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Drip Irrigation vs. Hand-watering

When it comes to growing cannabis, irrigation tends to get less attention than the flashier aspects like lighting and nutrients. Irrigation is a critical piece of the cannabis cultivation puzzle, but the fact that you can just do it by hand allows people to overlook the benefits — both to the bottom line and to the plants themselves — of installing an irrigation system. After all, hand watering has gotten the job done for decades of clandestine cultivation, so why fix something that isn’t broken?

The answer to that is simple, although proponents of hand-watering may not like it. The fact of the matter is that hand-watering is broken if you’re a commercial cultivator. It costs too much in both time and money and is horribly imprecise. Spending some extra time and money up front to install an irrigation system is not only a surefire way to decrease operating costs in a highly competitive industry, but it will also give growers much finer control over the amount of water and nutrients their plants receive compared to hand-watering.

Boutique growers and home cultivators may prefer handwatering techniques, but commercial facilities can benefi t tremendously from drip irrigation systems. Photo courtesy of Cannabis Irrigation Supply.

Drip Irrigation

There are a number of different types of irrigation systems available to cannabis growers, but in the discussion of maximizing cost savings and efficiency, drip irrigation is really the best solution.

At its heart, drip irrigation is the slow, precise application of water directly to the roots of a plant. Despite it being called “drip” irrigation, this application of water can come in the form of a spray, a mist or the titular “drip-drip-drip” of a standard drip emitter. While traditional sprinklers consume water in gallons per minute, and hydroponics techniques — such as flood and drain — have no flow control to speak of, drip emitters are engineered to emit a specific amount of water, usually measured in gallons per hour. It is this simplicity of concept and precision engineering that allows drip irrigation to offer so many benefits to the cannabis grower.

On the surface, hand-watering seems like a good deal. People need to be out among the plants to keep an eye on them anyway, so why not have them water the plants at the same time? The personal touch of an experienced gardener is a rare commodity that growers are always looking for. Add in the sentiment of “that’s how we’ve always done it” and there’s a powerful — if misguided — case for hand-watering cannabis.

That case begins to break down upon closer inspection, however. Watering plants by hand takes a lot of time, and time has a knack for being the most expensive part of any business. It is true that you need people checking in on the plants, but how much time do they have to give them the TLC they deserve when they spend most of their time mixing nutrients, weighing, watering and reweighing? The larger an operation grows, the less time its employees have to nurture the plants. Paying people to water by hand costs increasingly more money as an operation grows. This is doubly true when it comes to experienced growers. Not only do they cost more to employ, but their skills could also be put to better use than ferrying water from one place to another.

Charles Johnson, chief operating officer of Truly Oreganic, a cultivator in Oregon, said he was extremely happy with the shift from hand-watering to an automated system.

“It has turned a four-hour job into 20 minutes,” Johnson said. “The drip system waters all plants exactly the same, no matter what location in the system.”

Truly Oreganic, a state-licensed cultivator in Oregon, collects rainwater and feeds its plants with a drip irrigation system. Photo courtesy of Truly Oreganic.

The Precision of Automation

In a perfect world, an employee may be able to water plants and have time left to sing “Stairway to Heaven” to all the mothers as they coax them toward their grid of artificial suns, but anyone who has grown cannabis knows that we don’t live in a perfect world. Cultivation involves rolling with a never-ending series of punches. The already time-consuming process of hand-watering is exacerbated by heavy plants, unruly growing media (such as expanded clay balls) and crowded grow rooms that restrict maneuverability. The amount of nutrients and water delivered to each plant is largely at the whims of the employee doing the watering, and this imprecision can breed time-consuming problems of its own, such as nursing over- or under-watered plants back to health.

Replacing your watering brigade with a drip irrigation system solves many of these problems outright. Installation of a properly-designed drip system can be done quickly by a trained professional, or slightly slower by a complete novice. Think of it like Legos: all the pieces may look intimidating when strewn across the floor, but with a little explanation and some sorting, everything logically clicks together (just make sure you don’t step on them with bare feet). Enlisting professionals during the design phase is a must, though, as badly designed systems are the stuff of nightmares.

Drip irrigation systems are also extremely precise and, with the proper automation system, they can be reliably turned on for as little as one second at a time, dozens of times per day. This allows growers to measure the nutrients and water each plant receives down to the milliliter. That’s not to say that an experienced grower can’t do this by hand, but an automated drip irrigation system will do it all by itself, without an hourly paycheck.

