Today we are going to explore the rich history of one of our favorite irrigation methods: drip irrigation.

While many of our clients know about the numerous benefits of a properly installed drip irrigation system - like improved water efficiency and reduced operating costs, for example - learning about how the modern systems we offer here at Blue Jay Irrigation came into existence is important as well.

Just as it is today, the goal of the primitive systems of years past was to save water and nutrients by sending water directly to the root system of a particular plant. This was done either above or below the surface of the ground in an effort to minimize evaporation.

This blog will provide an in-depth look at exactly how drip irrigation came to be, how it was used across various locations during different periods of history, and discuss some similarities and differences to the modern systems we use today. Let’s get started!

Ancient Drip Irrigation Techniques

Drip Irrigation can be traced back to Ancient China, as the Fan Sheng-Chih Shu Drip describes the use of buried clay pots filled with water (referred to as Ollas) to as early as 100 BCE.

This primitive method delivered water directly the roots gradually over time, as the pots were left unglazed so that moisture could gradually seep out into the soil. This style of drip irrigation proved to be very effective for many reasons, including easy implementation and maintenance.

Even though this early method didn’t have the luxury of intricate valves, pipes, or tubing, it still was an ingenious way to create a direct line/application to the roots.

Unglazed clay was also utilized in Afghanistan during the late 19th century, getting used in a series of drip pipeline experiments.

The Gradual Path to Modern Drip Irrigation

Modern drip irrigation dates back to the 1860’s, when German researchers began experimenting with clay pipes just below the surface of the soil.

The researchers used these clay pipes to create a unique system that combined drip irrigation and drainage.

This technique was expanded upon for nearly 50 years before perforated pipe systems came into existence in the 1920s.

While these early pipe systems were initially made out of a wide variety of different materials, Hannis Thill developed the usage of plastic to hold and distribute water in drip irrigation in Australia.

In North America, E.B. House spent many years at Colorado State conducting research that showed slow irrigation could successfully target the root zone of plants.

Several decades later, another remarkable innovation occurred that helped shape the modern drip irrigation systems we see today.

Simcha Blass and his son Yeshayahu began to develop and experiment with the use of a plastic emitter in drip irrigation.

The duo realized that the standard use of tiny holes along the plastic drip line had one major drawback - the openings were easily blocked by dirt particles and other impediments, which prevented water from being released into the soil.

In 1964, Blass partnered with Kibbutz Hatzerim to create a company called Netafim, which later created the first practical surface drip irrigation emitter.  

Here in North America, the first drip tape was named the “Dew Hose” and was designed and manufactured by Richard Chapin of Chapin Watermatics.

The hose was released for public use in the mid-1960’s and was a huge hit with consumers. Chapin Watermatics was in existence before almost 50 years before being purchased by Jain Irrigation in 2006.

Today, drip irrigation is widely considered one of the highest valued innovations in the agricultural world since the 1930s, when the impact sprinkler was first introduced.

The impact sprinkler was the first viable alternative to surface irrigation.

The power of drip irrigation lies in its extreme adaptability, as micro-spray heads, dripping emitters, and subsurface drip irrigation (buried drip line or drip tape) all offer irrigation solutions to fit a wide variety of different soils, plants, and environmental conditions.

While drip irrigation systems can be found across many different geographic areas and provide a simple and effective irrigation solution for many different types of plants/vegetation, they are primarily used in greenhouses, farms, and gardens here in the 21st century.

They are often the sole irrigation method in areas that suffer from extreme water scarcity, as they ensure that almost no excess water is wasted or lost due to evaporation.

Crops and trees such as grapes, coconuts, bananas, eggplant, oranges/grapefruit, strawberries, corn, and tomatoes all benefit greatly from drip irrigation, as water is given directly to the roots to promote strong, healthy plants that provide the greatest possible yield.

Modern Drip Irrigation Components

While modern drip irrigation systems can vary slightly, a typical system consists of 7-8 different parts. Therefore, almost all of them will be made up of some combination of the following :

  • Isolation and control valves to control the flow of water
  • Backflow preventer to prevent dirt, salmonella, bacteria etc. from being sucked back into the system
  • Pressure regulator to reduce water pressure and keep it at a constant level
  • Filter to clean the water and remove grains of sand, rust from pipes, snails, etc.
  • Drip tubing that is laid on the surface of the ground between the plants
  • Emitters that are attached to the drip tubing to regulate how fast water is released to the soil - they are usually small plastic devices that are screwed on to the drip tube
  • End cap to close the system and ensure that the water stays inside the drip tube

While everything listed above is almost always found in a standard drip irrigation system, each one will be set-up based on land surface area and the type of vegetation that requires water.

After many years of trial and error, engineers have discovered that 1-2 emitters per plant provides the best results. However, larger shrubs or trees may need more.

Obviously, the more emitters that are present in the system, the more moisture is released into the soil.

Modern systems also place the emitters or drip line holes are are usually placed at least 18” apart. This ensures  an adequate distribution of water within the system.

How a Modern Drip Irrigation System is Installed

Since commercial drip irrigation was first introduced in North America almost 60 years ago, the installation process has been slowly perfected to provide optimal results.

The first step is always to compile and map out the locations of all shrubs, trees, grass, flowers, and other plants. Depending on the soil in your yard, different types of emitters and spacing may be used. This is because water reacts differently depending on the consistency of the soil.

In sandier soil, water tends to go straight down, so emitters are usually spaced closer together because the moisture struggles to spread through the soil after being released into it.

Loamy soil tends to hold water a bit longer, so spacers should be spaced a little further apart. Finally, clay soil absorbs water the slowest - spacers should be around 18” to 24” apart.

Since access to the main water source has changed drastically over the years, it is worth noting that our current technology makes introducing water to the main system a breeze.

The first step in the installation process is to connect the drip irrigation system to the main water source - usually a faucet, valve, or sprinkler. Once connected, it is time to attach the drip line to the system and position it properly along the ground.

Holes are then punched (with proper spacing) to fit emitters that deliver the water in the system to the soil. After everything is set up and water is being properly dispersed to the desired areas, routine checking of nozzles and emitters is required to ensure that the system continues to operate smoothly.

Now that you know a bit more about the lengthy history of drip irrigation systems, how modern systems are installed and function, and what the numerous advantages and benefits of a drip irrigation system are, that information can be used to help make a decision about what kind of drip irrigation system might work best for your particular needs.