Contractors can place drip tube emitters where a plant is installed, which helps with water regulation.
Photo courtesy of Toro

The topic of water is a hot one, especially as communities expand restrictions and homeowners look for alternative ways to keep their yards looking refreshed.

If customers in your area are looking to replace sprinkler systems in their yards, it might be valuable to suggest a drip irrigation system. Unlike traditional systems that spray water above ground to keep plants and turf watered, drip line systems are inground, delivering water directly to the root system.

“You’re going to end up using a lot less water,” says Greg Martin, design and installation manager with Paradise Garden Center in Riverside, California. “You’re cutting water bills in half, which is huge here in southern California.”

Martin says the conversion from an existing irrigation system to drip isn’t complicated.

“Basically, what we do on an existing system is we put the valve or take the existing valve and cut into it on the downstream side and put in a filter and a regulator,” he says.

He adds that if a customer is using potable water, the filter isn’t entirely necessary. Its job is to make sure small particles or debris aren’t clogging the emitter.

“Check periodically during the establishment period because you never know a dripper is clogged until the plant dies,” he says. “You can’t tell because it’s all covered up, so be sure and use a filter and a regulator and use quality drip material.”

When putting in drip irrigation systems, landscapers can either use the existing lateral lines and just add new drip fittings and emitters, or they can adapt the drip tubing to run less like a grid.

“The inline drip tubing is good if you’re planting all the same species and you’re planting on a grid,” says Martin. “So when you first plant it, it looks like a crop and then it grows in full.”

However, Martin says 99 times out of 100, residential applications aren’t that patterned.

Being able to put drip tube emitters wherever each plant is really helps with water regulation. That way, if you have a plant like an agave, which requires virtually no water, near a rosebush, which requires four times the water, you can regulate that.

“With the inline emitters, you can’t regulate how much is coming out of that emitter or the other emitter,” Martin says. “What I can do with the rose bush is put 2-gallon emitters so it’s getting 4 gallons an hour, where the agave is getting 1 gallon an hour.”

He says you’re able to establish based on the plant growth, how much water each will need, and the emitters can be pulled out and changed if the plant is getting too much or not enough water.

Dilemmas.

One of the biggest dilemmas with drip irrigation is trying to make the homeowner understand how it works.

“It’s a very simple system to put in,” says Don Holder, a certified irrigation auditor with ConServ in Menifee, California. He says the materials are inexpensive compared to the labor cost, but homeowners are still wary. “A lot of people are just scared of it because they’re used to seeing spray heads and water spraying their plants,” he says.

Martin says there’s virtually no evaporation with drip because the water is applied directly to the plant and below the soil.

“The surface of the ground may seem a little dry, but once you dig to the plant’s root ball, there’s moisture there,” he says.

Because of this, a lot of homeowners end up overwatering and killing the plants, he says.

“They’re used to putting down a pretty good application of water,” Martin says. “It’s more of an adjustment thing to get used to only watering twice instead of five times a week.”

Another difference is that even though you turn the system on fewer times during the week, you have to leave the drippers on longer because the water is dripping very slowly.

“It may take 30 minutes twice a week or 30 minutes three times a week, but, at the same time, you’re using less water,” Martin says.

Something else to keep in mind is making sure your customers are thorough when they decide to make the conversion.

“When they decide they’re going to convert, they shut the water to their grass to let it die out,” Martin says. “They think it’s dead but it’s not.”

He says when this happens, the grass, especially Bermuda, goes into a dormant state. When you go in and cut the turf out to put in the irrigation and replace it, the root systems remain.

“Then the next spring, here comes the Bermuda all back in their planted space,” Martin says.

He says for a proper conversion with no interference from the previous landscape, you need to spray the grass with a glyphosate-based chemical.

“It’s super important to do a proper weed and turf abatement before they remove the old sod,” he says.

The last advice both Martin and Holder have is to invest in quality material for the new irrigation system.

“Quality drip material is important,” Martin says. “Whatever you put into something, that’s what you’re going to get out. Use quality plant material, quality drip line, a smart controller. Stuff like that.”

Holder says both the contractor and the homeowner should do their research prior to the installation of drip irrigation systems.

“There’s all kinds of great information on YouTube on drip irrigation with different manufacturers,” he says. “They make very simple products that are easy to understand. If they follow just those simple guidelines, it’s a very easy system to put in.”