By the time August rolls around each year, you can usually tell which lawns have a sprinkler system installed — and which ones don’t. The high temperatures and blistering sun zap all the moisture out of the grass, trees, and landscaping. And while many yards look dry and lifeless, those with sprinkler systems are as fresh and green as if it were spring. But what if you have sprinklers and parts of your yard STILL look bad?

It could be a broken sprinkler head. Today, we’re talking repairing and adjusting sprinkler heads. Need to know how to repair a sprinkler head or replace it? We’ve got you covered…

How Your Sprinkler System Works

Before diving into repairs, it’s important to understand how your sprinkler irrigation system works. Most systems consist of the following:

  • A water supply pipe that’s connected to your main water source.
  • A ground-level valve box that’s divided into different underground irrigation zones.
  • Zone valves that control each individual irrigation zone.
  • An electronic controller to manage the time and duration of the watering sessions.

Irrigation zones are divided up by parts of your yard. For example, a home could have multiple zones in the front yard that cover the lawn and flower beds, and additional zones in the back and side yard. These configurations vary depending on the model and your yard.

When a zone valve is open, water flows through the underground pipes and into the irrigation heads in that zone for a specific amount of time until the controller shuts it off.

The most common problems people run into with their sprinkler system are:

  • Sprinkler zones not coming on.
  • Leaky zone valve.
  • Sprinkler heads have low water pressure.
  • Individual sprinkler heads do not work.

Identify the Broken Sprinkler Head

Broken sprinkler head
Sometimes it’s easy to identify a broken sprinkler head. Credit: Daniel R. Blume, CC by-SA 2.0

If it’s been a while since you’ve done anything with your sprinkler system (aside from programming it), then you may not even know where all of your sprinkler heads are. So turn it on and watch your grass to see where the sprinkler heads are popping up. Observe how the water is distributed and look for any areas of the lawn and garden where its spray pattern isn’t functioning properly, watering unequally, or not watering at all.

These are all indications that your sprinkler head needs repair. Once you’ve located any broken sprinkler heads, it’s time to repair them.

How to Fix a Broken Sprinkler Head

In some cases, fixing your sprinkler system is a simple DIY job of adjusting a spray head. And other times, you may need to call in the pros.

The most common reason that a sprinkler head isn’t working is that it has been damaged. Tell-tale signs that it’s broken are damaged plastic casing around the sprinkler head or the entire spray nozzle is broken off.

Other signs that your sprinkler head needs repair include a wild stream of water, no water flow at all from the sprinkler head, or a pop-up sprinkler head that doesn’t pop up.

If they have been damaged, then you will need to replace them. However, if they don’t show any visible signs of damage, then simple clearing any debris and adjusting the spray pattern may do the trick.

How to Adjust Sprinkler Heads’ Spray Pattern

There are multiple types of sprinkler heads and each one has slightly different directions. The most common types are stationary, rotor, pop-up, and pulsating sprinkler heads.

While some of the steps are similar, each one may vary. You’ll need a flat-head screwdriver and possibly a few other tools to adjust them depending on the type of head that it is.

  • To adjust a stationary sprinkler head, find the spray radius adjustment screw on top of the nozzle. You may need to adjust it slightly to point the water spray in the direction of your lawn that you want it. Turning it clockwise can also help lower the water pressure on a spray head that is shooting too much water out.
  • On a rotor sprinkler, you may need to adjust both the radius and the spray arc. A rotor sprinkler nozzle is held in place with a setscrew. However, the instructions on these vary with different manufacturers so you’ll need to check your manufacturer’s specific instructions to make arc adjustment and the amount of water coming from this type of sprinkler head.
  • Pop-up sprinkler heads are very common and easy to make adjustments to, but you’ll have to adjust it while the sprinkler is running. When you have the sprinkler going, use a flat-head screwdriver to rotate the adjustment screw found on the top of the nozzle. If you need to increase the width of the spray pattern, turn the screw counterclockwise. If you want to decrease it, turn the small screw clockwise.
  • Pulsating sprinkler heads don’t require any special tools for adjusting, but before you begin, be sure to check the sprinkler heads for any damage and map out the areas that you want them to hit. Next, adjust the speed of the water output by pushing the tabs on the nozzle to the level you want. Turn the sprinklers on to make sure that they are all working. Then adjust the spray distance on each of the pulsating sprinkler heads. Since these rotary sprinklers can go full circle, you may need to adjust the degrees to which they turn, especially if they are close to a driveway or sidewalk.

