Pumps: How to Select the Right Pump Step-by-Step

This tutorial will take you step-by-step through the process of selecting the right pump for your irrigation system.  (You can apply the pump principles here to other water uses that aren’t irrigation with a little common sense.)  You may be installing a brand new irrigation system, need to replace the pump on an existing system, or need to enhance the performance of an existing system by adding a booster pump.  You might need to pump water from a well, a stream, or a pond.  Whatever the situation we will cover it here, but you will need to do a bit of reading.  That is the do-it-yourself way, if you don’t want to take the time to read it and learn how, you should stop here, and hire a local expert to come out to your property, do the research necessary, and select a pump for you.

NOTE: There is no “easy way” to select a pump.  If anyone tries to tell you what pump you need without establishing what your needed flow (GPM or l/m) and pressure (PSI or bars) is they are just guessing.  That’s like asking how many marbles it takes to fill a jar.  Without knowing how big the jar is, and how big the marbles are, all you can do is take a wild guess!

Now first let’s start by getting you around the huge beginner’s mistakes.

Warning- don’t make a major mistake!

There are 3 major errors people often make in regards to irrigation pumps. All of these are VERY expensive errors to fix. So let’s get you on the right track from the very beginning!

Plan First!

Do not buy a pump until you have determined your exact water needs for flow and pressure!  Many people every year lose lots of money because they bought a pump before they designed their irrigation system, then discovered it wasn’t the right type or size.   A pump must be sized for the exact pressure and flow requirements of your irrigation system.  Way too many people ask “what horsepower do I need?”  Newbie question!  Pumps aren’t selected by horsepower.  You need a pump that produces the correct amounts and ratios of water flow and water pressure.  So design your irrigation system first, purchase the pump second!

Pump Labels:

Many (most?) prepackaged off-the-shelf pumps have misleading performance labels. They aren’t exactly lying to you, they just aren’t being very clear.  Often a pump or the pump’s package will be labeled with something similar to “20 GPM, 55 PSI”. Or it may say “20 GPM, 127 feet of lift”. In most cases the word “or” should be added. What they mean is 20 GPM or 55 PSI. This is critical! There is a huge difference in performance between a pump that produces 20 GPM at 55 PSI, and a pump that produces 20 GPM or 55 PSI.  You may even see this misleading information stamped right onto the pump identification tag on the pump body!

Think about it in terms of a car. What if you are looking to buy a car and see one with the performance listed as “seats 5, goes 80 mph”?  So you buy the car, load it up with 4 buddies and quickly discover it won’t go over 20 MPH.  What gives?  Well what they meant was it carries 5 passengers OR goes 80 MPH.  They didn’t lie to you, they just didn’t really tell you the whole truth either.  The car goes 80 MPH with 1 passenger but with 5 passengers it won’t go more than 20 MPH.   See the difference?

All this will make much more sense after you have read this article, but for now you need to be aware of this mislabeling problem right up front.  Watch out for the wording on the pump labels!

So called “Irrigation Pumps”:

A number of websites and stores sell pumps that they call “irrigation pumps” or “sprinkler pumps.” These are typically small, inexpensive pumps designed to operate a single, small sprinkler head on the end of a garden hose.  They are not made for sprinkler systems with more than one sprinkler.

Typically pumps that are suitable for sprinkler systems are marketed under the label “high pressure pumps”.

OK, warnings complete, let’s get started!

Selecting a Pump – Overview

There are many types of pumps, and a few methods of selecting the proper pump.  To keep it simpler, let’s narrow down to what you need so you aren’t reading stuff unrelated to your needs.  Select the link below for the statement that best describes your pumping need:

  1. I Need a New Pump for a New Irrigation System.
  2. I Need a New Pump for an Existing Irrigation System.
  3. I Need a New Irrigation System that Uses My Existing Pump.
  4. Need to improve the performance of an Existing Irrigation System to create more pressure of a higher flow (I need a Booster Pump.)
  5. Need a pump for a Rain Barrel Irrigation System.

Looking for an Irrigation System that will Use Your Existing Pump?

The Irrigation Design Tutorial will take you through the process of determining how much flow and pressure your pump can produce, then you will design the irrigation system to match those parameters.

