Find out why designing and installing an underground lawn sprinkler system can be a DIY project if you are willing to put in the work. Get tips on choosing water-saving sprinkler heads to conserve water. Also learn how to winterize your sprinkler system at the end of the season.
LESLIE: Well, if you’re tired of dragging out the hoses every time you need to water your yard, it just might be time to consider an underground sprinkler system .
TOM: Sprinkler systems are an effective, hands-free way to deliver the right amount of water to your lawn and make sure it gets exactly where it needs to be. Here with tips on how to choose the best sprinkler system for your house is Roger Cook , the landscaping contractor for This Old House .
ROGER: Thanks for having me.
TOM: I always wince when I see a sprinkler system delivering as much water to the street and the sidewalk as it does to the lawn. This is just one of the many inefficiencies of a system that’s not properly installed and maintained, right?
ROGER: Right. But what bothers me most is when it’s running during a rainstorm.
LESLIE: A rainstorm.
TOM: Oh, yeah, on top of that, exactly.
ROGER: Oh, I go crazy.
TOM: Yeah. So where do you start when you want to go ahead and put the sprinkler system in? How do you assess the lawn? How do you make the right decisions for where you want the sprinkler heads and so on? What are the considerations?
ROGER: Well, you have to map out your yard to decide where you’re going to put the sprinklers. Break it up into different zones. And you control those zones by a use of a controller so that the water gets delivered just where you want it to go.
TOM: So it’s, essentially, a valve that – in kind of like a zone and …
ROGER: A valve that – yeah, each valve for each zone.
ROGER: And then you have a controller that you say, “Oh, I want that valve to run for so much period of time.”
And you want to isolate things to common things. You want all the lawn in the sun to be on one zone, because that’ll probably need the most water. You want lawn that’s a little shadier – that gets a little less water, so that’s on a different zone. Your plant material needs to all be on a different zone because they don’t need quite as much water as a lawn does.
LESLIE: Now, you’re saying this as if the average homeowner is going to be the one out there figuring it out. I mean forgive me if I’m wrong but I’ve never known inground sprinkler systems to be, truly, a do-it-yourself project. Is it?
ROGER: Well, the design part is the hardest part and that’s figuring out what valves go where and what they control.
ROGER: Once you get the design done – and there’s usually places you can go to get help for that – it’s a matter of digging, putting in pipe together, some connections – plastic connections – and then just hooking everything up and you’re good to go. So you’ve got a lot of work to do but you can do it.
LESLIE: Do you want to?
ROGER: Some people do.
LESLIE: That’s insane.
Now, I’ve also heard that – for me, we decided to get an inground sprinkler system when the landscaper knocked on the door and said, “There is no point in me cutting your lawn if it is dead or you are not watering it. So please get an in-ground sprinkler system.” So we obliged and the lawn has been beautiful ever since. But I didn’t realize that there are efficiencies, as far as water usage, when it comes to the sprinkler heads. And unless you specify that, you’re not getting that.
ROGER: Right. The WaterSense label is the most efficient sprinkler system we have on the ground right now. And you want people who use WaterSense-labeled material but are also a certified WaterSense technician.
TOM: Now, WaterSense, of course, is the EPA’s program for water-efficient products, much like the ENERGY STAR program is for energy-efficient products. This is really products that conserve water , correct?
ROGER: Right. We want to conserve as much of the water as we can.
TOM: Now, how do they do that? Do they do that through the engineering of the heads?
ROGER: Engineering of the heads. They put in a housing and then inside the housing will go a separate, little sprinkler head that they can control how many gallons per minute that will come out with that. And that’s how they’ll determine how many gallons are going to that area.
LESLIE: Can you always modify a sprinkler plan? Like say you have big dreams to expand or change certain parts of your landscaping but you want to put the irrigation system in at this point. Is it adaptable or do you have to run extra lines to make it work for more plantings?
ROGER: The key is to get your valves in a spot where you don’t have to dig up the valves. They’re the most work. In other words, the water comes out and it goes into each individual valve, which tells a certain area to water. If you change it, you can simply come off the valves with another pipe and go to wherever you want so that it allows you to do it with the least amount of work.
TOM: We’re talking to Roger Cook. He’s the landscaping contractor on TV’s This Old House.
Roger, one of the most important points of the year, when it comes to maintaining your sprinkler system, is at the end of the season when it has to be drained so that it doesn’t freeze and break. Any tips to make sure that happens correctly?
ROGER: Do it before it gets below 32 degrees.
ROGER: Most of the people who don’t put in their own system will have a professional company come by and blow it out for a fee. And that’s always a good idea because it puts the onus on them to get it done before it’s freezing.
ROGER: Most of our watering is done by the end of September, unless you put in new plantings. You could pretty much shut off and drain your system then and you would not have any regard for when it goes below freezing.
TOM: Do you think that sprinkler systems are ultimately more efficient than hand-watering?
ROGER: Absolutely. Absolutely. We put a sprinkler  out and it just runs and goes everywhere. And before you know it, we’re busy with the kids or reading a book or whatever. So the area that was supposed to get 15 minutes now gets an hour’s worth of water and it’s running down the street. The controller just makes it so much easier for us to run it.
TOM: And we’re all about easy. Roger Cook, the landscaping contractor on TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit and maybe convincing us.
If you’ve been thinking about it, this is the season to go out and get that sprinkler system . You won’t regret it.
ROGER: Not at all.
LESLIE: Alright. Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com .
TOM: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by GMC. GMC, we are professional grade.