NO QUESTION ABOUT IT, wireless technology has changed all of our lives. No longer are we tethered to telephones attached to walls or boxes. We can talk on the phone just about anywhere, and do it hands-free. Wireless GPS devices mean that no one ever has to get lost again. And thanks to wi-fi, you don’t have to sit at a desk to use a computer anymore. Anyplace with a ‘hotspot’ allows your notebook or tablet to become your portable office.
This same revolution has hit the green industry. Now, a contractor can monitor an irrigation system, and even change its settings from his smartphone. The smartphone ‘talks’ to the smart controller, which in turn ‘talks’ to onsite soil moisture, flow, rain and wind sensors, all without a wire in sight.
So, in what ways can this wireless technology change the way you do your irrigation work?
The first way is that you no longer have to do as much driving to get the job done. Smart controllers with web access allow a maintenance manager to see what’s happening on a site without having to physically go there. He can get reports, change settings and check the onsite weather on his laptop or smartphone.
Say, for instance, that there’s a broken pipe on a large commercial site 20 miles away. That broken pipe is spewing hundreds of gallons of water every hour. Previously, he wouldn’t have known about the pipe break until after it created a swamp (and caused the owner’s water bill to skyrocket).
Now, the flow sensor on the pipe “tells” the smart controller about the break. The smart controller then sends the manager an email alert, which he receives on his smartphone, even if he is on another call. Using that same smartphone, he can shut down that section of the system and send a crew out to fix it. No swamps, sinkholes or skyrocketing water bills, all thanks to wireless technology.
Wireless monitoring capability also means that you no longer have to send a crew member to a site to physically change settings. The savings in time, fuel and vehicle wear-and-tear really add up after awhile.
Sophisticated central control systems even allow you to monitor multiple sites from a remote location on a PC, tablet or smartphone.
“The innovation and continued evolution of wireless technology in the irrigation industry allows remote access for the management and measurement of irrigation systems from anywhere, anytime, contributing to time savings, labor savings, and reduced truck rolls,” said Pat McIntyre, CEO of ETwater in Novato, California. “It also enables capabilities that were never before possible. Wireless technology also allows us to better serve our customers while helping them conserve water.”
There are many good reasons why a contractor should familiarize himself with wireless irrigation products. Doing retrofits is one reason. “renovations are where the money is,” says Chris Husband, an irrigation contractor, water manager/consultant and coowner of Liquid Technologies, LLC, in Glendale, Arizona. “And a lot of these jobs are in older communities.” In those kinds of settings, you’re more likely to find the sort of hardscape obstacles that weren’t there when the original irrigation system was put in. That’s where wireless comes to the rescue.
“Anybody installing wireless technology is doing it to solve a problem that they have,” said John Wascher, controllers product manager at Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California. “If they have access to electricity, they don’t have a problem.” Wireless works where wires can’t or won’t go, at least not easily.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the advantages of wireless technology for the irrigation contractor.
It can go anywhere
The first and most obvious benefit of wireless components is that they can be installed in situations where wired would be a major hassle to put in. This is particularly true in the case of retrofitting an existing built space.
Brian Mueller is a marketing and new product development executive in the accessories division for the Azusa, California-based rain Bird Corporation. He cites just such an example, where a contractor has to add zones to an already-established property. “Let’s say there are brick pavers, some landscape timbers and maybe an outdoor kitchen in the way. running a wire from the inside of the house or the side of the house through all those obstacles would be costly. You’d either have to bore under that with a special type of tool, or run the wire around them.”
Boring into concrete is never easy.
Crack it, and you’re on the hook to fix it. In some situations, you’re not al lowed to do any kind of drilling. Adds Wascher, “On an historical property, that’s not even an option.”
“What you find when you’re doing renovations is that twenty years ago, some wires were cut,” says Husband. “Or, you find that you just can’t put new wires in, because you’d have to go across streets or people’s driveways, situations where it just isn’t cost-effective to run new wires. In those cases, we add smart controllers and wireless valves and flow sensors, so we don’t have the extra cost of bringing wires back to the controller. We can get a community, a park, or a right-of-way— everything online off of one controller.”
How they work
Wireless signals travel by three different means; cellular, using the same bandwidth as our phones; a 900 MHz radio “mesh net;” or wi-fi. Since cellular units use the same networks as phones, there’s an added cost factor. Manufacturers of wireless irrigation products are figuring out ways to get around this, however.
“One of the biggest things we’re seeing now is the ability to create a wireless broadband network so that each controller doesn’t have to have its own cellular connection,” said Larry Sarver, president of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania based Tucor, Inc. “Instead, you have one cellular connection and share that with multiple controllers.” Otherwise, you’d have to have a separate cellular connection and a separate airtime card for every single controller.
“It may be okay to put in five or ten cellular connections on a property, but when you start talking fifty, they (the property owners) get pretty antsy about all that airtime,” says Sarver.
