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Is an underground sprinkler system better than above-ground sprinklers?

Here in Calgary, Alberta, if you have a lawn and you want it to look good, there’s no way around watering it. Regular, above-ground sprinklers fly off the shelves every summer in dry climates like Southern Alberta’s. At the same time, underground sprinkler services like us stay very busy. (Not that we’re complaining!) These are two fairly different approaches to a simple problem, and we imagine that just about every homeowner, landlord, and gardener in the city has asked themselves if they should upgrade to an automated, underground sprinkler system. 

Prepare for a shocker: here at Naiad Irrigation Systems, we tend to think so. But of course, we don’t have the final say on what’s best for your lawn – you do. An underground sprinkler system is a major convenience, but also a major investment, and the last thing we want is for you to experience a few thousand dollars’ worth of buyer’s remorse. Instead, we want to give you the tools to answer a broader question: is an underground sprinkler system the best way to water my lawn? Here, we’ll compare your options in terms of four basic criteria: cost, convenience, effectiveness, and water conservation. 

Cost

When you think about your lawn costing you money, you probably think of seed, fertilizer, and herbicides, but none of that matters if your lawn goes thirsty. Of course, the water itself costs something, but because we’ll be discussing water conservation later, this section will focus on the cost of your watering equipment. Costs are measured in CAD and are based on prices in our home city of Calgary, Alberta. 

Underground sprinkler systems: $6 000 and up. 

  • Sadly, this is not where underground sprinkler systems shine. In 2021, the least we were able to charge for a residential sprinkler system was $3 500. With changes in the supply chain, that same installation would cost at least 30% more this year, and that was a best case scenario. Costs also rise dramatically when we need to design a more complex irrigation system, with our most expensive residential installation in 2021 costing $15 000. 
  • We cut you the best deal that we can while maintaining our standard of premium-grade service, and our local industry colleagues can sometimes edge us out on price-point – but not by enough to compare to sticking with an above-ground sprinkler. Even if you can build and install the system with your own two hands, this will still be the most expensive way to water your lawn by several hundred dollars. 
  • An underground sprinkler system is ultimately a luxury item, one that trades disposable income for convenience, effectiveness, and efficiency. Indeed, you’ll see automatic sprinklers pull well ahead of the race in the next three categories – after all, I wouldn’t be sitting here, writing this article on paid time if it made us look that bad. It’s just that pricing can be hard to find in this industry without booking an estimate, and even if the best answer we can give is pretty vague, it saves us all plenty of beating around the bush. 

Above-ground sprinklers: under $120 

  • Comparing the catalogues of a few major home and garden retailers here in Calgary, Alberta, you’ll see that above-ground sprinklers rarely cost as much as $50. The garden hose itself will likely cost more, as we see them generally ranging in price from $40-$70 – though some premium options are well over $100. The higher-end options for hoses should last a lifetime, if stored properly (untangled, out of the sunlight), while the lifespan of an above-ground sprinkler will be less predictable due to its moving parts. 

Convenience

Grass lawns have an inherent level of convenience compared to other garden or landscaping solutions. They generally only contain between one and three types of very similar plants, excluding weeds, so the upkeep is straightforward. The only objective drawback is the amount of water they require, so it makes sense that this is the part of your property’s upkeep you’d like to streamline. 

Underground sprinkler systems: set it and forget it! 

  • An irrigation system done right is the perfect set-it-and-forget-it solution for the busy and/or exhausted homeowner! A well-designed irrigation system, in good condition, will only demand attention a few times per year (winterization, spring activation, and changing the timer as summer comes and goes), rather than every watering day. This also means you can always water your lawn at the optimal time of day without adjusting your daily routine. Your irrigation system will wait underground, out of sight and out of mind until it is needed. Underground sprinkler systems may also feature “fertigation” – a fertilizer injector, that makes feeding and treating your lawn just as automatic as watering. 
  • Because they can be controlled from inside your home – or even from your smartphone – underground sprinkler systems are also a smart solution for anyone coping with limited mobility, whether due to age, illness, injury, or disability. A modern irrigation system can be controlled with just a few buttons, and no need for the operator to do anything physical. 

Above-ground sprinklers: a manageable burden 

  • Above-ground sprinklers are the most common solution. You can’t set-it-and-forget-it for a whole season, but all you really have to do on a watering day is drag it out, turn it on, let it do the hard part, then turn it off again. Of course, since they cover a limited area, you’ll likely have to repeat the process, moving it between your front yard and backyard for example. But then again, if it’s easy once, it’s easy twice. The major inconvenience, compared to an automated system, is actually timing: optimal watering times in the summer are early in the morning and late in the evening. Missing these time windows on a hot day means losing most of your water to evaporation.  
  • There are solutions to increase this option’s convenience, which emulate the features taken for granted in an underground sprinkler system. With a bit of extra spending, you can buy a timer valve for your garden faucet; this way, you’re no longer trapped at home until the watering is complete. I have also seen households with splitters for their hose bibs, allowing them to use two hoses and two sprinklers at one time. At least in principle, this is like how an irrigation system uses multiple smaller, finely tuned sprinklers simultaneously. 

Effectiveness

You don’t want to spend the money, time, or water on your lawn if it’s not going to do anything. On that note, before we continue this analysis, we’d also like to advise you again to water your lawn just after sunrise and/or just before sunset in the hot, dry, summer months. This will prevent much of the water from evaporating before it can soak into the soil and reach your grass’s roots, which would make any watering method far less effective. 

Underground sprinkler systems: extremely good 

  • Done right, underground sprinkler systems have no equal. Done wrong, however, they range from ineffective to destructive. This is why, although it’s easy enough to find all the parts you’ll need for an underground sprinkler system, we strongly recommend you have your system designed, installed, and serviced by certified professionals. 
  • But for the sake of argument, we’ll assume things are done right. A well-designed irrigation system will deliver the correct amount of water to every square inch of your lawn. As we’ll get into in the next section, a quality underground sprinkler system will output different amounts of water in different areas, delivering more moisture to the specific parts of your lawn that need it most. Except perhaps during drought restrictions, your lawn will be emerald green from corner to corner all summer. 

Above-ground sprinklers: not terrible 

  • The two basic designs are rotating sprinklers, which cover a circular area, and oscillating sprinklers, which cover a rectangular area. Some rotating sprinklers can be adjusted to cover an arc instead of a full circle, similar to some underground sprinkler nozzles. As we touched on before, ensuring your above-ground sprinkler’s effectiveness is just a matter of moving it around. With minimal planning, you can divide your lawn into smaller areas and water them consecutively. 
  • As mentioned above, this method makes it difficult to water your lawn at optimal times during the summer. But while above-ground sprinklers are not optimal in any case, they’re only truly ineffective for someone who unfortunately lacks the time, energy, or mobility. 

Water Conservation

Underground sprinkler systems: precise, mathematical optimization 

  • Getting water where it needs to go is one thing, but a Certified Irrigation Designer undergoes a surprising amount of training to assure water is distributed with maximum efficiency. Depending on slope, drainage, soil composition, shade, and even landscaping features such as concrete pathways, different parts of your lawn will require different amounts of water to achieve the same healthy appearance. These various little areas are known as “microclimates,” and an irrigation professional will know how to use specialized nozzles and variable runtimes, in order to give each area the exact amount of water it requires and not a drop more. This is our specialty at Naiad Irrigation Systems, as water conservation is our top priority within the lawncare industry. 
  • In addition to accounting for these static factors, some modern irrigation system can dynamically adjust to your local weather conditions and taper off unnecessary extra watering. This was traditionally achieved by rain sensors, but a WiFi-enabled “smart timer” can make more precise adjustments based on local temperature as well as precipitation. (We recommend the Hunter Hydrawise series.) 

Above-ground sprinklers: not great. 

  • It is very difficult to modulate and optimize your watering using an above-ground sprinkler. If you know your sprinkler’s exact flow rate and distribution pattern, and the varying water requirements of every square foot of your lawn, then achieving the same efficiency as a properly-designed underground sprinkler system is not impossible – just improbable. In the most likely case, the best one can do with an above-ground sprinkler will be to try and strike a balance between dry spots here, and excess run-off there. Used generously enough, above-ground sprinklers can keep any lawn green, but they are far from a guilt-free option for the environmentally conscious homeowner. 

In conclusion

It depends! An annoying answer on its own, I know, but hopefully this article has helped you towards a decision based on your own priorities, whether they boil down to cost, convenience, effectiveness, or water conservation, or all of the above.  

Book a service or call us today @ 587-200-3994. We provide top-notch services from Irrigation Association-certified professionals.