How To Adjust Sprinkler Heads Without A Key (Do This!)

Jessica Stone
by Jessica Stone
It is necessary to adjust your sprinkler heads when you notice that part of your lawn doesn’t get enough water. The process typically requires a key, but you can adjust sprinkler heads without a key in several ways including a simple flathead screwdriver. Whether it be a spray, rotor, or multi-stream sprinkler head, you can easily adjust it without a key.

Whether you have a residential or commercial sprinkler system, the adjustment procedure will depend on the specific sprinkler heads you have. There are many different types of sprinkler heads, each with slightly different instructions for adjusting their spray pattern.

The most common kinds are spray, rotor, and multi-stream sprinkler heads. They are very different in pattern, action, and adjustments so you should always try to identify which one you have first. Although the adjustment methods vary slightly, most can be easily adjusted with the use of a flat-head screwdriver and your hands, regardless of the type.

Do You Need to Hire a Sprinkler System Contractor?

Get free, zero-commitment quotes from pro contractors near you.

How Your Sprinkler System Works

Before we dive too deeply into how to adjust sprinkler heads, it’s important to understand how your system works as a whole. Most irrigation systems are comprised of the following:

  • A water supply pipe connected to your primary water source.
  • A valve box at ground level that is divided into separate underground irrigation zones.
  • Zone valves that regulate each individual irrigation zone.
  • An electronic controller for managing the time and duration between watering cycles.

The irrigation zones are dictated based on the sections of your yard. For instance, a home may have multiple zones in the front yard to service the lawn and flower beds, and additional zones for the side and backyard. These arrangements will vary depending on the sprinkler system’s model and your particular yard space.

When one of the zone valves is open, water will flow through the pipes underground to the sprinkler heads that correspond to that zone. They will run for a specific amount of time, indicated by the controller, until the controller shuts it off.

Why Adjust Sprinkler Heads?

Over time, as you learn about the needs of your lawn you will need to adjust your sprinkler heads accordingly. Although sprinkler heads are installed in zones and designed to offer full coverage, this coverage isn’t always automatic. Once your irrigation system is installed, you will need to make adjustments to achieve the coverage, arc, and spray pattern that your particular yard needs.

Your yards watering needs will vary based on a number of factors. For example, an area of your lawn that receives between six and eight hours of direct sunlight a day will need much. More water than a section that is in partial or full shade. Additionally, the type of grass, drainage, and soil that your yard has will directly influence how much water it needs. If you notice an area of your yard start to turn brown, you’ll want to adjust the sprinkler heads so that it receives more water.

On the other hand, if you have water pooling in a section of your lawn, you must adjust the sprinkler heads so it experiences less water. The key to adjusting sprinkler heads properly is getting a suitable level of water to the individual areas of your yard.

How to Adjust Sprinkler Heads Without a Key

Depending on the type of sprinkler head your irrigation system has, they can be adjusted easily with the use of some basic tools. Along with having the right tools, a big piece of adjusting your sprinkler heads is knowing which type you have. The most common types include spray, rotor, and multi-stream sprinkler heads.

So long as you have the appropriate screwdriver, you won’t need to use a key to adjust your sprinklers.

How to Adjust Rotor Sprinkler Heads

A rotor sprinkler services water by popping out of its canister and providing a single stream. The water is directed by the nozzles positioned in the head. These types of sprinklers are easy to identify by their back and forth motion. Most rotor head sprinklers can be adjusted for their stream radius and also come with a rack of nozzles used to direct the stream.