Regardless of the type of sprinkler heads you have, hopefully, these adjustments will fix the broken sprinkler head. But if they don’t, you may need to replace it altogether.

Replacing a Broken Sprinkler Head

If you can repair it yourself, it’s relatively cheap. You’ll need a few tools and the new sprinkler head. The first step here is to identify what type of sprinkler head it is. This includes the make (i.e. Rain Bird, Orbit, Hunter, etc.) and model of the current sprinkler head. You also need to know the size of the nozzle.

Sprinklers with rotor heads come in different rotation patterns. And some rotate the full circle while others only rotate half circle. So be sure to replace the broken one with one that rotates in the right direction. You can order the replacement head online or at a local home improvement store. The range of costs are:

  • Stationary sprinkler heads: $2 to $15
  • Rotor sprinklers: $5 to $20
  • Pop-up sprinkler heads: $2 to $10
  • Pulsating sprinkler heads: $10 to $20

Before you buy a new sprinkler head, make sure that you have the right one. According to Jeff Watson of Bright Water Irrigation and Lighting in Central Florida, there are about seven or eight different types of sprinkler heads. And if you get the wrong one, the sprinkler spray in that zone will be distributed unevenly.

He said that this is a common mistake amongst DIYers. “You’ve got to get the right head for the right spot, and have the right fittings,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll end up making 2 to 3 trips back to the home improvement store to find the right one.”

Jeff gave the example of using a stationary mister and rotating sprinkler head in the same zone. “It takes 20 minutes for a stationary mister to cover an area while it takes 75 minutes for a rotator,” he said. “You can’t put them in the same sprinkler zone.”

“It’s a very common mistake amongst people trying to fix their irrigation system on their own,” says Jeff.  If you do it on your own, heed Jeff’s warning!

You’ve Identified the Right Sprinkler Head, What’s Next?

Once you’ve got the new sprinkler head and the right tools to install it,  you are ready to move on. Dig a hole around the sprinkler carefully so that you don’t hit the waterline. Remove the dirt and sod around the sprinkler head and unscrew it using a counterclockwise motion. Screw in the new head and fill the hole back with the dirt and sod.

Set up the nozzle on the new head by lifting the cap and threading it on the stem. Once you’ve replaced it, run that zone of your sprinkler system to ensure its working properly. If the water pressure is off, then it could be that despite your best efforts you still got the wrong sprinkler head. And you may need another trip back to the home improvement store.

Be sure to save your receipt until you know everything is working!

Alternatively, you can save yourself some time and hire an expert to repair or replace a broken sprinkler head. The cost ranges from around $2.50 to $30 for parts plus labor, which is usually $50 to $100 per hour.

The advantage here is that you don’t have to fidget with it yourself, and as Jeff says, “we have the different types of sprinkler heads and the proper tools to do the job right the first time.”

What Causes Sprinkler Heads to Break?

There are a number of reasons that a sprinkler head will break, but the two most common reasons are weather and mechanical issues. If you live in a climate where temps drop below freezing, then oftentimes, this is the culprit. To help prevent this, you may want to winterize your sprinkler system.

Mechanical damage to your lawn sprinkler typically comes from a lawnmower or a vehicle. Most damage from lawnmowers is the result of sprinkler heads set at the wrong grade. You can reduce the risk of your lawnmower or lawn service damaging it, by making sure it is installed at the correct height.

But that leads to another question – if it’s the lawn service who breaks it, are you responsible for the repair? In most cases, with residential lawn services, there isn’t a contract detailing things such as this. But many reputable lawn services will agree to cover the cost if they believe that the damage was their fault.

So lawnmowers and vehicles are the most common causes of mechanical damage but did you know that aerating your lawn can also cause damage to sprinkler heads? However, this is preventable. Map out your irrigation system before you aerate. If you are hiring a company to do it for you, let them know you have a sprinkler system and where the sprinklers are located.

Occasional Repair a Price for a Great Lawn

An irrigation system is great for your lawn. After all, who wants to move a sprinkler around the yard in the heat of the summer months? But, like anything else, it does require maintenance. Check yours periodically and fine-tune it when needed. Otherwise, you can be sure that your lawn will let you know if it’s not getting the water it needs!