Sunday, June 7, 2009

Shovel-Ready Project – Installing a Drip Irrigation System – Part One

Prior to this project, I knew very little about irrigation systems. I did know that watering by hose or sprinkler wasn’t proving very efficient in “the dead of summer” – that period of time between mid-May and mid-September when the temperatures exceed 95°F (35°C) for weeks, sometimes months on end, as the City of Austin implements mandatory watering schedules and the Central Texas region fluctuates between “extreme” and “exceptional” on the US Drought Monitor – that period when even my most drought-resistant plants suffer at some point every year. In fact, the main impetus for the front-yard overhaul was the death of our St. Augustine lawn, partly from drought, and partly from disease (rust, Take-All-Patch). Drought stresses plants and renders them more susceptible to pests and diseases.

I did know our water pressure is high enough to blow out a standard soaker hose in a matter of months, that hose repair kits don’t work well on soaker hoses, and that seven-year warranties on soaker hoses are meaningless when the manufacturer gives zero information on either the product label or their company website on how to submit a claim, and won’t respond to numerous email requests from the consumer.

I did know I didn’t want to dig trenches and install yards of underground PVC pipe and pop-up sprinkler heads only to watch gallons of water running off the curb, down the street and into the drainage ditch.

I wanted a system that would be easy to install, reasonably priced, adaptable to garden redesign and new plantings, and would get the just the right amount of water directly to each plant that needed it.

By way of a Google Search, I visited the Austin Lawn Sprinklers Association website to get information on what sorts of irrigation systems are available, and what the experts think about them. The ALSA is a group of local licensed contractors and suppliers specializing in designing, installing and maintaining residential and commercial irrigation systems. The ALSA page on drip irrigation listed many advantages: water savings, reductions in runoff, evaporation and weed growth, precise water control, low installation costs and reduced plant stress from what they called the “wet/dry phenomenon” – exactly what my plants suffer from each summer.

I felt confident I could deal with most of the disadvantages ALSA listed (expecially the ones about how professional installers aren’t familiar or comfortable with drip irrigation!). However, the ALSA and I shared one major concern: “Shoddy Products.” As the ALSA site explained, drip irrigation products are constantly being introduced, often disappearing after a few months, and failed products are hard to locate, replace, or repair. I wanted a system from a reputable company that would be there for me with new parts when my parts needed replacing.

Convinced that drip irrigation was my best option, I began to research various brands by visiting both online and brick-and-mortar stores. Although I planned to purchase parts locally to avoid shipping charges, I did want a brand with parts available online, in case local stores were out of a part or didn’t carry a part I needed. RainBird and Toro brands were frequently mentioned on professional sites, along with some brands that appeared to be available only at the wholesale level. Sites directed toward DIYers tended to mention Orbit, DIG and Raindrip brands. Lowe’s carries Mister Landscaper products, as do some Ace Hardware stores. Dromgoole’s Natural Gardener carries a Texas brand called Submatic, a company originally based in Austin but relocated to Lubbock. I visited DripWorks USA, Drip Depot, Mr. Drip, and other online vendors to see what brands they carried. Even Amazon carries drip irrigation starter kits and parts. This is by no means a complete list of brands and vendors out there, but merely a description of what I came across.

Right about the time my brain started spinning and my eyes started swimming from all the descriptions of the various types of tubing, emitters, connectors, layouts and whatnot, I came across three very helpful resources. One was Jess Stryker’s excellent site dedicated to irrigation tutorials, with a whole section dedicated to drip irrigation. I also found an episode of Rebecca’s Garden on drip irrigation that made it look all sooo easy, and the DIG Corp’s single-page flyer on Drip Irrigation Installation in 7 Steps. Seven steps! Certainly I can do something that only takes seven steps…

After a few weeks of research, I realized I wasn’t really going to understand all the ins-and-outs of drip irrigation unless I jumped in and tried to put one together. I decided to go with the DIG Corp's Irrigation Products for a number of reasons:
1. Their products are made in the USA – DIG has 40,000 square feet of manufacturing capability in Vista, California.
2. They’ve been in business for 29 years, since 1981.
3. Their primary focus is drip irrigation for landscapes, greenhouses and nurseries. They don’t make lawn mowers or automatic sprinkler systems.
4. They have a reasonably priced starter kit that’s very complete.
5. Parts are readily available from a variety of online vendors and local stores.
6. Their pamphlets and website contain detailed but easy-to-understand instructions.
7. Customer support is available (although I haven’t needed it yet).

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DIG’s basic Drip Irrigation Kit G77AS is an insanely cheap $18.59 at Home Depot and includes all of the following.
1. 50 feet of ½ inch polyethylene tubing. The ½ inch tubing acts as the main water conduit for the system. You lay it down in the garden just like you would a soaker hose.
2. 50 feet of ¼ inch distribution tubing. By hooking the “micro tubing” to the ½ inch tubing, you can direct water to areas that are inches, feet or yards away from the ½ inch tubing. NOTE: most professionals do not like this “spaghetti” tubing for numerous reasons (it’s easily clogged and/or damaged) and do not recommend using it for large portions of your irrigation system.
3. 24 drip emitters: 20 emitters rated at 1 gallon per hour (GPH), two rated 2 GPH and two rated 4 GPH.
4. A manual hole punch for punching holes in the ½ inch tubing to insert the drip emitters.
5. 1 backflow preventer. Very important if you do not want dirt, bugs, bacteria and critter waste migrating into your drinking water.
6. 1 pressure regulator. Very important if you don’t want to blow out your hoses and emitters.
7. 1 swivel adaptor with screen. Necessary for hooking up the tubing to your water source.
8. Various connectors (straight and tee pieces) for connecting pieces of ½ inch tubing together.
9. Various barbs and valves for connecting ¼ inch micro tubing to ½ inch tubing.
10. Stakes for anchoring ½ inch tubing (3) and ¼ inch micro tubing (5) to the ground.
11. 2 goof plugs for plugging holes in ½ inch tubing.
12. 2 figure-8 hose end caps.

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The store had a stack of free installation guides near the parts display. I flipped through the guide for about 10 minutes before deciding to purchase two starter kits, plus an extra 100 feet of ½ inch tubing ($10). Because my front yard is square, I also purchased several elbow-shaped connectors for ½ inch tubing, which were not included in the kit, plus an extra package of end caps and some extra emitters and connectors that I thought I might need.

Coming up in part two: the actual installation.

3 comments:

  1. I can't wait to see part two, especially after reading about all your diligent research so far! We've had a similar system in the veggie garden for about a year (also bought at Home Depot for less than $25) and are still happy with it.

    In the front sunny xeriscaped garden-yard, however, I'm still dragging the hose around to spot-water on designated days. Ugh.

    Happy hot weekend, Caroline!

    (I inadvertently lost your RSS feed and am now back up to speed and have added it again!)

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  2. I thought I would mention one little thing that you don't read in the instructions that I learned the hard way. I, as most would, put my tubing under mulch so the water could do the most good. Be sure to leave the end few inches or last emitter showing. This way you can tell if it is, in fact, watering.

    I nearly lost a whole raised bed of vegetables because of a clog and no water was going down that tube. Uuugg, the little things can kill you. Good luck

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  3. Caroline,
    Our entire yard, front, back and sides are on a drip system. Even the hanging baskets and birdbath are automaticly watered. You will absolutely love it. It was the best thing we ever did.--Randy

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