Controller Programming

In other words... How to set your timer.

It is not as intimidating as it looks when you understand each of these basic settings.


Image courtesy of The Toro Company.

Image courtesy of The Toro Company.

Run/off or on/off

This allows you to shut your controller off in case of rain or cool weather. The information you programmed into the controller will not be deleted.

Date and Time

Every controller needs to know the current date and the current time.


Either with the buttons or a dial, select the station (zone) you want to schedule.  


Years ago, controllers operated all valves on the same watering schedule. You could not have, for example, zone #1 water every other day, and zone #2 water just on Thursdays. Now you can group individual zones together to match their common watering needs. For example, all your turf zones could be in Program A and water every three days while a shrub bed could be in Program B and water once every seven days. The only limit is that most controllers will not let you run more than one or two zones at a time in order to prevent too much water flowing too fast through your pipes.

Run time or station times

This setting may also be called Station or Zone Run Times. This is the amount of time you want each zone to run each time it turns on.

Start Times

This setting may also be called Water Start Times. This is the time you want the controller to start watering. It’s best to water during the night and early morning hours between approximately midnight and 8 a.m. 

watering days

This setting is for the specific days of the week that watering will occur. If you have watering restrictions, it is recommended that you find a controller that can accommodate watering on odd or even days, or every number of days, like every third day.

Water Budget %, also called Seasonal Adjust

This setting allows you to change the overall percentage of water output.  For instance, if you set your water budget to 50%, it will cut the run time on each zone by 50%. From a plant health standpoint, this is NOT the best way to reduce your watering. It is better to eliminate watering days. Plants prefer a dry-down of the soil between watering days. If you cut the percentage, you will still be applying water frequently and this can create shallow, less drought-resistant roots and possible rot. See the Soil chapter. We recommend keeping the percentage at 100%.

Rain Delay or Delay Watering

Not all controllers have this feature, but it is very convenient. If your landscape gets some rain, you can delay the operation of your controller by up to 14 days. If significant rain falls in the winter, you easily won’t need to water for a week or more.

Program Erase

Don’t like what you have programmed?  Enter program erase and you can start all over

manual operation

This allows you to operate a valve or valves immediately, independent of what is programmed into the controller.
o   Single Zone or Station– Operates one zone that you have identified.  Some controllers allow you to enter a time duration. Others will water the amount of time that is programmed into the regular watering cycle. It can be stopped at any time.

o   Program Cycle – This setting will run through all valves that are programmed into one particular program of your choosing. It will either water each zone for one minute, or for the amount of time that is programmed for each zone.

Rain Shut-off Device

If your controller has a shut-off device (and we highly recommend that you have one), be sure to clean it at least once a year before the rainy season begins. Even dust accumulation can alter its performance.

A commonly-used old mechanical controller. Image courtesy of Rain Bird, Inc.

A commonly-used old mechanical controller. Image courtesy of Rain Bird, Inc.


If you have an old controller that does not have most of the controls above, consider getting one with a minimum of the following:

  • At least three programs or an independent programming feature
  • Four start times per program
  • A shut-off setting that interrupts irrigation without losing the programmed settings during rain events
  • Odd/even, weekly and interval program capability up to 31 days;
  • water budgeting adjustment feature that increases or decreases existing runtimes of all zones in 10% increments
  • Non-volatile memory – If your power goes out, the controller will not lose what you have programmed into it

Smart Controllers

Smart controllers, or “weather-based” controllers take a lot of guess work out of when and how much to water. There is potential for significant savings. Smart controllers are able to adapt their watering schedules based on weather data that is obtained either remotely through a daily or hourly signal, or on-site via a weather station. This results in a controller that adapts watering to the most recent weather. It will water more in the summer, and less or not at all in the winter. You can go on a long vacation and not have to worry if you are over- or under-watering!

A smart controller will take extra time to program initially due to a number of factors that will need to be programmed into the controller for each and every valve. You will need to enter the sprinkler type, plant type, root depth, sun exposure, soil type, slope, and sprinkler location (top of hill vs. bottom of hill). Some controllers make it easier with guidance questions. Once the controller is operational, a few tweaks to some of the factors will likely need to be made initially, and as the landscape changes.

Want detailed instructions?

Almost all manufacturers of irrigation controllers have a website and a video channel (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) that have complete instructions and easy-to-follow videos.