By Matt Gibson
The two most common landscaping watering systems are sprinkler systems and drip irrigation. Neither of these watering methods is better than the other one. Each option is great for certain tasks, but not very well-suited to others. Some people need a sprinkler system to take care of their lawn and landscape watering needs, while others need drip irrigation to help them keep their garden watered without soaking the plants in the process. Some people need sprinkler systems and drip irrigation watering at the same time to handle all of the watering needs on their property.
If you aren’t certain what the difference is between these two systems, and don’t know which one is better equipped to handle your watering needs, this article will break down the differences between the two types of systems, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and what situations may call for a dual system approach, where someone might benefit from using both a sprinkler system and a drip irrigation system at the same time. Once you’re done reading this, you’ll know everything you need to know about sprinkler systems and drip irrigation, and can make a well informed decision on what route you should take for your landscape watering needs.
What Are Sprinkler Systems?
A sprinkler irrigation system is the best way to water larger, flat areas on your property that require a lot of water at once, like your lawn. Built in sprinklers are made using buried water lines that run underground to keep it protected from lawn mowers and other hazards. Built in sprinkler systems allow you to set your watering schedule on a timer, so that you can water your plants at the optimal time of day. You can also adjust the timing on sprinkler systems so you don’t waste water by watering just after a heavy rain.
Advantages of Sprinkler Systems
Sprinkler systems are most appropriate in certain situations. They have advantages that make them a better option under certain conditions than drip irrigation. Take a moment to review the advantages of sprinkler systems we’ve listed here so you can find out whether they’re the best option in your garden.
Sprinkler Systems are Affordable and Simple to Get Running
Traditional sprinkler systems are easy to use. Just set the sprinkler up, let it rip, and a larger area gets irrigated in a short period of time. Some sprinkler systems are very cheap too, as all you really need is a sprinkler and a hose. Automatic sprinkler systems can be easy as well, once it’s hooked up. All you have to do is set the watering time and the system does all the rest, making sure your lawn and/or garden is watered right when you want it to be.
Sprinkler Systems Let You Water Large Areas With Ease
Sprinkler systems can cover large areas of land as well. If you have a large property, rotary sprinklers or rain-bird systems can cover incredible distances. If you have a small property or garden area, you may only need one small sprinkler to irrigate your entire yard.
Disadvantages of Sprinkler Systems
For all of the convenience that sprinkler systems provide, there is a long list of disadvantages that come with it. Though sprinkler systems can irrigate large spaces quickly, and are easy to set up and easy to use, they are also wasteful and somewhat counterintuitive.
Sprinkler Systems Contribute to Water Waste
One of the biggest disadvantages of sprinkler systems is water waste. Due to evaporation on hot, windy days, as much as 80 percent of the water you use to irrigate your property through your sprinkler system can go to waste. Wasting water is a serious issue, especially in areas where there is a water shortage. Water waste is also a financial waste as well. Water loss of as much as 80 percent can end up costing quite a bit of money, especially in cities where water shortage is an issue and water costs are high.
Sprinkler Systems Cover Surface Area But Don’t Penetrate the Soil Deeply
Sprinkler systems are not great at deep watering your lawn or garden either, as sprinklers tend to focus on spreading out the water they emit to a large surface area. It can take a long time running your sprinklers to get sufficient water to the roots of your plants, if you are able to get a deep watering at all using sprinklers.
When your property is accustomed to shallow watering, it can seriously affect your plants root growth, causing shallow rooted plants that are not as strong or healthy. Many plants require deep root systems and need deep waterings to develop those roots. After your sprinkler finishes watering your lawn or garden, you can’t work in the wet areas until the surface level dries out, keeping you from tending your plants for several days at a time, each time you water.
Using Sprinklers Can Increase the Risk of Invasive Weeds
When you water the entire surface of your garden, you get excess water between rows and on the edges of your beds, which can lead to increased weeds, which tend to pop up wherever they are able.