These nozzles are fastened by a screw and can be easily replaced and adjusted by simply unscrewing the screw. Also, by turning the screw down into the spraying area of the nozzles, you can diffuse some of the spray. When it comes to arc adjustments, the process is specific to the manufacturer. Although each rotor sprinkler head may adjust a bit differently, here is the general procedure for setting the rotor arc pattern:

  • Turn your sprinkler system on and stand behind the rotor you want to adjust. The force of the water when it pops can be rather painful.
  • Rotate the head all the way to the left to finish any cycle the rotor may be doing.
  • Apply pressure to the top of the rotor head and turn it all the way to the right until it stops. This is the “right stop.”
  • Locate the PLUS and MINUS signs on the top of the rotor head. Next to these, you’ll find a tiny keyhole.
  • If you do not have the adjustment tool, insert a ¼ inch flathead screwdriver into the hole.
  • Hold the rotor in the “right stop” while simultaneously turning the screwdriver counterclockwise. Turn left for a higher arc, and right to make the arc smaller.

Although having a rotor adjustment tool is helpful, you can make many of the same adjustments with a hex wrench, allen wrench, or ¼ inch screwdriver.

How to Adjust Spray Sprinkler Heads

Like rotor heads, spray sprinkler heads pop up out of the ground but do not rotate around. Instead, they usually spray similar to a water fountain, in a circle, extending out over the zone they are servicing.

Depending on the make or model of your spray heads, nozzles come in particular spray patterns including quarter circle, part circle, full circle, and even some specialty varieties to water in the shape of a rectangle.

Adjusting the nozzle on a spray head will depend on the type:

  • Fixed Spray Nozzles (MPR, Matched Precipitation Rate): Unfortunately, these nozzles cannot be adjusted and can only be replaced. For example, an 8 ft, quarter pattern nozzle will never change; hence the “fixed” designation. Therefore, if you want to change the distance or radius of the nozzle, you’ll have to replace it entirely.
  • Variable Arc Spray Nozzles: These nozzles allow you to adjust the arc pattern but not the distance. To change the distance, you will need to purchase a new nozzle. These nozzles allow you to adjust the specific arc between 0 and 360 degrees. To adjust the arc position on a variable spray sprinkler head, simply rotate it by hand to aim and align the radius accordingly.

How to Adjust Multi-Stream Sprinkler Heads

The final most common type of sprinkler is a multi-stream spray head. These nozzles are an alternative to the traditional sprinkler heads that pop up to water the landscape. Multi-stream spray heads are outfitted with distinctive, multi-trajectory revolving streams that deliver water at a steady speed.

A slower application rate allows the water to gently penetrate at rates the soil can absorb. Although helpful, these types of sprinklers do not require any specialized tools to adjust them. Simply adjust the speed of the water output by pressing on the tabs on the nozzle indicating the level you want.

If you do not have a key, you can use a pair of pliers to carefully adjust the arc on multi-stream sprinkler heads. Turn the head clockwise to increase the arc covering the watering area. To adjust the radius, insert a hex tool into the screw on the top of the nozzle. Rotate the screw clockwise t to decrease radius, or counterclockwise to increase radius. Four full turns will take you from maximum radius to minimum radius.

Do You Need to Hire a Sprinkler System Contractor?

Get free, zero-commitment quotes from pro contractors near you.

Related Questions

How often do I need to adjust my sprinkler heads?

The frequency with which you adjust your sprinkler heads can depend on a number of factors. In general, you should adjust your sprinkler heads any time you notice an area of your lawn getting too much or too little water.

How do I know which tool to use for adjusting my sprinkler heads?

If your sprinkler heads have a screw on the top of the nozzle, you can use a screwdriver of the appropriate size and shape to adjust it. Some heads have a slot on the side for adjusting the arc, which can be done with a rotor screwdriver or slotted screw. Other sprinkler heads may have a small hole on the top or side that requires a key. However, you can make adjustments on these using a ¼ inch screwdriver in a pinch.

Related Guides

Jessica Stone
Jessica Stone

Jessica considers herself a home improvement and design enthusiast. She grew up surrounded by constant home improvement projects and owes most of what she knows to helping her dad renovate her childhood home. Being a Los Angeles resident, Jessica spends a lot of her time looking for her next DIY project and sharing her love for home design.

More by Jessica Stone