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Emitter Selection for Drip Systems

By Farouk A. Hassan, Ph.D.

Emission devices or emitters are vital component of drip/microirrigation systems as they control the dripping (emission) of water and fertilizer solution to the plant.  Drip emitters basically slow down the flow rate to a “trickle” by dissipating the energy of the flow through frictional resistance.  This makes it possible to deliver water and fertilizer solution to the plant in a frequent localized manner and at, essentially, constant rate; and that is the principal advantage of this method of irrigation.

Efficiency of a drip irrigation system refers to the ratio of the water delivered to the plant to satisfy its water requirements to the total applied water.  High efficiency of a drip system is usually desired.   Emission uniformity (EU) is a prerequisite for the high efficiency of the system as will be explained later.     

Though drip systems are designed around EU, emission uniformity of the system is also influenced by the emitter selection.  Therefore, the emitter should be selected prior to the initiation of the system design.  Changing the emitter choice after completion of the design could degrade the system.  Proper selection of emitter enables using smaller diameter laterals, longer laterals or less sub-main lines which means less costly system while maintaining the desired system uniformity and efficiency.

To help you select the appropriate emitter, a discussion of emitters flow characteristics are presented followed by a description of some of the commonly used types of emitters.  A guideline for emitter selection is then provided. 

Emitter Flow Characteristics

Drip emitters regulate water flow by dissipating the flow energy through frictional resistance.  Laminar flow emitters regulate water flow by dissipating energy via friction against the walls of long and narrow path.  Microtubes and spiral path emitters are examples of laminar flow emission devices.

On the other hand, turbulent flow emitters regulate water flow by dissipating energy by friction against the walls of the water passage and also between the particles themselves during their turbulent movements.  Orifices, nozzle emitters, tortuous path emitters and jets or sprayers are typically turbulent emitters.  The drip tapes that utilize orifices are also turbulent flow devices.

Laminar Flow Emitters

In a laminar flow the fluid particles move along parallel paths in layers or laminas.  The magnitude of the velocities of adjacent laminas is not the same and liquid viscosity (i.e., resistance to poring) is dominant in controlling liquid movement and suppresses any conditions that may cause turbulence.

Hydraulic investigations showed that in a laminar flow, the flow rate “Q” of the emitter is directly proportional to the operating pressure and a change in operating pressure will produce an equal percentage of change in flow rate, i.e., if (H1/H2) = 1.1, then (Q1/Q2) = 1.1, and a change of 10 percent in operating pressure would result in a change of 10 percent in flow rate.   

Therefore, the flow rate through laminar flow emitters is pressure sensitive (i.e., less pressure compensating, see turbulent flow emitters below).  It is also temperature sensitive since it is influenced by the changes in viscosity of water which changes with temperature, i.e., the higher the water temperature the lower the water viscosity and the larger the discharge rate Q.  Laminar flow emitters are also more susceptible to clogging because of their low flow velocity and their relatively long and narrow flow path.  However, laminar flow emitters are inexpensive and with proper system maintenance will have satisfactory performance.  These emitters are more suitable for short run laterals, where head loss is not very large and flow rate would not suffer large change between emitters.

Turbulent Flow Emitters

In turbulent flow the particles of the fluid moves in a haphazard fashion in all directions.  While the viscosity is dominant with laminar flow, both inertia (that property of matter because of which a force must be exerted on a body in order to accelerate it) and viscosity affect the turbulent flow pattern.

Therefore, for turbulent emitters hydraulic investigations showed that the flow rate Q will vary with the square root of the operating pressure H, i.e., Q1/Q2 = [H1/H2]1/2 , and a change in operating pressure H of 10 percent would produce a corresponding change in flow rate Q of only 5 percent, i.e., if  [H1/H2] = 1.10, then Q1/Q2 = [H1/H2]x = [H1/H2]1/2 = 1.05.  Thus, turbulent flow devices are less sensitive to pressure variations (more pressure compensating) than laminar devices, i.e., the same pressure change will produce much smaller change in discharge rate with turbulent flow emitters than with laminar flow ones.   

The practical application of this conclusion is that if all other factors being equal, the length of laterals for turbulent drip tape for a given design uniformity could be longer than those of laminar drip tape while maintaining the same desired value of EU.  Where the length of the lateral line is fixed (e.g., by field dimensions) the use of turbulent drip tape, for instance, will result in higher uniformity than laminar one due to less flow rate variation with turbulent flow.  Hydraulic investigations also showed that the flow rate, Q, with turbulent flow emitters is independent of viscosity and therefore it is much less affected by water temperature than laminar flow emitters.  Moreover, the flow path of the turbulent emitters is wider than that of the laminar flow ones which make them less susceptible to clogging than the laminar flow emitters.

