It’s taken nearly 8 months, but grass is sprouting up in my backyard. When we got the house last December, it was basically dirt, weeds, and a pipe to the sprinklers in the front yard – our brand new house included a front yard, but the backyard was up to us.
Over the weekend of June 9-12, my wife (a teacher thankfully then on summer break), parents and uncle (all retired) helped install a sprinkler system. Their help, instead of hiring a contractor, made it possible to pay bills. Read on to find out how we installed our own sprinkler system.
Step 0: Planning
Using the magic of the internet, I helped my dad – two states away – draft a plan for the sprinkler system. It’s a bit hard to tell, but there’s two sprinkler zones for the yard, color-coded orange and yellow. There’s also two drip zones for gardens and planters, but those are on hold for now. Each circle is approximate coverage from one sprinkler head.
My uncle did not only his own sprinklers, but one of his son’s systems. My dad, an urban planner for 35 years, did his own, as well. They both knew what they were doing. Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy – in this case, slightly incorrect measurements I gave my dad, and my wife deciding she wanted a little more grass, a little less planter area, among other changes. The shed area is supposed to be a grassy play area for future kids – meaning more coverage was needed. We the two sprinkler zones 7 and 8 respectively, as there are 6 zones in the front yard. Zones 9 and 10 will be the drip zones, but that’s not our focus for now.
I also have to account for my wife wanting to paint a fence mural in the kids’ area. 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. That is on hold until after the grass grows in, as the ground needs to be constantly wet – meaning multiple waterings a day. On top of just the coverage, I have to think about types of paint, otherwise the sprinklers will utterly destroy the mural. All of this should have been in the plan, but was decided after I sent the original idea to my dad. Thoroughly plan out everything beforehand, or, like me, you will have to do more work in the long run.
Finally, I should have decided where I want to put things on the lawn before sending my dad the original idea. I intend to have a fire pit slightly left of the porch on the plan. There’s an area where blue, green and purple coverage circles overlap, and that’s probably 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. There, it shouldn’t reduce any coverage.
To account for the gardening areas along the sides of the yard, and so we don’t have to go back and forth to the garage, I found some great lockers for sale online, which happened to be rust-resistant – perfect for storing tools closer to the garden beds without worrying about the sprinklers destroying the metal, like the fire pit.
With planning out of the way, it was time to start creating my backyard. A warning: 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.
A second warning: Call 811 before you do any digging. They will map out where any utility lines are, so you don’t dig into them. If you start digging without calling, you could be liable for any damage done.
Prep work: weeding
Weeds took over the backyard between moving in and starting work. After spraying weed killer, I 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, making it less work on my part. 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.
Step 1: Trenching
My wife and dad rented a trencher from Home Depot while I was at work on June 2. It took them most of the day to trench, according to the plan. The chain got stuck multiple times, requiring percussive maintenance with a rubber mallet. As noted above, the plan changed, which meant hand-trenching the next day.
1.2: Hand trenching
For the hand trenching, I used a cutter mattock. I can’t recommend one enough. My uncle, who was a volunteer firefighter, got his from an emergency services supply store for about $50. My backyard was once a riverbed, and there are too many rocks to count. The ax head part of the mattock was surprisingly perfect for digging into the ground and cleaving smaller 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, while I took a short break from swinging.
Step 2: The pipes
The first part of this step is easy – connect the pipes and lay them into the trenches. We used 1-inch pipe, though what you use might differ based on the size of your yard. Be sure to get parts that match the size of the pipe. The not-so-easy part is attaching a sprinkler head to the pipe. First, cut the pipe. A ratchet cutter is best, making short work of the PVC. Using a T-joint, glue each new end of the cut PVC pipe to the T, with the T pointed down. If possible, get colored glue to make it easier to tell if you have glued a joint. Use funny pipe – smaller and flexible compared to PVC – to connect to the sprinkler head, with an elbow joint on each end to connect PVC to funny pipe, and funny pipe to the sprinkler.
By the end of Friday, June 3, we were about halfway done. We still had more hand-trenching to do, but we had run out of energy. It was at that point we decided that, to save on both PVC pipe and needing to make the trenches deeper, we would use more funny pipe than originally intended. Funny pipe trenches don’t need to be as deep, and don’t have to be straight lines. This is what I should have done from the start, and I highly suggest this route if you are simply adding on to an existing system.
