What Are Pop-Up Sprinkler Heads? Find How They Work

What Are Pop-Up Sprinkler Heads? Find How They Work

Pop-up sprinklers are installed beneath the ground and "pop up" when activated to distribute water over the desired area. When not used, they retract back into the ground, remaining flush with the surface to avoid obstruction.

Pop-Up Sprinkler Basics

The critical factor of an in-ground sprinkler system is that its water source is below ground. In-ground sprinkler systems connect to your waterline via underground pipes, so all the piping supplying water to the sprinkler heads won’t be visible.

  1. When it's time for watering, the irrigation system activates the zone containing the pop-up sprinklers. This can be done manually through a control panel, a timer, or remotely through a smart irrigation system.
  2. Upon activation, water flows through the underground pipes into the pop-up heads. The water pressure within the system causes the sprinkler riser to extend upward out of the ground.
  3. Once the sprinkler head locks into its fully extended position, water flows through the nozzle(s) on the head and is distributed in the intended patterns.
  4. The pop-up sprinkler runs for a predetermined time, determined by the irrigation system's controller or timer.
  5. When the watering cycle is complete, the controller shuts off the water to the zone. As the water pressure drops, the sprinkler's riser mechanism retracts, lowering the sprinkler head into its underground position.

Pop-up sprinklers are often used in sprinkler systems because of their versatility. They can spray in a quarter-circle, half-circle, or full-arc pattern, covering grass strips or irregularly shaped areas.


  • Pop-up sprinklers come in fixed or adjustable spray patterns and varying radiuses, so you can tailor your system to meet the specific watering needs of different areas in your yard and garden.
  • Since pop-up sprinklers retract into the ground when not in use, they are less obtrusive and do not interfere with lawn mowing or other maintenance activities. There is also very little chance of tripping over a sprinkler head and causing injury.
  • They make watering your lawn incredibly easy. You don’t have to pull out a hose, drag it around the yard, and put it away after watering.
  • Pop-up sprinklers can help conserve water by delivering water directly to the root zone of plants and minimizing evaporation and runoff, compared to traditional surface irrigation methods.
  • Properly designed and installed pop-up sprinkler systems can provide uniform water distribution across the entire lawn or garden area, helping to prevent overwatering in some areas and underwatering in others.
  • An in-ground system with pop-up sprinkler heads increases your home’s curb appeal and perhaps the home’s value.

Different Types of Pop-Up Sprinkler Heads

While many pop-up sprinklers are available, there are three main types: fixed spray, multiple stream, and gear-drive rotors.

Fixed Spray Sprinkler Heads

Fixed sprinkler heads do exactly what you’d think—they spray a fixed pattern. Their nozzles produce a tight, constant fan of water. They don’t rotate, so the water always sprays in the same direction. The water spray distance and radius can not be changed in most cases. For example, a common model sprays in a 45-degree pattern and throws water 10 feet.

Even though they aren’t adjustable, fixed spray heads come in many options, so it’s easy to find one that fits your needs. These pop-up sprinklers are frequently used in small lawns or when you need to water an irregularly shaped section.


  • A wide range of options allows for great customization of a sprinkler setup.
  • Heads are relatively inexpensive and easy to replace.


  • Small, narrow emitters easily clog from hard water buildup or debris.
  • Much shorter spray distance than other pop-up sprinkler heads.

Multiple Stream Sprinkler Heads

Another pop-up sprinkler is a multiple-stream head. This type produces multiple thin water streams distributed as the head rotates. Multiple-stream heads apply water more slowly and in a thin stream (versus the mist emitted by fixed spray heads), making them more water-efficient. Less water is lost to evaporation.

Heads can be purchased with a spray pattern ranging from 45 to 360 degrees. Since they apply water more slowly, they are great for uneven ground or sloped lawns because they produce less runoff.


  • Thin water streams evaporate less than a fine mist.
  • The enclosed body is protected from accumulating debris.
  • Heads are relatively inexpensive.


  • Hard water buildup inside the head can impede rotation and affect performance.

Gear-drive Rotor Sprinkler Heads

The third type of pop-up sprinkler is the gear-drive rotor. With this type, water enters from the bottom of the sprinkler and passes through a small turbine, which powers a set of gears that turn the sprinkler nozzle. Gear-drive heads move at a constant speed, distributing water evenly across the landscape.

As the water’s force increases, the rotation speed increases, throwing water further. Thus, gear-drive rotors are a fantastic choice for large lawns with uninterrupted sections of grass.


  • Gear-drive rots offer great control over the coverage size, water flow, and spray arc.
  • The enclosed body is protected from accumulating debris.
  • Water is distributed uniformly.


  • Sprinklers need a minimum water pressure—higher than the other types—to operate.
  • Most expensive type of pop-up sprinkler head.
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