Discharge Exponent, x

The exponent “x” mentioned above is usually referred to as the “discharge exponent”.  The value of this exponent is usually close to unity (≈ 0.7 – 0.8) for laminar flow emitters and about 0.5 – 0.6 for turbulent flow emitters.

Coefficient of Variation, Cv

Manufacturing variability is a common industrial phenomenon where no two items are made exactly the same particularly for items of very narrow internal passages such as drip emitters.  A minute change in the dimension of these passages could make a significant difference in the emitter discharge rate especially the pressure compensating ones.  The coefficient of manufacturing variability for the emitter (Cv) is used as a measure of expected variations in discharge of new emitters from the average discharge, qa, of a particular sample of the given emitters when operated at a constant pressure head.  Usually, emitter manufacturers provide the values of Cv for their products.

The discharge rate of representative sample of emitters operating at a given pressure essentially follows a bell-shaped normal distribution curve. Where qa is the average emitter discharge, approximately 68 percent of the discharge rates fall within (qa ± Cv) , 95 percent of the discharge rates fall within (qa ± 2 Cv), and 99.7 percent of the discharge rates fall within (qa ± 3 Cv). 

This means that for Cv values of 10% (0.10) samples of emitters with qa of 1gph, 68 percent of emitter discharge rate would fall within the discharge range of (qa ± Cv) or 0.9 to 1.1 gph, 95% percent of emitter discharge rate would fall within the range of (qa ± 2 Cv) or 0.8 to 1.2, and 99.7 percent of emitter discharge rate would fall in the range of (qa ± 3 Cv) or 0.7 and 1.3 gph respectively. 

Also for Cv values of 5% (0.05) samples of same emitters. 68 percent of discharge rate would fall within the discharge range of (qa ± Cv) or 0.95 to 1.05 gph, 95% of discharge rate would fall within the range of (qa ± 2 Cv) or 0.9 to 1.1, and 99.7 percent of discharge rate would fall in the range of (qa ± 3 Cv) or 0.75 and 1.25 gph respectively.

Therefore, the smaller the Cv value of a given sample of emitters the less different, or the more uniform, is the sample and the better the emission uniformity (EU) of water in the field.  Table 1 provides the ranges and the common evaluations (classification) of Cv values.

               Table 1.   Coefficient of manufacturer variability, Cv

A higher Cv values, is used for line-source tubing because it is difficult to keep Cv and price both low.  However, because line-source outlets are usually closely spaced the effect of higher Cv value on discharge uniformity is minimized.

Emission Uniformity, EU

Emission uniformity (EU) is a critical characteristic around which drip irrigation system is designed.  EU indicates how uniform the system applies water in the field.  High EU is a prerequisite for high efficiency.  Irrigation efficiency could be expressed as how much of the applied water is added to the plant root zone.

It is not possible to acquire high efficiency with low uniformity, EU, because with low uniformity higher percentage of the field area will receive either less water or more water than the average application needed to satisfy the crop water requirements.  To remedy this deficiency more water will need to be applied to the field to satisfy the requirements of the under-irrigated parts of the field.  This will result in over-irrigating the rest of the field and that means more water is lost away from the root zone resulting in lower irrigation efficiency. 

With high EU, only small percentage of the field will be under-irrigated and the volume of water needed to provide for the under-irrigated parts of the field will be much smaller, the losses will be smaller as well, therefore, the efficiency will be higher.  However, it is possible to have a low efficiency with high EU.  This is not contradictory to what was previously stated that high EU is a prerequisite for high efficiency.   For example, if high EU is achieved in a field but excessive amount of water is applied to that field by applying irrigation water for much longer period of time than scheduled for delivering the estimated water requirements of the crop (i,e., over-irrigation) then, large amount of water will be lost away from the root zone and the irrigation efficiency will be low despite the achieved high EU.

Fig. 1. Typical layout of a microirrigated system

B:  Types of Emitters

Emitters are usually grouped according to their flow patterns (e.g., laminar and turbulent flow), wetting patterns (e.g., point-source, line-source, multi-exit emitters), and special functions (e.g., pressure compensating and flushing emitters).  Some emitters may combine more than one attribute, e.g., pressure compensating line-source emitter (drip tape).                                                                                                     

Flow Pattern

     * Laminar & Turbulent Flow Emitters

Turbulent flow emitters have the advantage of being less sensitive to pressure variation (i.e., more pressure compensating), less sensitive to water temperature variations, less susceptible to clogging and allow for longer lateral runs or less pressure variation for the same length of lateral run than laminar flow emitters.  Laminar flow emitters are less expensive and more suitable for short-run laterals.  On-line, in-line and drip tape come in either laminar or turbulent flow type.  Both laminar and turbulent flow emitters may come in standard or pressure compensating type.

