When reminiscing of youthful days gone by, many people are reminded of playing tag with neighborhood friends, climbing trees, and chasing the family dog. More often than not, these recollections usually take place in the great expanse of our childhood backyards.

However, these images are quickly becoming a thing of the past as larger homes are being built on smaller lots, leaving little room for backyard playgrounds. Fueling this trend are the rising costs of land and reduced homeowner interest in maintaining large outdoor landscapes.

As lot sizes continue to decrease, backyard playgrounds are being transformed into family retreats. To attain such comfort, homeowners are turning to landscape and irrigation professionals to create and maintain these outdoor living spaces. With the help of a new generation of spray products, landscape contractors have greater opportunities to transform smaller lot sizes into beautiful, water-efficient landscapes.

There are several techniques you can use to irrigate small landscapes, from the use of new-and-improved spray heads and nozzles to pressure regulators and check valves. As all of these ideas prove, don’t be afraid to think small.

Traditional pop-up spray heads have become a staple in residential turf applications. Their smaller radii have made them suitable for installations on smaller lots. They previously got a bad reputation due to their poor uniformity of distribution, meaning they had to water too long to get the driest part of an area to the correct moisture level. This caused other areas of the yard to be overwatered, leading to runoff and wasted water.

Improved technology has made today’s spray heads much more efficient than those of years past. One example would be the development of nozzles with undercut sprays. Pop-ups often had a difficult time watering the area closest to the sprinkler itself. An undercut nozzle is designed to specifically target this area, with a second opening under the main nozzle orifice which waters close to the spray’s head.

Matched precipitation rate spray nozzles
One of the most substantial improvements in spray head technology came with the introduction of matched precipitation rate spray nozzles. These nozzles help save water by allowing customers to mix and match different nozzle patterns and radii, while maintaining a consistent watering rate.

Matched precipitation rate nozzles control the flow of water as well as the pattern and radius. Quarter circles, half circles, and full circles can all be used together on the same zone, because the nozzles themselves ensure that smaller patterns deliver correspondingly lesser flow. This helps conserve water—something important to consider with water conservation on everyone’s mind.

Older nozzles watered with the same flow rate regardless of the nozzle pattern and radii. For example, a nozzle with a half-circle pattern sprayed the same amount of water as a nozzle with a quarter-circle pattern. Although the quarter-circle was watering a smaller area, it was delivering the same amount of water, therefore overwatering the space. To counteract this effect, zones and run times had to be manipulated in complicated ways.

Multi-stream rotating nozzles
With an effective range of 13 to 24 feet, multi-stream rotating nozzles fit the needs of smaller yards and landscapes perfectly. Multi-stream rotating nozzles combine the water efficiency of a rotor and the reliability of a spray by fitting on conventional spray bodies but transforming the spray into a rotor. They give professional contractors the ability to irrigate smaller landscapes more efficiently while reducing run-off and water waste.

Pressure regulators and check valves
Efficient operation of an automatic irrigation system is largely dependent on water pressure, which in many systems is too high. This high pressure causes the water to mist and fog, evaporating into the air rather than reaching the landscape it was meant for. For the soil to reach the correct moisture level, the sprinklers have to be run longer to compensate for the gallons of water being lost to misting.

The introduction of spray heads equipped with pressure regulation represents another leap forward in reducing water waste. By helping maintain a constant outlet pressure, these pressure-regulating devices reduce misting and fogging, so that more water reaches the soil. Not only does pressure regulation help maintain a constant outlet pressure, it does so regardless of the type of nozzle used. In addition, these devices reduce pressure loss if the nozzle is removed or damaged.

Check valves were developed to prevent low-head drainage in tight areas. When an irrigation system is shut off, water remaining in the lines tends to flow to the lowest head in the system, where it then flows out. This not only wastes water, but the runoff it creates can damage the landscape due to flooding or erosion. A check valve closes off the sprinkler when the system shuts off, preventing any remaining water from escaping.

Drip irrigation and low-volume pop-ups
A more recent introduction into the residential landscape is drip irrigation. A growing number of homeowners are turning to drip for increased landscape design flexibility and minimal water use. Unlike conventional “spray” systems that work great for residential turf, drip products water at a much more localized level—at or near plant root zones. Drip irrigation minimizes runoff and eliminates over-spray onto windows, walks, or streets.

Low-volume pop-up spray heads are also ideal for small lot sizes. Installed on the same line as regular spray heads, these spray heads can be equipped with drip emission devices to provide the benefits of low-volume irrigation in a shrub area or narrow space without the installation of a separate drip irrigation line.

As lot sizes shrink, irrigation systems are affected. Rotors, which throw water too far to be effective for smaller properties, are being moved to larger common areas such as neighborhood parks. In residential turf applications, a variety of water-efficient spray zones are becoming more prevalent.

Editor’s Note: Tracy Tucker is a product manager for Rain Bird’s landscape irrigation division.