Time to Tame Your Irrigation Controller

Don’t wait for your next four-figure water bill to tune up your sprinkler system’s timer. A quick irrigation audit will often reveal common problems that are easily solved.

Your irrigation controller may regulate the sprinkler system, but even when set correctly, it may use 1,500 gallons or more every time it runs. That’s more than a single person uses in a month! After all, many sprinklers run at 30 gallons per minute. Unfortunately, controllers are rife with hidden programming and settings, especially after years of hanging on the wall; a badly programmed controller can swiftly drain your wallet, in addition to drowning your plants. Don’t wait for your next four-figure water bill to get a handle on the situation. A quick irrigation audit will often reveal common problems that are easily solved. Most irrigation controllers use the same basic tools: programs, days, run times and start times.


During drought restrictions, the last number of your street address determines your watering day. If your sprinklers come on the wrong day, there are two possibilities: either (1) power has been lost, and the correct time and day needs to be reset, or (2) one of the active programs (see below) has an extra active day.

Start times

The most misused feature of the controller is often the start time. You don’t need a start time for every zone! On most controllers, one start time initiates the entire program, running every single zone in succession starting at whatever hour you designate. In San Antonio, drought restrictions mandate start times beginning at either 7 a.m. (until 11 a.m.) or 7 p.m. (until 11 p.m.) for sprinklers. It’s not uncommon to see a “1st” start time at 7 a.m., a “2nd” start time OFF, a “3rd” start time “OFF,” etc. In the scorching months of July and August, some customers will use a “1st” start time at 7 a.m. and a “2nd” start time at 7 p.m. for a morning and an evening run — but remember, adding a single start time effectively doubles your water bill.

If you use multiple start times, it’s better to use them for single zones, where needed, rather than for the whole program. Occasionally, splitting the total program into two start times may be beneficial for steep slopes. For example, if a zone needs to run for 15 minutes but starts running into the street before it’s finished, it’s not a bad idea to just reduce the total run time to seven minutes and provide a second start time instead, to allow the irrigation to cycle and soak.

Run times

For pop-up sprayers in our clay soils, the recommended setting for proper coverage is eight to 20 minutes, depending on the plant material and whether the zone is in sun or shade. For rotor heads, 25-30 minutes is recommended. Multi-stream rotators are often set a bit longer.

For most residential landscapes, a single program (A, B or C) is sufficient. The rest should be off with days and times zeroed out. Note: Check all programs to make sure no extras are lurking.

Refer to the online manuals of some common brand-name systems for additional information. Remember, SAWS offers free irrigation consultations. Call 704-SAVE (7283) for 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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