Wetting Pattern

     *  Point-Source and Line-source emitter

Drip irrigation with water discharged from emission points that are rather widely spaced, usually 3 ft or more, is commonly referred to as point-source application.  When water is discharged from more closely spaced outlets it is called line-source application.  Examples of point-source is on-line and in-line emitters (see Fig’s. 2 & 3).  The most common discharge rate of point-source emitters is 1 gph.  Other available sizes are 0.5, 1.5, 2.0 gph.  Point-source emitters come in standard and pressure compensating models.   

On-line emitters are commonly used for irrigating orchards and vineyards.  The PE (polyethylene) laterals are usually laid on the ground surface (see Fig. 2).  This type of emitters offers the user the advantage of installing an emission device exactly where wanted and the emitters are serviceable.  Their disadvantage is that the end user must manually insert each emitter.

In-line emitters or drip lines are similar to on-line emitters but in this configuration they are pre-inserted into the PE tubing at specified intervals during the tubing extrusion process (see Fig. 3).  The emitters may be cylindrical or flat “boat shaped”, and are attached to the inner tube wall via a controlled heating/adhesion process.  Labor savings for the end user may be substantial since emitters are factory pre-installed.  The drawback is that emission devices may exist where not needed, and they are not serviceable.   Drip-line may be installed below the surface such that the soil surface may be kept dry.  Both on-line and in-line emitters come in regular and pressure compensating types.   

Examples of line source are single chamber and double chamber drip of relatively thin tubing, commonly known as “drip tapes” (see Fig. 4).  Single chamber tubing has orifices punched or more complex emitters fabricated or inserted at intervals of 2 ft or less along the tubing.  Double chamber tubing is a hose that has both a main and auxiliary bore separated by a single wall.  Widely spaced inner orifices are punched in the separator wall between the main and the auxiliary bore; for each inner orifice, three to six exit orifices are punched at intervals of 0.5 to 2 ft in the outer wall of the auxiliary bore.

Drip tape may be classified according to their flow pattern as either turbulent or laminar.  Turbulent drip tape controls flow rate by means of orifices or tortuous flow paths, while laminar tape utilizes small tubes or capillaries to control flow rate.  These two types of drip tape exhibit different flow rate response to pressure variation (as explained earlier) and they are not mutually exchangeable for the purpose of system design.

Water is distributed evenly along the length of the drip tape through emission devices that may be spaced anywhere from 4” to 24” apart.  Tube wall thicknesses vary from .004” to .015” (4 mil to 15 mil), emitter flow rates from 0.07 to 0.34 gph, and tube diameters from 5/8” to 1-3/8”.  Drip tape is used extensively for irrigating vegetable and field row crops e.g., strawberries and tomatoes.  It may be installed above or below the ground, and may be retrieved for multi-season reuse or disposed of at the end of each season.  Drip tape is relatively inexpensive and is ready to install without any additional emission device installation labor.

         *  Sprayer, Jets or microsprinklers  (see Fig. 7 & 8)

These are small applicators designed to spray water to cover an area of 10 to 100 ft2.  Jets are mounted on risers or stakes (see Fig. 8) and spray water through the air as separate streams that create various foot print patterns of water in the soil.  A variety of patterns are available including full circle, half circle, hi/low trajectory, butterfly, etc.  The versatility of patterns provides a great deal of flexibility for the end user to accurately apply water only where wanted, such as enveloping each tree in an orchard without wetting the trunk.  Wetted diameter ranges from 10 to 35 ft and discharge rate from 5 to 30 gph.  Flow through jets is turbulent with discharge exponent x = 0.5.  Jets are commonly used on orchard crops like almond and citrus and on light textured soils.

Special Function

     *  Pressure-Compensating Emitters   

This type of emitters provides varying degree of flow regulation with discharge exponent “x” value ranging from 0.0 to 0.4.  For complete flow regulation x = 0.0.  Pressure compensating devices may be either laminar or turbulent.  In either case, these devices utilize the inlet pressure to modify the flow path size, shape or length.  In this way, pressure-compensating devices are able to deliver the correct flow rate over a fairly wide range of inlet pressures, and within that range their flow rates are relatively constant.  Pressure-compensating emitters are useful for use in undulating fields.

