Let's talk (budget conscious) homeowner scale irrigation

For someone who is newer to the intricacies of growing fruit and being raised in the suburbs, my knowledge of “irrigation” started with a garden hose and a sprinkler I ran through as a child. I never put any thought into it the last couple of years having pawpaws and a few raised beds, but after learning that our hanging baskets didn’t like months on end of drought without being watered every day, I decided this is the year to automate and save myself a large amount of time, time that I can spend planting, harvesting, and improving. Speaking of time, the old adages of “time is money” and “buy a good tool once and you won’t have to buy it again” are likely applicable to this topic. That being said, I would prefer to allocate my money where it will give me the biggest bang for my buck.

After a bit of research on various threads, it seems like most of them are discussing irrigation from the perspective of having at least a rudimentary background on the topic. This was intimidating for me, so I would like this thread to focus on the basics of how you may have chosen your particular system (cost, familiarity with a particular product, ease of use, ability to expand etc.). My hope is that this can be a reference point for anyone else looking into irrigation so that they can decide which route is best for their needs and have some options to look at that are fairly easy to understand.

I’d imagine most of us are starting out with a 3/4" spigot somewhere on the outside of the house that has a valve to turn water on and off. From there, I would say there are 3 fairly distinct DIY paths you can take (but correct me if I’m wrong!). Obviously you can pay someone to install a system but I am focusing on the most cost effective routes I have found.

Before we talk about the 3 routes, lets quickly discuss pros and cons of pipe sizing. Starting at 3/4", if you maintain that size and install permanent pvc pipes your costs will be a bit higher than reducing to 1/2" pipes from the start. If you go down to 1/4", there is another drop in cost for all of your components. Just be aware that the smaller the pipe, the less flow to go around. There is a drastic drop from 1/2" to 1/4" in flow rates, but if you are only using 1/4" to water raised garden beds or some hanging baskets as I plan to, or if you plan to time your system to SLOWLY, slowly water your plants overnight, this could be a possible route to take. I am currently leaning towards a hybrid approach based on having a future tiny orchard, raised beds, hanging baskets, and potted trees I plan to water.

Lets also get the elephant in the room out of the way- there is a reason irrigation systems are so expensive to have professionally installed. It is a lot of manual labor and planning. I am ok with DIY because I have a fairly young back and maybe a bit too much ambition. If you are not afraid of some hard work- go for it, you can do it! It may be realistic for many to plan the project, research materials, and even install the system in phases. Make sure everything you are getting SHOULD work together. This usually will mean getting all the proper adapters to various pipe styles and sizes, or just planning everything out in one style if it makes things easier.

Speaking of which- lets go over some types of pipe and descriptions.
sch40 or schedule 40- pressure rated, usually pvc plastic. OK for cold water systems at normal home water pressure. Can use glue and primer, or threaded fittings.
CPVC- Similar to PVC but can carry hot water. CPVC is less stable than PVC when exposed to UV radiation from the sun and will not last as long outdoors above ground. I believe you can use glue and primer or threaded, similar to PVC.
HDPE- this is what corrugated black drain pipes and many other flexible pipes are made of. It is more flexible than pvc and easier to cut. It comes in MANY different wall thicknesses which vary in pressure rating. Good choice for very long pipe runs. I have used this with barb fittings/hose clamps (USE 2 PER SIDE TO MINIMIZE LEAKS) as well a special expensive industrial strength glue method (for work) that is not normally available at big box stores. Best to stick to low pressure (below household pressure with a pressure regulator or rain barrel gravity fed) with the barb fittings.
PE or polyethylene- the standard low cost flexible tubing that is available in 1/2" and 1/4" sizes for irrigation. Probably best for above ground use or close to the surface in planting beds.

Path #1- lowest cost DIY system that you turn on and off manually using an 8 way adjustable split setup using 1/4" hose. You can use a kit with multiple elbows, tees, and various sprinkler head types. This setup can be had for the very low price of around $30-$50 depending on your setup/pressure/hose length etc. Here are some examples of what I am referring to:

Orbit 69500 92 piece set for around $10

Orbit 100’ of 1/4" distribution tubing for about $9

Pressure regulator for 1/4" system $10 at Lowes

Orbit 69000D 8 way manifold for about $9 (I believe this would hook up to your hose)

An alternate route to hand picking your items is a pre-made kit starting around $23 and you can add whichever other components you see fit.

Now from what I can tell, there seem to be regulations about backflow valves being required for irrigation systems like this so that in the unlikely event that your water pressure were to be lower than the city water source, your “dirty” water does not contaminate the city supply line. That adds a small additional cost but you can choose whether to add this component based on local codes and your water source. Speaking of water sources, if you can find someone local to source cheap used food grade barrels that could be a great way to irrigate from roof runoff. There is a guy near me who sells 65 gallon (and smaller) barrels for $15 each.

