Irrigating During Cold Weather Can Cause Problems!

Sheryl Wells, UGA Extension Engineer

Willie Chance, UGA Center for Urban Agriculture

Landscape sprinkler systems normally deliver water in the form of fine spray droplets.  In winter months, when temperatures are at or below freezing, part-circle heads which are not aligned properly can create icy conditions on roads and sidewalks.  Frozen irrigation water on roads and walks can be difficult to navigate safely creating dangerous conditions for travelers. This is not only a safety issue. It could also be a liability issue for the property owner who may be held responsible for damages or injuries.  

Irrigation is most efficient when irrigation equipment is installed properly and regularly inspected. We achieve irrigation efficiency when most of the water is applied to the landscape and is available to plant roots. A system that is not properly maintained may result in sprinkler heads that are misaligned or need adjusting especially if water is being applied to roads or sidewalks.

Problems can be avoided with a few simple steps:

1. Adjust sprinkler systems so that water is distributed to the landscape and not to roads and walks. This is especially true of busy, public roads. Wet or icy conditions on roads or water hitting a windshield can cause accidents. Irrigation directed at roads and walks is a safety problem and a waste of water!

2. Monitor irrigation systems routinely for leaks throughout the year.  Underground leaks may actually show up better in the winter because they create icy spots in the lawn or landscape.  Sprinklers heads should also be checked regularly for adjustment or alignment problems. 

3. Irrigate depending on plant needs, soil moisture, and current weather conditions.  Plant water needs are less during cooler temperatures as compared to summer conditions, even for plants such as pansies and cool-season turfgrasses.  Devices such as soil moisture sensors are useful in determining irrigation needs.

4. It may be necessary to completely drain/winterize an irrigation system if a landscape is composed of deciduous or dormant plant material or in areas that have regular freezing weather. Freezing water in pipes expands and can cause damage which can be very expensive to repair.

5. Plants or sod that were planted in late fall and have not had time to establish a root system may need to be irrigated prior to freezing conditions to avoid drying out during cold, dry weather.   Irrigation should be applied before soil freezes since the water cannot move through a frozen soil profile.  Water is more likely to puddle on the surface when the soil is frozen. 

Regularly evaluating the distribution and coverage of your sprinkler system and following good irrigation practices and scheduling should have several advantages:


  • An efficient system can result in water conservation which is a cost-effective and environmentally sound way to reduce our demand for water and save energy.
  • Plant health and appearance is improved.
  • Chemical applications may be reduced. 
  • Less water is loss due to surface water runoff and deep percolation.


Save money and water, and reduce hazards by making sure the water is falling where you want, when you want, and in the proper quantity.

Dr. Teri Hamlin
North Region Agriculture Education
Georgia Department of Education
204C Four Towers University of Georgia
Athens, Ga 30602
706-542-3679 / 706-540-0032
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