Whether you're looking for the best way to keep your lawn watered or more concerned about the vegetable garden near the garage, you may be weighing the advantages of a drip versus a sprinkler system. The choice isn't always straightforward, because both have advantages and drawbacks. It involves budget, environmental concerns, the way you plan to use your garden or lawn and whether you prefer to install the system yourself.
There's no doubt about it: A sprinkler system is more expensive to install and operate than a drip system. Sprinkler pipes go underground, which means you have to excavate the lawn or garden, and that usually involves outside labor and machinery. The components are more expensive, too, although not radically so. The fact that sprinklers wantonly scatter water to the four winds can also have an impact on your budget and may be an environmental concern if you live in a community that rations water. Some localities require drip irrigation for areas up to a certain size.
When it comes to watering individual plants efficiency, drip systems win hands-down. Emitters deposit water only where it's needed, and the water soaks deeply and irrigates the roots rather than evaporating into the air. On the other hand, drip systems aren't well suited for lawns. Their location-specific emitters aren't appropriate for wide areas that need uniform coverage, and grass roots, which are close to the surface, don't benefit when water sinks deep into the soil. Moreover, you can't bury drip tubing to get it out of the way of the lawnmower -- if you do, the emitters will clog.
One of the features of drip systems is the ease with which you can add and remove components, and that's an advantage for any type of garden. If a plant is getting too much water, you can simply exchange the nearest emitter for one that delivers less water -- or you can remove it -- without affecting the rest of the system. Similarly, you can add emitters or micro-sprinklers to irrigate larger areas, such as strawberry patches. Making similar changes to a sprinkler system isn't impossible, but it involves digging and plumbing. The only changes that are convenient are resetting the timer and controlling the water volume.
Because the emitters are at ground level and can siphon dirt into the lines, drip components tend to clog more easily than those of sprinkler systems. If you aren't in the habit of checking the operation of the emitters regularly, you may not notice a clogged emitter, and one of your plants may die. This scenario rarely happens when you have a sprinkler system. If one of the sprinkler heads clogs, which is rare, the effect is immediately apparent, and you can make the necessary repairs before any of your plants suffer.