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Understanding and Programming Your Irrigation Controller

One of the benefits of using irrigation controllers is the ability to keep your lawn and plants looking great without wasting water. Sometimes though, homeowners have trouble programming their controller, resulting in over-watering or under-watering.

If you’re one of those homeowners, here are some basics to help you better understand how your controller works, and how to set up a basic watering schedule.

Important Terms


A valve is the part of the irrigation system that receives signals from the controller telling it to open to let water flow, or to close to shut off the flow. Sometimes you will see several valves located together (called a manifold), often in a valve box underground. Occasionally the valves are above ground near the water source, but they can also be in small groups of two or more, close to the areas they’ll be watering. It’s a good idea to map out, or at least familiarize yourself with your system’s valve locations.


A station is a circuit on the controller that activates a single control valve to control watering for a particular zone. Every valve controls a specific sprinkler group, sometimes referred to as a watering station. 


The area being watered is called a “zone”, although it will sometimes be labelled “station” on the controller. Each zone should be set up for plants with similar water needs for irrigation efficiency, and one type of sprinkler head should be used throughout that zone. The sprinklers in each zone will run for the same amount of time, but other zones can have different run times.


This is where the water schedule is stored that tells the controller what time to start, how long to run the sprinklers for each zone or station and on what day of the week. Many controllers have three available programs — A, B, and C. You might set up program A to water the lawn zones once a week. Program B might be used to water the flowerbed zone twice in one day, and Program C might water plants or shrubs in a drip system zone three days a week.

Common Controller Features

Here are some common controller features. Your owner’s manual will describe the ones particular to your controller.

Start Time

With this feature you choose the start time for program A, B, or C. For example, if program A has zones 1-5 assigned to it, and you start it at 7 a.m., it will water each zone consecutively for the time duration you set for each zone. Once the program has run through all 5 zones, the controller stops watering.

Run Time

Sometimes called “station duration”, run time is the amount of time a specific valve stays open to water a zone.

Run, Auto, or Auto-Run

Controllers can be labelled “run”, “auto”, or “auto-run”, depending on the brand and model. When enabled, this feature allows your programs to run as scheduled.

Off or Stop

Toggling to the “off” or “stop” setting will prevent your programs from running until you toggle back to “run”. All your program settings will be saved. You can use the “off” position to set up programs, and to turn off your system during the winter when there’s a freeze.


The semi-auto feature allows you to run an entire program any time you want. For example, if the weather’s been unusually hot and dry, you may want supplemental watering on your designated watering day. Semi-auto is not available on all controllers.


For controllers that don’t have the “semi-auto” feature, the “manual” setting allows you to turn on a zone for as long as you want or run a program (depending on the model) without having to reprogram the controller. The setting is useful for watering dry areas, and for spot-checking the system for leaks and other problems while doing tune-ups or repairs.

Rain Delay

Controllers with “rain delay” allow you to turn off the irrigation system for a specific number of days when rain is forecast. The system will automatically start watering again when the programmed delay expires.

Rain Sensor

A rain sensor installed on an irrigation system will automatically prevent watering when it detects moisture. You can turn off the sensor for all programs, or for individual stations, with the controller’s rain sensor bypass.

Seasonal Adjust

Seasonal adjust reduces or increases the run times for all programs or individual stations based on a percentage of the programmed time. It allows you to adjust for weather patterns without having to reprogram everything. For example, if the regular run time is programmed for 10 minutes, and the seasonal adjust is set at 150 percent during a really hot spell, the program will run for 15 minutes. 

Basic Programming Steps

Not all controller brands and models have the same features and controls. Some use dials, while others are fully digital with touch screens, so always check your owner’s manual for specific instructions. The following steps are for setting up a basic irrigation program:

  1. If setting up the controller for the first time, program the current time and day of the week, paying special attention to the AM and PM. Always check for the correct day and time whenever you program.
  2. Select program A, B, or C.
  3. Choose the watering start time. This will apply to the entire program, not individual stations. When the controller begins watering at the start time, it will begin with the first station, and the other stations or zones in the program will follow in sequence. If you want to water again the same day with that program, set up a second start time (e.g. first start time at 7 a.m, second time at 8 p.m.).
  4. Set the run times for the stations in the program. A run time is the length of the watering period, and for most controllers it can be set from one minute to many hours (e.g. 6 hours). The run times are set individually for each station, not for the program. You may not want to run all the stations in the program — any station without a set run time will be skipped, and the next consecutive station with a run time will start watering. Only set run times for the stations included in the program you’ve chosen.
  5. Set up the watering day or days for the program. Different controllers allow different scheduling options, such as odd/even days, cyclic days, etc. The watering schedule applies to the entire program, not individual stations.
  6. To set up additional programs, select a program from A, B, or C that hasn’t been used, and repeat the above steps. Set the station run times to zero for stations you have assigned to another program (A, B, or C). Usually stations are used in just one program, so only add run times for the stations in the current program you’re setting up.
  7. When you’ve finished programming, set the controller to the “run”, “auto”, or “auto-run” position.

Important Note:  Always set up your controller to irrigate in accordance with the local watering restrictions.

You might also want to consider investing in a smart controller if you don’t already have one.  Smart controllers have a number of features that could save you money.

Your sprinkler system is an important investment. Call Smart Earth Sprinklers at (512) 694-1174 or contact us online for all your inspection, repair, and maintenance requirements.

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