What are the pros and cons of different types of irrigation systems?

Due to the large variety of irrigation systems available, both homeowners and large-scale farmers can ensure that their plants and crops get exactly the right amount of water. They don’t have to go for a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on the type of soil, plants, wind conditions, and the unique properties of their land, plant parents can choose systems that keep their plants hydrated with minimum resources and labor. 

And with modern automated irrigation controllers, they don’t have to worry about their plants getting the right amount of water even in their absence. 

Here’s a comprehensive list of irrigation systems, their pros and cons, and a guide to choosing the right system for your needs. 

Different types of irrigation systems

Drip irrigation

As the name suggests, drip irrigation delivers water in the form of drips at the plant roots. In this system, dripper lines carry water across the entire farmland or irrigated area. Small emitters attached to these dripper lines deliver water to the plants at their roots. Drip irrigation is highly efficient and can prevent water loss by evaporation and run-off. Farmers can integrate fertilizer supply to this system and deliver nutrients to the plants along with water directly to the roots.

Drip irrigation can be above surface or subsurface, and both use many different techniques and equipment. There is the porous soaker hose system, which carries water through porous hoses and delivers water to the plants through these pores. There’s the emitter system in which a hose or a dripper line carries water and a set of evenly spaced emitters deliver water in drops to the soil. Some regions use drip tapes, trickle rings, and other equipment for drip irrigation. 

In a drip irrigation system, particles in the water or bacterial growth near the emitters can cause clogs. A combination of water filters and chemicals can prevent this. 

Pros of drip irrigation

Highly efficient water delivery

You can combine them with fertilizer delivery

The system reduces the leaching of nutrients from the soil

You can use the system in fields or grounds of all shapes and sizes

Cons of drip irrigation

Dirt or unclean water can clog the system

Sunlight can damage the equipment

They tend to be more expensive compared to other systems


Sprinkler systems mimic natural rainfall as it supplies water to plants. Farmers often use them to water large lawns, both for industrial and residential uses. For industrial applications, the sprinklers are usually installed permanently in a location. Here, a network of pipes is installed below the surface which is in turn connected to sprinklers at regular intervals. In residential systems, the sprinklers may be temporary and moved to different locations as needed. 

Generally, a sprinkler system will have the main line connected to the pump. Lateral lines will be attached to this mainline

You can use sprinklers for almost all soil types and in all types of landforms – sloping, undulating, or flat. But its best to use them in sandy soils.

When choosing sprinklers, it’s important to ensure that the drop size won’t affect the plants. For some plants, large droplets of water can damage the flowers and reduce the crop output. It’s also important to note that dirt or unclean water can clog sprinklers. Therefore, you have to use clean and filtered water for sprinklers.  

Pros of sprinklers

You can use sprinklers in all types of landform, even uneven plots

You can use sprinklers in almost all soil types

Lower labor requirements

Cons of sprinklers

High winds can cause non-uniform irrigation.

Dirt and debris can clog the sprinklers and the pipes.

Plants may develop diseases due to the wet conditions, since sprinklers spray water all over the plant.

Surface irrigation

Surface irrigation is one of the oldest forms of irrigation, and probably one of the least efficient ones. In this technique, water flows down a gradient to reach the plants. There are many different types of surface irrigation, and in all of them, the soil carries the water instead of pipes or tubes. 

In some cases, for example in rice cultivation, the entire field is flooded with water while In some cases, farmers divide the cultivated land into furrows. The water is then allowed to flow in between rows of raised land in which crops are planted. 

While farmers have used this method all over the world for thousands of years, it is not efficient. The system doesn’t direct the water precisely at the roots, which means there’s a lot of evaporation loss. The process also takes a lot of manual labor to build the furrows. You’ll also need significant labor resources to clean up the tracks regularly. 

Pros of surface irrigation

Reliable with good maintenance

Does not require specialized equipment. 

Cons of surface irrigation

Lots of labor required

Not efficient

Can cause waterlogging, resulting in poor growth of plants

Can increase the salinity of the soil

Center pivot system

Center pivot irrigation uses a set of sprinklers mounted on several pipe segments. The pipes are then attached to a center pivot and from there the water is supplied to the pipes. The pipes rotate around the center pivot and the sprinklers connected to the pipes spray water all over the crops. For fields using center pivot irrigation, farmers plant the crops in a circular fashion for efficient irrigation. 

Wheels support the pipes across the radius. While it may look simple, a lot of engineering goes into building a center pivot system. For example, since water has to travel more to reach the outermost sprinklers, the inner sprinklers have smaller nozzles. 

Pros of center pivot system

Less maintenance

Reduces water run-off

Relatively fewer labor requirements

Cons of center pivot system

Suitable only for circular fields

Wind can affect the water distribution may be affected by wind

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