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Operation of Residential Irrigation Timers

Michael D. Dukes and Dorota Z. Haman


Automatic landscape irrigation systems have become quite common in Florida in recent years. Electronic irrigation timers (controllers) are often used to control these systems; however, it is not always obvious how to program these timers to apply the desired amount of irrigation water. Newer technologies such as smart irrigation timers also must be programmed properly to ensure efficient irrigation ( The purpose of this document is to familiarize the reader with programming guidelines for an irrigation timer in Florida.

Irrigation Timers

In general, commercially available timers are mechanical, electromechanical, electronic, or computer based (Zazueta et al., 2008). Electronic timers are commonly installed in residential and small commercial landscape irrigation systems. We will discuss the general operation common to most residential irrigation timers. For details specific to a given controller the reader should refer to the owner's manual.

Electronic Controller Operation

Generally, electronic timers allow flexible scheduling of irrigation systems (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Typical residential irrigation controller.
Figure 1.  Typical residential irrigation controller.

Some scheduling options provided by timers are:

Days of the week

Timers may be set for irrigation every day, every second day, every third day, etc. Typical timers will allow for selection of certain days of the week in a "custom" option or frequency, such as "every 2 days," for setting frequency of irrigation. The "custom" option is the one normally used during times of water restrictions, when irrigation is limited to one or two days each week. Local water restrictions should always be followed when programming a controller.

Run time

The amount of time that each zone runs may be set from several minutes to several hours. Generally, run time should be less than 60 minutes for Florida's sandy soils. The exact time depends on system application rate which can be determined as discussed in the next section. Irrigating longer will lead to movement of water below the root zone, which wastes water.

Percentage Adjustment

Most timers have percentage settings so that the relative time may be adjusted. For example, if the controller is set to run 60 minutes per cycle the controller may be set to water at 75%. This will result in 60 minutes * 0.75 = 45 minute run time. Likewise, the run times in the other zones will be reduced to 75% of the zone time setting. This is helpful in Florida when the summer rains begin, and irrigation can be cut back.


Timers usually have the capacity to run multiple programs. For example, on program "A", the controller may be set to water six rotor zones for 60 minutes twice each week. If new plants are planted in a landscape bed, they may need more frequent watering to become established. In this case, program "B" can be used to water that zone every day of the week.

Application Rates

The application rate is an amount of water applied over an area, such as a yard with landscape plants and turfgrass, in a given amount of time. Usually this is expressed as inches per hour (in/hr) and implies an even application of water. The application rate of an individual irrigation zone must be known to properly set the irrigation controller.

There are several ways to find the application rate of an irrigation zone. It may be:

  1. given by the designer or contractor,
  2. calculated from system and or sprinkler specifications,
  3. calculated based on measurements of flow from a water meter, or
  4. measured directly by placing catch containers in the irrigated zone of interest.

1. Application rate given by the designer or contractor.

Although application rates of each individual zone should be calculated by the designer, in practice this is rare.

2. Application rate calculated from system or sprinkler specifications.

Application rate may be calculated from the system specifications according to the total area method (Equation 1) or from the sprinkler specifications assuming they are all alike according to the sprinkler spacing method (Equation 2). Actual application rates may not match calculated rates due to misadjusted sprinklers, wind drift, pressure problems, etc. For these reasons, it is preferred that the actual application rate be verified by measurement as described in the sections 3 and 4.

Total area method:

Figure 8. 
Equation 1. 


AR = application rate (in/hr)

GPM = system or zone flow rate (gpm)

AREA = total or zone irrigated area (ft2)

Sprinkler spacing method:

Figure 9. 
Equation 2. 


AR = application rate (in/hr)

GPM = individual nozzle flow rate (gpm)

ROW = spacing of sprinkler rows (ft)

COL = spacing of sprinklers within the rows (ft)

3. Application rate calculated based on measurements of flow from a water meter.

The application rate for each irrigation zone can be determined from flow meter records. If a separate irrigation meter is not installed (which is typical on most homes), the utility meter must be used for this method. To use the utility meter, conduct the test when water is not being used in the home. If a separate irrigation meter is available, household water use does not have to be considered for the test. If a well is used to supply the irrigation system, then a meter must be installed after the pump to use this method.

Example: The meter reading prior to irrigation of a single zone was 1895750 gallons and after irrigation the meter reading was 1900600 gallons. The amount of water used during the irrigation cycle was 1900600-1897750 = 2850 gallons. The irrigation time for the zone was 2.5 hours (2.5 hours * 60 = 150 minutes). The irrigated area is approximately square and was known to be approximately 6750 ft2. Now the average application rate for the irrigated zone can be calculated by Equation 3.

Figure 10. 
Equation 3. 


AR = application rate (in/hr)

GAL = total volume of water measured by the flow meter (gal)

AREA = irrigated area (ft2)

TIME = total time of irrigation cycle (min)

According to Equation 3:

Equation 3b. 

Although this method is relatively easy, unless it is performed for each zone it will not give the accurate representation of individual zones that is needed to set the controller. For example, rotors (see Figure 2) typically have application rates of 0.25-1.0 in/hr, while spray heads (see Figure 3) have application rates of 0.75–1.5 in/hr. Therefore, these equipment types should be tested separately.

Figure 2. Gear-driven rotor irrigation head.
Figure 2.  Gear-driven rotor irrigation head.


Figure 3. Fixed spray irrigation head.
Figure 3.  Fixed spray irrigation head.

4. Application rate measured directly using catch containers.

Application rate can be measured directly by placing several containers in a given irrigation zone during an irrigation event (Trenholm et al., 2009). This is similar to testing the system uniformity (Smajstrla et al., 1997). Essentially, the containers must be the same shape and size. Old coffee cans are one example of a good container for this purpose. The rim of the can should be above the turf and the cans should be level. At least six cans per zone should be used and they should be distributed randomly. Next, run the irrigation system over a normal cycle. Then you can calculate the application rate according to the following example.

Example: One irrigation zone is to be tested. Several catch cans are positioned throughout the zone such that overlap from other zones does not contribute to those cans. Average depth of water measured in the cans was 1.25 inches after an irrigation run of 45 minutes.

Figure 11. 
Equation 4. 


AR = application rate (in/hr)

DEPTH = average depth in catch cans for any one zone (in)

TIME = run time of irrigation zone tested (min)

According to Equation 4,

Equation 4b. 


Setting the Time on Irrigation Timers

Once the application rate is known, then the irrigation controller time can be set for a desired irrigation depth according to Equation 5 with the application rate calculated from Equation 4.

Equation 5. 


TIME = runtime to be programmed into controller (min)

DEPTH = desired application depth (in)

AR = application rate of zone (in/hr)

Table 1 gives the calculated times according to Equation 5 based on desired application amount or depth and the application rate of the individual zone or system.

Seasonal Setting of Irrigation Timers

The objective of irrigation is to replenish the water in the plant roots to avoid excessive plant stress. For landscape plants, especially turf, where the objective is to maintain the appearance and not to produce the highest amount of biomass, it is usually sufficient to aim for 60%–100% replacement of water in the root zone.

Augustin (1983) calculated the net irrigation requirement of turfgrass for several geographical areas and based on effective rainfall. Effective rainfall takes into account the low water-holding capacity of Florida's soils (see Watering Your Florida Lawn, and Turf Irrigation for the Home, Net irrigation requirement is the amount of irrigation water that must be delivered to the crop. This does not consider irrigation losses such as pipeline leakage, wind drift, non-uniform application, etc.

Tables 2–9 present a suggested irrigation controller time setting assuming two irrigation events per week, and an irrigation system efficiency of 60% for application rates of 0.50, 0.75, 1.00, 1.25, and 1.50 in/hr, respectively. Three regions are represented in Tables 2–9, north (Gainesville), central (Orlando), and south (Miami). In addition, three levels of replacement are presented. It is desirable to irrigate at the lowest possible level of replacement without an acceptable degradation in turf or landscape quality. Two irrigation events per week were assumed since this is a common practice due to water restrictions. Any irrigation time exceeding 60 minutes should be split into two applications at least four hours apart with the time in between applications during the day when the plants will use the water (i.e., morning and afternoon). If the measured or calculated application rate does not exactly correspond to those given in the table, use the closest rate. For example, a homeowner measures an application rate of 0.6 in/hr. The table with the 0.5 in/hr application rate (Table 3) would be used.

Setting Microirrigation Zones

Microirrigation zones sometimes called "drip" irrigation and are becoming popular for landscape beds due to their ease of use and low use of water. There are several types of microirrigation emitters (see Figures 4, 5, 6, 7). More information on those emitters and how they are defined can be found in "Retrofitting a Traditional In-ground Sprinkler Irrigation System for Microirrigation of Landscape Plants" (Haman et al., 2002). Typically, microirrigation does not wet the entire root zone; therefore, the application rate concept does not apply. These emitters have various emission rates, usually in gallons per hour. General guidelines on how many gallons are required for landscape plants can be found in "Fertilization and Irrigation Needs for Florida Lawns and Landscapes" (Trenholm et al., 2009). Once the gallons required are known, then the irrigation controller may be set according to Equation 6, assuming one emitter per plant. Since application depth may be difficult to calculate, microirrigation zones should be set initially for one-hour run time, two times each week. These zones can be reduced 15 minutes each cycle every week until plants show stress.

Equation 6. null
Credit: null


TIME = microirrigation run time (min)

GAL = volume of irrigation water required for a plant (gal)

GPH = emission rate of a drip emitter (gph)

Figure 4. Individual drip emitters.
Figure 4.  Individual drip emitters.


Figure 5. Drip tube or tape.
Figure 5.  Drip tube or tape.


Figure 6. Bubbler.
Figure 6.  Bubbler.


Figure 7. Microjet or microspray.
Figure 7.  Microjet or microspray.



Augustin, B.J. 1983. Water Requirements of Florida Turfgrasses (UF/IFAS Publication Bulletin 200)

Haman, Dorota Z., Michael D. Dukes, and Sydney G. Park-Brown. 2002. “Retrofitting a Traditional In-ground Irrigation Sprinkler System for Microirrigation: ABE324/AE222, 10/2002”. EDIS 2002 (6).

Smajstrla, A.G., Zazueta, F.S., & Haman, D.Z. 1997. Lawn Sprinkler Selection and Layout for Uniform Water Application (UF/IFAS Publication Bulletin 230)

Trenholm, L.E., J. B. Unruh, and J. L. Cisar. 2009. “How to Calibrate Your Sprinkler System” (UF/IFAS Publication ENH61)

Trenholm, Laurie E., Joseph B. Unruh, and John L. Cisar. 2013. Watering Your Florida Lawn : ENH9/LH025, 4/2013”. EDIS 2013 (6). Available on Ask IFAS at

Trenholm, Laurie E., Edward F. Gilman, Geoffrey C. Denny, and J. Bryan Unruh. 2010. “Fertilization and Irrigation Needs for Florida Lawns : ENH860/EP110, Rev. 12/2009”. EDIS 2010 (2).

Trenholm, L.E. E.F. Gilman, G. Denny, and J.B. Unruh. 2009. “Fertilization and Irrigation Needs for Florida Lawns and Landscapes” (UF/IFAS Publication ENH860)

Zazueta, F.S., A.G. Smajstrla, and G.A. Clark. 2008. “Irrigation System Controllers” (UF/IFAS Publication SSAGE22)

Zazueta, F. S., A. Brockway, L. Landrum, and B. McCarty. 2014. Turf Irrigation for the Home (UF/IFAS Publication Circular 829)





gpm—gallons per minute

gph—gallons per hour



ft2—square feet

Table 1. 

Irrigation zone run time (min) for a given application rate and a desired application depth.

Table 2. 

Irrigation controller run time for each of two irrigation events per week at an application rate of 0.25 in/hr, assuming system efficiency of 60%, and considering effective rainfall*.

Table 3. 

Irrigation controller run time for each of two irrigation events per week at an application rate of 0.50 in/hr, assuming system efficiency of 60%, and considering effective rainfall*.

Table 4. 

Irrigation controller run time for each of two irrigation events per week at an application rate of 0.75 in/hr, assuming system efficiency of 60%, and considering effective rainfall*.

Table 5. 

Irrigation controller run time for each of two irrigation events per week at an application rate of 1.00 in/hr, assuming system efficiency of 60%, and considering effective rainfall*.

Table 6. 

Irrigation controller run time for each of two irrigation events per week at an application rate of 1.25 in/hr, assuming system efficiency of 60%, and considering effective rainfall*.

Table 7. 

Irrigation controller run time for each of two irrigation events per week at an application rate of 1.50 in/hr, assuming system efficiency of 60%, and considering effective rainfall*.

Table 8. 

Irrigation controller run time for each of two irrigation events per week at an application rate of 1.75 in/hr, assuming system efficiency of 60%, and considering effective rainfall*.

Table 9. 

Irrigation controller run time for each of two irrigation events per week at an application rate of 2.00 in/hr, assuming system efficiency of 60%, and considering effective rainfall*.

Publication #CIR1421

Date: 1/16/2023


Fact Sheet

About this Publication

This document is CIR1421, one of a series of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date July 2002. Revised March 2009 and January 2023. Visit the EDIS website at for the currently supported version of this publication.

About the Authors

Michael D. Dukes, professor; and Dorota Z. Haman, professor; Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


  • Michael Dukes