Surface irrigation is the oldest form of irrigation and has been in use for thousands of years. In surface ( flood, or level basin) irrigation systems, water moves across the surface of an agricultural lands, in order to wet it and infiltrate into the soil. Surface irrigation can be subdivided into furrow, border strip or basin irrigation. It is often called flood irrigation when the irrigation results in flooding or near flooding of the cultivated land. Historically, this has been the most common method of irrigating agricultural land and is still used in most parts of the world.
Where water levels from the irrigation source permit, the levels are controlled by dikes, usually plugged by soil. This is often seen in terraced rice fields (rice paddies), where the method is used to flood or control the level of water in each distinct field. In some cases, the water is pumped, or lifted by human or animal power to the level of the land. The water application efficiency of surface irrigation is typically lower than other forms of irrigation.
Micro-irrigation, sometimes called localized irrigation, low volume irrigation, or trickle irrigation is a system where water is distributed under low pressure through a piped network, in a pre-determined pattern, and applied as a small discharge to each plant or adjacent to it. Traditional drip irrigation using individual emitters, subsurface drip irrigation (SDI), micro-spray or micro-sprinkler irrigation, and mini-bubbler irrigation all belong to this category of irrigation methods.
Drip (or micro) irrigation, also known as trickle irrigation, functions as its name suggests. In this system water falls drop by drop just at the position of roots. Water is delivered at or near the rootzone of plants, drop by drop. This method can be the most water-efficient method of irrigation, if managed properly, evaporation and runoff are minimized. The field water efficiency of drip irrigation is typically in the range of 80 to 90 percent when managed correctly.
In modern agriculture, drip irrigation is often combined with plastic mulch, further reducing evaporation, and is also the means of delivery of fertilizer. The process is known as fertigation.
In sprinkler or overhead irrigation, water is piped to one or more central locations within the field and distributed by overhead high-pressure sprinklers or guns. A system using sprinklers, sprays, or guns mounted overhead on permanently installed risers is often referred to as a solid-set irrigation system. Higher pressure sprinklers that rotate are called rotors and are driven by a ball drive, gear drive, or impact mechanism. Rotors can be designed to rotate in a full or partial circle. Guns are similar to rotors, except that they generally operate at very high pressures of 275 to 900 kPa (40 to 130 psi) and flows of 3 to 76 L/s (50 to 1200 US gal/min), usually with nozzle diameters in the range of 10 to 50 mm (0.5 to 1.9 in). Guns are used not only for irrigation, but also for industrial applications such as dust suppression and logging.
Sprinklers can also be mounted on moving platforms connected to the water source by a hose. Automatically moving wheeled systems known as traveling sprinklers may irrigate areas such as small farms, sports fields, parks, pastures, and cemeteries unattended. Most of these use a length of polyethylene tubing wound on a steel drum. As the tubing is wound on the drum powered by the irrigation water or a small gas engine, the sprinkler is pulled across the field. When the sprinkler arrives back at the reel the system shuts off. This type of system is known to most people as a "waterreel" traveling irrigation sprinkler and they are used extensively for dust suppression, irrigation, and land application of waste water.
Other travelers use a flat rubber hose that is dragged along behind while the sprinkler platform is pulled by a cable.
Center pivot irrigation is a form of sprinkler irrigation utilising several segments of pipe (usually galvanized steel or aluminium) joined together and supported by trusses, mounted on wheeled towers with sprinklers positioned along its length. The system moves in a circular pattern and is fed with water from the pivot point at the center of the arc. These systems are found and used in all parts of the world and allow irrigation of all types of terrain. Newer systems have drop sprinkler heads as shown in the image that follows.
As of 2017 most center pivot systems have drops hanging from a U-shaped pipe attached at the top of the pipe with sprinkler heads that are positioned a few feet (at most) above the crop, thus limiting evaporative losses. Drops can also be used with drag hoses or bubblers that deposit the water directly on the ground between crops. Crops are often planted in a circle to conform to the center pivot. This type of system is known as LEPA (Low Energy Precision Application). Originally, most center pivots were water-powered. These were replaced by hydraulic systems (T-L Irrigation) and electric-motor-driven systems (Reinke, Valley, Zimmatic). Many modern pivots feature GPS devices.
Irrigation by lateral move (side roll, wheel line, wheelmove)
A series of pipes, each with a wheel of about 1.5 m diameter permanently affixed to its midpoint, and sprinklers along its length, are coupled together. Water is supplied at one end using a large hose. After sufficient irrigation has been applied to one strip of the field, the hose is removed, the water drained from the system, and the assembly rolled either by hand or with a purpose-built mechanism, so that the sprinklers are moved to a different position across the field. The hose is reconnected. The process is repeated in a pattern until the whole field has been irrigated.
