In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of drip irrigation for business landscaping, along with helpful resources for DIY installation.

What is Drip irrigation?

Drip irrigation is a watering system that uses a network of pipes or tubes and emitters to steadily supply water to plants directly at the roots, minimizing the water often wasted due to evaporation, runoff and overwatering. Drip line refers to rigid, structural piping while drip tape is thin-walled plastic tubing most commonly used in drip irrigation applications due to its adaptability to various topography and soil conditions.

A basic drip irrigation system consists of a main line that carries water to smaller lines that empty out at the base of plants. These smaller lines, called emitter tubes or micro-irrigation emitters, are placed at intervals along the main line which is often buried underground. Drip irrigation systems also include smaller components such as pressure regulators, back-flow valves, filters, and tubing adapters and fittings.

There are many different kinds of emitters that can be used, including those that use pressure to create a spray (called microspray emitters) or those that use gravity to drip water from holes in the top. Emitters can be spaced evenly (standard drip line emitters), discharge from a single long tube (point-source emitter), or multiple emitters can stem from a centralized point and discharge via multiple emissions points. There are endless configurations for drip irrigation systems, allowing for adaptability towards unique topography, landscape designs, etc.

Like with other irrigation systems, drip irrigation can operate on a timer, ensuring watering occurs only when desired. However, because water is supplied so slowly, drip irrigation systems are designed to run daily depending on how much water plants require, the emitter’s flow rate and if it’s expected to rain.

The Pros of Drip Irrigation

When thinking about the pros and cons of drip irrigation, the benefits are numerous. Due to its ability to deliver directly to roots in a steady and precise manner, drip irrigation bypasses water loss from evaporation, runoff and overwatering. A properly installed drip system can save as much as 80% of water used in other irrigation methods. Reducing your water use and water costs benefits both your budget and local water supplies. With global pressure growing from water scarcity, more companies should be making efforts to lower their water use and help restore local water supplies.

Water efficiency from drip irrigation also translates into energy savings. Compared to  high-pressure sprinkler systems (45-70 psi), drip irrigation utilizes much lower water pressure (8-20 psi) and therefore less energy needed to pump water through the system. The USDA National Resources Conservation Service provides an online Irrigation Energy Estimator to calculate energy use and savings from irrigation. Note: The tool is designed to assess irrigation applications on ranch and farmland, not business landscaping necessarily. But it may still be useful to understand what factors contribute to energy consumption and savings from irrigation.

More efficient watering also means healthy plant yields and avoiding the mold, pests and weeds that come from overwatering. Further, drip irrigation minimizes evaporation from the soil which aids soil health and the important soil microbes that dwell there. Drip irrigation reduces soil runoff as well, thus helping to prevent fertilizers and other landscaping chemicals from traveling to surrounding ecosystems.

Additional benefits of drip irrigation include:

  • Adaptable to uneven topography and soil texture
  • Can be designed to deliver nutrient products in addition to water directly to plants, meeting plants’ needs and minimizing fertilizer loss and costs
  • Can be set to run automatically, saving you time and labor
  • More inconspicuous than traditional sprinklers that have extensive sprays and are often a nuisance for passersby to dodge

The Cons of Drip Irrigation

Despite its important benefits, there are also some challenges that come with drip irrigation. Some common challenges include:

