Programming Your Irrigation Controller

The whole point of buying the best automated irrigation system is keeping your plants and yard looking fantastic with as little effort as possible. These systems provide water savings as well as preserving plant health by preventing over watering. However, these benefits are only realized if you, the operator, understand the capabilities of your system and use it to the fullest extent possible.

We have put together a guide to programming your irrigation system that we believe you’ll find helpful. We’ll cover the basics: important terminology, how to enter programs, the various types of sprinkler heads and other important topics. As always, the friendly and knowledgeable staff at Hydro-Scape is available to answer your questions and provide guidance.

Irrigation Systems – 101

Even if you have had your system for a while, it’s best to start at the beginning. If you’re new to automated irrigation systems, this is a good introduction; if you’re already familiar with the topic, consider this a refresher. Either way, starting with the basics will make the more complicated topics more understandable and allow you to avoid unnecessary confusion.

The first thing we want to do is introduce you to some important terms you need to understand in order to operate your automated irrigation system efficiently. Once we have covered these, the rest of the material will make much more sense.

Learn the Language: Irrigation Systems Terminology


Valves are one of the most basic components of your system. The programmable timer sends signals to the valves telling them whether to open or close which allows or restricts the flow of water. You should make sure you know where every valve in your system is located, as well as the plants that are watered from that valve. The best way to do this is to actually draw a map of your irrigation system. If your system was professionally installed, the installer may be able to provide one as well.


Your system’s timer can control one valve or several valves at a time. Each of these valve groupings is known as a station. Irrigation systems on larger properties often have two or more valves per station with each station covering a particular zone, or area, of the property. Most residential properties have one valve per station and one station in each zone which means you can think of station and zone as interchangeable.

As you program your system, you’ll be telling it which stations to activate and when. The benefit of this feature is that watering needs in different zones on your property may be different; some zones may require more water than others and you can program each station accordingly.


As we explained above, zone and station are often interchangeable terms. Most landscaping guides actually refer to the area being watered as the zone. Your lawn may be considered one zone, while each individual flower bed may be considered a zone of its own, or all flowerbeds may be considered one zone. One thing that’s helpful when creating the map of your landscape is breaking it into zones; though what you’ll be programming in your timer is really stations, thinking of the actual zones of your landscape will make it easier to remember what’s being watered when you program your system.


We keep talking about programs and programming, but what does that mean? Programs are a set of instructions that control the time and duration of watering for each station or zone. For example, program A may be used to water your flower beds twice daily, while program B is used to water your lawn two or three days a week. Program C may be used to water other plants or shrubs using a drip system twice weekly. Even your basic timer will typically come with three available program slots.

Typical Timer/Controller Features

Next, we’ll cover terms you’ll need to know regarding the features, or capabilities, of your automated irrigation system. You want to make sure you understand these before you attempt to program your system. These are the basic features included with most systems; make sure you refer to the manual you received with your specific system to learn about features not included here.

Start Time

Fairly basic, start time is just that – the time of day each program (A, B, or C) starts watering its particular stations or zones. After the program completes watering its stations or zones, it shuts off.

Run Time

Time for a rhyme: Run Time is also known as “Station Duration.” Essentially, run time is the amount of time, in minutes, that a given valve remains open. If the program calls for a run time of 15 minutes, the valve it controls stays open for that amount of time.


Run, as a starting function, gives your scheduled programs the green light to go. If you have your system programmed the way you want it, you should make sure Run is enabled.


Much like any other off switch, Off/Stop keeps your programs from running. This is a convenient option when you’re adding a new program to your system and don’t want to get soaked. Also, it’s common to keep your system turned off during the winter months.


This is a handy feature in especially dry or hot seasons. Semi-automatic is a setting that allows you to run one of your programs outside of its normally programmed time. By doing this, you can provide supplemental watering as needed to keep your plants healthy.


The manual setting functions are much the same as semi-automatic, in that it allows you to run a given program or a specific zone at any time without having to reprogram the entire system. Some systems don’t have a semi-automatic option, so the manual setting is used instead. In addition to providing supplemental water, the manual setting is also very useful when you’re spot checking your system during repairs or if you’re conducting a seasonal checkup of your system; looking for broken or misaligned heads and other problems.

Pre-Programming Checks

You’re almost ready to start programming your system! There are a few things you want to check before you begin. Unless your system was professionally installed (it never hurts to double-check even if it was), check to make sure that the day, date and time are set correctly. You don’t want to go through all the effort of programming your system only to find out that, because the day/date/time is incorrect, it doesn’t work properly. You should also make a habit of periodically checking your controller to make sure the time is correct, especially given changes such as Daylight Savings Time.
Programming Your Irrigation Controller

Programming Your System

We’re finally at the point of programming your automated irrigation system! You know the terminology, you have mapped your landscape, and you know that day/date/time is correct; now, let’s get to the business of automated irrigation proper.