It won’t hurt to learn a bit more about pumps before you go to the irrigation design.  Go to  Types of Water Pumps.

Booster Pump to improve the performance of an Existing Irrigation System

As you remember from the first of this tutorial (back when you were still awake), booster pumps are used to increase the water pressure. Therefore the required booster pump pressure is simply the desired pressure minus the existing pressure. Just remember that for most pump brands the pressure must be expressed in feet of head, not PSI!

PSI x 2.31 = feet head
Feet head x 0.433 = PSI


Example: The existing pressure in the water company mainline you will use to supply water for your sprinkler system is 35 PSI static. Static pressure means the water pressure when measured with all water flows shut off; no faucets running, ice maker is off, no sprinklers on, nobody taking a shower (don’t turn off the water if someone is in the shower!!!), etc. To measure static water pressure just get a pressure gauge at the hardware store and attach it to a water outlet someplace reasonably close to the irrigation system. Make sure all other water outlets are turned off, then turn on the water to the gauge only. The gauge will show the static water pressure.

Where was I? Oh yeah, you have 35 PSI existing pressure. But let’s say your irrigation system needs 50 PSI to operate correctly. So you decide to add a booster pump to create more pressure. The pressure increase needed is 50 – 35 = 15 PSI. So you need a booster pump that produces 15 PSI of pressure at whatever flow rate the irrigation system requires. But wait, for most pumps the pressure needs to be expressed in feet head, not PSI! So convert PSI to feet head. 15 PSI * 2.31 = 35 feet head (round the result up to the next whole number.) That wasn’t difficult at all!

There are many companies that build and sell pre-packaged booster pump systems. These pump packages come with everything you need pre-assembled and ready to go. Typical assemblies include the pump, electrical controls, any needed control valves, a frame to hold everything and an enclosure to protect it. All you do is install it on a concrete pad, connect the pipes, and connect it to the power source. For most people this is the best way to buy a booster pump.

Now that you know what the process is, let’s move on and start learning about pumps.  First up there are lots of different types of pumps used for irrigation systems: centrifugal, submersible, turbine, jet, etc..  Let’s determine which is the best type for your irrigation system.  Go to  Types of Water Pumps.


A Brief(?) Lesson in Hydraulics

This is going to be incredibly boring, but necessary if you want to really understand pumps and get the absolute best one for your needs, so hang in there!

In the USA the pressure output of pumps is measured as “feet of head”, which is normally shortened down to the term “feet head” and abbreviated as ft.hd.. If you need metric measurements you’ll want to make reference to the Conversion Formulas where you’ll find the necessary information for converting to your favorite measurement system!

Feet of head is really pretty easy, it is simply height or elevation.  Feet is, well, feet as in 12 inches.  As everyone knows, water is pretty heavy. (Try carrying a 5 gallon jug of water up a flight or two of stairs!) That weight of the water is what creates water pressure! Think of a tall column of water. The”water pressure” at the bottom of that column is simply the total weight of all the water in the column above the point where you are measuring it. In fact, at any point in the column the water pressure is equal to the weight of the water above that point. So as you move up toward the top of the column the water pressure decreases. Inversely, just like in the ocean or a swimming pool, the deeper you go, the greater the water pressure! That greater pressure is what makes your ears hurt if you dive down to the bottom of a deep swimming pool!

In the USA pressure is normally expressed as “pounds per square inch” (PSI). Notice the weight connection?

It’s pounds per square inch, the weight of the water! Well, for pumps we simplify that even more by measuring the pressure (or weight) as feet of water depth! Now that’s really simple! The water pressure in feet head is just the depth of the water in feet above the point at which the pressure is measured.

Example: Let’s say you have a swimming pool that is 8 feet deep. At the very bottom of the pool the water pressure will be equal to 8 feet of head. Pretty simple! If you want to know the pressure in PSI you can convert it by multiplying feet head times 0.433. So the pressure in PSI would be 8 ft. hd. x 0.433 = 3.46 PSI. If you swam under water at a depth of 5 feet below the surface then the water pressure on your body would be 5 feet head or 2.17 PSI. The Titanic rests on the sea floor at a depth of 12,600 feet below the surface. Therefore the pressure on the hull of the Titanic is 12,600 feet of head or a bone crushing 5,456 PSI! Consider that the plastic pipe in your sprinkler system will burst at somewhere around 300 PSI of pressure!