Another way is to put in a hardwired connection to the Internet and from there, send the signal out wirelessly to all the controllers. This is accomplished via the 900 MHz band. “What is unique about it is that it’s a “mesh” network,” says Sarver. “What that means is, every controller you install ‘finds’ the other controllers,” he explains. “The more controllers you put in, the bigger the mesh. Because they all communicate with each other, it makes for a very strong network.”
No power outlet
Some locations have plenty of water, but no power. Once again, wireless technology is the solution to the problem. To paraphrase Star Trek, wireless allows valves to go “where no valve has gone before.”
Here’s how it works. One wireless valve controller can operate up to four valves, connected to each one by a separate wire. The controller, a small, time-based unit, can be either inside a valve box or placed in the ground. “Our controller unit looks a little like a hockey puck with an antenna on it,” says Wascher. “Inside, it’s got some computer circuitry. With a handheld remote, a contractor can push a schedule out to it. Once it gets that signal, it’s off and running.” What is the controller’s power source? That extremely exotic, hard-to-find item, the nine-volt alkaline battery.
Each valve is attached to a solenoid that opens or closes it. All it takes is a tiny electrical pulse from the nine-volt battery to tell it to open or close. The power drain is so low that one battery can power up to fifty valves for a year, according to Wascher. A one-controller/one-valve pair could conceivably run for two years without needing a battery swap. (Typically, batteries are changed once a year.)
Wireless valve controls have improved significantly over the last few years in which they’ve been available. “They’re much more user-friendly and reliable than they used to be,” said Donavin Baumgartner, division manager at Vanderwist of Northeast Ohio in Chagrin Falls. He notes that many wireless valve control units now come with LCD display screens. However, “the only problem with battery-operated valves is that they tend to get forgotten about.”
“Two of the big things that are a driver for wireless products are ease and speed of installation,” said Mueller. “There’s the old expression, ‘time is money.’ The quicker a contractor can put in a job, the quicker he can move on to the next. Where in the past, it might have taken him 30 to 45 minutes to install a wired rain sensor, today he can install a wireless rain sensor in about 10 to 15 minutes.”
Wireless can also be faster to fix. “Typically, the most expensive item in any irrigation repair is a contractor’s time, not the materials,” says Baumgartner. He cites the example of walking a site and doing repairs. “Now, you can reset the program in your remote, fix a problem and then continue through the process, instead of walking back and forth to the controller every time you fix something.”
“Having a simple remote for troubleshooting makes it a one-man job, instead of somebody having to stand by the controller with a walkie-talkie, with someone else out in the field,” agrees Keith Shepersky, senior product marketing manager for controllers at Irritrol in riverside, California.
“Troubleshooting is easier because, again, if you have a wired product, you have to look for breaks or frays in the wire,” said Mueller. “It takes time to locate that, and then to patch or splice a good line into it. With a wireless product, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Husband, however, thinks that “a wired system is much easier to troubleshoot. It either sends a pulse or it doesn’t. radio waves, on the other hand, you can’t really track.”
They may be cheaper
Even though wireless components often cost more, there are times when using a wireless product ends up being the less expensive option, such as where you would have to run lots of extra wire. More wire means higher material costs.
As we said above, time is money.
Wireless takes less time to install. You don’t have to dig ditches or bore though obstacles. This factor alone might offset the higher cost of the unit or units themselves.
Is there any down side to wireless? Interference is one, especially with a radio-based system. “I know of one installation that was next to a radio station’s broadcasting tower,” said Shepersky. “The client said, ‘Hey, these things aren’t communicating.’ Then they found out when they drove onsite in their truck, that even the truck’s AM radio could only get that station; it overpowered everything. Or, you might have a communications system that is already there onsite that uses the same frequency.”
This can usually be overcome, however. Many units have the ability to ‘frequency hop’ up or down when the circuitry detects that it can’t get through.
“When you have new construction, it’s always going to be better to put wire in the ground,” says Husband. “It’s just more cost efficient.”
Wascher agrees. “For a homeowner, it’s more cost efficient to run the wires and dig the ditch.”
Husband says that though wireless technology has come a long way, it’s not “bulletproof.” He cites the example of when the wi-fi box in your house goes bad, you have to hit the reset button, then wait. “The technology’s good, but it’s not perfect yet.”
“There is a growing trend towards the use of wireless products,” said Mueller. “All the big players have their own versions of wireless products. Plus, there’s a lot of smaller niche companies that are getting into the irrigation industry by offering wireless products, such as wireless valve controllers. The mere fact that more manufacturers are getting into wireless indicates that contractors’ faith in these products ability to perform well in the long term is increasing.”
Mueller thinks that this has a lot to do with the technology becoming more robust, especially with regard to radio transmissions, and the component size shrinking, making the units aesthetically more appealing.
Wireless irrigation technology will continue to evolve. However, wireless systems aren’t going to totally replace hardwired systems, at least not anytime soon. “They’ll exist side-by-side for quite awhile,” said Shepersky. In the meantime, learn all you can about this growing market segment, and stay wired in for further developments.