Two more trips to Home Depot and a trip to an irrigation supply shop later, we had the last parts we were missing – elbow joints and extra T-joints to account for the changes in plans. By Saturday afternoon, 290 feet of pipe was in the ground, T-joints were cut in, and sprinkler heads were attached via funny pipe.There was one 10-foot piece of pipe left unused. Not bad, for buying the pipe ahead of time with faulty plans.
Step 3: Wiring
3.1: The timer Connecting the wires from the valves is surprisingly simple, especially compared to the previous steps. We ran sprinkler wire, available at hardware stores, from the water main to the original timer for the front yard. This gave us the right length of wire, to be buried later. The front yard timer, put in by the landscaper provided by our house builder, is pretty complicated. The backyard timer is far more intuitive – I can set a dial to Zone 1 (or my Zone 7, since the original timer didn’t have room for four more zones), hit a button, and the sprinklers turn on. The main drawback is that only one zone can be active at a time.
3.2: Valve wires Each valve has two wires: one for a common connection, one for a single connection. I like to use the red wire as the common wire, for color-coding purposes. 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 you used for each valve. It doesn’t matter which you use – but you need to know the color for the next step. For example, my Zone 7 is the green wire.
3.3: Connect wires to timer
The final wire step! The timer should be labeled, with a place to push the other end of the sprinkler wire into. Common, Zone 1, etc. This is where it’s important to know which color went to which zone. 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. We’re only getting an approximation here, as there will be adjustment once the trenches are filled. The heads I used had notches to indicate the start and end of the water arc. Twisting the head widens or narrows the arc. We mostly used 90, 180 and 360 degrees, but any part of a circle is possible, making later adjustments easy. A small screw on top of the changes water distance, 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 overlapping coverage.
Take a picture of where the pipes are, for future reference – a sort of personal 811. If possible, use a drone for a bird’s-eye view. Being that the only friend I know with a drone lives 500 miles away, 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. My panoramic photo is stretched out; I had to redo the photos as separate photos and piece them together. A bird’s-eye view, however, would be perfect here – straight down, no stretching. Hitting a water pipe during future projects is not my idea of a fun weekend.
Step 5: Grass
We bought “landscaper’s grass” from Lowe’s, after spreading a mountain of topsoil over a few weeks, we were ready to start seeding. Remember to readjust the sprinkler heads after you have filled in the trenches. While you can use the dirt you originally dug out, we found it easier to just use the new topsoil. Once you are satisfied that the coverage is where you want (which may require digging out the sprinkler heads and readjusting them, speaking from experience), it’s time to seed! You can skip this step if you are laying sod (remember to cut holes in the sod for the sprinklers) or hydroseeding.
We, however, used a hand spreader, walking around where we wanted grass to grow. It should only take a few minutes.
From here, the key is to keep the ground damp. This will probably mean two or three waters per zone per day. It will take about a week or so before the grass starts to grow – don’t get impatient. Within two or three weeks, depending on the heat and how damp you keep the soil, you should see a green haze as grass sprouts up in earnest.
Step 6: The drip zones
Remember the two drip zones? It’s the end of August, and I haven’t gotten around to them. You can see the new water valves we installed in the bigger box to the left in top part of the earlier photo. The drip valves, which won’t fit in the buried box, each point a different way – look for the angled black parts. This makes it 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 7: Finishing touches
For the immediate future, I’m done. The drip system will be for the coming weeks, likely in the fall, after I build the boxes. With the sprinklers running and hooked up to the timer, I feel like a water wizard, able to control water with a button press. It helps that day by day, there’s more grass.
I’ve saved the best for last: how much we saved. For the entire backyard, a contractor wanted $6,000 for parts and labor. With parts (including parts returned after we didn’t need them, but be sure to keep a few spare parts to save you trouble later when you need to do repairs or replacements), plus topsoil, we’ve spent about $1,000.
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.
This article was written by Cole Mayer. A former professional journalist covering crime, court and fire stories, Cole spends his free time freelance writing, playing video games, doing yard work, and slowly writing a crime novel. He can be reached on Twitter or Facebook.