referred to as ‘porous soaker lines’ and they’re basically flexible hosing with perforations evenly-spaced along the length.
We’ll elaborate a little on each in the sections to follow and give you some more detailed information to help you to select your options from each of the 4 Drip irrigation types.
1. Drip tapes
We mentioned that drip tapes are thin, but to get a proper mental picture, visualize a thin-walled length of tubing that lays flat until it’s pressurized, at which point it ‘inflates’ and starts delivering water through evenly-spaced emitters. Rather than being suspended, drip tapes directly on the soil.
As it’s flat, you can coil it up for easy storage, and it comes in impressive lengths of up to 9842 feet so it’s an excellent fit for either modest or larger scale agricultural needs. It’s also a method that’s been around for a long time – in the 1960’s it was known as ‘Dew Hose’.
Choosing the right drip tape
It’s good to check with your vendor or an irrigation professional if you are going to employ a drip tape strategy for larger areas of garden plots or farmland. That said, basically the most important determination is your application rate – which is basically the ‘inches per hour’ of the water flow. There’s an equation provided by Growing Irrigation to do yourself that looks like this:
Aside from determining your AR, you’ll also need to employ a filtration system. With locally providing municipal water, it’s pretty simple. A plastic filter works for modest operations, while larger ones you will want to go with a metal one. If you are sourcing water from your own land or deploying fertilizer along with your water, then a sand media filter backed up with a secondary filtration option can help you to avoid clogs.
Growing Irrigation has an excellent article on the subject for those of you out there who would like the full range of technical variables in order to customize a solution on a large scale. For the rest of us, however, a consultation with an expert can save you a lot of math and headaches and is well-worth the modest costs.
2. Emitter systems
Individual emitters systems come in 2 main varieties. These two varieties consist of drip irrigation style emitters which seep or drip water into the soil, and direct spray emitters such as micro sprinklers.
Micro sprinklers work by producing a fine, useful mist for raising the air moisture to optimal levels for proper hydration, keeping frost at bay, or lowering the temperature to something more ideal for your plants. We’ll look a little more closely at each to paint a better mental picture.
3. Micro-misting systems
Also known as ‘low-volume sprayers’, micro misting systems usually come in the form of tiny or ‘micro’ sprinklers that combine the best of sprinkler systems and drip irrigation On the drip-irrigation side, they utilize small diameter pipes that employ a low-pressure water system, and on the sprinkler side they deliver this water in in a fanning spray. Some water will be lost, due to evaporation, but as it is a low-pressure system is it considerably less than you would lose with a standard sprinkler array.
We mentioned in brief that they are often used to combat a surprise frost and the University of Florida has an excellent article on how this is employed to protect thousands of acres of orange trees efficiently from the cold.
It’s quite an elegant solution, really. When oranges get exposed to temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit for a period longer than 4 hours, they start to suffer damage from the cold. Heaters, high-volume irrigation deployed over the trees, wind machines, and numerous other methods were employed in the past that could be quite cost-prohibitive.
Heaters draw a lot of electricity, over-tree irrigation strategies wet the leaves and open up the citrus grove trees to evaporative damage, and wind machines are great but they need serious temperature inversion and a lot of preventative maintenance to be viable.
With micro misting systems, however, water is delivered at a level that is no higher than 3 feet, so leaves are not damaged, and the low volume delivery of water proved highly effective and less costly for keeping partial frosts at bay.
There’s a quite a bit to it and if you’re curious, then check out the University of Florida’s article on the subject entitled “Microsprinkler Irrigation of Florida Citrus’ with our handy-dandy link – it’s a little clinical but still an excellent read.
Choosing micro mister systems
When choosing micro sprinklers, with trees you’re generally installing 1 or 2 micro sprinklers for each tree, whereas the rest is more a matter of the diameter range of the sprinklers, as well as the flow needed for the types of soils. For heavier soil, you want a lower flow rate, so that it will match the soil infiltration capacity.
Another tip for trees is to make sure that younger trees get a micro sprinkler or two with a two-stage swivel. This will utilize a deflector to ensure that the young tree is getting enough water and you can actually break-off that same deflector as your tree becomes older and more robust, and this will increase the watering perimeter without having to pay for an upgrade.
4. Soaker Hoses
Soaker Hoses are quite basic and highly useful. The way that they work is porosity. As low-pressure water fills the hose, thousands of tiny pores seep and deliver that water at the soil where your plants need it – so it seeps down right to the root zone.
