Stop irrigation leaks

Let me count the ways” is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tribute to love, and my lament to leaks. I have counted far too many leaks since early 2014’s rationing, and their waste is stupefying. They make water-saving opportunities like showers and toilets look like child’s play.

Conservation guides detail conversions of ubiquitous lawns and thirsty plants to water-efficient landscapes. In stark contrast, irrigation leaks are ignored, and their transformation potential is not well-understood. Hopefully, my real-world case study can be a call to action.

Drip lines have thousands of openings for emitters to disperse water, couplings to interconnect lines, and plugs to block unneeded holes. When an opening becomes unimpeded, which happens often, a leak begins. Signs are often subtle, and losses compound each time irrigation runs. Trickles saturate soil and kill plants; steady flows flood nearby areas and underground.

Our drip irrigation was professionally installed in 2012, so I assumed all was good. It wasn’t. Proactive leak management is a conservation must-do, as revealed by the study’s egregious leaks and game-changing takeaways that can stop them in their tracks.


Top Drip Irrigation Leaks
Gallons wasted/hr. Frequency over 22 months Occurrence Ongoing or Initially
1. Spaghetti tube off connector 150-250 > 100 Ongoing
2. Popped or loose goof plug 10-125 > 100 Both
3. Removed plant but not emitter < 4 > 100 Ongoing
4. Popped or loose emitter 5-50 Dozens Both
5. Drip line damage – rock, gopher, staple
50-180 Dozens Both
6. Leaky end piece 20-30 Dozens Initially
7. Separated or loose coupling 340 < 10 Both


  • Leaks #1 to #3 cause 90+% of total waste, yet are avoidable. Novel connector-less designs neutralize #1, testing and fewer goof plugs negate #2, and resourceful smart plugs cork #3.
  • Colossal savings are possible. As I built a baseline, dogged sleuthing revealed 4 holes in buried drip lines, that when fixed, cut water use in 2 zones by 15-25%. That was only the beginning.
  • Scrutiny coupled with recordkeeping catches leaks when they first occur. Waste is then just for a few minutes or, worst case, a single irrigation run. See Four Smart Sleuthing Skills for details.
  • Managing leaks is never done. Parts fatigue, get stepped on, or slowly separate. Dead plant removal dislodges emitters or plugs; new plants’ drip is flawed. Rocks puncture or gophers chew drip lines.

Leaks can make you crazy. Yet as each new one is found, I exclaim “an angel gets its wings” from It’s a Wonderful Life. And so I keep at it.

angel gets its wings

Column Headings Explanations:

  • Gallons wasted/hour is calculated by before and after meter readings. Another garden’s water pressure and irrigation components can have proportionately different numbers.
  • Frequency is number of leaks of that type found during the 22-month period.
  • Occurrence, when that leak type is likely.

Drip Parts Definitions:

  • Drip lines convey water from the source to the plant material.
  • Couplings join two sections of drip lines.
  • End pieces are fittings to close off the end of drip lines.
  • Emitters disperse water dripped at a controlled rate from drip lines to plant material. A great range of design types exist, with sizes from 0.5, 1, 2, 4, and even more gallons per hour.
  • Goof plugs are small plastic plugs that fill holes left behind when emitters are removed.
  • Spaghetti is small diameter tubing that distributes water to a plant not adjacent to drip lines.
  • Connectors are small fittings that attach spaghetti to drip lines or to other spaghetti.
  • Zones are groups of plant material irrigated at the same time.
  • Staples are 6″ wire stakes that hold down, and occasionally penetrate, drip lines.

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