Generally, I think it is as soon as 5% variance in the flow they are recommended to be changed out. Although most tips are accurate within 1-2% depending anyways, so its tough to say.
The tough thing about checking patterns is that the flow can vary a lot without losing decent pattern. I had seen a video somewhere about two tips that visually spraying side by side but had like 15% difference in flow between them. (I'll go look and see if I can find it)
Relying on the rate controller is tough as well, as one tip could be slightly plugged or be putting out less volume, which just means you wouldn't catch that one tip that is over volume.
This is true, but I have never seen that without noticing a distinguished change in pattern. There are often times where your outside nozzle filters on tips will plug but it doesn't take long to see that because the pattern is effected. You can see pressure difference in the pattern. If a main boom filter plugs, you will see an increase in your overall gauge monitored pressure for the booms while it is trying to maintain the flow control. Here you do have to be careful because sometimes if you have individual filters on boom sections, you will be affecting your rates across that section. It may only have 50 tips while another filter is expected to supply 20 tips. If sections are evener, you may not have such severe issues.
After a while, you learn your chemicals too!! Chalky product chemicals like Achieve and Glyphos salts which deposit salt on filters are two of the big ones to watch. I filter all over and I find you still get glyphos salt deposits on tips, so must be filtered to keep the most accurate tip pressures. Glyphos is bad for precipitating out in the booms. Crystals will reform at tips.
I put a sharpshooter on our machine and I changed the tips from Teejet to Wilger. Someone told me they don't bother with filters on their tips - "works great because your tip hole size is bigger and your pulsing - no issues!". I tried it for my first tank in glyphos thinking their argument was sound. Checked my tips before loading and I found poor patterns on several nozzles. Needless to say, I stopped the sprayer in nonwindy conditions and drove 90 miles to my nearest Wilger dealer and bought filters for every tip. Now, I can go a lot further without losing a pattern.