How to Install a Backyard Sprinkler System on a Timer (6 Steps)
By Cole Mayer
My backyard was, until June 9, half dirt, half weeds. My wife and I moved into our new house in December, and we haven’t had the time to do anything yet (plus snow tends to get in the way). Over the weekend of June 9-12, my wife (a teacher thankfully now on summer break), parents and uncle (all retired) helped install a sprinkler system. With me as a freelance writer and her as a teacher, having my family help made it possible to still pay bills. Read on to find out how we did it, and how much money we saved.
Step 0: Planning
I helped my dad (through the magic of the internet, him being two states away) draft this plan for the sprinkler system in the backyard. It’s hard to tell, but there’s two sprinkler zones for the yard, color-coded orange and yellow, and two drip zones for gardens and planters. Each circle is coverage from one head. We decided to focus our efforts on the sprinklers, as I could do the drip zones myself.
My uncle recently helped his son/my cousin put in an irrigation system, and my dad did it for his own house, so we have some idea of what we’re doing. Of course, as you have probably guessed by now, no plan survives contact with the enemy – in this case, slightly incorrect measurements and my wife deciding she wanted a little more grass, a little less planter area, and the other changes. The area for the shed was also going to be grass, meaning it would need coverage, too. Look closely and you can see the orange and yellow lines – the two sprinkler zones, dubbed zones 7 and 8 respectively, as there are 6 zones in the front yard. Zones 9 and 10 will be drip zones.
I also have to account for my wife wanting to paint a fence mural. Though it’s not on the plan due to the change, it will go in the play area, where the shed is on the plan. Because we had to extend a trench and use a 360 degree sprinkler head, the the paint will be sprayed on a daily basis. Even if I changed which fence the painting is on, due to the wind we have in our area, the mural will inevitably get wet. On top of coverage, I have to think about types of paint, otherwise the sprinklers will just destroy the mural. All of this should have been in the plan, but was decided after I sent the original idea to my dad, who was an urban planner for 35 years. My suggestion is to thoroughly plan out everything beforehand, rather than having a general idea, or, like me, you will have to do more work in the long run.
With the changes to that area, I also had to factor in the foundation of the house itself. Specifically, standing water from the sprinklers and how the area around the foundation was graded. With the corner sprinkler head removed and another added down the line, with, as mentioned, 360 degree coverage, it will hit the wall and foundation. I’ll have to monitor it in the future, and slope away with topsoil.
Finally, I should have decided where I want to put things on the lawn – like a fire pit – before sending my dad the original idea. Slightly left of the porch on the plan, there’s an area where blue, green and purple coverage circles overlap. This is probably my best place for the fire pit – cinder block, rock, or a metal that won’t rust, depending on if I want to build or buy – due to the overlap. It shouldn’t block any of the sprinklers from providing coverage to other parts of the lawn. But, it wasn’t part of the original plan, so I have to play it by ear.
With the planning done (mostly), it was time to start creating my backyard. A warning before we really start: If you do the sprinkler system yourself, you will be sore. It will hurt. You will probably get blisters, even wearing gloves. Have knee pads handy, get gloves that fit, and have Epsom salts ready for a warm bath.
Preparing the backyard: weeding
The backyard was overgrown, as you will see below. I sprayed weed killer and took a trimmer to what was left. Trimming took three hours and left my hands incredibly sore. I probably should have waited longer to let the weed killer work; take that as a word to the wise. My wife’s uncle came out for a weekend and he volunteered to use a hula hoe to help clear what was left of the weeds where the sprinklers needed to go.
Step 1: Trenching
My wife and dad rented a trencher while I was at work on June 2. Though there was confusion with a gentleman who thought he reserved the trencher – I had tried earlier in the week and was told that, at Home Depot, nothing for rent could be reserved in advance – they successfully towed the machine back to our home. It took most of the day to trench, according to the plan. The chain got stuck multiple times and took some percussive maintenance with a rubber mallet to get the chain realigned. As noted above, the plan changed, which meant hand-trenching the next day.
1.2: Hand trenching
For the hand trenching, I highly recommend a cutter mattock. My uncle, who was a volunteer firefighter, got his from an emergency services supply store for about $50. It was worth its weight in gold. My backyard was once a riverbed, with many rocks. The axe head part of the mattock was surprisingly perfect for digging into the ground and cleaving small rocks, while the adze part allowed me to make the trenches deeper. My wife and I would switch off, her with a narrow shovel or trowel to sweep away the dirt I dug up, giving me a break from swinging the mattock.
