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Do Irrigation Systems Save Water?

With all the concern over the environment these days, saving water has never been more important – especially in the yard. So do modern garden irrigation systems actually save water?

A specialist garden irrigation system will use 30 to 70% less H2O than a conventional sprinkler. Both drip irrigation and sprinkler based smart irrigation systems use smart technology such as rain sensors to deliver the right amount of water to individual plants, with no waste and excess spray.

Let’s look into the topic of garden irrigation systems in more depth, and discover how much water they really use (or save), how they do it – and how much these systems cost to fit…

Do Irrigation Systems Save Water?

How Much Water Does An Irrigation System Save?

It’s hard to put a figure on this, as it depends on how much water you currently use! However, with its targeted way of distributing water to your plants, an irrigation system is thought to use 30 to 70% less H2O than a conventional sprinkler.

Yes, we said this was imprecise, and there’s a big difference between 30 and 70%. But what is quite clear is that an irrigation system does save water. 

There will be the initial cost in setting up the system (we’ll look at this shortly) and there will be some basic maintenance. However, just imagine sitting back and knowing that your plants are getting the water they need, and you’re saving money. An irrigation system is definitely something serious gardeners need to explore.

How Does Irrigation Save Water?

Picture watering your garden with the hose pipe, or even the watering can with its rose on. How much of that spray actually reaches the plant, and how much is indiscriminately sprayed elsewhere?

This isn’t a criticism of our plant watering skills! It’s actually really tricky to get water to the right spot, especially if you’re watering a large flower bed or vegetable patch. An irrigation system works by delivering the right amount of water to the individual plants, with no waste and excess spray.

You can get sophisticated irrigation systems these days, that make the most of smart technology to make sure you get the maximum savings. 

A rain sensor ensures that you’re not watering on days when you really don’t want to. A timer lets you program the water to come on during the early morning or evening when it’s less likely to be wasted through evaporation.

You can also set the system to deliver different amounts of water to different zones, ensuring that your plants aren’t receiving too much or too little water.

There are two main types of garden irrigation system: rotor or spray head systems or drip feed systems. They work in different ways and have different advantages. 

How Efficient Are Sprinkler Systems?

A sprinkler system is the simpler of the two types of irrigation system (the other type is a drip irrigation system). It uses spray or rotor heads combined with pipes and usually pumps to sprinkle water over your crops.

This system simulates natural rainfall, and is a good way to water a lot of plants at once. If you have a larger garden, this is probably the sprinkler system that you’ll choose. If your plants are happy to get their leaves wet, it’s a natural way to make sure they’re watered.

But… it’s not the most efficient way to use water. As with a hose pipe or watering can head, the water spray misses more than it hits. Arguably, so does rain, but at least that’s free! As we mentioned earlier, a more direct drip watering system can be 30-70% more efficient than a more traditional sprinkler.

Don’t dismiss a sprinkler system. It’s still a more targeted way of watering the garden than firing your hose pipe at it, and you can sit back happily knowing that your plants aren’t drying out. It’s also easier to set up than a drip system.

Making the system as smart as possible will help to keep costs down. Set the timer to come on when the day is cooler (such as early morning or in the evening), and you won’t lose water through natural evaporation.

Again, a smart system can be set up with a rain sensor. There’s no need to simulate rainfall when you’re experiencing the real thing!

Garden Irrigation System

Why Does Drip Irrigation Save Water?

A drip irrigation system works differently. Again, you need a system of pipes running through your flower beds or vegetable patch. Instead of coming on a couple of times a day and spraying the plants, the drip irrigation system slowly dispenses water into the soil.

This way, there is zero water wasted. Unlike a sprinkler, the little drip irrigation system ensures  that every single drop of water goes straight into the soil.

The irrigation pipework consists of a pipe with a series of holes in it. These let drops of water drip out when the water is flowing through the pipe. These holes are arranged so there’s one at the base of each plant that needs watering.

So, when there’s water in the pipe, the plants receive a slow and steady drip of water, direct to their roots. Literally not a drop is wasted.

Of course, this more precision approach to watering is trickier to set up than a sprinkler system. It tends to work best in organized rows of vegetables, rather than a more free-form style of flower bed.

There are other advantages to a drip system. One is aesthetics: you won’t see any sprinkler heads, and the pipework is right down by the soil. It’s a good choice from this perspective.

Drip systems are also good if your garden is on a slope. You won’t get water run-off, as all the drips are going right into the soil. 

Just keep flushing through the system to avoid stagnant water and make sure that the water is  flowing easily, and check that the holes aren’t getting clogged with dirt or debris. 

The thing with this system is that it’s designed to keep on watering unobtrusively. That’s great, but it also means that you have to actively check for problems, otherwise you might not notice them.

How Much Does it Cost To Fit a Garden Irrigation System?

The typical, fairly standard drip irrigation system costs between $80 and $100 dollars per 100 feet of watering. This is if you fit it yourself.

If you pay an installer, you’re talking at least $300 for the same area. The advantage here is that they should also prepare the ground for you, which certainly saves you time and labor.

You can pick up the basic kit itself for under $20 on Amazon, which will include fittings as well as pipes and the little drip nozzles. Of course, timers and sensors will add extra cost (timers are in the region of $30 or $40), and as with everything, the more you need, the more it will cost.

Are sprinkler systems cheaper? Again, you can order a basic kit from Amazon for $20-40. Some of these ready-made irrigation sets actually come with both sprinkler heads and drip piping, so you can choose different methods for different plants.

If you don’t want to splash the cash on your watering system, you can make a DIY drip irrigation set up for just a few dollars. It won’t be fancy, but it will work on a basic level. 

Want to know how to make your own drip irrigation system? Take a look at this film from the Ten Dollar Gardener, as she installs a drip system in a yard for next to no cost. 

With the right attachments, you can even run your irrigation system from your rainwater harvesting barrel, which makes it an incredibly efficient way to keep your plants and crops healthy. Here’s a bit more about setting up your own rainwater harvesting system using a water barrel


We’ve always watered our lawn, veg and flower beds with a conventional sprinkler, watering can or the hose – but this may not be green enough even though we sometimes recycle rainwater from our water barrels.

Perhaps it’s time to invest in a more up to date piece of irrigation kit that can sense when the weather is dry and do the watering for us in a more precise way?

This does sound very efficient and will no doubt be great for the environment – but it also sounds a little expensive too. 🙂

Mark H.

Homeowner and property investor Mark H. aspires to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >