University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
by Steven Hightower, Sonoma County Master Gardener
© Sonoma County Master Gardeners
biggest challenge in drip irrigation is accurately determining how much
and when to water. Fortunately, UC websites contain a goodly amount or
researchbased help and advice. What follows is a summary of the
scientific method of determining watering schedules for automatic
controller-driven drip irrigation systems. There are some concepts to
understand, and a bit of math to do—it will seem obtuse and
daunting at first. But hang in there—it’s all
makes sense. Once you get the drift, and do a couple of examples for
your own garden, you’ll have a method for efficiently
your plants using the least amount of water possible.
determines water needs?
amount of water needed by any given garden zone is influenced by soil
type, exposure and the plants’
vary greatly in their rate of percolation--sandy very fast, loamy
medium, and clay very slow. The effect is that the denser the soil, the
more the water spreads laterally as it's percolating.
the spacing of drip emitters depends on soil type--closer together the
sandier the soil, farther apart, the more clay. Watering frequency is
also influenced by soil type.
Plant water needs have been both
empirically and scientifically determined. Plants are well defined in
groups: no supplemental water, drought tolerant, low water, moderate
water, and regular water. This is familiar to most home gardeners.
Those needs have further been scientifically quantified by the plant's
Evapotranspiration--abbreviated ET. This is the combined water lost
from both transpiration from plant leaves and evaporation from soil and
wet leaves. It’s also sometimes known as crop or plant water
needs are further influenced by location, exposure, wind, and weather.
Clearly a sunny, south facing windy hillside will lose more water than
the same plant in a shady, sheltered spot.
There are three steps to determining a watering schedule for a drip
Step 1: Finding water requirement per day or month for the garden
Step 2: Determining how many emitters to use, or how much emitter line
Step 3: Determining the watering days and times of your system
term known as Reference ET has been calculated for all locations in
California for every month of the year—this is abbreviated
and is the amount of water needed by the reference crop to survive. The
reference crop is tall fescue grass, which is a thirsty plant,
requiring regular water. ET regions number 1-18 and range from the
coastal fog belt to the arid dry of the deserts. Coastal Sonoma
County--Petaluma-Sebastopol and west is Zone 1; the Santa Rosa plain
and Sonoma Valley are Zone 5, and the northeast corner of the county
Further, a study by UC called WUCOLS—which stands
for Water Use Classification of Landscape Species—determined
percentage of the reference ET--the species or crop factor--needed by
all normally available landscape plants. With these two pieces of
information, we can calculate how much water any given plant type
needs, each month, in the region our garden is in.
California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) is a
network of over 120 automated weather stations throughout the state.
These stations provide data—temperature, humidity, wind,
evaporation—to central computers in Sacramento that in turn
provide daily ETo information for all regions. So how can we use all
this detailed scientific information? Since we know our plant types, we
can multiply the crop factors for those plant types by the reference ET
information for our area to come up with the amount of water needed, in
a given month, by a particular type of plant.
There are a couple
of other factors that ‘tweak’ the equation: the
of the irrigation system—since we’re dealing with
that will always be 90%; the planting density—whether total
coverage, half coverage, sparse; and a microclimate or exposure
factor—whether the zone is in sun, shade, windy, exposed or
protected. Details are in the table below:
Crop coefficients, or species factors range from 0.1 to 0.9 and are
divided into four categories:
Very low < 0.1 (10% of ETo)
Low 0.1 - 0.3 (10-30%)
Moderate 0.4 - 0.6 (40-60%)
High 0.7 - 0.9 (70-90%)
The planting density factor ranges in value from 0.5 to 1.3. This range
is separated into three categories:
Low—sparse 0.5 - 0.9
Average—moderate coverage 1.0
High--complete coverage 1.1 - 1.3
microclimate or exposure factor ranges from 0.5 to 1.4, and is divided
into three categories: Average is open field, lowmoderate wind, part
sun. Higher winds and greater exposure take a higher factor, and a
protected, shady location would use a lower factor.
Low 0.5 - 0.9
High 1.1 - 1.4
Step 1, finding water requirements, involves looking up the ETo for the
zone and month, applying the crop or species coefficient for the plants
involved, applying the planting density factor, applying the exposure
factor, applying the efficiency factor (90%) and then converting the
reference ET inches per month to gallons per month. The conversion
factor from inches of rain or water, in which ET is measured, to
gallons of water is .623.
For our example we'll use an
illustration zone: a mix of drought tolerant and low water natives and
Mediterranean plants, including ceanothus, Rhamnus californica,
Teucrium fruticans, achillea, prostrate rosemary, and Euphorbia
characias. The part-sun garden area is roughly 15 x 20 feet, or 300
square feet, and the new plantings were spaced such that we have about
40 plants total.
These are all generally low-water plants, and
thus have a low crop coefficient average of .2 to apply to reference
ET—in other words, 20% of reference. (These factors are
from the table on the Zone map referred above).
Our bed was of
average density (not actually when first planted, but based on mature
sizing). The crop coefficient is .2 – the middle of the range
low water use). Exposure factor is slightly lower than average due to
some shade - .9. Zone 5 reference ET for July is 6.51 inches and
irrigation efficiency, as always for drip, is .9.
