6 great alternatives to underground sprinklers

My wife and I are building a home in Tennessee and one point of contention was if we should pay $14,000 on a new sprinkler system. I decided to research ways to keep the lawn green without breaking the bank.

Underground sprinklers are a fabulous way to quickly and easily keep your lawn and plants watered. However, these systems can be expensive, are disruptive to put in place, and may require large parts of your garden to be dug up for installation. There are many viable options to keep your lawn looking pristine. 

But fear not; if you do not have the time, money, or inclination to install underground sprinklers, there are alternatives for every size garden and budget.

#1 Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation deposits water directly to the areas of the soil where the roots of your plants are located.

The system comprises of tubing, much like a small, narrow hose pipe, valves, and, in some cases, emitters. The system is connected to a water source, which in a home system is usually an outside faucet.

Water then flows, under pressure, from the source along the system of hoses or pipes. When the water reaches an emitter, it either drips or is pushed from the system in a fine spray at ground level.

Drip irrigation is suitable for most plants but especially useful for those that require a constant, steady stream of water. However, drip irrigation is not a practical method for watering lawns.

My favorite drip irrigation system is the Flantor irrigation system because it is affordable, flexible, and above all, easy to install and use. The standard system is ready to go, and if you add a timer, it can be set to run while you are away from home.

#2 Oscillating Sprinklers

An oscillating sprinkler affixes to the end of a hose. Turn on the tap, and the sprinkler emits a fan-shaped spray of water. The sprinkler head moves from a position where the fan of water is parallel to the ground through an arc, spraying straight into the air and round until the spray is parallel to the ground in the opposite direction.

The spray will carry roughly 20 to 30 feet, depending on the model you choose, and because they are lightweight oscillating sprinklers are easy to put out knot the lawn, leave for a time, and then remove.

Oscillating sprinklers are best suited to square or rectangular, small and medium-size lawns.

The downsides to oscillating sprinklers are that they need to be repositioned several times to cover your entire garden and lawn and that they are designed to work on flat, level surfaces. If you have a lawn on a hill or with uneven, undulating curves, you will have to either build a small, portable, level platform or try a different type of system.

Aqua Joe oscillating sprinkler

#3 Rotating Sprinklers

Similar to an oscillating sprinkler, rotating sprinklers affix to the end of a hose pipe and spray water from the fixture. The difference is that while oscillating sprinklers send a fan of water out in an arc, the rotating sprinkler sends sprays of water in a circle parallel to the ground.

Rotating sprinklers can either be light-weight plastic devices that have a built-in stand

element or a sprinkler head and rotation device on top of a spike. Like oscillating sprinklers, they can be light enough to pick up and move around the garden without much effort, and the distance they can send the water varies on the model.

Spinning nozzles ensure there are no dead spots starved of water, but the circular pattern of the spray does mean you are more likely than with an oscillating sprinkler to end up watering the side of your home or the sidewalk.

Melnor rotating sprinkler

#4 In-Ground Sprinklers

The halfway point between fancy underground sprinklers and the above-ground, move around alternatives; this in-ground sprinkler from Rain Bird could be the alternative to an underground sprinkler system for you.

First, you dig a small home in your lawn, deep enough for the sprinkler to sit flush with the ground when not in use. Then you place the unit in the hole and fill it in around the edges. When you want to use the system, you run the hose, attach it, pop up the sprinkler head, and you’re good to go.

When not in use, you detach the hose, push the sprinkler head back into the housing, and you can run the lawnmower over the top without causing any damage, to the system or to your mower.

This set-up will provide circular coverage of approximately 5,200 square feet with one sprinkler. The sprinkler head is adjustable, so you do not have to spray the entire circular pattern. Instead, you can set the sprinkler to cover a quarter or half circle, which is helpful in avoiding unnecessary water use.

You can install multiple sprinklers, but they do not connect to each other, so you would have to click the hose to each one individually, run the sprinkler, turn it off, and reattach to the next sprinkler along.

#5 A DIY Combo Sprinkler System

If you want to ensure the pattern of your watering system is tailored to exactly what you need for your particular garden, you can create a DIY sprinkler system.

While this may sound intimidating to begin with, it’s straightforward to do. Although it takes a little bit of time to tweak the system to your exact needs, you’ll end up with something akin to an underground sprinkler system but without all of the disruption and expense.

Begin by sketching out a rough outline of your garden, with a shape drawn for your home and the position of your outdoor faucets marked. Then draw lines on your sketch to show the edges of the different areas of your garden.

Next, decide what type of sprinkler you need in each area of your property. Perhaps you’d be best with a drip irrigation system in your vegetable patch, a different drip system with different settings in your flower beds, and so on.

Then fit an outdoor faucet splitter and attach a hose for each area of your garden. This way, you can have one hose running to an oscillating sprinkler on your front lawn, a drip irrigation system running around your flower beds, and a rotating sprinkler in the back yard. All of the systems can be controlled from one spot, and if you put valves between the hoses and the splitter, you can turn any combination on or off, depending on your changing needs.

#6 Travelling Sprinklers

A traveling sprinkler attaches to your hose and runs around the garden on wheels. You set the path of your sprinkler by laying out a hose on the grass. The sprinkler then sits with its wheels astride the hose and follows its path.

This particular model from Melnor is my favorite traveling sprinkler. It has an adjustable range that runs from 15 feet to 50 feet, and the speed of the water can be set at high, low, or neutral, depending on how robust your plants are and the amount of water you need to spray each time.

Subsequently, you can use the same system for a little light watering to keep things ticking over or provide a good soaking if you’ve been away or there’s a particularly dry spell.

Final Thoughts

If you have inherited a gorgeous garden, you have developed a beautiful outside space, or you are in the process of planning your yard, you’ll need to know how to keep your garden healthy, with the minimum of work and fuss.

An underground sprinkler system is an excellent way to keep your garden green, but it is an expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive job that risks digging up and damaging some of your precious plantings.

Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives to underground sprinklers, with something for every garden, gardener, and budget. From a simple aboveground mobile sprinkler or a drip irrigation system that snakes through your plants to a sprinkler head, you can bury and detach or detach from a hose or a multi-zone above-ground sprinkler system that’s made for your specific garden.

Of course, there’s always the option to stop watering your garden or to pave it over and replace your precious greenery with some paving slabs and stones, but where’s the joy in that?


Geoff Southworth is the creator of RealEstateInfoGuide.com, the site that helps new homeowners, investors, and homeowners-to-be successfully navigate the complex world of property ownership. Geoff is a real estate investor of 8 years has had experience as a manager of a debt-free, private real estate equity fund, as well as a Registered Nurse in Emergency Trauma and Cardiac Cath Lab Care. As a result, he has developed a unique “people first, business second” approach to real estate.

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