Backflow preventer
Backflow preventer and 3/4" to 1/4" reducer for about $15

Path #2- The mid range cost DIY system with automation upgrade is a route I have begun to take. I anticipate spending about $300 for my entire setup on a quarter acre lot As my yard is small, the best option I’ve found seems to be a Rachio 3e 8 zone sprinkler controller (currently $128 new or $98 amazon warehouse)

With the addition of automation, you need to get electric valves. I am planning on making a manifold (multiple valves in a row for different zones) of this Orbit 3/4" valve for about $11 each.

Path #3 I am also planning on upgrading part of my system to 1/2" pipe to include in ground sprinklers for my orchard area. More digging but I won’t have to worry about hitting drip lines with the lawnmower etc… I am planning on keeping any surface exposed hoses/ drip heads limited to established planting beds for this reason. I would say that getting primarily 1/2" sch40 PVC and hard lines underground everywhere is the pinnacle of a DIY system, and as close as you’ll get to a “professionally” installed system. I don’t plan to do this for all of my trees, just the ones in the backyard. For some people, it may make more sense to go the all in ground route. This route may actually cost the same or less than Path #2 if you can find cheaper pipe in bulk, but the labor is the kicker here.

SCH40 1/2" PVC pipe about $2 per 10 ft at Lowes if you buy 10 or more sticks

Lowe’s has a lot of options for in ground sprinklers. Since they are not much more than the low grade versions, I’d recommend the “pro” versions of the sprinklers for a couple bucks more. It seems like Rain Bird makes highly rated hardware for between $3.50-$5 depending on the spray pattern you want. Buying 4 or more gets a bulk discount of 15%.

Path #3.5 If you are in the planning stages and think that a lot of digging is too much work, get the parts for path #1 and expand as you have time, energy (and money) to complete the work. You can always re-purpose the cheap lines for other projects or spare parts later on. That will save you a lot of time this year that you would have spent watering plants, and it might even save some of those plants from a drought.

Finally, if you are on a budget, search around for parts. Amazon is convenient but other places might have the same stuff for 50% or more discounted. Check your local pipe supply house along with Lowes, Home Depot etc., you might find that its a lot cheaper in bulk from an Interstate Pipe Supply or similar. Good luck and start planning!


Good writeup. It is much easier here in the balmy South. I use drip and don’t bury it as freezes are few and far between. My system consists of a hose bib mounted timer, a pressure reducer and 1/2 inch drip line. I then poke emitters in the drip line or use loops of 1/4 inch drip line with inline emitters. One zone does the whole back yard. In the front yard I took down the 1/2 inch risers capping them off and leaving one to hook up the drip there instead. All supplies from Home Depot and cost less than $50.

nice writeup! I am a big fan of the Rachio controller and highly recommend it. I used it back when i lived in NE on a 12 zone (1/4 acre suburban lot) system, and moving to it, I noticed a savings in my water bill while still keeping everything alive and happy. When we moved down to north TX, i knew that that was a must and installed it right away (16 zones on an acre lot now). It does take time to set it up correctly. The preset options are pretty good, but if you take the time to program in everything, you will save money on your watering.
For small scale, another option and one that I am also utilizing, is gravity fed drip irrigation. Depending on needs, you can pick up a kit for $50-$100. Then you would just need to set up a rain barrel of some kind to tie it to. You can pick these up from big box stores for around $100 for a 55Gal barrel. If you do some looking, you can probably get an ibc tote (275-330 gal) for around the same price or even less.
Drip irrigation kits gravity irrigation dirty water kits (dripdepot.com)
I use this to water my veggie garden which is not watered by my sprinklers, since we get very little rain in the hot summer, I have 2x ibc totes on both of the back corners of my house which usually is enough to make it through the annual drought.

I now have about 60 fruit trees of all sorts. I water them the first year only either spraying by hand or putting out sprinklers. I also heavily mulch my fruit trees.
I do not irrigate after the first year and have great success.
I am in zone 6a SE Michigan


I set up a system two years ago after decades of kind of wanting to but being intimidated. It was so easy. I should have done it years and years ago. I’d skip any of the kits. You are going to end up with a lot of stuff you don’t use.

There are a lot of ways to run a system. I keep mine simple. At the hose end is the timer, a pressure regulator and backflow preventer and a filter. I go straight into 1/2" black poly tubing. I run this just a few inches underground out to my garden and to my greenhouse. The black tubing comes out of the ground next to the garden and I run it the length of the garden then cap it. From there I use a combination of the thin spaghetti lines and direct emitters to water various plants. It takes a bit of experimenting to get the right amount of water where you want it but I find this to be fun and interesting and I only use adjustable emitters so that I can dial each one in just right. Each spring it takes a week or two to get it dialed in then I’m set for the summer.

