How to Plan and Install a Home Lawn Sprinkler System

Photo by Thangaraj Kumaravel

If you are tired of playing the role of the human sprinkler system, manually moving portable sprinklers from one area of the yard to another, you may be considering installing a DIY in-ground sprinkler system. Depending on the size of the project and the chosen system, the installation process can take one weekend or several. To do the job properly, be prepared to do some planning and quite a bit of work. However, with the right preparation and parts, your DIY home lawn sprinkler system will be up and running before you know it.

DIY Versus Professional Installation

As with any large home improvement project, there are advantages and disadvantages of doing the job yourself and hiring a professional sprinkler installation company to do the job. Nancy Price Foreman, Owner and Director of Operations with Drilling and Irrigation Services, LLC in Melbourne, Fla., notes that other than the job being done by irrigation specialists when you hire a professional to do the job the system is covered by a warranty. This means that if anything goes wrong with the irrigation system the company will come back out and fix it at no charge to you. Of course, this isn’t the case when installing it yourself, as you are responsible for fixing any malfunctions and their cost.

One of the biggest reasons someone might tackle installing a home sprinkler system themselves is to save money. The average cost of a professional sprinkler system installation can average anywhere from $2,900 to $4,500, depending on the size of the yard, materials and the company. Whereas, purchasing the parts and doing the work yourself averages around $1,500 or even less, which is quite the savings compared to the average professional cost. However, be prepared because doing the job yourself can be labor-intensive.

Essential Sprinkler System Components

Listed below are the essential parts you’ll require for installing your lawn sprinkler system:

  • PVC Pipe: It’s common for underground sprinkler system pipes to be made out of PVC pipe. In the event you make a wrong cut, it’s probably a good idea to have a little extra on hand.
  • PCV Fittings: You will require elbows and tees to allow for all the bends and curves needed to lay the PCV piping in the direction you require.
  • Controllers & Timers: Your automatic sprinkler system requires a controller and timer that you can set so the unit knows when to water the lawn and for how long. In addition, you have a choice between a “smart” controller and your typical “dumb” type. Smart controllers save water as they automatically adjust to the present weather conditions. Whereas, a dumb type is manually adjusted to water by what you program.
  • Sprinkler Heads: Sprinkler heads are the working parts that spray water onto the landscape. The style of sprinkler heads you will need depends on the direction of the spray required, the amount of space being watered and the style of the spray pattern.
  • Tubing or Risers: Tubing, also called risers is required for connecting the sprinkler heads or drip lines to the PCV pipe in order for the system to work.
  • Valves: Valves control the flow of water through the system, as they open and close to allow water to enter the sprinkler system.
  • Valve Box: Provides easy access to the valves as well as protecting them.
  • Wiring: You need wiring to connect to the control center to operate the valves so they know when to open and close.
  • Drains: Drains keep water out of the pipes when they are no longer pressurized and manual and automatic ones are installed at the end of sprinkler lines and at any low points.
  • Backflow Preventer: Many areas require the installation of a backflow preventer, which is an anti-siphon device.
  • Timer/Controller: Operates the sprinkler system, turning it off and on.

This essential parts list doesn’t include basic tools like shovels, PVC glue, hacksaw or other pipe cutter, landscape flags or stakes, string and a pipe-puller, which you can rent for around $200 at your local machine rental store.

Irrigation System Kits

Irrigation companies such as Rainbird have made the process of installing your own sprinkler system relatively easy by offering irrigation system kits, which are suitable for irrigating medium to small-sized lawns of 1,000 to 3,000 square feet. The kit comes with all the basic parts and instructions to install the sprinkler system in a weekend. Of course, if you have a large area needing irrigation, these kits might not be the best choice, or you’ll require several kits to water the entire area.

Of course, the kits do have some limitations, as you cannot expand upon the system as it affects the quality of the service and the amount of water sprayed. Another consideration when purchasing a kit is that the yard’s elevation cannot be more than 6 feet from the sprinkler head to hose bib.

One of the advantages of these irrigation kits is you don’t have to worry about finding your main water line and can quickly hook up to an outdoor faucet. In addition, the kits come with an easily programmed controller and most with a rain delay feature that suspends irrigation for several days without losing your program.

Planning for the Sprinkler System

Before you can start digging holes and laying pipes to install your sprinkler system, you need to do some preplanning. Contact your local utility companies and have them come to your property and mark any underground lines. The last thing you want to do is chop into utility lines where you might lose power, telephone service, cable and internet.

Next, you will want to check with your local county offices to see if you need to pull a permit to install a sprinkler system in your yard. You can also find out if you can install the sprinkler system yourself or you need to hire a professional, per state and local regulations. In addition, you will want to research your local ordinances on water usage on the home lawn. Regulations and requirements vary from location to location.

