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All About Sprinklers

Maintaining a lush lawn, delicious produce, or bright, colorful flowers doesn’t have to be complicated (or even expensive!). We explain everything you need to know about sprinklers, including how they work, the different types, how to choose one, and how often you should be using these handy gadgets in your yard or garden beds. 

A running sprinkler system in a landscaped front yard iStock

The term “sprinkler system” might be misleading. While it probably brings to mind perfectly manicured golf courses or that section of town where the homeowners hire out all of their lawn maintenance, sprinklers aren’t just for luxury properties. These tiny machines are perfect for maintaining lawns of all sizes, and even flower beds and fruit and vegetable gardens.

But before you try to jam a lawn sprinkler underneath the zucchini, there are quite a few things that would be good to know about these devices. This guide will explain all the important details—including a breakdown of all the different types of sprinklers, as well as how to choose a model and how (and when) to use it.

How Does a Sprinkler System Work?

Sprinklers are handy little machines that help distribute water to yards and gardens (and the occasional child looking to cool off during a heat wave). In most cases, these machines use water flow and pressure to operate their internal gears and mechanisms, spreading water over an entire lawn without flooding just one spot like an open garden hose would.

The water flow produced by sprinklers can mimic anything from a light morning dew to heavy rainfall. Some are adjustable, while others are primarily controlled by the hose spigot’s positioning (i.e. fully open will provide heavy water flow, while dialing it back reduces flow). Users can place one, two, or several sprinklers throughout the yard or garden to provide water when Mother Nature isn’t cooperating or, say, after installing a new lawn.

Sprinklers vs. Sprinkler Systems

It’s important to note that there are two different ways to use lawn sprinklers. One option uses a standalone sprinkler connected to the end of a garden hose, with the user typically having to move it around the yard to ensure that there aren’t any dry spots left behind. The other is a sprinkler system, and these options include underground piping that runs from sprinkler head to sprinkler head throughout the space.A

Individual sprinklers are the most affordable and simplest option for irrigating a lawn or garden. They’re also infinitely customizable, as the user can just move the sprinkler wherever water is needed. However, despite their ease of use, they do require the user to pull the garden hose out and attach the sprinkler every time they want to water their yard.

Sprinkler systems, on the other hand, are more expensive and more difficult to install initially. These systems have underground piping that connects to sprinkler heads that pop up out of the ground when the system is pressurized. They’re expensive, may be prone to breakage, and require a good amount of work to customize. But once installed, they can operate on a timer or valve, making the user’s life very easy.

In most cases, a sprinkler system is too much of an investment for the average homeowner. Also, repairing the system or blowing it out with compressed air before winter is not an easy undertaking. In those cases, it may be best to go with a standalone sprinkler, which typically costs between $15 and $35 each. There are many models that can link together with stretches of hose, allowing the user to water a large lawn at once with three or four models running off of one spigot.

Types of Lawn Sprinklers

As with most things home improvement or maintenance related, there are several types of sprinklers to choose from. The right one for you depends on the size of the area and the type of space that needs water—flower garden bed vs. front lawn, for instance. The following are some of the most popular types of lawn sprinklers.

Rotating sprinklers

Close up of a rotating sprinkler head iStock

A rotating sprinkler attaches to the end of a standard garden hose and typically has wheels or a sled base for gliding across the yard with the hose, or a stake that pokes into the soil to hold it in place. Wheels are helpful to avoid getting soaked when adjusting the position, but a stake makes sure it stays put. This type usually features three arms with nozzles attached to a rotating spindle or a fan-like impeller, but other variations are available.

Once pressurized, this sprinkler sprays water in symmetrical, 360-degree circles (some models can spray in square patterns as well). Users can adjust the spray distances and water flow in one of two ways: adjusting the nozzles on the ends of the arm or throttling water flow from the spigot.

  • Spray pattern: Circle or square
  • Watering speed: Slow to very fast
  • Reach: 50 to 60 feet in diameter

Good for:

  • Watering very small lawns or isolating garden beds in a drought
  • Adjusting from a gentle mist for seedlings to heavy rain on established grass

Quiet rotor sprinklers

Quiet rotor sprinkler in action iStock

While the sound of a sprinkler head chug-chug-chugging might be soaked in childhood nostalgia, some folks would rather their sprinkler operate as silently as possible. In that case, a quiet rotor sprinkler might be best. This device is designed with a mechanism inside the head to keep it from making much noise while still providing plenty of water flow.

A quiet rotor sprinkler can distribute water very quickly, and over large distances (even in low-pressure conditions). It can spray in circular or partial-circle patterns, depending on the model, and is typically adjustable. The partial circle is particularly helpful around patios or other areas where users would prefer not to get drenched.