Up-front costs

You may be reading this and thinking, “this all sounds really expensive,” and you wouldn’t be wrong. Many products made for the cannabis industry have an inflated price tag due to the history and risk associated with the plant. Drip irrigation systems as we know them today have been around since the mid-1960s and thus avoid the typical markup associated with cannabis-specific products.

It is not uncommon for a drip system to cost $1 per plant, including basic automation. Integrated nutrient injection and soil monitoring are more expensive, but for grows large enough to merit those technologies, the cost-per-plant still remains low. The cost for these systems is all up-front, unlike the ongoing costs associated with retaining employees to hand-water plants, allowing businesses to amortize the cost across the whole life of their system. Considering that many drip irrigation products are designed to operate in outdoor, agricultural settings for upwards of 20 years, that cost could be amortized for quite a while.

While irrigation may be the most boring aspect of a grow facility, it is essential to making an operation profitable. The cannabis industry is steeped in decades of myth and tradition, and while that’s one of the things that makes it fun to work in, it can also hamper the adoption of important technologies. Your dad and your dad’s dad may have watered their weed by hand, but commercial facilities ain’t your daddy’s grow op. For anyone looking to succeed at large-scale cannabis cultivation, a proper irrigation system is a must. Your bottom line — and your back! — will thank you.

Drip Irrigation vs. Hand-watering When it comes to growing cannabis, irrigation tends to get less attention than the flashier aspects like lighting and nutrients. Irrigation is a critical piece

How to Make a Drip Irrigation System for Growing Cannabis

What is drip irrigation?

Drip irrigation is a hydroponic technique that heavily relies on a top fed regulated flow of nutrient solution.

Now, I know this might sound complex, but it is not that hard when you finally wrap your head around it. Many soil based systems use drip irrigation techniques to feed their plants, as drip irrigation can be used as a supplement to soil based grows.

Drip irrigation is based around a set tubes with holes or outlets attached to tubes, which deliver water to each plant that is connected onto the system. This is so important for dry areas such as central Australia that they are thinking of feeding the whole country drip irrigation grown plants.

Water is pushed through tubes at a very low speed, as it is supposed to drip on occasion, depending on when and how much you want it to drip.

You can control the water pressure and water output with very simple equipment such as timers and pressure regulators.The rate of water distribution depends on what type of plant is being watered.

Drip irrigation is a very efficient hydroponic system, which means that the water usage is taken all the way down to the minimum.

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Growers who used deep water culture systems or NFT systems will tell you that if you want to save up money on electricity and nutrients, you should definitely choose drip irrigation systems. Avoid lacks of knowledge such as this one by reading our complete weed guide for beginners!

Excess solution from drip irrigation systems can be recycled on other plants in your surrounding, while other hydroponic systems usually use up all the nutrients or the nutrients end up not fit to be reused.

However, in most cases the excess solution just goes down the toilet, and that is just not acceptable – at least from an environmental point of view.

Drip irrigation systems release just the right amount of nutrient solution that your plants need, saving on water, nutrients, electricity and effort. You won’t need to replace the solution inside the tanks because Drip Irrigation systems don’t require fresh water, as they always get it through dripping tubes.

Drip irrigation as a supplement to soil

As mentioned before, drip irrigation systems have several great advantages over other hydroponic systems.

  • Drip irrigation is a low maintenance system that only has a few parts that can go wrong;
  • Drip irrigation systems are both water and nutrient efficient;
  • They are and more productive than soil only systems and they can complement them;
  • This system is easy to set up and can be done on a budget;

When growing plants in soil, drip irrigation is a great way to make sure your plants are watered on time, without having to go to your grow and do it yourself. This way you can have a timer set up to water your plants every 6 or 8 hours, and you’ll have to visit the plant only once in awhile.

Drip systems are much more efficient than sprinkler systems simply due to the nature of the system.

While sprinkler use an abundance of water, drip irrigation uses next to none. Over watering plants grown in soil can cause nutrients in the water to slip deeper into the soil, before the plants get the chance to absorb them.

Drip irrigation may also result in faster growth because your weed plants demands for water are fully catered for and they won’t suffer from water stress, which is important as plants that are watered too much tend to be smaller due to either lack of nutrients or root problems.

Another thing to keep in mind when growing weed in a drip irrigation system is that the mildew may be reduced because the upper parts of your plants, such as the leaves and stems, won’t be “bombed” with water every time they are watered.

