Maintaining Drip Irrigation Systems

Posted: June 3, 2012

This article should help you understand how to maintain drip irrigation systems.

Bill Lamont (, Penn State Horticulture and Extension
Drip irrigation systems are becoming more widely used for horticultural crop production, especially vegetable crops. The system must function efficiently during the entire growing season. Failure at a critical point in the crop production cycle can cause loss of the entire crop. System failures are often due to inadequate maintenance of the system especially if fertigation is being utilized to supply nutrients to the plant’s root zone. Maintenance of the drip irrigation system does take time and understanding; however, maintenance is critical for successful use of drip irrigation systems.

Water Quality

Water for drip irrigation can come from wells, ponds, rivers, lakes, municipal water systems, or plastic-lined pits. Water from these various sources will have large differences in quality. Well water and municipal water is generally clean and may require only a screen or disc filter to remove particles. However, no matter how clean the water looks, a water analysis/quality test prior to considering installation of a drip irrigation system should be completed to determine if precipitates or other contaminants are in the water. This water quality analysis should identify inorganic solids such as sand and silt; organic solids such as algae, bacteria, and slime; dissolved solids such as iron, sulfur, and calcium; and pH of the water. Water testing can be done by a number of laboratories in the state. Your local Cooperative Extension Service (CES) County Agent can supply a list of laboratories or suggest a local lab that can do water quality analysis. Check with the lab first to obtain a sample kit containing a sampling bottle that is clean and uncontaminated.

Table 1:  Criteria for Plugging Potential of Drip Irrigation System Water Sources

Factor Slight Moderate Severe

[in parts per million (ppm)* except pH]


Suspended Solids (filterable) <50 50-100 >100


pH <7.0 7.0-7.5 >7.5
Manganese <0.1 0.1-1.5 >1.5
Iron <0.1 0.1-1.5 >1.5
Hardness <150 150-300 >300
Hydrogen sulfide <0.5 0.5-2.0 >2.0

In addition to these factors, it is desirable to ask for any additional tests that might be necessary. If the water is also to be used as a household supply or might be used as a drinking water source, the analysis should also include the basic drinking water analysis which includes bacterial counts, nitrates, or other suggested tests. Also salts, Chlorides, Sodium, Calcium (for general irrigated water quality).

Hydrogen sulfide can often be detected by a bad “rotten egg” smell. If a review of your water test indicates factors that may cause potential plugging (Table 1), then special care in drip system maintenance needs to be practiced. High levels of a factor might not render a well unsuitable for drip irrigation but will make appropriate water treatment a requirement before successful use in a drip irrigation system.

Any surface water such as streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, or pits will contain bacteria, algae or other aquatic life. Sand media filters are absolute necessities. Even though sand media filters will be more expensive than screen or grooved-disk filters, they are highly recommended for water sources that have high levels of suspended organic and inorganic materials.

Maintenance of the System

Filters Both screen and sand media filters in a drip irrigation system should be checked during or after each operating period and cleaned if necessary. A clogged screen or grooved-disk filter can be cleaned with a stiff bristle brush or by soaking in water. A sand media filter should be backflushed when pressure gauges located at the inlet and outlet sides indicate a five psi difference. Check drip irrigation lines for excessive leaking, and look for large wet areas in the planting area indicating a leaking tube or defective emitter. It is also a good practice to flush submains and laterals periodically to remove sediments that could clog emitters. Systems can be designed with automatic backflushing devices and automatic end line flushing devices, but still require manual checks.

Chemical Control Measures


Unfortunately, filtration alone is not always adequate to solve all water quality problems. Chemicals are necessary to control algae, iron and sulfur bacteria, and disease organisms. Chemicals can cause some materials to settle out or precipitate out of the water while causing other materials to maintain solubility or stay dissolved in the water. Chlorine is a primary chemical used to kill microbial activity, to decompose organic materials, and to oxidize soluble minerals, which causes them to precipitate out of solution. Acid treatments are used to lower the water pH to either maintain solubility or to dissolve manganese, iron, and calcium precipitates that clog emitters or orifices. Potassium permanganate also is used to oxidize iron under some conditions. It is recommended to place the filtration system after the chemical treatment to remove any particles formed. Chemigation protection and injection equipment requirements vary with toxicity class of the injected chemicals.

Bacterial Slimes/Precipitates


Bacteria can grow in the absence of light within the system or in a contaminated well. The bacteria can live on iron or sulfur and produce a mass of slime that quickly clogs emitters and filters. This slime can also act as an adhesive to bind other solids together to cause clogging. They also can cause soluble iron and sulfur to precipitate out of the water.

Bacteria cause iron precipitation by oxidizing soluble ferrous oxide to form insoluble ferric oxide. Iron concentrations as low as 0.1 ppm can be troublesome, whereas levels of 0.4 ppm can be severe. The iron precipitate forms as a red filamentous sludge, which can attach to PVC and polyethylene tubing and completely block emitters.

