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GARDENING : Getting Sprinkler System Down Will Help Save Water and Time


If you are one of those people who spend hours watering your garden and lawn by hand, consider installing the ultimate timesaver: an underground sprinkler and irrigation system.

With automatic sprinklers, you'll not only notice that you have more spare time, but you'll see a difference in the quality of your lawn as it is watered evenly. You will also be saving water, since a sprinkler system is generally more efficient than watering by hand.

For years, sprinkler systems were costly because of the brass heads and hundreds of feet of steel pipe that had to run under the yard. However, with the use of inexpensive polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and sprinkler hardware, an underground system is now within financial reach of almost every homeowner.

Prices depend on the type of system and how large an area you're trying to cover, but a good system for an average-sized yard is $600 to $1,000, not including installation.

Sprinklers have become quite advanced in the last few years, as water shortages have made manufacturers realize that saving water is a big concern to the average gardener. New, lightweight plastics are being used in sprinkler heads that provide more irrigation and release less water.

"There are two heads, the Rain Bird 1800 series and the Toro 570 series, where you really see a difference compared to the old brass heads," says Al Young of Harbor Sprinkler Supply in Santa Ana. "They're spring-loaded pop-ups that remain flush with the ground while mowing and doing maintenance, and when they're turned on, they spring up and have a precise, consistent spray."

Seals around the connections have been improved, since leaks at these points are known to waste hundreds of gallons of water per year.

"The seals at the stems of these heads are very watertight," Young said. "That's one of the best features of all."

A popular system with gardeners, drip irrigation releases the amount of water needed and is considered more efficient than most sprinkler heads. Black polyethylene pipe is generally used, and drip systems are connected to a valve separate from the one attached to the lawn sprinklers.

When shopping for a system, whether it's for your lawn or garden, Young recommends looking for quality parts rather than bargains, and to ask questions about the different types of heads available and where they should be used. "There's a new, low-volume head known as a micro-spray that creates a mist, which is great for gardens and flower beds," Young says. "In an area where you may be considering a drip system and you have too much ground cover to make it effective, a micro-spray could be the solution."

One of the keys to your sprinkler's effectiveness is its controller, which turns the water on and off when you're not home and keeps you from over-watering the lawn. A good-quality electronic controller can do your watering chores for you, as long as you know how to work it.

"One of the most common problems we're called out on is when a homeowner can't figure out their controller," says John Peace of Elmer Brown Landscaping and Sprinkler Co. in Placentia. "The new digital controllers are often hard to understand and set. They have to be programmed like a VCR. Make sure you know how to operate it before you leave the store or the installer leaves your property."

Older sprinklers can be upgraded with more efficient heads and valves. However, it's a good idea to measure how far down your water lines are.

"On many older systems, the lines weren't down as deep as they're installed now, and the heads were shorter," says Young. "However, there's a new flexible tubing available that lets you retrofit a new head onto old lines that keeps the head down low."

Installing a sprinkler system can be tricky. It's best to read through the instructions included in the kit and ask questions of the dealer.

"It's not particularly difficult, but you need to make connections for your water and electrical supply and if you haven't done that before, it can be complicated," says Young. "But once you've set the valves, it's just a matter of digging the trenches and laying the water lines."

Others, however, aren't as confident in the quality of homeowner installations.

"Typically we'll see people install cheap parts because they look like the more expensive heads and valves and they're less expensive," says Peace. "But after a short time, they're finding cracks in the plastic (and) rubber and broken valves because of bad parts or a poor installation. If you have any doubts about your ability to install a sprinkler system, you'll probably save time and money letting a professional do it."

If you're determined to try it, directions are usually included in sprinkler kits, and the first step is to check the water pressure in your system. Some rental yards will rent gauges and by hooking one up to the hose bib, you can see if your water pressure is adequate to sustain a sprinkler system. If the pressure is low, you may need to use more than one water line.

Create a diagram of your yard to estimate the amount of pipe you'll need and where it will be laid. Mark any depressions in the yard, since these will need less water.

"Put a small stake in the ground at each point where you're planning to install a sprinkler head," says Mark Choy, a landscaper from Costa Mesa. "Then run a string from one stake to the other to determine where you'll be digging."

The pipe should be laid about seven to nine inches underground.

"Try to make the bottom of the ditch as level as possible," says Choy. "You don't want the pipe to be bent from the pressure of people walking over it."

Automatic sprinklers are definitely time and water savers. However, they're not maintenance free.

"You've got to clean around the heads and make sure grass isn't in the way of the spray," says Choy. "But if you think they require a lot of work, just think of how much time you'd be spending watering by hand."

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