Ok, now the difficult part. Since water is essentially a non-compressible liquid it exhibits the unique trait of transferring pressure horizontally when in a confined space. What this means is that water in a pipe exhibits the same pressure as it would if the pipe were perfectly vertical, even if the pipe isn’t. The best way to demonstrate this is with a picture.

Height Creates Water Pressure
Height Creates Water Pressure

In the picture above the water pressure in the water tank at the top of the water level is 0 feet, or 0 PSI. This is because there is no water above it to create pressure. (Yes, I know there would be a small amount of water pressure due to the air pressure above the water, but let’s try not to confuse things. This is hard enough to understand! So we’re going to say that the water pressure at the water surface in the tank is 0 feet head. Ok?)

The ground level is 40 feet below the water level in the tank. Therefore the water pressure at ground level is 40 feet of head, or about 17 PSI. So far, pretty straight forward.

Now the hard to understand part. The water enters the house at a level 100 feet below the water level in the tank. So the static water pressure at the house is 100 feet of head, or about 43.3 PSI. Note that I said “static”pressure. So now you’re likely wondering how this could be? The water level is not just 100 feet above the house there is also easily 180 feet of pipe between the tank and the house! The answer is that distance does not matter when the water is static (not moving) in the pipes. Because the water is a non-compressible liquid it transfers the pressure horizontally along the pipe route for pretty much any distance without any lose of pressure! If we measured the pressure with the water flowing the pressure would be termed “dynamic pressure”. With the water in a dynamic state (flowing in the pipe) the water would loose pressure due to friction on the sides of the pipe and we would get a lower pressure reading at the house. But static pressure means no flow, no friction, and no pressure loss! Read that last sentence again! Think about it for a second, go back look at the picture again if you need to. It makes sense if you think about it. My professor in college spent a week drilling this concept into us and a lot of people in the class never did understand it! So if you still don’t “get it” don’t feel bad and don’t get discouraged! Just continue on with the next paragraph.

In most cases we measure water pressure in the static state when designing irrigation systems (or any other water piping system for that matter). Then we use calculations to figure out the friction loss that will occur in the pipes and subtract it from the static pressure to arrive at the dynamic pressure. Why not just turn the water on and measure the dynamic pressure with the water flowing? It would seem that then we would not have to prepare a separate calculation for friction loss, right? Well, that is correct, however dynamic pressure is very difficult to measure. You have to get the flow just right and then hold the flow at that level for a minute or two while the pressure stabilizes. This is a real pain in the rear to do and not nearly as easy as it sounds! Plus, what if the pipe isn’t installed yet? Then you can’t measure the dynamic pressure at all. So, the result is that we almost always will work with static pressures. It’s just easier, and who wants to do it the hard way?

Now go back and look at that picture above again. As the water flows to the house the water level in the tank will go down. So the elevation of the top of the water in the tank will not be as high above the house. When the tank is almost empty the difference might be only 95 feet. So the water pressure would also be lower. This happens all the time and is normal! If the elevation varies, then so will the water pressure. I know I keep saying the same things over and over in different ways, but I’m trying to drive home some important but hard to understand principles! My apologies if you got it the first time through and are getting bored!

Still confused? Don’t worry about it, just follow through the procedures that follow and you’ll be alright even if you don’t fully understand why you’re doing some of these things! Just remember that when I use the term”feet head” I’m talking about water pressure and whenever you measure water pressure with a gauge you need to turn off the water.

Pumps and Hydraulics

I know it’s boring!!! Hang in there!