Sulfurin amounts over 0.1 ppm of total sulfides can be troublesome in irrigation water. Bacteria that live on sulfur can produce white stringy masses of slime, which can completely block the emitting devices. Interactions of soluble iron and sulfur can lead to a chemical reaction forming insoluble iron sulfide. Stainless steel filter screens used in high sulfide water can cause iron sulfide precipitation.



is the usual treatment to kill bacteria or inhibit their activity. A continuous residual rate of 1 to 2 ppm of free available chlorine at the distant end of the irrigation system or an intermittent rate of 10 to 20 ppm for 30 to 60 minutes per treatment cycle should be effective. The initial injection rate may need to be higher to achieve the desired residual level in the system. Treatment cycles may be required at the end of each irrigation cycle for severe water sources or after every 10-20 hours of irrigation for cleaner water sources.

Sometimes, wells are contaminated with bacteria and shock chlorination is necessary to reduce or solve the problem. This is done by injecting chlorine at a rate of 200 to 500 ppm into the well. The volume of water to be treated must be estimated from the diameter and depth of the well. Consult a local well driller for exact procedures and regulations prior to attempting this activity.

Algae and Aquatic Plants Algae and aquatic plants in surface waters can be great nuisances’ because they reproduce rapidly during summertime blooms. They have a tendency to become entangled in screen meshes and clog the surface of sand media filters, resulting in frequent filter backflushing. Algae can be controlled in surface waters by adding copper sulfate or other chemicals in an approved manner. Care must be taken to avoid harming fish. Green algae can grow only in the presence of light, so they do not cause a problem in buried pipelines or black polyethylene. However, algae can grow in the white PVC pipe or fittings used to assemble aboveground pipelines and then be washed into laterals and emitters to cause clogging.

Chlorine is used to kill algae within the irrigation system. A chlorine concentration of 10 to 20 ppm for between 30 and 60 minutes is suggested. It is advisable to work section-by-section through the pipeline and flush the dead algae out of the pipes immediately after treatment, to prevent emitters clogging. If significant emitter clogging occurs, a higher concentration may be needed to decompose the organic matter in the emitter.


Table 2: Common chlorine compounds used in microirrigation

Compound Form Percent Available

calcium hypochlorite dry 65 - 70
sodium hypochlorite liquid 5.26 - 15
chlorine gas gas 100

Chemical Precipitation of Iron Water with over 0.1 ppm of iron is quite likely to cause a problem in irrigation systems. The problem can be solved by either removing the iron from the water or by retaining the iron in solution. Several techniques are available:

Aeration and Settling.

A reliable way of removing iron from irrigation water is to pump the water from the well and to spray it in the air over a pond or tank. During aeration of the water, iron is oxidized into its insoluble form, which can be settled out in the pond. The disadvantage is that the water must be double-pumped, requiring a second pump after the settling basin to re-pressurize the water. Energy costs are not increased, but two pumps must be purchased.

Chlorine Precipitation.


Free chlorine will instantly oxidize ferrous iron to ferric iron and take it out of solution as a solid. The iron concentration must be determined, and chlorine must be injected at a rate of 1 ppm for each 0.7 ppm of iron. Some additional chlorine may be needed for other contaminants, such as iron bacteria and bacterial slime. Complete mixing of the chlorine and water is necessary and can be accomplished by creating turbulence in the system before the filter. A sand media filter is the most appropriate choice and should be backwashed frequently, preferably automatically.

If manganese is present in the water source, caution must be exercised, because oxidation of manganese by chlorine occurs at a much lower rate. Care must be taken to precipitate the manganese before the filter, or clogging problems could occur.

pH Control.


Iron is more soluble at lower pH values. Acid can be continuously injected to keep the pH low in the irrigation system or can be used periodically to dissolve iron deposits. To dissolve the iron, the pH must be reduced to approximately 2.0 or less for a period of 30 to 60 minutes. The system must be flushed to remove the iron after treatment.

Iron precipitation can be caused by raising the pH. A solution to increase the pH can be prepared by mixing 3 pounds of soda ash (58 percent light grade) with 4 gallons of water. This neutralizing solution can be injected into the water system and can be mixed with chlorine solutions.

Iron Sulfide Precipitation.


Sulfur-bearing minerals are common in most sedimentary rocks. A soluble form of sulfate is carried by water. Sulfates are difficult to precipitate and generally remain in solution. Sulfate can be used as a food source by bacteria which produces hydrogen sulfide gas as a by-product. If sufficient iron is present under moderate reducing conditions, iron sulfides can be precipitated, and a sand media filter is suggested to remove the precipitate.

Precipitation of Calcium Salts


Calcium salts, particularly calcium carbonates, precipitate out as a white film or plating in the system. The salts are soluble at low pH. Acid can be used to maintain a pH of 4.0 or lower for 30 to 60 minutes which dissolves calcium deposits to clean emitters and pipelines. Hydrochloric (muriatic) acid is recommended for treating calcium blockages although sulfuric and phosphoric acid can also be used. Temperature, pH, and calcium concentration are all factors influencing calcium solubility, so conditions can vary throughout the irrigation system. Water sources differ in the amount of hardness and/or pH requiring different amounts of acid to lower the pH. The most common acid that growers will find available is muriatic acid (20% hydrochloric acid) at hardware and farm supply stores. It will require about 0.5 to 1 gallon in 100 gallons of water of this strength muriatic acid material to lower the pH to approximate 3.5 for several well and tap waters tested. Make sure that you flush and clean the injector after acid application since the acid may be corrosive to internal parts. Allow the acid treated water to remain in your lines for 30 minute to 1 hour, then flush with water. Use extreme care in handling acids and always add acid to water.