Step 2: Lay the pipe
The first part of this step is easy – connect the pipes and lay them into the trenches. We used 1-inch pipe, though depending on how much water flow you need, based on the size of your yard and pipe length, you might need ¾-inch pipe. Be sure to get parts that match that size. Now for the not-as-easy part: To connect a sprinkler head to the pipe, just use a T-joint, gluing each new end of the cut PVC pipe to the T. A ratchet cutter is best for cutting the pipe. If possible, get colored paint. We didn’t have any and in some cases, when checking our work, we had to feel to see if there was any clear glue. Colored glue makes it a snap to see if you’ve glued a joint. From the T-joint, which should be pointed down, use funny pipe to connect to the sprinkler head, with an elbow on each end.
We managed to get about half the pipes in the ground that Friday, June 3 – we still had more hand-trenching to do, and we were running out of energy in the afternoon. It was at that point we decided that, to save on both PVC pipe and needing to make the trenches deeper, we would use funny pipe, which is much more flexible and smaller. Trenches can be shallower than what is needed for PVC pipe, and don’t have to be straight lines. I highly recommend this route if you are doing your own system, or adding to an existing system.
After two more trips to Home Depot and a trip to an irrigation supply shop, we had the parts parts we were missing – elbows for turns in the PVC pipes and extra T-joints to account for the changes in plans. By Saturday afternoon, 290 feet of pipes were laid, T-joints cut in, and sprinkler heads attached via funny pipe.There was one 10-foot piece of pipe leftover.
Step 3: Connecting the wires
3.1: The timer
The hard part is out of the way. Connecting the wires from the valves is surprisingly simple. First, we ran sprinkler wire from the water main to the original timer. Once we had the length right, it can be cut and later buried. The original timer, put in by the landscaper provided by our house builder, is pretty complicated. The second timer is far more intuitive – I can set a dial to Zone 1 (my Zone 7, since the original timer couldn’t take four more zones), hit a button, and the sprinklers turn on. The only problem, and a small one at that, is the timer only allows one zone to be on at a time.
3.2: Valve wires Each valve will have two wires. One for a common connection, one for a single connection. I like to use the red wire as the common wire. Take one wire from each valve, twist them all together to connect them, and use a water-resistant wire cap, usually pre-filled with a silicon-based sealant to prevent corrosion. Next, each individual wire. Be sure to write down which wire went to which valve. For example, my Zone 7 is the green wire. Cap each one.
3.3: Connect wires to timer
The final wire step! The timer should have a color-coded system to push the other end of the sprinkler wire into. Common, Zone 1, etc. There might also be places to put in a wireless rain sensor or upgrade to more zones, but that’s for another time.
Step 4: Adjust the heads
The last major step is adjusting the heads of the sprinklers. Be sure you’ve put both the filter and nozzle in the heads by this point. We used rocks to prop up the heads, taking into account there would be topsoil and sod. The heads I used had notches to indicate the start and end of the arc of water. Simply by twisting the head, we could change the arc. We mostly used 90, 180 and 360 degrees, but any part of a circle is possible. A small screw on top of the head changed the distance the water could reach, up to 12 feet on these particular heads.
By the end of Saturday, I had a working sprinkler system, controlled by a timer, with excellent coverage. But, my battle is just beginning.
Step 5: The garden drip zones
Remember the two drip zones? You can see the new water valves we installed in the bigger box to the left in top part of the photo. The drip valves, which won’t fit in the buried box, each point a different way – handy to know at a glance which valve covers which half of the yard. Once raised garden boxes are made, I’ll know where I need to run the drip lines to. As they don’t have to be buried, the drip lines will be significantly easier to install for future gardens and plant beds.
Step 6: Finishing touches
As it stands, my backyard still looks like that last photo. We have a lot of large rocks to remove from the backyard that we dug up. My wife and I will bury the pipes – ensuring that the sprinkler heads are kept in their same, upright position.
One last piece of advice: Before burying the pipe, take a picture of where the pipes are, for future reference. If possible, use a drone for a bird’s-eye view photograph of your yard. I popped out a screen from a window on our second floor and climbed out on the roof – a bit more dangerous than having a robot do most of the work for you. Also, my panoramic photo is stretched out, so I’ll probably have to rely on the sections I photographed separately. A bird’s-eye view, however, is perfect. I plan on building a pergola with swinging chairs around the fire pit, so I need to know where I can dig to anchor the pergola posts. Hitting a water pipe is not my idea of a fun weekend.
But for the immediate future, I’m done. The drip system will be for the coming weeks. With the sprinklers running and hooked up to the timer, I feel like a water wizard, able to control water with a button press.
I’ve saved the best for last: how much we saved. For the entire backyard, a contractor wanted $6,000. That’s for parts and labor. While I still need to get topsoil and sod, I’ve only spent $600 or so in parts – and that’s before returning parts we ended up not using. Labor was taken care of in feeding my family dinner and keeping them hydrated, in part with beer. As Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption, “I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds.”
On top of saving money, I have the satisfaction of knowing I did the work, by my own hand. I didn’t just pay someone to do it, I did it myself. And that’s one of the best feelings in the world.
… and it works: