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How does an automatic sprinkler systems work

Understanding your sprinkler system

Automatic sprinkler systems are a great investment. Here are some of the basics to understanding the components of the system. This will give you an overview of what you have to work with and become skilled with identifying the functionality of your irrigation system.

The basic components of a typical sprinkler system that is run using city water are listed below.  

Backflow Preventer

In typical sprinkler systems, the water is distributed in only one direction: from the city to you. Sometimes the direction of the water can be reversed accidentally, so the backflow is in place to prevent any contaminated water from traveling back to your clean water supply. The backflow is turned on during the spring when you begin to water your lawn and subsequently turned off in autumn when you are finished watering your lawn for the season.

Sprinkler Valve Box

The valve box is the protection coverage for your irrigation manifold. Occasionally a manifold system will be mounted above ground, but are generally installed somewhere around the perimeter of your house; start there if you've inherited an irrigation system and don't know where to find the parts and pieces. 


The manifold distributes water to your valves, for which each are individually connected to a zone that feeds a set of sprinklers. Only one valve will operate for a given amount of time, possibly 10 minutes, then shut off and the next valve will operate a different zone of sprinklers.

Electric Solenoid Valves

These valves are powered by 24 volts (VAC) from your controller. When your controller turns a valve on, it sends 24VAC to the solenoid. The solenoid has two wire leads extending from it. One wire attaches to the “hot wire” that receives the 24 VAC from the controller while the other wire attaches to a “common wire” that acts as a neutral/return wire. The “common wire” is connected to all the valves in your system. The “hot wires” are run from each zone at the controller to each valve in your lawn/property. Therefore each zone is operated independently through the controller.

Lawn Sprinkler

For our purpose, sprinkler heads are categorized into three types with the average precipitation they emit, calculated as inches/hour. Each type will be installed on a zone of its own with like-sprinklers. Do not mix the sprinklers as the functionality of an irrigation system is dependent on the consistent flow of water through each similar spray head to operate with exceptional performance. 

LEFT: Rain Bird 5004 Rotor

MIDDLE: Rain Bird 3500 Rotor

RIGHT: Rain Bird 1800 Sprayhead


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