Taming Your Irrigation Controller

A controller that’s been programmed incorrectly can swiftly drain your wallet. Take “control” of it and you’ll save money and water.

Controllers are rife with hidden programming and settings, especially after years of hanging on the garage wall. An incorrectly programmed controller can swiftly drain your wallet, in addition to drowning your plants.

Are you intimidated by your sprinkler system controller? You’re not alone! Learn the ins and outs of your irrigation controller, basic settings and troubleshooting tips during a free webinar at noon July 1. Sign up here.

Most irrigation controllers use the same basic tools: programs, days, run times and start times.


Check the letter first. Your screen will display a letter (A, B, C, etc.) Every program is active so be sure to check them all to make sure no extras are lurking in there, especially if you see irrigation when you’re not expecting it.

Start time

This the most misused feature of the controller. You don’t need a start time for every zone. On most controllers, one start time initiates the entire program at whatever hour you designate, running every single zone in succession. If you accidentally set your controller with start times of 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., the entire system will run four times, effectively quadrupling your water bill! (You may notice the sprinklers running circles around the house, over and over. If so, check the start times to make sure there’s only one.


This is usually the simplest setting to specify the day you want your system to run. Make sure you’re in compliance with current watering rules. Most yards do not need more than a once-a-week deep watering in the summer, whether your city is in watering rules or not. So do yourself a favor and set it to one day a week on your designated watering day and you never have to change it.

Run time

This is where you specify how long you want to run each zone. This is not the same for every zone. Some zones are grass, some are beds, some are full sun and some may be in shade. Alter the run time according to the irrigation components (spray, rotor or drip) and each zone’s unique conditions.

For pop-up sprayers in our clay soils, the recommended setting (for a half-inch of water per week) is 15 to 20 minutes. For rotor heads, 25-35 minutes is recommended.

Refer to the online manuals of your controller for additional information. SAWS offers free irrigation consultations — call 704-SAVE (7283) to schedule an appointment.

Remember, your controller may manage the sprinkler system, but you are the brains of the operation!

Picture of Brad Wier
Brad Wier
Brad Wier is a SAWS conservation planner. Years in South Texas landscaping and public horticulture gave him a lasting enthusiasm for native plants that don’t die when sprinklers -- and gardeners -- break down. He’d rather save time and water for kayaking and tubing. He is a former kilt model, and hears hummingbirds.
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