If the water hardness is excessive water softening equipment can be used to remove calcium and magnesium. Zeolite water conditioners soften hard water by removing dissolved calcium and magnesium by ion exchange in a tank, where they are placed in a deep bed. As hard water flows downward through the bed, the calcium and magnesium ions are withheld by the mineral and replaced by sodium ions. When the sodium ions are exhausted, the system must be regenerated by a flow of salt water through the exchange material. A backwash procedure is used to remove the calcium and magnesium ions. If the water contains iron, an iron-removal filter should precede the water softener.



The common practice of chlorination is the addition of chlorine to purify drinking water supplies. Chlorine acts as a powerful oxidizing agent in water and vigorously attacks organic materials. Free available chlorine also reacts strongly with readily oxidizable substances such as iron, manganese, and hydrogen sulfide.

To be effective, a residual of active chlorine in parts per million of available chlorine should be measurable near the end of the lateral lines of the irrigation system. The amount of chlorine added to the system will be the residual desired plus the amount needed by the water to oxidize the materials present. This amount can vary considerably over a season. Contact time between chlorine and the water should be maximized to get the most benefit.

The gas and liquid forms of chlorine are more commonly used (Table 2). Common household bleach, 5.25% sodium hypochlorite, is used in many small operations. Chlorine gas is more dangerous (very poisonous and very corrosive). A commercial dealer should install the gas metering device called a chlorinator and train the operators. Chlorine gas is heavier than air, so adequate ventilation is recommended.

The pH of the water greatly affects the effectiveness of chlorination. Acidic water causes greater availability of hypochlorous acid (HOC), which has an efficiency for killing microorganisms that is 40 to 80 times greater than that of hypochlorite (OC-). When chlorine is dissolved in water, HOC and OC-, which together are referred to as "free available chlorine", co-exist in an equilibrium relationship influenced by temperature and pH.

A general formula for calculating the amount of chlorine to inject in liquid form (sodium hypochlorite, NaOC) is:
        IR    =    Q x C x 0.006/S
where:        IR    =    Chlorine injection rate (gal/hour)
        Q    =    Irrigation system flow rate (gal/min)
        C    =    Desired chlorine concentration (ppm)
        S    =    Strength of NaOC solution used (percent)
Example: A grower wishes to use household bleach (NaOC at 5.25% active chlorine) to achieve a 3 ppm chlorine level at the injection point. The flow rate of his irrigation system is 90 gpm. At what rate should he inject the NaOC?
        IR    =    90 gpm x 3 ppm x 0.006/5.25
            =    0.31 gallon per hour
At an irrigation flow rate of 90 gpm, the grower is pumping (90 x 60) 5400 gph. The goal is to inject 0.31 gallon of bleach into 5400 gallons of water each hour that injection occurs.
If the injector is set for a 300:1 ratio, it will inject 5400/300 or 18 gallons per hour. Then, 0.31 gallon of bleach should be to 18 gallons of water in the stock solution.
Note:     be careful to use the same time units (hours) when calculating the injection rate.

Iron Removal by Potassium Permanganate


Iron also can be removed from water by an oxidizing filter charged with manganese- processed sand. The filter retains oxygen when regenerated with potassium permanganate. As water flows through the oxygen-charged fiber bed, iron unites with the oxygen and is changed to rust or iron oxide. The sand retains the iron oxide until the filter is backwashed and recharged with potassium permanganate. The filter will operate for water with a pH value between 7 and 8. The iron should not exceed 20 parts per million.

Water containing more than 20 parts per million iron or water with organic complexed iron can be treated best by chlorination and filtration. Super chlorination plus pH adjustment may be necessary. Complexed iron causes a condition where humic acids or other organic matter make oxidation difficult.

Commercial Drip Maintenance Treatment Solutions

Several commercial solutions are available, which contain a mixture of ingredients to deal with pH, iron, and hardness water problems. These commercial products come with instructions on dilution concentrations for daily maintenance or “shock” treatment to unclog plugged lines. For small producers getting started with drip irrigation, these commercial products should be considered as a water treatment.



Drip irrigation is an extremely efficient method of controlling processes, such as availability and uptake of water and minerals. The correct use of a drip irrigation system requires different approaches or methodology than those used in conventional irrigation systems. This involves thinking in terms of frequent irrigation intervals, correct emitter selection and spacing for soil type and topography, control of irrigation depth, and more exacting maintenance of the system. It is important to consult an irrigation specialist in designing a drip irrigation system, so that the system will indeed perform as expected.

Correct use of a drip irrigation system can save water, reduce potential for groundwater pollution, improve water use efficiency, reduced disease pressure and any allow prescription nutrient applications.