Tired of hauling around hoses and sprinklers while watering your yard? You might be ready for a programmable underground system.
Landscape designer Sara Antin invested in an automatic sprinkler system a few years ago and hasn't looked back.
"It's mindless," Antin said. "Not only does it save time, it allows me to go on vacation and not have someone baby-sit my yard while I'm gone."
But the biggest benefit is that Antin's turf and perennial gardens are thriving. Before she installed the system, her grass suffered brown patches and plants died despite her best watering efforts. Another plus: Overwatering is no longer an issue. Her system is programmed to spray only 1 inch of water per week, which is what her grass needs in high summer.
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In-ground sprinklers aren't for everyone. Many homeowners choose to not water their lawns, and they let the grass brown out in August. Some grow only native plants that need less water.
An automatic sprinkler system will increase water usage by at least 50 percent compared to not watering. But if you want your grass to be green, and if you have lots of shrubs, flower beds and container plants, an automatic sprinkler system might be worth the cost.
The key is programming. If you already water a lot, a properly adjusted underground system could be more efficient and use less water. But if it isn't programmed properly, automatic systems can easily waste water.
"You can't run each zone for the same period of time and not overwater a few zones," said Joe Henggeler, state irrigation specialist based at a University of Missouri extension center.
A zone is a defined area of the yard or garden with specific watering needs. All the sprinklers in a zone are programmed alike.
New automatic sprinkler products help prevent overwatering, said Daniel Wessling, irrigation installation manager for a landscaping company in Kansas City. "Manufacturers keep water conservation in mind."
Here are the recent developments:
Efficient sprinkler heads. Newer heads spray water onto the ground at an angle so water is not wasted when the wind blows, said Keith Knight, owner of an irrigation company. They also can reduce runoff on slopes and tight soils.
Pop-up heads have become taller, which means they can water shrubs more effectively than standard 4-inch-tall heads. Some are as tall as 12 or 15 inches.
Improved drip systems. These thin flexible tubes extend from a branch line of the system and through a pressure-reducing valve to deliver a localized drip, mist or spray to container plants, trees and flower beds.
Easy-to-use controllers. Rather than following a weekly schedule, sprinkler owners can program and adjust timers, the brains of a system, as the weather changes.
Timers are also becoming "smarter," said Dave Johnson, spokesman for irrigation-supply manufacturer Rain Bird of Azusa, Calif.
Some controllers connect with local weather service data and make adjustments based on soil type, solar radiation, temperature, rainfall, wind and humidity. And some timers, with a $1,000 upgrade, allow the homeowner to make changes from a cell phone or laptop.
Rain sensors. Have you ever seen sprinklers going full tilt during a rainstorm? The homeowner probably didn't use a rain sensor.
Sensors can be set to shut off sprinklers if as little as 1/8 inch of rain falls. Wired sensors start at $40 and wireless versions start at $80, said Tim Fore, owner of a Missouri sprinkler store.
So what does an entire sprinkler system cost?
Professionally installed, underground sprinkler systems range from $500 and $700 per zone. And the work typically takes three to five days.
You can install one yourself, but the job might be too big for many homeowners. The parts cost about $100 per zone. Renting a vibratory plow, a trenching tool also called a puller, costs about $200 per day.
Don't forget to check with your local government to see what permits are required. Also ask utility companies to mark any lines that go through your yard.
SMART SPRINKLER USE
Try to water the lawn only one day per week. An easy test to determine whether it's time to water is sticking a screwdriver into the ground. You can hold off watering if it easily sinks 5 inches.
If you live in the Midwest, hold off on regular lawn watering until July 1 because rainfall usually provides enough moisture.
Use sprinkler heads designed to conserve water.
Use drip or soaker-type irrigation for plants except turf.
Water between 5 and 6:30 a.m. to avoid evaporation.
Adjust sprinkler heads so water doesn't hit pavement.
Make sure no sprinkler heads are broken (inspect your system in April or May) and winterize the system to avoid water leaks.
Reset the sprinkler watering schedule as seasons change.
Use a rain sensor so your system shuts off when it rains.
Don't run sprinklers on windy days.
Source: Chelsey Wasem, K-State Research and Extension in Johnson County
CHOOSING A CONTRACTOR
What types of products will be used?
What types of service are available after installation?
Is there a warranty?
Are references available?
Will a design plan be provided?
Low bidding contractors may not be licensed or insured. Watch out for these other undesirable short cuts:
Not installing a backflow preventer, usually required by local codes departments to protect drinking water.
Installing sprinklers too far apart.
Mixing sprinklers with different application rates on the same line.
Not using watertight connectors and a protective valve box to prevent short circuits and corrosion.
Sources: Rain Bird; Tim Fore, Fore's Sprinkler Service
SPRINKLER MANUFACTURERS ONLINE
Sprinkler controllers have become easier to use and are typically installed in garages. Rain sensors, such as this wireless model, are installed on the roof along the side of a house. They can shut off the system after as little as 1/8 of an inch of rain has fallen. Pop-head sprinklers, like this 6-inch version and longer models, help reach tall shrubbery and vines. Drip systems, like this spraying emitter, are an efficient way to water container plants. Hold on to your sprinkler design plans so you'll know where crucial parts are located.