Drawing Up an Irrigation Plan

The next step in planning how to install your lawn sprinkler system is the actual drawing up a sketch of the area where you will install the system.

  1. Trying to stay as close to scale as possible, draw up a map of your lawn area noting where there are trees, flower beds or other vegetation, as it requires different water requirements than turfgrass. In addition, note any hardscapes like walkways or a driveway.
  2. The next thing to note on your map of the area is where you are placing the PVC pipe and control box.
  3. Taking into consideration any obstructions like a slope, note on the map the proposed placement of your sprinkler heads. For the area to be properly irrigated, you will want the spray pattern of each head to overlap its neighbor by 50 percent. Nancy Foreman notes that many times DIY homeowners don’t place the sprinkler heads where they overlap enough and areas of the yard fail to get watered properly.

When figuring out the zones for your sprinkler system, consider that the turf has different water requirements from trees and shrub, so designate zones according to the water requirements for the specific vegetation growing there. Using standard sprinkler heads for your turfgrass is fine, but lower spraying heads work better for zones containing trees and shrubbery. Drip irrigation works better used in areas such as a vegetable garden.

Determine Water Pressure and Flow Rate

Before you rush out to purchase all your DIY irrigation supplies, you need to determine several important aspects about the flow of water through your system. Once you figure these out, you can purchase the correct parts.

Water Pressure:  You want to determine the working measurement of your water pressure, which is the pressure while the water is turned on. Using a pressure gauge, attach it to an outside faucet and turn on the water, making sure all the water is turned off both inside and outside the home when you do this. The gauge then tells you the water pressure per square inch (psi).

Water Meter Size/Well Size: If you receive your water from a municipal water system, you should be able to read the size of the water meter on the box. If for some reason you cannot locate it on the outdoor box, you can call your water company for the information. If you receive your water from a well, you need to know the size of the well pump, which is usually noted on the outside of the pump or in the owner’s manual.

Size of Service Line: To purchase the correct size pipe that matches your existing water service line, be sure to measure it before you purchase the PVC pipe for your lawn sprinkler system.

Flow Rate: Determining your flow rate is measuring how many gallons of water per minute or GPM. The steps for determining your flow rate are basic:

  1. Using a gallon container, turn on your outside spigot and fill the container with water.
  2. Record the time it takes to fill the container.
  3. Divide filled gallon container’s size by how many seconds it took for it to fill.
  4. Multiply that result by 60 and you end up with the flow rate per minute. If you need to determine the gallons per hour (GPH), multiply the flow rate by 60.

Tip:  Nancy Foreman notes that the most important thing to remember before you actually install a lawn sprinkler system is knowing the water flow rate in gallons per minute (GPM). That, plus how much water each sprinkler head utilizes allow you to install the correct amount of heads. Installing too many heads in a zone with an inadequate flow rate results in the area not being watered properly.

Sprinkler Head Types

Now that you have mapped out your area for installing your home sprinkler system and designated zones based on the plants growing there, you will need to select the best sprinkler head types for each area. Different yard configurations and vegetation call for different head styles. No one head fits all situations. For example, you do not want a sprinkler head that will directly spray against a tree’s bark, as the constant saturation can eventually cause problems with the tree and possibly lead to its death.

  • Fixed Spray: Fixed spray sprinkler heads work best on smaller lawns, or in beds with ground covers or shrubbery. They produce a tight, constant fan of water spanning 5 to 15 feet.
  • Bubbler/Flood: Bubbler or flood sprinkles fit well around trees, planter boxes or at the base of shrubs. They work by flooding water to the ground and around the vegetation’s root zone, instead of spraying the foliage. They water small areas of 5 feet or less.
  • Gear Driven: Gear driven sprinkler heads work well in large to medium-sized lawns or the side of the yard. The heads have a smooth operating style and their spray patterns can be adjusted.
  • Multiple Stream: Multiple stream heads work well on uneven yards or sloped areas, medium-sized yards or in beds with ground covers. They slowly rotate in an 18 foot to 27 foot span, producing a thin stream of water.
  • Pop-up: Pop-up sprinkler heads work well in all sized yards as well as garden areas. They get their name from the head popping up from the ground level when you turn the system on.  The units disappear back into the ground when turned off. Pop-ups evenly distribute water spraying a low angle.
  • Rotary: Rotary heads work well in large, medium and side yards. The heads rotate in a circle and deliver a single stream of water slower.
  • Shrub: Shrub sprinkler heads serve flower beds with shrubbery or planters. They have special, adjustable pattern nozzles. They create a more-flexible watering pattern. Risers or extensions let them rise above the vegetation.

