Lessons Learned While Installing Farm Irrigation System

This is a collection of thoughts about what we have done right in installing our irrigation system, and what we probably should have done differently.


Our system is simple and small by modern standards, about 1,000 feet of PVC pipe running in trenches to eight faucets, one outdoor sink, and three drip irrigation stations, and all within about 500 feet of each other. It is daunting for us, however, and the project has continued for a couple of weeks. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Do the hand digging before you rent the trencher. Once you open a trench, you don’t want it to stay open any longer than absolutely necessary. We should have done the hand digging necessary to join the existing plumbing system before opening the trenches, so we could have started immediately laying pipe after the trenches were open. Instead, we lost 3-4 crucial days of dry weather while we did the hand-digging and connecting. This was the first time I had ever glued PVC, so I really needed to learn on the simple jobs like running 3/4″ pipe to a faucet. Now that I am familiar with how to glue PVC, I would go ahead and cut into the existing system and cap off the connection so I could avoid having to do that with the trenches open.

Use a trencher with hydraulic steering. We paid $40 extra to rent the trencher that has hydraulic steering, in our case a Vermeer RT200 from Southern Rental in Auburn. The less expensive model would have required that we “muscle” the trencher when we needed it to change directions. I can’t speak for the less expensive model, because I’ve never used it. What I can tell you is that the RT200 was simple to operate and negotiated the many gradual turns we knew we needed without breaking a sweat. See Trenching for Drip Irrigation for more info.

Go ahead; add that extra faucet. Once you’re renting a trencher, the extra cost of running a few extra feet and adding another faucet is small. This is a good time to plan not just for what you need now but for what you think you might need later, and go ahead and prepare for it.

Don’t go crazy with cut-offs. We thought we would need cut-off valves here, there, and everywhere, but in planning we realized we wouldn’t. On those rare occasions when we need to work on the system, it’s really not that disruptive to turn off half the system to work on it. We ended up returning about half the cut-off valves we had thought we would need.

Do you really need a bucket full of spare fittings? My brother is a big believer in keeping one or two of the fittings for his irrigation system on hand so he can get to them quickly in a pinch. That’s probably the right approach for him, because the nearest hardware store is 45 minutes away. By contrast, we’re close to Tallassee, so I’m less than 10 minutes away from True Value, where they have all the fittings I think I’m likely to need. I’ll let them maintain that inventory, and I’ll keep that bucket empty.

And speaking of inventory . . . I let the salesman at the drip irrigation place I used talk me into buying 1 1/2″ pipe, on the grounds that 1 1/4″ (which we agreed would be adequate for our application) wasn’t standard and that fittings might be harder to find. Turns out it’s just the opposite in my neck of the woods. 1 1/4″ is “standard” around here, and 1 1/2″ is the unusual size. You can get it, but it’s more costly and there are fewer fittings available, so you sometimes end up needing to use three fittings instead of two, or one. The lesson I draw from this is that I should have found out what was standard or common in my area before shopping for drip irrigation parts, so when the salesman tried to tell me what was standard I could have said maybe in your area, but not here. I now have a system that uses 1 1/4″ (because that’s the size of the pre-existing pipe), 1 1/2″ pipe for the main lines, and 3/4″ pipe for all the faucets and some of the drip. That’s just the kind of fragmentation I was hoping to avoid. It’s not deadly, but it will make repairs and expansions later on a tad trickier.

But by all means do it. We’re already reaping the benefits of our system, and we don’t even have the drip stations working yet. We were using hoses to reach everything, and it was about to wear us out just dragging hoses all over the place. If you’re trying to grow things and don’t live in the jungle, you will be happy you have spent the time (and let’s be honest, an amount of money that’s not trivial) to have a truly functional and flexible irrigation system.