This system is less expensive to install than a center pivot, but much more labor-intensive to operate – it does not travel automatically across the field: it applies water in a stationary strip, must be drained, and then rolled to a new strip. Most systems use 100 or 130 mm (4 or 5 inch) diameter aluminum pipe. The pipe doubles both as water transport and as an axle for rotating all the wheels. A drive system (often found near the centre of the wheel line) rotates the clamped-together pipe sections as a single axle, rolling the whole wheel line. Manual adjustment of individual wheel positions may be necessary if the system becomes misaligned.
Wheel line systems are limited in the amount of water they can carry, and limited in the height of crops that can be irrigated. One useful feature of a lateral move system is that it consists of sections that can be easily disconnected, adapting to field shape as the line is moved. They are most often used for small, rectilinear, or oddly-shaped fields, hilly or mountainous regions, or in regions where labor is inexpensive.
Lawn sprinkler systems
A lawn sprinkler system is permanently installed, as opposed to a hose-end sprinkler, which is portable. Sprinkler systems are installed in residential lawns, in commercial landscapes, for churches and schools, in public parks and cemeteries, and on golf courses. Most of the components of these irrigation systems are hidden under ground, since aesthetics are important in a landscape. A typical lawn sprinkler system will consist of one or more zones, limited in size by the capacity of the water source. Each zone will cover a designated portion of the landscape. Sections of the landscape will usually be divided by microclimate, type of plant material, and type of irrigation equipment. A landscape irrigation system may also include zones containing drip irrigation, bubblers, or other types of equipment besides sprinklers.
Although manual systems are still used, most lawn sprinkler systems may be operated automatically using an irrigation controller, sometimes called a clock or timer. Most automatic systems employ electric solenoid valves. Each zone has one or more of these valves that are wired to the controller. When the controller sends power to the valve, the valve opens, allowing water to flow to the sprinklers in that zone.
There are two main types of sprinklers used in lawn irrigation, pop-up spray heads and rotors. Spray heads have a fixed spray pattern, while rotors have one or more streams that rotate. Spray heads are used to cover smaller areas, while rotors are used for larger areas. Golf course rotors are sometimes so large that a single sprinkler is combined with a valve and called a 'valve in head'. When used in a turf area, the sprinklers are installed with the top of the head flush with the ground surface. When the system is pressurized, the head will pop up out of the ground and water the desired area until the valve closes and shuts off that zone. Once there is no more pressure in the lateral line, the sprinkler head will retract back into the ground. In flower beds or shrub areas, sprinklers may be mounted on above ground risers or even taller pop-up sprinklers may be used and installed flush as in a lawn area.
There are many types of hose-end sprinklers. Many of them are smaller versions of larger agricultural and landscape sprinklers, sized to work with a typical garden hose. Some have a spiked base allowing them to be temporarily stuck in the ground, while others have a sled base designed to be dragged while attached to the hose.
Subirrigation has been used for many years in field crops in areas with high water tables. It is a method of artificially raising the water table to allow the soil to be moistened from below the plants' root zone. Often those systems are located on permanent grasslands in lowlands or river valleys and combined with drainage infrastructure. A system of pumping stations, canals, weirs and gates allows it to increase or decrease the water level in a network of ditches and thereby control the water table.
Subirrigation is also used in the commercial greenhouse production, usually for potted plants. Water is delivered from below, absorbed by upwards, and the excess collected for recycling. Typically, a solution of water and nutrients floods a container or flows through a trough for a short period of time, 10–20 minutes, and is then pumped back into a holding tank for reuse. Sub-irrigation in greenhouses requires fairly sophisticated, expensive equipment and management. Advantages are water and nutrient conservation, and labor savings through reduced system maintenance and automation. It is similar in principle and action to subsurface basin irrigation.
Another type of subirrigation is the self-watering container, also known as a sub-irrigated planter. This consists of a planter suspended over a reservoir with some type of wicking material such as a polyester rope. The water is drawn up the wick through capillary action. A similar technique is the wicking bed; this too uses capillary action.
Subsurface textile irrigation
Subsurface Textile Irrigation (SSTI) is a technology designed specifically for subirrigation in all soil textures from desert sands to heavy clays. A typical subsurface textile irrigation system has an impermeable base layer (usually polyethylene or polypropylene), a drip line running along that base, a layer of geotextile on top of the drip line and, finally, a narrow impermeable layer on top of the geotextile (see diagram). Unlike standard drip irrigation, the spacing of emitters in the drip pipe is not critical as the geotextile moves the water along the fabric up to 2 m from the dripper. The impermeable layer effectively creates an artificial water table.