Installation Process

Now that you located utility lines, drew up a plan and purchased your supplies, get to work and install your home irrigation system.

Step 1 – Mark Sprinkler Heads & Pipe

Using your layout of the area, place a landscape flag or stake in every location where you plan to install a sprinkler head. Use string to mark where the pipes will go.

Step 2 – Dig Trenches

Following the string, dig your trenches for your pipes, 6 to 12 inches deep. Nancy Foreman notes that one of the biggest mistakes people make, other than not placing the heads properly for 100 percent coverage, is not digging the trenches deep enough. If you have the trench too shallow damage can occur to the pipe and it can become exposed.

You can make your life of filling the trench back in a lot easier by laying soil to one side and placing the sod to the other. You can rent a power trencher that makes digging the trenches a lot easier than by hand. To keep from digging up the entire lawn, you can use a pipe-puller to install the PVC piping.

Step 3 – Hook Up Water Supply

Hook up your supply of water either by attaching to a spigot or tapping into your main water line. Attaching to a spigot is the easiest method of getting water to your sprinkler system and is suitable for those in a climate not experiencing extreme winters. Hooking up to your main water line is a bit trickier and if you don’t feel up to the chore, you might want to call in a plumber to do this portion of the installation. Those living in cold climates or don’t have adequate water pressure from the spigot should tap into their main water line.

Hooking Up to a Spigot: When hooking up to a spigot, turn off the water supply going into the house and allow the spigot to drain. Remove the original spigot and replace with a galvanized or brass tee. Next, match the size of the outlets with faucet and irrigation pipe you are using. Then reattach the faucet, install a nipple (a short piece of pipe with threads on each end) into the tee fitting’s stem and finally connect the shut-off valve into that.

Hooking Up to The Main Water Line: Take the first step in hooking up to the main line by shutting off the water before the point in the line where you will be making a cut. For an above-ground connection, cut away a short section of pipe in the supply line just big enough for you to slide a slip tee into place. Next, install a nipple into the stem of the tee fitting and finally connect the shut-off valve into that.

Step 4 – Valve Manifold Assembly

Next, you want to install the valve manifold by digging a hole slighter bigger than the valve manifold box. Attach the main water supply line to one end of the valve manifold assembly, securing it by tightening the clamps.

Step 5 – Running Pipe

Now you need to run the PVC pipe. Lay your PVC pipe along the trenches and lay the appropriate sprinkler heads and connectors at each landscape flag or stake.

Step 6 – Assemble Parts

Starting at one sprinkler location, assemble all the parts together, other than the sprinkler head, and then move on to the next location and repeat the process. You want to flush any dirt or debris that made its way into the pipes before you install the sprinkler heads, as they can clog up.

Step 7 – Flush System

Next, you will want to flush the system by turning the water back on. Manually open each valve and allow the water to flush the pipe and then close it, moving onto the next valve and repeating the process.

Step 8 – Install Sprinkler Heads

After you have flushed the system of any possible debris, you can now attach the sprinkler heads to the irrigation system. Make sure any pop-ups are flush with the soil line.

Step 9 – Wiring Control Box

Now you want to give your home sprinkler system a brain by wiring the controller box per the manufacturer’s instructions. If you don’t feel comfortable working around electricity, call in an electrician or someone who has experience with wiring.

Step 10 – Test & Adjust

Now that you have finally accomplished all the hard work and you have finished installing your lawn sprinkler system, it’s time to test things out and program the control box, per the manufacturer’s instructions. Give your lawn a water audit to make sure sufficient water reaches all parts of the grass, or all the effort you’ve put into your lawn care will be for naught. Turn on the system, moving from one zone to the next and check the sprinkler heads and their spray patterns. Make any required adjustments to the spray patterns and program the control box to the days and hours you desire the system to operate.

Step 11 – Fill Trench

Once you have tested your newly installed lawn sprinkler system and everything works properly, it’s time for the final step of filling the trenches back in with dirt and replanting any sod you removed.

Now that things are properly up and running, pat yourself on the back and grab a cold one. You accomplished a difficult DIY task of successfully installing a home lawn sprinkler system. Gone are your days of dragging sprinklers all over the yard to quench its thirst. You can now set the irrigation system on automatic with just the flip of a switch. Mother Earth will thank you, and so will your plants. You’re using less water and your lawn, trees and other plants will be happier with a consistent and controlled watering schedule.

Joyce Starr

Joyce Starr

Joyce Starr has been writing on horticultural and landscaping topics for over 15 years. In addition, for the past 20 years she’s owned and operated a landscaping and design business. She shares her experience and passion for all things green through her writing.