If you’re planning to use a booster pump jump down to the heading Booster Pumps.Everyone else just continue on…

The following is oriented toward wells. If you don’t pump out of a well don’t panic, just substitute river, lake, pond, spring, mud-puddle, or whatever for “well “in the following procedures. “Top of well “would be the high water level of the river, lake… etc. Ok, that was easy enough, right? Let’s move on…

First you will need to find out the “Dynamic Water Depth “of the water in your well. Dynamic Water Depth is the depth of the water below the top of the well, in feet, when the pump is running. OK, I know what you’re thinking- “Jess, you idiot, if I don’t have a pump yet, how am I supposed to know what the water level is when the pump (which I don’t have yet!!) is running? Grrrr!!!” Well, of course you’re right, but as you probably guessed by now, there is a solution. When a well company drills a new well they insert a temporary pump to “break in “and test the well. They refer to this as “developing “the well. As part of this process they also measure the Dynamic Water Depth of your new well at various pumping rates. Your pump company should have a record of this information which they can give you. One warning- you really should have the test repeated if the well is more than 5 years old. Water levels often drop over time. If you can’t find the dynamic water depth and are too cheap to have it tested, you can use the well depth in place of the dynamic water depth. Your pump will likely waste some energy if you use the well depth, this is because the pump will probably be somewhat oversized. You may also find you have problems with the pump cycling on and off if you use a pressure switch to control it (pressure switches will be described later.) There are cures ($$$) for the pump cycling problem. They include special cycle-stopping valves installed at the pump outlet or using the pump start circuit on the irrigation controller to override the pressure switch and lock the pump on.

If you’re not going to be pumping from a well (ie; you are using water from a pond or stream) just use the lowest “dry year “water level of your water supply in place of the Dynamic Water Depth.

Note that the term “draw-down “is often erroneously used in place of Dynamic Water Depth. I often do this myself. So be sure to clarify when talking to your pump company. When the pump is running, the water level in the well drops below the water table. It may drop a few inches or more than 100 feet depending on the type of soil (or rock) the well is drilled into. Often the water level in wells drilled into rock will drop well over 100 feet when the pump is running, as the water can’t easily move into the well from the surrounding rock. At any rate, the real definition of “draw-down “is the distance the water drops in the well when the pump is running. But keep in mind that many people interchange the terms draw-down and Dynamic Water Depth. See the diagram below.

Now you need to figure out the “Elevation Difference “between the top of your well and the highest point in the area to be irrigated. That is, how much higher (or lower) is the highest point in the irrigated area than the top of the well. This may be a negative number if the well is higher than the irrigated area. See the drawing below.

Elevation Related Impacts on Water Pressure
Height Related Impacts on Water Pressure


Irrigation System operating pressure. There is one additional ingredient you need to add, which is the pressure to operate the irrigation system. This pressure will be calculated as part of the irrigation design process and if you have a design already it should be noted on the irrigation design. If not, ask the designer what it is, he/she should know. (Note that the emphasis here is on should, as opposed to does. Way too many designers don’t have a clue about pressures, which is a big sign that you better take a long, hard look at that design!). If you have an existing irrigation system that you want to add a new pump to, then you can try measuring the water pressure with a gauge at the point where you plan to tap the new pump into the system. This is one of those unusual cases where you want to measure the dynamic pressure, not the static pressure. So when you measure the pressure make sure that one of the irrigation system valves turned on and the sprinklers are running (run the largest circuit, the one with the most sprinklers).

Chances are you don’t have an irrigation system yet, or even a design. In this case you will need to make an “educated guess”. The following table will help you with your guess:

Minimum Pressures for Irrigation Systems

Drip Irrigation = 70 feet head (30 PSI)
Spray Type Sprinkler Heads = 93 feet head (40 PSI)
Rotor Type Sprinkler Heads = 104 feet head (45 PSI)

Remember, the values above are estimates. Dependent on your actual design you may need more or less pressure. You should design your irrigation system and adjust these values for the actual design before purchasing a pump! Spray sprinklers feature a steady fan shaped pattern of water. Rotors type sprinklers are used for larger areas and feature streams of water that rotate around the sprinkler. See the Sprinkler Irrigation Tutorial for more information.

To finish up your pressure requirement calculations you simply add the values of the Dynamic Water Depth, elevation head, and operating pressure head together to get the total head required. Remember that all the values should be in feet of head, not PSI!

Example: You measure a Dynamic Water Depth of 25 feet in your well. The irrigation system is 10 feet higher than the top of the well. You’re going to use rotor type sprinkler heads so you select an operating pressure of 104 feet head. Your total head required would be 25 + 10 + 104 = 139 feet of head!