The formula is:
ETo x crop coeff. x
density x exposure factor x planted area x .623
= 6.51 x .2 x
1.0 x .9 x 300 x .623.9 = 390.6 x .623
= 243 gallons per month or around 60 gallons per week
It’s easy to see that if we were planting thirstier plants in
full sun, the water requirements would go up substantially.
that we know how much water this garden area needs, step 2 involves
designing a drip system to provide that water to the planted area
correctly for the exposure and soil type of the zone. For simplicity
we'll assume that we'll provide two 1/2 gph emitters (lower flow for
denser soil) to each plant (a single emitter is fine for a small plant
initially, but doesn't allow for growth and even water spacing.) Thus,
with 40 plants, we'll have 80 1/2 gph drippers, and each hour that the
system is on will provide 40 gallons of water (a gallon per plant). An
alternative would be to run 80 feet of emitter line that contains
emitters every 1 foot, for the same total of 40 gallons per hour.
we combine the information from the first two steps to figure drip
controller timing--when to turn on, how often, and how long to run each
time. One of the biggest benefits of drip is that it puts small amounts
of water, slowly, so it has a chance to penetrate, and runoff or
overspray waste is never an issue. But plant selection and soil type
affect your watering schedule. Some plants prefer to be continually
damp, and some to dry out between waterings.
We need about 240
gallons per month. Our drip design provides 40 gallons per hour. The
section is in part sun, so too long between waterings is not advisable.
Further, the soil is fairly dense, which means it's going to retain
water for a while.
Thus we wouldn't want to water a tiny bit every
day, nor would we want to water only once or twice per month. So it
seems logical to set our drip to run, say, every six days, or roughly
five times per month. If it runs for 75 minutes, we'll be putting out
about 50 gallons per watering cycle, or pretty close to the right
amount at 250 gallons per month. Or, if our soil were less denser, and
we felt that it wouldn't retain water quite so long between cycles, we
might set for every 4 days, seven times per month, for 50
minutes--total water 245 gallons per month. As detailed and complex as
these calculations seem, there are still a lot of assumptions involved,
and in the end, you still need to pay some attention to your system,
your plants and your soil to determine if the right amount of water is
getting to them.
The formula takes into account all the factors about this garden bed,
and deduces that we need about 240 gallons per month in the middle of
· We design a layout using emitters or
emitter line that provides a known amount of water per hour of
irrigation—in this case 40 gallons per hour.
use our knowledge of soil and plant type to arrive at a logical
watering schedule that provides the needed weekly amount of
water—every five days (six times per month) for an hour and a
These calculations were done with July ETo --about the
hottest time of the year. Obviously May and September, and even June
and August will probably need less water. UC Irrigation studies have
shown that irrigation controllers should be adjusted at least monthly
for the summer irrigation period. These studies demonstrate that
monthly adjustment, versus set-at-the-season-beginning and
leave-til-late-fall can produce water savings of up to 40-50%. They
conclude further that weekly adjustment, if you are so inclined, can
result in even more savings. The simplest way to adjust is to look at
the reference ET for the month, compare it to July, and reduce (or
increase) watering time accordingly.
For example, our July ref
ET was 6.51 inches. August is 5.89. 5.89/6.51 =.9, or 90% so you could
reduce the 75 minute watering time above by 10 percent, to 67 minutes.
September and October would take similar quick calculations to refigure
the new watering times. Once a month controller adjustment seems a
reasonable price to pay for 40-50% water savings.
happens when we get a heat wave of plus 100-degree weather mid July for
two weeks? We clearly need more water for optimum plant health. Modern
controllers have made this easy--they have a simple override setting
that allows the set program to be increased or decreased by a certain
The set program is by definition the 100% level, so
that hot spell might be compensated for by increasing the override by,
say, 20-30 percent for those two weeks. Conversely if there was a cool,
cloudy spell, you might decrease to 80% for that period.
doing drip right requires some care and attention by the gardener, but
remember, we're talking about both optimizing our expensive plants'
health, and minimizing the use of expensive water.
there is a way of automating these weather-driven changes with newer
technology. The ET information from the CIMIS system plus weather data
is packaged by makers of the newest ‘smart’
controllers and transmitted to the controllers by radio signal. The
controller makes all the same calculations we just went through,
integrates weather data down to a very small area (e.g., it knows if
there is some rain in Glen Ellen, but not in Sonoma) and adjusts the
water schedule on a daily basis for optimum plant health and water
The new WaterWise Demonstration Garden that Master
Gardeners installed in Sonoma has one of these controllers that was
donated to the project by local Petaluma company Hydropoint. It was
fascinating to learn from the company rephow to program it, and see
that it accounts for plant density, plant type, root depth, amount of
slope, and even plant placement on slope. Then it overlays that daily
ET and micro-zone weather data to change the watering program daily. If
the temperature spikes 25 degrees, it gets a boost. If
summer thundershower over Sonoma, it skips a day.
These type of
connected smart controllers are more expensive initially, as
you’d expect, and there is a small monthly charge after the
year for the daily data feed. But a number of studies have shown that
the water savings from maximum efficiency of irrigation far outweigh
these additional costs, and the payback is short.