Plugged Emitters in Drip Irrigation

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

Drip emitters can become plugged with fine particles, mineral deposits, or biofilms. When emitters become clogged, the plants nearest the clogs will receive less water and have more water stress and grow less or be stunted. This is seen most commonly in higher density planted crops such as peppers.

A common cause of plugged emitters is water containing high levels of dissolved iron. This can cause a proliferation of iron utilizing bacteria. These bacteria form heavy biofilms on the inside of the drip tube. They also oxidize the iron in the water (as part of their metabolism) and leave behind iron precipitates that can plug emitters. Chlorination of drip lines is needed to control iron bacteria.

From the Mid-Atlantic Commercial Vegetable Recommendations:

“Periodic treatment before clogging develops can keep the system functioning efficiently. The frequency of treatment depends on the quality of the water source. Generally, two or three treatments per season is adequate. Irrigation water containing high concentrations of iron (greater than 1 ppm) can also result in clogging problems due to types of bacteria that “feed” on dissolved (ferrous) iron. The bacteria secrete a slime called ochre that may combine with other solid particles in the trickle tubing and plug emitters. The precipitated (ferric) form of iron, known commonly as rust, can also physically clog emitters.”

“Treating water containing iron with chlorine will oxidize the dissolved iron, causing the element to precipitate so that it can be filtered and removed from the system. Chlorine treatment should take place upstream of filters in order to remove the precipitated iron and microorganisms from the system. Take care when adding chlorine to trickle irrigation systems, however, since concentration at or above 30 ppm can be toxic to growing plants.”

“For managing dissolved iron and microbes in the water source, one of the following basic strategies is suggested as a starting point:

For iron treatment:

  • Inject liquid sodium hypochlorite continuously at a rate of 1 ppm for each 1 ppm of iron in irrigation water. In most cases, 3 to 5 ppm is sufficient.

For bacteria treatment:

  • Inject liquid sodium hypochlorite continuously at a rate of 5 to 10 ppm where the biological load is high or
  • Inject 10 to 20 ppm during the last 30 minutes of each irrigation cycle or
  • Inject 50 ppm during the last 30 minutes of irrigation cycles one to two times each month or
  • Super chlorinate (inject at a rate of 200 to 500 ppm) once per month for the length of time required to fill the entire system with this solution and shut down the system. After 24 hours, open the laterals and flush the lines.”

Another common problem in some aquifers, is well water with high levels of calcium and magnesium (“hard water”). In high water pH conditions, these can precipitate out as calcium or magnesium carbonates that will clog emitters. If you look inside the drip tubing you will see a white or chalky film. In addition, if soluble phosphorus fertilizers are put into water with high levels of dissolved calcium or magnesium salts, they can precipitate out as calcium or magnesium phosphates, also plugging emitters. Acidification of water can reduce or eliminate this problem. Also, avoid running phosphorus through the drip if you have hard water.

Inadequate filtering is another possible cause of plugged emitters. While this is most common when using surface water from ponds, ditches or streams it can also occur in wells that have fine particles in the water.

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