Pressure compensating emitters suffer from the drawback that the elastomeric material used in their construction has a tendency to change their properties as they age.   The following graphs (Fig’s. 9 & 10) show the difference in performance between pressure-compensating and non pressure-compensating emitters.

*  Flushing Emitters

This type of emitters is designed to have a flushing flow of water to clear the discharge opening every time the system is turned on.  Continuous flushing emitters permit continuous passage of large solid particles while  operating.  Some on-line emitters and drip tape are manufactured with flushing capabilities. 

     *  Multi-Exit Emitters  (see Fig. 6)

Some on-line emitters supply water to two or more points through small diameter auxiliary tubing; they are used in orchards where large trees may require several emission points for each tree.  They are usually more expensive than single exit emitters.

E.  A Guideline for Emitter Selection

The pressure variation within the system and the flow characteristics of the selected emission devices influence the uniformity of water distribution (EU) of a drip/microirrigation system.  While the control of pressure variation by proper system design is certainly required, the selection of the emitter device itself is also vital for achieving the desired high EU and high system efficiency (e.g., x & Cv).  Moreover, emitter selection is critical for specifying the water treatment and the filtration equipment for the drip system.  Filtration requirement for a given emitter is specified by the emitter manufacturer.  User preference might also be a factor and personal and local experience may influence the choice of emitter.

However, two very important items to be considered in emitter selection are the percentage area wetted, which is related to delivering the required amount of water to the plant at the design pressure, and the reliability of the emitter against clogging and malfunctioning.

It is recommended to provide a sufficient number of emission points to wet between one-third and one-half of the horizontal cross sectional area of the potential root-zone.  Field observations have shown that the density of emission points required to obtain such percentage of wetting can be based on an assumed discharge of 1 gph emitters.  For perennial crops, the number of emitters can be increased with the age of the plant and stage of growth.  However, the initial pipe network must be designed to meet the needs of the mature plants.  It is usually recommended that the filtration process should remove all particles larger than one-tenth the diameter of the emitter passage way.  Also, regular flushing of laterals can significantly reduce emitter clogging (see Fig. 11).


Generally, the selection of an emitter depends on the soil to be wetted, plants to be grown and their water requirements, quality of irrigation water and emitter discharge.  The cost of emitter should be also be considered as the average total cost of emitters may amount to about 20-25 percent of the total cost of the system.  The following points together with above provided explanations may provide a guideline for emitter selection.   

First determine the general type of emitter that best fits the needs of the crop to be irrigated and the area to be wetted, i.e., continuous wetting pattern for vegetable crops where a drip tape could be suitable, on-line emitters for irrigating orchard crops,  jets where relatively coarse textured soil prevails or where light water applications with large foot print could be more suitable for the crop requirements.  The use of pressure compensating emitters may be advantageous for undulating terrain.

Second, according to the required discharge, spacing, and other field conditions, choose the specific emitter needed, i.e., which drip tape, jet pattern, or on-line emitter could be more fitting for supplying the water requirements of the crop, e.g.,  for drip tape, is it going to be for one season, 4 mil, or for several seasons, 25 mil.  Third, determine the required discharge (q) and operating pressure head (H) for the average emitter that fits the system design and prevailing conditions (e.g., water quality, soil properties, weather conditions).

It is also important to examine the emitter characteristics described above i.e., x, Cv, filtration requirements.  Emitters with discharge exponent (x) closer to 0.5 is more pressure compensating, less sensitive to temperature changes and less susceptible to clogging than the ones with the value of x closer to one.   The smaller the Cv value for the emitter the more uniform is water application in the field.  Emitters with Cv between 0.03 to 0.05 are expected to provide higher EU and consequently higher system efficiency than the ones with Cv between 0.07- 0.09.

Filtration requirement as stated by the emitter manufacturer should also be considered, the smaller the required mesh number (number of opening per inch) the less susceptible the emitter to clogging.  Emitters that require mesh number 160 is less susceptible to clogging than the ones that requires 260 mesh number for filtration.  However, the filtration requirements as stated by the emitter manufacturer should be fulfilled.  Also, enquire with emitter manufacturers regarding the tolerance of emitter components to chemicals such as acid and chlorine usually used for system cleaning and disinfection.  Finally, local and personal experience should be taken into consideration.

For more information, visit www.agridrip.com or contact F.A.Hassan, an irrigation & Soils Consultant at Agro Industrial Management at “fahassan@aol.com

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