1 thought on “Lessons Learned While Installing Farm Irrigation System”

  1. As human population pressure increases, so goes the conventional wisdom, the need for water conservation – especially in the arid and semiarid regions of the world – increases right along with it. More and more people using less and less water appears to be the goal. Towards the achievement of this goal various “xeriscape” (Greek: xeric = “dry”) strategies are typically recommended that usually include employment of drip or microirrigation technologies based on petroleum derived polyethylene or other artificial polymer tubing, the establishment of sclerophyllous or otherwise drylands adapted plants, and the spreading of inorganic (gravel) mulches. In other words, the goal of maximizing human population while minimizing water use is commonly thought to involve making the “landscaped” environment resemble as closely as possible the surface of the moon. I propose the adoption of the term “lunascaping” as the more apt descriptor for effecting the structural simplification and manipulation of plant assemblages in the engineered environment.

    Plastic – not plants – is the predominant feature of the lunascaped environment. Plastic pipe, typically polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and/or polyethylene (PE) delivers the precious water. A tangle of ¼” interior diameter (ID – lunascaping has a jargon of abbrev. all its own) “spaghetti tubing” typically lays upon the moon-like surface of the ground like the blackened entrails of some gutted lunar beast. This plastic tubing could be buried it’s true, but burying it only ensures that it will have to be dug back up again when it springs leaks as it invariably will. So better to leave this tangle exposed on the surface where it can be tended again and again and again. One certainty of the lunascape is that it will constantly have to be repaired as plastic photodegrades, drippers clog, and connections spring leaks. Such constant maintenance may appeal to the OCD (obsessive – compulsive disordered) tinkerer but is apt to drive any normal Earthling loony. Of course, the components of the lunascape water delivery system are intentionally designed to fail, guaranteeing that the lunascaper will constantly shell out $$$ for replacement parts, to the profit of the retailer and manufacturer. The naïve lunascaper will soon find out that parts made by competing manufacturers aren’t compatible, adding to the already considerable expense. Planned obsolescence and incompatibility of parts: isn’t capitalism wonderful? In addition to plastic pipes and tubing, plastic fittings, plastic filters and pressure reducers, plastic “emitters” or drippers… the lunascaped environment is also usually underlaid with plastic “weed barrier” sheeting beneath the gravel mulch. Erecting a plastic dome over the lunascaped area and replacing living with plastic plants would fulfill the lunascaper’s unspoken ambition of exerting complete control over nature. The devotion to plastic – the unsustainable product of a Petroleum Age rapidly drawing to a close – would be consummate. Plastic plants in a plastic moonscape for plastic people.

    Sometimes endemic plants are chosen for the lunascape but from Austin to San Diego two ubiquitous favorites are Perovskia atriplicifolia the “Russian sage” and Hesperaloe parvifolia the “red yucca.” The facts that Perovskia is neither from Russia or a sage and that Hesperaloe isn’t a yucca doesn’t seem to bother the afficianados of these exotic plants. Both are indeed nice plants in their own right but seeing the former native of Afghanistan and Iran together with the latter indigene of northern Mexico planted together in every median and dentist’s office entryway across the American southwest makes clear that the goal of lunascaping definitely is NOT the emulation of a natural plant community. This is to be expected since there are no natural plant communities on the moon.

    Woe unto Juan or Jose should he fail to rake up every scrap of organic detritus blown into the lunascaped environment by the wind. Organic mulch does not occur on the moon and so is not welcome in the lunascape. Occasionally chipped bark trucked in from sawmills in the humid Pacific northwest is allowed but for the most part, inorganic mulches are preferred. Crushed rock of contrasting color may be employed for covering plastic sheeting, and walkways, the lunascaper’s initials, swastikas, or whatever… may be deliniated with colored gravel. The cheesiness of such design is restricted only by the lunascaper’s sense of shame. Rocks – preferably petrified wood – may be interspersed among or in place of the plants. The lunascaper may even paint these rocks if so desired. Once again, the goal of lunascaping seems to be that of engineering as artificial of an environment as possible.

    With the foregoing brief description of lunascaping this column comes to a close. The provision of a tacky artificial environment by means of supplying minimal amounts of water to haphazard assemblages of predominantly exotic plants via petroleum derived plastic gadgetry is seen as the preferred solution to the related issues of unrestricted human population growth and water shortages due to anthropogenic climate change. Apparently, this unsustainable “solution” to these problems is regarded as being superior to reducing human population, ending reliance on petroleum and petroleum derived products, and developing an appreciation for native plant communities in all their “messy” natural diversity.

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