  • Clogged Emitters – It’s common for drip emitters to become clogged from mineral/chemical deposits, or algae and bacterial buildup. Even plant roots can find their way into drip tubing. If clogs are not cleared right away, water pressure can build up and cause damage to the system. Thankfully, irrigation products are continually evolving and now include self-cleaning emitters although they can be pricey.
  • Leaks – Leaks can occur in any type of irrigation system, but they are especially problematic in drip irrigation systems because they can go undetected for a long time. If a leak is not fixed quickly, it can result in long-term wear on the system, rack up your water bills and deprive plants of their nutrients.
  • High Initial Costs – According to HomeAdvisor, residential drip systems for landscaping and gardens typically cost $200-$850 with more elaborate systems reaching into the thousands. When pursuing drip irrigation, take into account costs of professional versus DIY installation, as well as maintenance and labor costs.
  • Routine Monitoring and Maintenance Required – Just as important as having the system properly installed, drip systems also need frequent monitoring and maintenance. Drip systems are made up of plastic tubing and several plastic components that weather overtime against the outdoor elements. While drip systems can help in minimizing weed growth, weeds can still pop up and need to be removed before growing too deep within emitters. Work with your current landscaping provider to schedule routine system checks to ensure it is working efficiently and that any issues are fixed right away.
  • Grid-Dependent – As is the case with anything hooked up to the electric grid, power outages are never convenient and can negatively impact business operations. Most irrigation systems today, including drip systems, rely on electricity to run and prolonged outages can jeopardize plant health. Irrigation systems can be hooked up off-grid to a diesel or propane pump but of course, that’s not the greenest option for companies trying to be better stewards of the earth. Many forward-thinkers have found out how to build solar-powered drip irrigation systems that run off a solar-powered pump.
  • Material Waste – Drip irrigation produces more material waste than traditional sprinkler systems. You should have a plan for how you will collect and properly dispose of worn out drip tape and other system components.

Resources for DIY Drip Irrigation

For purchasing all your drip system components, DripDepot is a one-stop irrigation superstore with rave reviews. DripDepot goes beyond standard drip irrigation and provides irrigation products specific to landscaping, vineyards, nurseries, lawns, and more. DripDepot also supports DIY installation and provides a ton of educational resources such as How-To videos and irrigation calculators.

Another great resource to keep handy are these WaterSense guides: Saving Water With Microirrigation: A Homeowner Guide and Adding Microirrigation to Your Services: A Mini-Guide for Irrigation Professionals. WaterSense covers the various types of emitters, “hydrozoning” your property for most effective irrigation, and installation/maintenance considerations.

DripDepot’s Drip Irrigation General Checklist combined with the Drip Planning Guide by DripWorks can provide the guidance and confidence you need if you’re new to drip irrigation systems.

The Pros and Cons of Drip Irrigation: Things to Consider and Best Practices

  • If you’re new to drip irrigation, start with a simple system design first. Drip systems can be unnecessarily elaborate and expensive. Work with your landscaper or an irrigation provider to figure out the best system layout for your landscaping.
  • Avoid installing drip tape in areas with high foot traffic.
  • Understand your plants’ water and nutrient needs. Talk with your landscaper to identify the watering frequency that your plants need. This can impact your drip system design because some plants may require two emitters to fulfill their needs.
  • Water in the early morning when local water demand is lowest and there is less evaporation from the sun.
  • Ensure the flow rate of your water supply is equal to or greater than the flow rate of your system to avoid inconsistent water flow. At the same time, make sure the water pressure through your system is not too low (inconsistent water flow) or too high (fittings can pop off, tubing can burst, etc.). A pressure regulator is a vital component to drip systems.
  • Invest in a water-efficient irrigation controller such as a weather-based irrigation controller (WBIC) or a soil moisture-based irrigation controller (also called a soil moisture sensor or SMS). WBICs use local weather data and landscape conditions to determine the amount, frequency and timing of irrigation, while SMSs monitor moisture levels in the surrounding soil, preventing overwatering when plants don’t need it. Compared to the standard clock-based irrigation controllers, WBICs and SMSs are more accurate in detecting seasonal changes and tailoring irrigation schedules based on these changes. In fact, if every U.S. home replaced their clock-based sprinkler system with a WaterSense controller, up to $4.5 billion in water costs and 390 billion gallons of water could be saved each year. Here’s a thorough list of WaterSense certified WBICs which you can filter for brand, zone capacity, weather data source (either onsite sensor or local weather signal), and standalone or add-on devices. For a list of WaterSense certified SMSs, click here.
  • Combine your drip irrigation system with a rainwater catchment system to further reduce your water use and costs. EcoWatch provides a wealth of information on how to connect a simple irrigation system to a rain tank.
  • Before the peak of winter, flush your system of any standing water to prevent pipes/tubes from freezing and cracking.

Would you like more information on water efficiency and water management? Check out our other articles on our blog!

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