Using Sprinklers Makes Plant Diseases More Likely
Sprinklers also soak your plants instead of focusing on irrigating the soil, where the water is needed most. Wet foliage can lead to fungal and bacterial diseases, and can attract unwanted pests. With certain plants that are more vulnerable to diseases when the ground is wet, experts recommend waiting for the garden to dry out before working in it. If you use a sprinkler system, you’ll have to wait for the water splashed onto foliage and between plant rows to evaporate before you can work in the garden.
Using Sprinklers Can Lead to Uneven Watering
Sprinklers water more heavily in the areas closest to the sprinklers themselves, and don’t get as much water to areas that are farther away from the sprinkler heads, leading to uneven water distribution. Tall and large plants can block water from reaching the plants behind them, which is a problem that can worsen the larger and denser these bigger plants grow.
What Is Drip Irrigation?
Drip irrigation is a watering technique that allows you to focus your watering on a particular plant, or garden area. There are three different types of drip irrigation, which are soaker hoses, tubing and emitter setups, and PVC pipe drip irrigation systems. Each of these uses a different type of drip tubing that is positioned around your garden at the soil level. Drip irrigation systems provide moisture directly to the soil, so there is no water waste from evaporation or runoff issues.
Advantages of Drip Irrigation
Just like the sprinkler system, drip irrigation systems have their advantages. These benefits are the reason why drip irrigation works best in certain circumstances. Take a look at the advantages we’ve listed here to see whether drip irrigation is right for you, but don’t forget to review the disadvantages in the next part of the article before you decide.
Conserve Water With Drip Irrigation Systems
Drip irrigation systems use much less water than sprinkler systems. Drip irrigation decreases water use in two important ways. First, drip irrigation waters only the individual plants on your property, not the areas between plants, the walkways, and other garden features. Instead of randomly spraying water all over your property like you do with a sprinkler system, drip irrigation lines allow you to channel your water directly to where it is needed the most.
Second, drip irrigation waters your garden slowly, which allows the soil more time to soak it in, which results in deeper waterings and less runoff. Drip systems use as much half of the water that a sprinkler system uses. The slow watering technique also causes less soil erosion problems and minimizes nutrient leeching.
Drip Irrigation Can Help Reduce Invasive Weeds in the Garden
Drip irrigation waters your plants directly, which keeps the soil in surrounding areas dry, deterring the growth of weeds between your plants. Gardeners who use drip irrigation have significantly fewer weeds than gardeners with sprinkler systems.
Drip Irrigation Doesn’t Interrupt Your Gardening Routine
The muddy stretches a sprinkler system leaves behind between your rows of plants can discourage you from working in the garden. No one wants to kneel in mud and get their clothes soiled just so they can get some weeding done. In addition, with certain plants that are vulnerable to disease, experts recommend you not work in the garden while any type of moisture is there, as your movements through the water droplets can help spread the pathogens that cause disease. So using a sprinkler system could mean you need to stop working in the garden for long enough to let the moisture from the sprinkler evaporate—which can take two or three days. With drip irrigation, you can even be working among your plants while they’re being watered without increasing the risk of disease or the inconvenience of muddy boots and knees.
Drip Irrigation Boosts the Health of Your Plants
Because the water in a drip irrigation system is released slowly and gradually, it seeps down into the soil. When your trees and plants can find the water they need below the surface of the soil, they’ll develop strong, healthy root systems so they can reach as much of the moisture as they can. And plants with a strong, healthy root system end up in better overall health, because the robust root system can support a stronger, healthier plant. More well established root systems are also linked to better yields for plants that you will eventually harvest.
Drip Irrigation Minimizes Excess Moisture That Can Cause Disease
Many of the most common and dangerous plant diseases are at their worst when the garden environment is wetter than it needs to be. In particular, fungal diseases, mildews, and rots tend to spread more easily and occur more frequently in wet weather. Unlike a sprinkler system that will splash water all over the foliage of your plants, a drip irrigation system will direct the flow of water to the base of the plants, where it can easily be taken in by the roots of the plant.