Instead, drip irrigation directs water on the soil so the upper parts remain dry and mold free.

Once you have your timers ticking and you are happy with how your setup looks, drip irrigation is an extremely low maintenance system as there won’t be too much need for adjustments and maintenance.

Apart from occasional checking if the emitters haven’t clogged, the system can be left to run itself as it is fully automatized.

Homemade drip irrigation systems

There are many ways to construct a hydroponic drip irrigation system. As with all systems it is important to understand the concept and then use your own innovation.

When building your own drip irrigation system you will need the following:

  1. Emitters – You will need one emitter for each plant. There is a wide range of emitters available inexpensively from hydroponic stores and garden centers;
  2. Spaghetti Tubing – You will need one to fit each emitter. As above, widely available everywhere;
  3. Opaque Hose or PVC Tubing – Depending on how many plants you intend to run in your drip irrigation system you will require varying lengths and sizes of larger tubing to feed all your spaghetti tubing. Basically, the bigger the system the larger the hose required. Two inches is enough for most small home systems;
  4. Water Pump – You will need a water pump to move your solution around. Submersible fountain pumps are easy to get and will normally do the job. Most operate at around 300 gallons per hour and this is more than enough for domestic systems;
  5. Buckets – Get a couple buckets, you can reuse old ones if you have them. Reusing old plastic buckets from previous growing attempts is a great way to cut down on costs. If you already have a bucket with a lid and net pots filled with pellets, you can reuse those as well.

More complex drip irrigation systems are composed of a pump unit, control head, main and submain lines, laterals and emitters or drippers.

The pump is used to make sure that the appropriate amount of water enters the system to keep it at low pressure. The control head uses a filter to clean the system, as well as to control pressure and discharge. Mainlines, submains and laterals dispense the water into the growing space.

Emitters and drippers are placed onto the laterals and are placed above selected plants in order to provide water, which is why this technique is often called top-down.

Easier alternatives for those starting out with drip irrigation can simply consist of two hoses with holes drilled into the appropriate places and some type of pump to control water pressure.

Assembling and maintaining a drip system

One of the advantages of a drip irrigation system is the ease with which you can add more plants to the system.

It just requires another spaghetti tube and emitter.

However it is really easy to build a stand-alone bucket system for your plants that will normally serve just one or two plants, depending on the size and shape of the bucket/tote that you use.

A bucket drip irrigation system basically works by growing your plant suspended in the lid of a bucket.

A water pump pumps nutrient solution up from the bucket via a tube through the lid. The solution trickles over the plant’s roots and falls back into the bucket to be recirculated.

In order to assemble a drip irrigation system for your cannabis grow you will need to do the following:

  1. Grab the buckets and make holes on their lids, approximately 10 to 12cm in diameter. Drill one hole in the middle of the lid;
  2. Drill another hole, 5 cm in diameter, and close to the first one;
  3. Drill a smaller hole on the side of the bucket just below the rim for the;
  4. Attach the ½” tubing to the water pump;
  5. You will now need to reduce the size of the ½” tubing as this will be too big and will flood the plants;
  6. Attach a ½” to ¼” reducer to the open end of the tubing in order to reduce it;
  7. Attach a 4” length of ¼” tubing to the reducer, and place the pump in the bottom of the bucket;
  8. Instal the power cable through the hole in the side;
  9. Feed the reducer and tubing through the smaller hole in the lid, the one next to the big one;
  10. Fit the lid to the bucket and push the tubing back into its hole so that the reducers sits flat on the top. By this point you’ve done the biggest part;
  11. Fill the net cups with expanded clay pellets;
  12. Use a clip to place the ¼ tubing so that it flows into the growing medium (pellets in the net cup);
  13. Don’t forget to use a timer on your plug to run the pump for around 6 minutes, 3 times per day.
  14. Add plants to the system and watch your plants grow.

To be clear, drip irrigation systems are systems that are meant to be for outside growing, there are many chances of having leaks in the hoses and you might make a mistake which can cost you your parquetry.

If you have a garden and you plan on growing cannabis in soil this will be the perfect, and very cheap addition that can improve your yields largely. Make sure to send us pics if you decide to try out our Drip Irrigation system.

Drip irrigation is a hydroponic technique that heavily relies on a top fed regulated flow of nutrient solution. We teach you how to make one yourself.