It saves me a terrific amount of time every day and makes going on vacation a lot less stressful. Once my lines are in place I use the timer to do the seasonal/weather adjusting by changing how many times a day and how long I water for. When there is rain all week I just turn it all off using the switch on the timer. You can also do things like running a line into a chicken coop so the birds get fresh water a few times a day, keep a dog bowl or birdbath filled, run a slow drip into a poool, etc. I set up a little sprinkler in the flower bed closest to my patio. Every time it kicks on birds come and take baths in the water, which we love to watch.

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I am curious how do you prep your system for Winter since you’re in zone 7? Do you blow the lines out with compressed air or do something else?

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I just open the line at the most downhill spot. Everything drains out.


Thanks for the reply. Like you I have thought about adding irrigation for years but I have held off. One of my main concerns was freezing temperatures cracking lines.

Thanks Philip! I am thinking about a similar setup for watering our raised beds and the hanging baskets on separate zones and schedules. It seems like the 1/2" line with 1/4" barbs is the way to go for a lot of different routes.

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Thanks for the confirmation on the Rachio system Jason. I am planning to capture rainwater in some used barrels I can source nearby and incorporate that into the schedule, but I can’t gravity feed everything I want to water so I’ll have to hook up at least a portion of the system to my water supply. With all of the other things we’ve done at my house (solar etc) our neighbors are going to think we are raging hippies once we get rain barrels! Not that being a raging hippie is a bad thing, just that we are definitely outliers in our neighborhood haha.

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Paul, that is a helpful point on mulch around your trees. I plan to make at least a 6’ diameter perimeter around each of mine to retain moisture and reduce water needs. Does that seem like a reasonable amount or should the area be wider? Do you expand your mulch area as the trees grow larger?

Mike, I am 32 now. I didn’t want to continue struggling through the years and resent all of my hard work because I had to water everything all the time. I figured that for the amount of time and effort I’ve been putting into the research and planning stages (and the money invested in the plants!) that it only made sense to automate the watering process. This is that buy the good tool once mentality, but I guess it applies to buying the tree once instead of it drying out haha.

I set up some soaker hoses but that is it. I only use them when on vacation or gone for a bit. I still like to water by hand when I can. I like to walk around and evaluate my plants, might as well water while I’m doing it. I’m retired so have the time and can’t think of anyplace else I would rather be but in the garden.
My garden requires pruning and tying of vines, and much maintenance. So I’m there anyway. My trees do not require water well unless you want watery fruit? My blueberries can only have rain water. So it’s just not that much I would need a fancy irrigation system for. I’m not going to set up a system to deliver rain water, or need to inject acid into the system, so I hand water with the rain water. Other plants love it too, but it is mostly for blueberries and cacti.

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I am planning on hooking up some sort of system to be able to blow compressed air through my lines, for the ones that are not gravity drained (which will be minimal). There is definitely a lot to think about in the zones that have 4 seasons.

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As long as you have a system that works for you, that is all that matters! Gardening and growing in general is definitely therapeutic in nature, and I look forward to the day that I will have lots of time to enjoy my hard work. Do you have your rain water set up to be distributed via gravity from rain barrels? I will be growing blueberries as well, so I appreciate the tip on not using tap water. Is there a specific reason for that? Is your city water too alkaline?

most city water has lots of chlorine which isn’t great for the soil life. Most plants are much happier with rain water than city water, but what can you do if you live somewhere with drought. Gotta rely on the tap.

I think the solution would be to have a reserve system set up with additional “rain” barrels and an automated system to fill them with tap water when needed. The chlorine will dissipate to low levels over time as long as it can escape into the atmosphere.

Blueberries are very sensitive to pH. Most tap water is 7.0 or higher. Mine is about 8.2. If tap water is below 7.0 you will have another Flint crisis on your hands. Flint failed to buffer the water. It started eating the old lead pipes. Tap water must be basic to prevent pipe erosion. Blueberries like a soil pH of 5.0 or so. You will never get them to thrive and with some even survive putting basic water on them. A huge rookie mistake. You can use tap but I highly suggest acidifying tap water if you must use it. Soil must be 5.0. Try to keep soil between4.5 to5.5 for best results. Even pure peat moss will increase in pH with time as compost tends to increase the pH. Counter with sulfur. I add it once every 3 to 4 years.
I don’t have a gravity system. I would need an immersible pump to increase pressure. My blueberries are nowhere close to my rain barrels.

I know a lot of people are actually having issues in the Pittsburgh area with legacy lead pipe infrastructure. I have not tested my water recently but now I might as I’m curious. I typically try to let the tap run for a while first thing in the morning to have the house side lines flush before using it. It sounds like your blueberry watering is a labor of love!

Im interested in the idea of gravity fed rainbarrel water. I just picked up 3 55 gallon barrels that originally held olive oil (or was it olives?) I was wondering how high I had to place them to be effective.

I agree that whatever system that works for you is the right system, from a larger scale irrigation to hand watering. Each has its own merits.

Im enjoying this topic!

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