  1. Choose the program (A, B, or C) that you want to set. In each program, you need to set the Water Schedule, also known as Days to Water, the Start Time, and the Station Times.
  2. Choose the schedule function or, “Days to Water.” Select the days of the week you want this specific program to run, i.e. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Some systems may require you to set the number of days between program runs.
  3. Choose start time and enter the time you’d like the system to begin irrigating. For example, you may set the system to begin at 6 AM. However, if you have newly planted flower beds, you might also want to water them a second time in the same day to keep their root systems from drying out. You might choose that second start time to be 4 PM. REMEMBER: The second starting time is for the same program. Don’t set a separate program for the second watering.
  4. Choose run time. In this step, you need to select an individual station and enter the duration you want it to be watered. Repeat until you’ve chosen stations and entered run times for all the zones you want watered. Do NOT set run times for stations you don’t want watered by this program. If you don’t know how long each run time should be; try the following and either increase or decrease as needed.
    1. 3 to 10 minutes every other day for zones with spray heads
    2. 15 to 30 minutes every other day for zones with rotor heads
    3. 30 minutes to 1 hour every 1-2 days with drip irrigation depending on plant material
  1. Your program setup is finished if you followed the above steps and entered a Water Schedule (Days to Water), Start Time, and Station Run Time.

Choose the program you haven’t already set up and simply repeat the above steps to program additional programs. For example, if you programmed program A, you would choose either program B or program C. Some additional notes on adding new programs:

  • For stations that are running under other programs, set their Station Run Times to zero.
  • Some automated irrigation systems have digital controllers, while others use dials. Consult the system-specific instructions provided by the manufacturer.

Working with the Seasonal Adjust Button

Certain automated irrigation systems have seasonal adjust buttons. This is a handy way to deal with unseasonable weather patterns in that you can make across-the-board-changes to your watering programs on a percentage-based basis. For example, during the hotter summer months, it’s common to keep the seasonal adjust button set to 100% for 80° days. On those days that the thermometer hits 90°, you can adjust your whole system by changing the seasonal adjust button to 120%. This will increase all program run times by 20% and takes away all of the extra work of reprogramming the entire system, only to have to reprogram it again a few days later when the temperature falls. Make sure to check whether your system has this feature and if it does, definitely use it!

Different Sprinkler Heads and Their Functions

Now that we have covered terminology and programming, let’s take a look at the other end of your automated irrigation system, the sprinkler heads. Each type of sprinkler head has a different purpose and when you know what they are, you can program your system more efficiently.
Rotor Heads
Rotor Heads

This type of sprinkler head is perfect when you want to water large areas, such as lawns. They have a lower application rate then spray heads which makes them perfect for sloped areas or areas made up of clay soils. The slower rate helps prevent run-off.

Spray Head
Spray Heads

Spray heads deliver higher volumes of water in shorter periods of time. They are the perfect choice for flat, even areas or small, hard-to-reach areas and a good choice when you’d like to avoid spraying houses, cars, or the street. Do NOT use them on slopes however, as the higher volume of water will produce run-off.

Drip Irrigation Systems
Drip Systems

Drip systems are perfect for flowerbeds, shrubs, gardens and cacti as you can easily target individual root systems. Drip systems are a series of tubes with small holes or blank tubing with point source irrigation through emitters. Drip systems are excellent for water conservation.

Efficient Use of Automated Irrigation Systems

You have now learned the basics of setting up and programming your automated irrigation system. Here are some tips, tricks, and advice to help you use it with maximum efficiency.

Program Grouping for Maximum Efficiency

Using your landscape map, create a programming scheme by zone. Designate one program to take care of your lawn and all of the valves and stations located there. Choose another program to water only flowerbeds and ground-cover. Finally, pick a program to manage your drip systems.
automatic shutoff device for irrigation systems

Install an Automatic Rain Shut-off Device

This device is a wonderful addition to any automated irrigation system, if your system does not already have one. They are amazing water conservation tools that you can set to shut down your system after a specific amount of rainfall. Most homeowners set their shut-off devices to turn off their irrigation systems whenever a half an inch or more of rain has fallen. This prevents water waste and reduces your water bill.

Early Morning Watering

The best time to water your landscape is early in the morning. Winds during the middle of the day often carry off droplets of water, causing wet and dry spots and the noonday sun causes a lot of evaporation. This means that your landscape isn’t getting the water it needs. Fortunately for you, you now have control over when your automated irrigation system does its job. Watering early in the morning uses much less water, reducing your water bills and helping the environment. Nighttime watering encourages disease and fungus growth which is to be avoided.

Don’t Overwater

As they say, too much of a good thing is a bad thing and this goes for plants and water as well. Overwatering can kill plants quickly, just in a different way. The surest way to tell of your over-watering your plants is to look for water run-off. If you see run-off, you’re definitely over-watering. Correctly programming your automated irrigation system takes the guesswork out and helps in avoiding over-watering.

Now you know the basics of your automated irrigation system, its parts and components, the terminology and programming methodology, and the different types of sprinkler heads it uses and their various uses. You’re all set to program your system to efficiently water your landscape, keeping it healthy and green. Once again, if you have any questions, the friendly staff at Hydro-Scape is always glad to help you. Happy watering!