  • Spray pattern: Full or partial circle
  • Watering speed: Fast
  • Reach: 70 to 80 feet in diameter

Good for:

  • Large yards that need plenty of water in a short amount of time
  • Lawns that are close to areas that shouldn’t get wet

Multi-head sprinklers

Resembling a little sea creature with multiple bendable arms sprouting upward from the hose-end attachment, this type is a great option when you’d like to customize the spray pattern of the sprinkler. The user simply points the arms wherever they’d like to water, and away from wherever they don’t want to saturate.

A multi-head sprinkler doesn’t distribute a lot of water in a hurry, and it doesn’t have extremely wide spray patterns. This makes it helpful when you need to truly pinpoint the amount of water a sapling or garden bed may receive without flooding everything else in the yard.

  • Spray pattern: Endless variations adjustable by bending small hose heads
  • Watering speed: Slow
  • Reach: 10 to 35 feet, depending on the water pressure

Good for:

  • Small, oddly shaped yards or plant beds
  • Targeting water flow

Oscillating sprinklers

Yellow oscillating sprinkler in a garden iStock

The oscillating sprinkler is the summer favorite of children everywhere. This model has a rounded arm that rotates back and forth, spraying an arc of water out of its 20 or so nozzles. A higher-end model often features customizable water-flow rates, the ability to shut the oscillation off to concentrate water flow on just one area, or a timer with automatic shutoff.

An oscillating sprinkler distributes a lot of water quickly, and though it sprays in an arc pattern, the water falls in a square or rectangular shape, which makes it excellent for square plots in urban or suburban areas. Because it often sprays too much water for a garden bed, it’s best to use another option or position an oscillating sprinkler just so the very end of its spray lands in the garden.

  • Spray pattern: Square or rectangle
  • Watering speed: Fast
  • Reach: Up to 70 feet long by 60 feet wide

Good for:

  • Square or rectangular lawns
  • Lawns of different sizes
  • Busy folks who need an automatic shut-off

Pulsating sprinklers

Pulsating sprinkler iStock

Pulsing streams of water up to 45 feet (that adds up to a 90-foot diameter of coverage), a pulsating sprinkler can distribute water over a large lawn. This style stakes in the ground and you have the option to link together several lengths of hose, allowing a user to set them up and water a sprawling lawn in one shot.

Many models are adjustable, and users can choose between a full circle or semicircle spray pattern. This makes it great for a large yard, an area that shouldn’t get wet, and any type of customized set-up. And, despite its wide-spray pattern, it typically waters slowly, meaning it can be used in yards that don’t drain quickly. The spray pattern also stays relatively low to prevent wind from causing the droplets to drift.

  • Spray pattern: Full or partial circle
  • Watering speed: Slow
  • Reach: 85 to 90 feet in diameter

Good for:

  • Large yards and garden beds
  • Newly seeded lawns, which are best watered slowly
  • Yards that don’t drain quickly
  • Windy yards such as those on hills or near bodies of water

Walking sprinklers

A walking sprinkler is designed with gears and wheels to maneuver nimbly across the ground. It has a front wheel that rides along the hose, and as the water pressure drives the wheels, the sprinkler travels along the hose slowly to distribute water. This makes this type of sprinkler incredibly useful for customizing around irregular lawns.

There’s a whimsical flair to this sprinkler as well. It’s often designed to look like a garden tractor, a train, or an earth-moving machine. It’s usually pretty heavy and has powerful gears, allowing it to drag a hose full of water without digging up the lawn. And, for these reasons, it can cost upwards of $100.

  • Spray pattern: Long, winding path
  • Watering speed: Slow to medium
  • Reach: 4 to 50 feet on either side of a hose up to 200 feet long

Good for:

  • Large areas with turns or hills where other sprinklers water unevenly
  • Folks who enjoy a touch of whimsy in their yard or garden

Sprinkler hose

A sprinkler hose can snake through garden beds and provide water exactly where it’s needed. The user cuts the hose, installs a sprinkler or emitter, and stakes the fixture into the ground before continuing the hose to the next plant.

Using this system is wildly customizable, allowing you to add adjustable sprinkler heads, different emitter sizes, and bendable hoses. This allows the user to create a system that waters each of their fruit, vegetable, or flowering plants perfectly. Also, users can hide the hose (but not the emitters or sprinklers) with mulch. It also helps avoid some of the effects of evaporation in drought-like conditions because it can soak the base of the plants. [YW2]

  • Spray pattern: Changeable
  • Watering speed: Very slow to slow
  • Reach: Length of hose

Good for:

  • Watering plant beds invisibly
  • Keeping plants hydrated in a drought without evaporation waste
  • Snaking through garden beds for customized watering

Soaker Hose

A soaker hose installed around a flower bed iStock

A soaker hose is similar to a sprinkler hose in that it emits water along its length and snakes through garden beds, but how it does so is entirely different. Rather than sprinklers and emitters, this model has thousands of tiny perforations along their length that allow water to soak out of the hose slowly. They can easily hide underneath mulch or soil.

