Installing Sprinklers in 6 Steps
By: Cole Mayer
My wife and I moved into our new house last December, and until June 9, it was an expanse of dirt and weeds. Over the weekend of June 9-12, my wife (a teacher on summer break), parents and uncle helped install a sprinkler system. Read on to find out how we did it – it’s surprisingly easy, if time-consuming.
Step 0: Making and breaking a plan
Through the magic of the internet, my dad (a retired urban planner) and I collaborated on a plan for the backyard. We decided on two sprinkler zones for maximum coverage while not overloading the valves. There’s also two drip zones, but as that wasn’t the focus quite yet, they aren’t on the plan. Each circle is coverage from one sprinkler head, represented by black dots.
Both my uncle and dad have installed sprinkler systems in their own yards. Unfortunately, we had slightly incorrect measurements and my wife decided she wanted a little more grass, a little less planter area. The area for the shed was also going to be grass, a play area for future kids, meaning it would need sprinkler coverage, too. Look closely and you can see the orange and yellow lines – the two sprinkler zones, dubbed zones 7 and 8 respectively, as there are 6 zones in the front yard. Zones 9 and 10 will be the drip zones.
Another change in plans, my wife decided she wants to paint a fence mural in the play area. We had to extend a trench and use a 360 degree sprinkler head to accommodate the change in plans, so I’ll have to figure out if there’s an area it won’t be hit by water as much. Or, trust in the paint to weather a daily beating. This should have been part of the original plan, but no plan survives contact with the enemy.
Another hiccup in the plan, and similar to the mural, I didn’t tell my dad I wanted a fire pit in the yard. Slightly left of the porch on the plan, there’s an area where blue, green and purple coverage circles overlap. This is probably my best place for the fire pit – cinder block, rock, or a metal that won’t rust. It shouldn’t block any of the sprinklers from providing coverage to other parts of the lawn.
With the planning done (excepting for the last-minute changes), it was time to start creating my backyard. Fair warning: This is going to make you sore. It will hurt. You will probably get blisters, even wearing gloves. Have knee pads handy, get gloves that fit, and have Epsom salts ready for a warm bath to relax tired muscles.
Prep work: weeding
The backyard was overgrown with weeds. I sprayed weed killer and took a trimmer to what was left. I probably should have waited longer to let the weed killer work. My wife’s uncle came out for a weekend and volunteered to use a hula hoe to help clear what was left of the weeds. After the area was clear, it was time to get down to business.
Step 1: Trenching
My wife and dad rented a trencher while I was at work on June 2. It took most of the day to trench. The chain got stuck multiple times and took some “percussive maintenance” with a rubber mallet to get the chain realigned. The changes to the plan necessitated hand trenching the next day.
For the hand trenching, I highly recommend a cutter mattock – as we called it, the ax-hoe (it’s actually an adze, not a hoe, but the name stuck). My uncle, a former volunteer firefighter, got his from an emergency services supply store for about $50. It was worth its weight in gold. My backyard was once a riverbed, with many fairly large rocks. The axe head part of the mattock was perfect for digging into the ground and cleaving small rocks, while the adze part allowed me to make the trenches deeper. With snow and frost, the trenches needed to be deep enough so the pipes won’t freeze. My wife and I would switch off, first with me digging, and then her with a narrow shovel or trowel to sweep away the dirt.
Step 2: Laying the pipe
The first part of this step is easy – connect the pipes and lay them into the trenches. Since I have a mid-sized yard, we used 1-inch pipe for good water flow. Be sure to get parts that match the size of the pipe you use.
Now for the not-as-easy part: To connect a sprinkler head to the pipe, cut the pipe with a ratchet cutter, and using a T-joint, glue each new end to the T. If possible, get colored paint to easily tell if a part has already been glued. From the T-joint, which should be pointed down, use funny pipe (flexible, rubber pipe) to connect to the sprinkler head, with an elbow on each end.
We managed to get about half the pipes in the ground that Friday, June 3. But, we still had more hand-trenching to do, and we were quickly running out of energy in the afternoon. We decided to rely more heavily on funny pipe, so we didn’t have to dig trenches quite as deep.
It took two more trips to Home Depot and a trip to an irrigation supply shop for more parts and more trenching, but by Saturday afternoon, 290 feet of pipes were laid, T-joints cut in, and sprinkler heads were attached via funny pipe. There was one 10-foot piece of pipe leftover.
Step 3: Connecting the wires
Connecting the wires from the valves is surprisingly simple. First, we ran sprinkler wire from the water main to the front yard timer to get the right length.
Each valve will have two wires: a common connection and single connections. Take one wire from each valve, twist them all together to connect them, and use a water-resistant wire cap to prevent corrosion. Next, connect the individual wires, which is the same process, but one wire per valve. Write down the color for each valve. For example, my Zone 7 is the green wire. Cap each one.
Connect wires to timer
The timer should have a color-coded system to push the other end of the sprinkler wire into (see the photo below). There might also be places to put in a wireless rain sensor or upgrade to more zones, but that’s for another time.
Step 4: Adjust the sprinkler heads
The finish line is in sight, and it’s time to start adjusting the heads of the sprinklers. Be sure you’ve put both the filter and nozzle in the heads. They may need cleaning after a test or two, to get any debris out of the pipes. We used the rocks we dug up to prop up the heads, taking into account there would be topsoil and sod. The heads I used have notches to indicate the start and end of the water arc. By twisting the head, we could change the arc. We mostly used 90, 180 and 360 degrees, but any part of a circle is possible with a 360 degree head. A small screw on top of the head changed the spray distance.
By the end of Saturday, I had a working sprinkler system.
Step 5: The drip zones
I’m not done yet, though. I still have the drip zones. The drip valves, which are on the left side of the above photo, won’t fit in the buried box and each point a different way – handy to know at a glance which valve covers which half of the yard. I still have to make the raised planters, but installing the drip system – which requires no trenching – will be much easier.
Step 6: Finishing touches
We’re buried the trenches with topsoil since the last photo was taken. We’ve piled up the rocks into a mound, for use in garden planters down the line. All that’s left is the grass.
One last piece of advice: Before burying the pipe, take a picture of the pipes. This will help if you need to dig in the backyard later, or if repairs are needed. If possible, use a drone for an aerial view of your yard. I popped out a screen from a second-floor window climbed out on the roof – somewhat more dangerous than having a robot do most of the work for you. A bird’s-eye view, however, is perfect compared to the stretched-out panoramic photo I originally took.
With the sprinklers running and hooked up to the timer, I feel like a water wizard, able to control water with a button press.
Naturally, one the best part of doing the sprinklers myself is the money I’ve saved (and the pride of a job well done). For the entire backyard, a contractor wanted $6,000. That’s for parts and labor. With topsoil and parts returned, I’ve spent about $1,000.
On top of saving money, I have the satisfaction of knowing I did the work, by my own hand. And that’s one of the best feelings in the world.