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Will a tap timer help you be more water-efficient?

We look at how manual and electronic tap timers work so you can figure out whether one is right for your yard.

tap timers buying guide

Standing in the backyard for hours with a hose, unaware of the impending downpour that'll soon make a waste of your labour. It's something we've all experienced at some point – at least those of us who garden. 

Between that and turning on sprinklers that you forget to turn off or letting the task slip your mind completely while your grass turns brown, tap timers give a glimpse of a better way to look after your garden on a regular basis without you needing to be the one turning the tap on and off or holding the hose. 

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What is a tap timer?

As the name suggests, a tap timer helps you control when your tap turns on and off. They sit between your tap outlet and your hose and come in both manual and electronic varieties and vary in complexity depending on your garden, budget and scheduling needs. 

Whether you have an irrigation system or a simple sprinkler, tap timers can automate the process of watering, preventing you from over-watering your plants, and can stop you from wasting water in our drought-prone country. You can also program them to water your garden if you're away for a significant amount of time.

How do tap timers work?

All tap timers simply attach to the average tap outlet by screwing on, or will usually come with a variety of different attachments if you have an alternate size outlet.

You can attach multiple tap timers to a tap outlet if you've got what's called a manifold or adaptor, which is kind of like a power board for water outlets. Some manufacturers sell multiple tap timers built into an existing manifold.

After screwing the tap timer to your tap outlet and attaching it to the hose that leads to your watering system, it then comes to the more complex part: the timing system. This can be manual or electronic, and the difference between them is usually that the manual (or mechanical) version doesn't need the normal 9V square batteries – though some have solar to replace the battery.

Electronic tap timers generally activate a gear internally, which turns the flow of water on.

How do you set up or program a tap timer?

Manual tap timers

Manual or mechanical tap timers are simply a manual timer, usually in the shape of a dial with hours. You turn the dial to the required time you want it to run and walk away, and it'll turn off automatically after the timer runs out. The timers can range from 30 minutes up to multiple hours. The downside is that they require manual operation each time you want the tap to turn on, so it's helpful if you want to set the timer each time without having to remember to turn it off.

Pros: No batteries to replace. Simple to operate. Good for infrequent watering. Good for small lawns. Inexpensive.

Cons: No automatic turn on feature. Limited timing options. Not good for large lawns.

Electronic tap timers – 2 dial

The simplest type of electronic tap timer, 2 dial tap timers have two dials that offer both run time and interval of run time.

They run on batteries or solar, but are relatively simple to operate with the number of minutes or hours you want the tap to be on for, and the time between turning the tap on. This is usually in days but can be in a combination of hours and/or days. This is useful because it no longer requires you to be there to manually turn the tap timer on – you can just leave it and it'll always turn on until the batteries run out. Batteries are usually the 9V rectangular type, but sometimes are powered by solar. 

Pros: Automatic. Reasonably simple to program.

Cons. Runs on batteries or solar. Limited timing options.

Digital tap timers

Digital versions are the most complicated of tap timers, but also give you the most flexibility over when you want your tap to be turned on and off. They run on either battery or solar.

Digital tap timers can be broken up into two areas – digital screens and smart tap timers. Smart tap timers allow you to access their programming through your phone, some via Wi-Fi and some via Bluetooth. Some can be paired up with moisture sensors you install into the areas you water which send data back to the tap timer to detect whether your watering area really needs the moisture.

Tap timers with digital screens can be a little overwhelming when you first see them, but really they're just a different version of the 2 dial tap timers, offering you more scheduling options.

Instead of giving you hours or days between run times and intervals of when the water is released, these tap timers can go down to the minute required and can run multiple times per day. They'll also generally give you a seven-day week to schedule by.

Pros: More precise timing measurements.

Cons: More expensive. Mostly run on batteries which means replacement costs.

Smart tap timers

Smart tap timers are the most expensive of the lot, but this doesn't necessarily mean more complexity. They run through a smartphone application and can either connect to the tap timer via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Bluetooth of course means you have to be reasonably close to operate them remotely (within 100m), but Wi-Fi means worldwide remote control. Whether that's important to you or not depends on how much you value (or obsess over) your garden.

While the set-up of attaching them to the tap and hose is exactly the same as any other tap timer, programming smart tap timers depends on the amount of investment put into the app. It also adds some complications like most app-connected devices do, such as:

  • does the app connect to your type of phone (Apple or Android)?
  • is your phone too old to run the app?
  • does the company regularly update the app to remove security flaws?
  • do you need a login, and who's looking at your private data?
  • how simple is the app to program?

Besides remote access to stop or start the water flow, what else is worth shelling out the extra dollars for when buying a smart tap timer?

  • Some smart tap timers allow you to control them via a web app, which means not relying completely on your phone.
  • Some have a built-in flow meter to measure the amount of water being output to your garden.
  • Some have moisture sensors that can be bundled with the tap timer – these are sensors you put in your lawn so the smart tap timer can more accurately assess whether your garden area actually needs watering.
  • Some communicate with weather agencies (like the Bureau of Meteorology) to see whether your area is being rained on to assess whether it needs turning on.
  • Some come built-in with smart applications like Alexa so you can speak to your Alexa devices to turn on your tap timer.

Pros: Lots of versatility.

Cons: Most expensive of all tap timers. Run on batteries (though a few use solar).

How do you reset a tap timer?

Most manual tap timers don't need resetting, but 2 dial and electronic versions of tap timers usually will have a reset mechanism, whether that's simply twisting the dials to a new setting, taking out the battery or pushing a reset button. Check your manual for the precise instructions.

How long do tap timers last?

We tested several smart tap timers by putting them through an advanced ageing process to simulate six months of use in harsh Australian conditions and found that the change in some was startling.

However, this is purely a physical aspect and we didn't find that it troubled the operation of the tap timers.

You'll see changes in colour and maybe even some chalking effects depending on the plastics used to make the device. The most obvious change was in any white plastics used which yellowed significantly over the ageing process. You can see an example of this below.

Durability of plastics both new and old show ageing process

A tap timer while new and after six months of ageing.

Will a tap timer help save water?

How much water you save depends on how often you commonly water your garden, but using a tap timer will be a much more efficient way of watering, especially with the electronic timers. 

The more data a tap timer has, the more useful it can be in terms of being more water-efficient. For example, water sensors in a garden will give tap timers a very precise way of measuring how much water your garden actually needs. But that does mean a more complex initial set-up than just turning on the tap and remembering to turn it back off. The more rudimentary a tap timer, the more likely it is to turn the water on regardless of the weather (which isn't great in a country prone to floods and drought). 

All this being said, if you're incredibly organised and have a lot of time on your hands, there's no need for a tap timer at all, but you know yourself and your habits better than anyone else.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.