This is a great option for routing a hose through garden beds, but since its entire length is perforated, it will water areas between plants that don’t necessarily need watering. In terms of water flow, it’s only customizable by throttling the spigot valve. It’s best used in densely-packed beds for these reasons.

  • Spray pattern: Changeable
  • Watering speed: Very slow to slow
  • Reach: Length of hose

Good for:

  • Densely-packed garden beds containing plants with similar watering needs

How To Choose a Sprinkler

Deciding on the right sprinkler type for you depends on many factors. For instance, your yard shape may determine the sprinkler head that fits best. For square yards, an oscillating sprinkler or a rotating sprinkler with a square spray pattern probably is a good pick. For yards that sprawl between garden beds and walkways, a walking sprinkler could work better for you.

You also want to consider the type of soil you have. Yards that don’t drain well, such as those with hard-packed clay, require a customizable or low-flow sprinkler, like a pulsating sprinkler or multi-head sprinkler. However, if you have a large lawn that drains quickly and needs a lot of water, a quiet rotor sprinkler may be the best.

And keep in mind that garden beds may also have varying requirements. For folks growing a variety of veggies and fruits, a customizable sprinkler hose system is ideal. And if the garden is packed full, a soaker hose may be more practical.

How Much Should You Water?

Every lawn or garden is different, but the guidelines below offer some advice based on weather, soil, and greenery. A sprinkler should only supplement the natural rainfall, though any lawn is ready for watering if the soil is dry 6 inches down.

Watering established lawns

Clay Soil: 1 inch in two applications every seven to 14 days for temperate climates; 1 inch in three applications every three to four days in hot and dry climates

Loam: 1 inch in two applications every five to 10 days in temperate climates; 1 inch in three applications every two to three days in hot and dry climates

Sandy Soil: 1 inch in two applications every five to seven days in temperate climates; 1 inch in two applications every two to three days in hot and dry climates

Watering new kawns

Clay Soil: ¼ inch three times daily in both temperate and hot and dry climates

Loam: ¼ inch three times daily in both temperate and hot and dry climates

Sandy Soil: ¼ inch three times daily in both temperate and hot and dry climates

Watering trees and shrubs

Clay Soil: ½ inch in 2 applications every 7 to 14 days in temperate climates; 1 inch in two or three applications every four days in hot and dry climates

Loam: ½ inch every five to 10 days in temperate climates; 1 inch in two or three applications every three days in hot and dry climates

Sandy Soil: ½ inch every five to seven days in temperate climates; 1 inch in two or three applications every other day in hot and dry climates

Watering flowers

Clay Soil: ¼ to ½ inch every three to four days in temperate climates; ½ inch every three to four days in hot and dry climates

Loam: ¼ to ½ inch every three to four days in temperate climates; ½ inch every two to three days in hot and dry climates

Sandy Soil: ¼ to ½ inch every day or two in temperate climates; ½ inch every day or two in hot and dry climates

Watering vegetables

Clay Soil: 1 inch once or twice weekly in both temperate and hot and dry climates

Loam: 1 inch two or three times weekly in temperate climates; 1 inch two or three times weekly in hot and dry climates

Sandy Soil: 1 inch three or four times weekly in temperate climates; 1 inch four times weekly to daily in hot and dry climates

When Should You Water Your Lawn?

One important rule, according to This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook: Try to water only in the early morning. The midday heat will evaporate all your efforts, and plants watered later don’t dry before nightfall, leaving them vulnerable to fungal diseases.

For lawns, the perfect time of day to water them is between 4:00 am and 8:00 am, as water has the best chance of soaking into the roots without evaporating. Midday isn’t ideal as water will evaporate, and evening isn’t good either as it can lead to disease in the lawn.

Much of the same applies to watering flower and vegetable and fruit gardens as well. Watering these plants in the evening can spread disease. Watering before 9:00 am is usually best.

Sprinkler timers

Another option to consider is setting up a sprinkler system on a timer, which typically attaches to the hose spigot and can be programmed to run the sprinkler whenever the user needs it. This device works well for a sprinkler system in a garden bed, however, it’ll also work for users that don’t mind leaving their sprinkler and hose in the yard for a few days at a time.

How long should sprinklers run in each zone?

Many timers can be programmed to work with zones. For example, you can set the sprinkler to run for 20 or 30 minutes in the yard every day, and then 20 to 35 minutes twice a week in the garden. Users can customize the timer’s zones to work with their yards’ and gardens’ needs exactly.