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 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!