Main Types Of Irrigation Systems – Pros and Cons

Direct rainfall is a great way for plants to get natural nourishment. However, if you are trying to cultivate plants or maintain a lawn, you’re going to need more than just sparse rainfall to achieve the lush greenery you want. 

Having said that, setting up an irrigation system is something that’s easier said than done. You have to factor in the kind of soil you’re using, the general weather in your area, and even the land topography in your garden.

From there, you can choose which of the following systems has most, if not all, the advantages you need to keep your lawn or garden happy. Here are the most popular types of irrigation systems.

Sprinkler Irrigation

Automatic Lawn Sprinkler Water

With the help of sprinkler heads and water pumps, a sprinkler irrigation system distributes water like droplets of rain over a predetermined surface of land.

For smaller surfaces, one sprinkler installed at a central location should be enough. On the other hand, larger fields require several sprinkler heads to be plotted at strategic locations in order to ensure equal distribution of water.

Sprinkler irrigation systems are further classified into two kinds: spray and rotor sprinklers. The first one spouts water high and sends water in set radial trajectories like shower nozzles, while the second one utilizes sprinkler heads that spin or rotate in order to distribute water over an area. 

Pros of Sprinkler Irrigation:

  • Land levelling is not required since sprinkler systems work even on irregular topographies.
  • Compared to other systems like surface irrigation, water levels are easy to measure in a sprinkler system. Since water does not build up on the surface, you can immediately check how deep the water has seeped through the soil by sinking a screwdriver or stick into the ground.
  • The best system to use if you plan on incorporating plant food, fungicide, or fertilizer to your watering cycle since it ensures equal distribution.
  • Easy to operate and requires little to no manual labor after the system has been installed.

Cons of Sprinkler Irrigation:

  • The initial cost or purchase and installation may be hefty.
  • Vulnerable to wind conditions; strong winds will cause water sprinkles to drift.
  • You cannot run water contaminated with even the slightest debris, sand, or salt, since troubleshooting a blocked sprinkler head or valve is very difficult.

Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation

If you are planting row crops, it is highly suggested that you go with the drip irrigation system. Also called trickle irrigation, this system emits water into soils closely surrounding each plant or row with the help of slim plastic pipes fitted with drippers.

By installing this system, you can rest assured that each one of your plants will be given enough water attention. You can even install several drippers to cater to certain plants that need more water than others. 

Pros of Drip Irrigation:

  • This system uses and wastes the least amount of water since it does not irrigate the entire land surface, but only the soil immediately surrounding your plants.
  • Because of the targeted and gentle way it releases water, this system reduces soil erosion and eradicates weed growth.
  • Since water is released with extremely low pressure, it does not rack up high electricity costs like the other systems mentioned in this list.
  • Very convenient for seed germination and a great way to slowly and evenly feed your plants fertilizer.

Cons of Drip Irrigation:

  • Installation of the row pipes is labor and cost extensive.
  • Extreme heat can destroy plastic pipes, so maintenance is challenging for this irrigation system.
  • Emitters or drippers are prone to blockage, so it is highly suggested that you only use filtered water, which could cost you more for a separate filtration system.

Surface Irrigation

Surface irrigation

This type of irrigation system has been around for about a thousand years, and is arguably the most common watering system you will encounter. It relies heavily on gravity and the natural flow of water. It works by connecting one edge of your lawn or field to an adjacent water source.

As the water flows continuously, it is eventually distributed evenly to all edges of the soil patch. The most common types of surface irrigation include basin, furrow, and border immigration.

Pros of Surface Irrigation:

  • Since it is the most common type, it is not difficult to find people who have the basic knowledge to help you set it up.
  • Requires no mechanical pump and makes use of force generated naturally by gravity.
  • Among all the irrigation systems in this list, surface irrigation is the least vulnerable to climate considerations such as heavy wind or rain. In fact, this type of irrigation makes good use of rainwater by incorporating it into the water distribution system.
  • Salinity is the least of your worries since the minimum filtration rate of this system allows salt to be leached easily.

Cons of Surface Irrigation:

  • Will only work if your lawn or plantation is flat and levelled.
  • If you’re using low infiltration rate soil, your grass or crops might suffer from overwatering.
  • It’s hard to take out extra or excess water should a heavy rainfall land while the irrigation is ongoing.

Subsurface Irrigation

Subsurface irrigation

This system waters plants from below the ground. It uses the same water distribution pattern as drip irrigation systems, except this time the pipes are installed underground, instead of along the plant rows above the surface. This is considered the best method for those growing high-value crops like strawberries. 

Pros of Subsurface Irrigation:

  • In this system, virtually no water is lost through evaporation since the water distribution all happens underground.
  • Even the heaviest winds cannot affect its operation.
  • Minimizes risk of fungi or bacteria buildup since the leaves are not exposed to excess water unlike in sprinkle or surface irrigation.

Cons of Subsurface Irrigation:

  • Gives you very little opportunity to observe the system and monitor if everything is still working since the entire operation takes place underground, invisible.
  • Very easy for this system to break down especially if you use unfiltered or saline water. Just one piece of suspended debris can cause the whole thing to shut down.
  • Rodents and other animals that burrow underneath soils can chew on the tubes, and it would take you days to find out that that the irrigation system has been tampered with.

Other Types of Irrigation

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are three more irrigation systems that are common in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

Localized Irrigation

Like drip irrigation, this method directly waters each plant. Instead of a complex, centralized network, this system used piped networks applied to each plant. 

Center Pivot Irrigation

A type of sprinkler system where the nozzles are not permanently installed, but instead move around in a circular pattern atop wheeled towers. This is a more affordable system that’s best for flat lawns or regular-shaped plantations.

Lateral Move Irrigation

In this type of system, pipes are connected to a high canopy where sprinklers are placed and wheeled either by hand or by a mechanical system. It is a very affordable system but more labor-extensive than most other systems.

Manual Irrigation

Finally, this is the cheapest option to water the lawn/field. Using water cans or regular garden hoses, you have to manually distribute water across the land, ensuring that every inch is covered and every plant is nourished. If you already have watering cans and hoses with nozzle sprays, this method will cost you nothing in terms of money, but will take up a lot of your time and energy.

The Bottom Line

With so many options for irrigating your crops or lawn, choosing the best method depends on several factors, including your budget, area to be watered and water conservation factors, among others.

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