Saving water is only one reason gardeners use drip irrigation and soaker hoses. But is there any difference between these two methods, or are they interchangeable? Does one have any advantages over the other? What's the price difference?
A drip line is a small-diameter hose, usually made of lightweight plastic, that has tiny emitters embedded in it at a fixed spacing. Common emitter spacings are 6, 12, 18, and 24 inches. Each emitter releases water, one drop at a time, in a steady drip-drip-drip rhythm.
One type of drip line is sometimes called drip tape because when it is empty of water it lies completely flat and looks like a strip of plastic tape.
Made from recycled car and truck tires, a soaker hose is round, like a garden hose, but very porous. When it is filled with water, it "weeps" all over, allowing water to soak slowly into the soil around plants. Because of the material from which it is made, it is virtually indestructible.
Advantages of Drip Irrigation
Drip irrigation places water at exact intervals, so if a plant is placed next to an emitter it will get the water it needs, while nearby weeds that might compete for water and soil nutrients get nothing. Because the emitters are precision-made, they release precise amounts of water, which allows the grower to give her plants the exact amount of water they need. Drip tape is light and easy to move around, and does not photo-degrade in sunlight.
Advantages of Soaker Hose
A soaker hose is one of the very few things into which old tires can be recycled. It is tough enough to survive being buried in the soil or under a layer of mulch, and is less likely than a drip line to be nibbled by rodents.
Disadvantages of Each
Drip tape is made of thin plastic, which while tough can still be easily punctured by a garden tool, a thirsty mouse or bird, or even a cat's claw. It is so light that it must be anchored with wire staples, or it will blow around in a wind. At the end of the growing season it has to be carefully rolled up for winter storage.
A soaker hose weeps varying amounts of water along its full length, so plants and weeds both get irrigated. If it is laid on the surface, repeatedly getting wet and dry can clog its "pores" with fine soil particles so that sections get blocked and no longer release any water. Some brands stiffen with age and become less supple, and it is heavier than drip tape.
A soaker hose costs several times as much as drip tape. Depending on the weight (thickness) of the plastic and the amount purchased, drip tape costs from 3 cents to 12 cents per foot, while soaker hose runs from about 19 cents to 33 cents per foot.