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Make Smoke, Boil Water!
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This article describes what you'll need for tools and materials to set up any direct drip irrigation system. It also gives you some tips and tricks to save a few bucks and to get the job done more quickly. This article is written with Raindrip® materials in mind; it's what most of the 'big box' stores and local hardware stores carry, so if you go looking for materials, you should be able to find them easily.

The background:

I needed to set up a simple system to make sure our patio pots get the right amount of water. They're too easy to forget, and dragging a hose back and forth on a hot day isn't my idea of fun. My wife likes the pots arranged along the outside edge of the deck, and that's where they'll stay all summer, so… here we go. The photo here shows our starting point, with all the pots to water. There's also a hanging pot up there at the top of the steps, which needs to be watered. That one hanging pot is the one that always seems to accidentally get neglected. Here's a photo:

"Thinking it through" first:

You want to have the irrigation tubing as short as practical. So the best thing to do is get a water timer for your faucet, and run a hose to wherever your drip irrigation project begins. This does a couple things: first, it saves you the money you'd be spending on irrigation tubing, and second, it insures better water flow.

You will need a pressure regulator. This is absolutely necessary if you're on city water or have high water pressure. The pressure regulator keeps the water pressure down to a point where it won't blow the system apart, but at the same time it allows a good flow so you get good watering effects.

It's important to have a pressure regulator on the system, but you should note that (as of this writing, and in my local hardware store) Raindrip's pressure regulators do not have garden hose threads on the output. So to use the Raindrip regulator, be sure to get a female NPT-to-male hose thread adapter on the output of the pressure regulator. Here's a photo of Raindrip's pressure regulator. As you can see, the output side is NPT, not garden hose thread.

Water wants to flow in a straight line, and it likes to have as much space as possible to flow in. So the smart thing to do is deliver the water to the project in a large hose, then adapt that hose to the irrigation tubing right at the point where your project begins.

As you put your system together, keep that 'water wants to flow in a straight line' idea in mind. So build your system using a 'trunk and branch' philosophy. It's especially important when you have a long ways to go with the water (here, I'm going about 80 feet total), to always have your water going straight across a tee connection, with your branch feeding a set of emitters or an emitter. So in the picture here, the water 'trunk' goes left to right, and it 'branches' upward to the emitter.

If you can at all avoid it, never use a tubing elbow. I bought several some time ago, thinking it'd make for a nice, neat job when coming up to my raised garden beds; but they restrict the water flow so much that you can't use anything on the output side of them bigger than a few simple drip emitters.

Some notes on emitters:

I'm using the term 'emitter' because water emitters come in all forms, shapes, and sizes. There are emitters that shoot a fan spray to water a larger area (like a ground cover); some that look like miniature sprinklers and shoot drops everywhere to water a general area (I use a few of those in my raised garden beds); and simple drip emitters. The drip emitters are what we're working with on this particular job.

I recommend using the smallest emitter you can get (the red ones), and running the system for a bit longer. This allows the water to soak deeper into the soil, rather than using an emitter with more output. For this project I'm just using the standard red 1 GPH (gallon per hour) emitters. You only want to use the green 2 GPH emitters where you need a LOT of water in a short period, and you don't have more than 3 or 4 emitters on a line. The green 2 GPH emitters require an awful lot of volume, and can actually starve emitters further down the line if too many are used in a system.

Necessary Tools:

The list is really short! You just need two things.
Good pair of side-cutters (sharp, no nicks in the cutting edges)
Razor knife with a good grip

Here's a look at my "bag of tricks" box. I've put in and taken out drip systems around the house a number of times, so I've built up a pretty good inventory.

Necessary Supplies:

  • Drip tubing - add up all the length you need (I always add about 20%, because usually I forgot to measure something)
  • Emitters - get what you need, plus a couple of spares if you break one or have a defective one (it happens)
  • Tie-down stakes - the small ones are cute, but don't hold all that well. I recommend the larger ones, shaped like a V on the end; and if you need real hold-down power, there are ground stakes that hold the tubing super-secure and help to prevent tripping hazards.
  • Tees - get at least the number you need, plus one or two spares (for when you drop one and it disappears)
  • Hose-to-tubing adapter - this one requires some care when you pick it out. I have fiddled with a couple hoses and wondered why I got so many leaks on the adapter. I had a forehead-slapping moment when I figured it out: There is a black adapter which is NPT (pipe thread) - to-tubing, and there is a BLUE one which is the hose end-to-tubing adapter. Hanging on a hook in the store, they look the same. So if you're adapting to a hose, use the BLUE one, not the black one.
  • Pressure Regulator (and hose adapter)
  • Filter - this is optional, depending on the quality of your water. The way to decide if you need a filter is to consider whether or not you have problems with your shower head clogging. If you do, then get a filter - the emitters have holes that are about the same size as the nozzles in your shower head.
  • Water timer - this is pretty much your call as to what you use.

Building the System

Keeping in mind the 'trunk and branch' philosophy, we'll start at the one end at the water hose. We'll use the correct BLUE adapter for garden hose threads, not this BLACK one.

The best way to build is to just start at one end and work your way down the line. So we'll start with a short piece of tubing and a tee to come up to that pot, and we move on to the next tee. It isn't more than a couple inches where we need a tee to come out to these two new bedding plants. I just happened to have an end emitter that I'll salvage for use here. I'd used my side cutters to just clip the emitter off the end of a piece of tubing.

You can save a lot of money by reusing pieces from previous system builds. In my case, I had a few pieces left over from before. Begin by leaving the pieces out in the sun for a few minutes to warm them up and soften the tubing. Then take your razor knife and make a slit in the tubing from the end.

Bend the tubing toward the slit.

The slit should pop apart, freeing the part. If the tubing won't bend and pop open, then just deepen the slit a little and try bending the tubing again. You don’t have to try to cut all the way through the tubing - putting that much pressure with a razor knife on something you're holding in your hand is not advisable…

So here we are setting up a drip line that will have one or more inline emitters, along with an end emitter. Here you can see that the tubing is laid out with the end emitter installed, and the line runs through the second plant to be irrigated. (Ignore the weeds...)

All that's necessary is to clip the line with the sharp side cutters, insert an emitter in-line, and stake it down. Done! The rest of the job is just the same.

You work your way down the line, and before you know it, the job is done.
Here's a look at one of the pots with a drip line running to it, the slightly heavier-grade hold-down stake in the pot, and a heavy-duty hold-down stake holding the tubing to the ground. I could have tucked the tubing behind the deck's lattice, but we have a very smart and inquisitive Golden Retriever. If he pulls on the tubing (while my back is turned), I want to be able to get to it easily to fix it.

The hanging pot at the very end of the line is just a matter of getting the tubing up to it (disguising it as well as possible) cutting it to length, inserting an emitter, and inserting a heavier-duty hold-down stake to hold it all in place.

And finally at the end of the job - the reward of seeing the end-emitter doing its thing.

Hope you liked this and found it useful.
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