Water Can Always Reach Your Plants with Drip Irrigation
As the season progresses and plants develop denser foliage, a canopy can form in certain spots that would prevent water from a sprinkler system from reaching the soil around the roots of your plants. Drip irrigation systems bypass this potential drawback by applying water directly to the ground, where there are no obstacles between the moisture and your plants.
Disadvantages of Drip Irrigation
While the drip irrigation watering system works perfectly in certain environments, there are some drawbacks that mean drip irrigation is not the right choice under certain circumstances. We’ll review the weaknesses and shortcomings of drip irrigation here so you can determine which system will work best in your garden.
Drip Irrigation Requires an Investment of Time and Energy
Drip irrigation is, in many cases, easier and more effective than other methods in the long run. However, it does have a substantial startup cost due to the equipment required. You’ll also need to devote a good chunk of time to setting up the system, meaning drip irrigation will cost you a great deal of energy in the beginning as well.
PVC drip systems are the most affordable of the drip irrigation methods, but even for these most affordable options, you’ll need to devote around $100 to get the system started. However, if your drip irrigation system uses metered city water, you’ll notice savings over time, as drip irrigation conserves more water than other ways of watering your lawn and garden.
The investment of energy that drip irrigation requires is, unlike the monetary cost, not a one-time issue. Every year when you set the system up for a new gardening season, you will need to plan where to set up the various parts, working around your schematic for how the garden will be laid out and what you will plant where.
At Season’s End, Drip Irrigation Requires Storage
Once your garden is finished for the season, you’ll have to clear out the drip lines and pack them away to be used next year. Dismantling the drip irrigation system requires an investment of time and some elbow grease from the gardener, adding to the time and energy investment that began when you set the drip irrigation system up for the season. Because you must store the drip irrigation system over the winter, you’ll also need to be sure you have storage space available for the drip irrigation system during the off season so you have somewhere to put it during the winter.
Drip Irrigation Systems Tend to Get Clogged
How much of a challenge this next issue presents has a lot to do with your water quality at home. Debris, algae, and mineral buildup that is slowly deposited by the water supply can clog up emitter heads or holes that release water from the drip tape, soaker hoses, or the pipes themselves. For this reason, you’ll need to take the time to inspect your drip irrigation system carefully at intervals throughout the gardening season. You’ll also need to clean the equipment periodically, especially the holes and the heads. This is not a difficult task, but it does require your time and attention throughout the season. If your water is of such bad quality that these issues become a real struggle, you can add a filter to your drip irrigation system to help prevent the issues associated with poor water quality.
Using Both Sprinkler Systems and Drip Irrigation
If you need to water both a border and a lawn or garden, it may be best for you to use the combined efforts of a sprinkler system and drip irrigation. Using a combination of these two systems lets you make sure you’re giving both your lawn and your border of trees or a bordering flower bed exactly the hydration that each one of them needs.
You’ll want to use the sprinkler system to make sure your entire lawn gets an even amount of moisture. Using drip irrigation on a border of trees works so well because the drip irrigation system will help ensure the water soaks deep enough into the soil for your trees to access it via their underground root system. Not only might a sprinkler system fail to get the water deep enough for your trees, it can also wash away the soil from around the roots of your trees where they meet the surface of the soil. And drip irrigation works better than a sprinkler system to water a flower bed because water from a sprinkler system has the potential to pound down on your flowers and cause damage. Drip irrigation for borders of trees or flower beds will provide a consistent, gradual supply of water without eroding the soil or losing your moisture to evaporation, and it will be safe for the delicate foliage and petals of flowering plants.
If you don’t need both sprinkler systems and drip irrigation, you are most likely quite sure at this point which system suits your needs the most. No matter what way you choose to water your lawn and the plants on your property, you now know that you have several systems that you can call upon to help you keep your plants watered instead of just using the garden hose or the watering can. With sprinkler systems and drip irrigation, modern gardeners and homeowners don’t have to do as much heavy lifting to keep their landscape looking green and healthy.