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What is an Irrigation System?

By Ken Black
Updated May 16, 2024
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An irrigation system is a method of delivering water to an area where it is needed, but not normally present in the required amounts. Generally, it is used for agriculture and landscaping purposes. The effectiveness of the irrigation is determined by a number of different factors, including the type of delivery system and the conditions at its time of use.

The key to an effective irrigation system is to get as much water to the plants, or into the soil, as possible. While this may seem like an easy thing to do, it is not. In fact, water loss from these systems can be up to 50% in some cases. The reason for this is simple: evaporation.

When water is sprayed over a large distance, it begins to break up from a steady stream and eventually becomes small droplets, or even a mist. On hot and sunny days, a good portion of this water never makes it to the ground. This phenomenon is easily seen, especially when the sun is low on the horizon and hits the water. Some of the water can be clearly seen going up, not down.

The key to an effective irrigation system is to keep the water as close to where it is needed as possible. Many systems are effective at doing this and therefore have water efficiency rates of 90% or more. A low energy precision application center pivot system, for example, has lines hanging down from massive arms that spray water from a level just above the plant’s height. Drip irrigation runs water through pipes, often PVC, bored with holes. The water then drips out at strategically-placed holes in areas where it is needed, cutting down on evaporation loss.

For those who must use a sprinkler system, there are other ways that can help improve the efficiency and conserve water. For example, sprinkling during hours when the sun is down helps increase efficiency dramatically. It also opens up the area for enjoyment and use during the daytime hours. Making sure that the system does not automatically turn on during times of adequate rainfall can also help conserve water.

No matter what irrigation system is chosen, there are always ways to cut costs and conserve resources. In some areas, especially where water is scarce, this is not only an option, but a requirement by law. In the end, finding efficient ways to irrigate is not only good for the environment, but also for an individual’s financial resources.

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Discussion Comments
By anon930835 — On Feb 06, 2014

It's better to use the drip irrigation system rather than using sprinkler system because of its costs, needing more replacement and wasting water by vaporization.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 13, 2012

@sunshined - I think those are the same kinds of sprinklers that farmers use in their irrigation systems here in north Mississippi. I took a trip through the Delta last summer and saw miles of big silver mechanisms hooked together and standing among the rows in fields of corn.

The sprinklers were designed to drip water out the bottom, so none got lost in the air. I believe the Mississippi River was probably the source for the irrigation, since it was so close to the fields and so full of water.

The corn fields seemed to be doing very well, so this type of irrigation system must be good. The equipment for it was probably quite expensive, but it has probably saved farmers lots of grief over lost crops over the years.

By Mykol — On Apr 13, 2012

We have to be careful how often we can use any type of yard irrigation system where we live. There are many times when we are not allowed to water our lawns or gardens because we have to conserve water.

When you think about it, I would much rather have water for my cooking and bathing than for green grass. I have nothing against lush, green grass in my yard, but I don't think it is a necessity.

I have seen homeowners and companies who will use a lawn irrigation system even when we have had plenty of rain. To me, that seems like a waste of money and resources.

By andee — On Apr 13, 2012
My garden irrigation system consists of an old hose with holes poked in it that is set down in the middle of my garden.

This is a perfect way to recycle old hoses that aren't much good for anything else. I have found this is more efficient than using a sprinkler, as the water is closer to the roots and seems to be absorbed better.

Our summers are either feast or famine when it comes to rainfall. There are some years when we get too much rain, and other years when my garden next the extra water.

My vegetables -- especially the tomatoes -- do so much better when they get adequate water. I leave this hose hooked up all season long and just turn it on as needed.

By LisaLou — On Apr 13, 2012

My sister lives in Arizona and they have an underground lawn irrigation system for their flowers and plants.

This looks like it would be the way to go. They don't get much rain, but the landscaping plants they have don't require much rain either.

The first time I visited her I was surprised at the colors and variety of plants she had in her yard. I pictured the desert area as being dry and drab, but the plants and flowers she had were very colorful.

With the underground irrigation it really takes a lot of work out of the regular maintenance. If I didn't have such a big area to maintain where I live, I would consider this as well.

She has a small yard, so this type of irrigation system works perfectly for her. Her automatic irrigation system is set to come on and go off at set times which really makes it easy to take care of.

By sunshined — On Apr 12, 2012

I live in Nebraska, and when you drive across our state in the summer, you will see large irrigation sprinkler systems.

We have hot, dry summers and don't usually get enough rainfall for the crops we grow. Most of these irrigation systems being used are for crops of corn.

They look like gigantic sprinklers and you can see the water shooting out of them and watering the crops.

I have no idea how much is spent on irrigating our crops, but without this extra help, many of our crops would not survive or would have a very low yield.

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