The biggest limitation to be aware of is that they’ll only be good for about 200 feet, as the low pressure water will be much less reliable beyond this length. That said, they won’t freeze, and you can basically leave them in place the entire year.
One note – if you are using them for food crops, then you need to make sure that the hose is not made out of recycled rubber.
You can see a nice video on how to properly use a soaker hose array by watching the video below:
And we should mention that yes, you can definitely make your own soaker hoses. To find out more, check out this article by Erin Huffstetler of The Spruce on repurposing an old garden hose into a DYI Soaker hose-it’s good stuff!
Choosing Soaker hoses
When you are purchasing soaker hoses, the most important general rule is that you want to ensure that the pressure will be less than 10 psi – otherwise your soaker hose will be a ‘sprayer hose’, rather than providing that useful seeping action that you’re looking to add to your garden.
Is drip irrigation right for you? A quick look at the perks vs. the potential pitfalls
Now that you’ve seen the main types of drip irrigation and gotten a sampling of their various applications, we thought we’d give you a quick rundown of the perks and pitfalls of drip irrigation so that you can make a final decision on it. Is drip irrigation right for you? Let’s break it down!
- Less water is used as the flow is low-pressure and targeted
- Soil infiltration is maximized
- A targeted seep waters your plants, but not the weeds
- Fertilizers do not get mixed with ground water
- Considerably less electrical energy cost when compared with other irrigation systems
- No soil erosion, as water is delivered with seepage rather than a harsh spray
These are just a few examples of why drip irrigation has quickly shifted to residential available and use. Now let’s look at the other side of the coin.
- While cost-effective from an operational standpoint, depending on the type of drip irrigation you choose, the initial installation can be a little pricey. This is usually not the case with a small, personal garden, but if you have a lot of land to cover it’s a consideration.
- Without proper filtration and depending on the water, clogging may occasionally occur, so regular checking of your drip irrigation array is necessary to help avoid clogs and resulting pressure delivery anamolies.
- The sun can slowly degrade the lines, although some users will employ strategies such as layering mulch (never dirt) over drip soaker hoses to help extend the lifetime of the irrigation tubing.
Before we make a formal conclusion, we’d like to include some frequently asked questions about drip irrigation just in case we’ve missed anything that’s on your mind.
Is drip irrigation the best choice for my lawn instead of a sprinkler?
Drip irrigation is really better suited for gardens and landscape beds, where you’ll be watering large amounts of plants. That said, you can certainly incorporate smaller drip irrigation options like soaker hoses to help target particular patches, but it’s not the best option on its own for maintaining a lawn.
Is there a ‘ballpark figure’ on water savings I’ll get by switching to drip irrigation?
An efficient drip irrigation deployment can save you as much as 50% on your water costs. That’s because your average rotary sprinkler is a real water hog, going through approximately 1 – 6 gallons of water per minute.
It’s quite a solid chunk of savings that you can bank or put back into developing that dream garden you’ve been thinking about.
What kind of maintenance do drip irrigation systems need?
Every irrigation system needs their own preventative maintenance, and drip irrigation is certainly no exception. When winter comes, for instance, depending on where you live you may need to blow out the lines to remove excess water to prevent potential freezing.
During spring and other seasons, you’ll always want to check the rows on occasion to ensure that no blocking has occurred and that you’re getting the expected volume of careful seepage.
Professional services are available for this, of course, although once you know your system then you may well opt to do it yourself.
Is drip irrigation difficult to install on my own?
Usually, no, unless you’re talking about a very wide area of coverage or if you have some prize trees and shrubs and you’re worried about doing it on your own. In such cases, then you definitely might want to get an expert involved.
That said, it’s really not all that difficult. As there is no need to bury the lines and the tubing is flexible, it’s mostly a matter or weaving the tubing where it needs to go, with an eye for where the emitters are placed. Once the water’s on, you can easily see where it’s going, and then make minor adjustments as-needed.
Some closing words on the types of drip irrigation
Now that you’ve got the basics, the rest is going to be up to you. Drip irrigation can cost a little to put into place, but if you own your home it’s an excellent investment. With savings up to 50% on water and the reduced electrical costs, it’s definitely an appealing option that can pay for itself over time.
What’s more, by targeting your plants at the root zone, you’ll take erosion out of the question and you won’t be inadvertently watering weeds!
So, the next time you visit your favorite nursery or even hardware stores such as Home Depot, be sure to ask about their drip irrigation kits or if you want something more customized, then check your local landscaping companies to get a quote. Once you’ve seen what drip irrigation can do for your gardens and groves, you’ll be very happy that you did!
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