June 17 2016 04:35 PM

Like many people my age, the first time I heard the label ‘smart’ applied to a device, it was a bomb. The media was all in a clamor about these fancy new weapons and waxed eloquent about their precision. So it was no surprise that when computer control began finding its way into other devices, marketers called those products smart as well.

It’s an apt description for devices that exhibit an unprecedented ability to manage themselves. Those missiles were deemed ‘smart’ for their ability to adapt to conditions on the fly and hone in on their targets. Among smart irrigation controllers, it’s not quite that simple anymore.

“I would say that the industry definition has gotten a little ambiguous over the last year to two years,” said Burnett “BJ” Jones, senior marketing manager for residential and commercial irrigation products for Toro Irrigation, Riverside, California.

For many irrigation contractors, a smart controller is the next step up from the standard clock timer with a fixed watering schedule. It adjusts the watering time and amount to the prevailing conditions on its own. If that definition seems vague, that’s because smart irrigation is not a simple task, and there are several different approaches to it.

First off, a smart controller needs to have some understanding of its environment. One way to do this is by putting moisture-detecting soil sensors in the landscape. “Once the sensors are in, when the ground gets fully saturated, the controller will block irrigation,” Jones said. The controller will then only allow irrigation once the sensors detect a lower, preset moisture level.

Directly monitoring the water that’s available to plants has a couple of advantages. It allows the system to safely let the plants get a little bit thirsty, which encourages deeper root growth and saves a bit of water. It also accurately takes recent weather into account. If it’s been very wet, a soil-sensing controller might go for weeks without watering, saving clients water and money without endangering their lawns.

Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t take into account tomorrow’s forecast. In order to bounce back from the programmed lowpoint, controllers with soil sensors typically have aggressive watering schedules. Because they’re based on actual conditions, and not predictions, a soil sensor schedule may top a landscape up to full in the morning, even though there’s a deluge on the way.

The other method smart controllers can use for adjusting watering schedules is to measure atmospheric conditions. Some of these controllers pipe in weather data from local area weather stations or the nearest airport. Others come with their own weather station for reading that property’s weather directly, and some do both.

The controller takes the weather data, runs it through an algorithm, and predicts how much water the plants are going to lose to evapotranspiration (ET). The controller then adjusts the schedule accordingly, watering just enough each day to replace what is being lost.

Needless to say, the ET algorithm needs to be customized to fit the landscape it’s watering. The controller needs to take into account soil type, plant type, slope, shade, season and the type of irrigation system you’re hooking it up to.

Initially, most ET-based smart controllers were very exacting about these variables. “They were kind of confusing and difficult to use,” said Jones. “Since that time, we’ve really simplified the process to be very straightforward.” Now there are smart controllers that have streamlined the process down to choosing whichever pictures look most like the site.

This simplification makes installations much quicker and easier for contractors, with a comparatively small loss in product efficiency. “We’ve done some independent studies comparing our sensing systems to high-end weather stations over a period of time,” said Jones. “The systems with the easier type of data input tracked very closely to the more expensive systems.”

So far, this trend has been mostly in controllers intended for residential and light commercial use. Jones says that high-end commercial systems tend to be more complex.

“There really has not been a demand to simplify some of those higher-end systems,” he said. “I think that, right now, most of those contractors don’t realize that these controllers can be relied upon, and are very simple to operate.”

Simple or complex, smart controllers generally expect you to program in a schedule with the hottest, driest months in mind. From there, they will ratchet the watering schedule down in time with the changing of the seasons. Even if the weather stayed constant, less sunlight means less photosynthesis, which means less ET.

Once upon a time, it was prohibitively difficult to hook up a smart controller to the outside world. High-end models might come with cellular data service, but others simply relied on their own weather stations to drive their ET calculations.

Times have changed, and there are more ways for controllers to pipe in data than ever before.

Which connection a smart controller is using can affect whether it is or isn’t able to function. In some cases, the data is piped in on a cellular frequency, like a text message.

“There are two types of cellular,” explained Bob Finnegan, vice president of sales and marketing for Signature Control Systems in Irvine, California. “There’s CDMA, which Verizon uses, and which is the most common in the U.S., and then there’s GSM, which AT&T uses.”

By and large, for smart controllers that use cellular, there’s a small monthly fee associated with the data usage of the controller. In some cases, it’s a subscription fee to the controller manufacturer, and in others it’s a fee from the data provider.

Fortunately, there’s a way of avoiding cellular fees, namely by using a connection that the property owner has already paid for.

By hooking the controller up to the site’s Internet with an Ethernet cable or a Wi-Fi connection, you bypass the need for a separate connection. This brings its own limitations, admittedly. “There are some cases where the distances are too far, and you’re not going to be able to get a Wi-Fi signal. If you have a large house, for example, with thick walls, the Wi-Fi signal may not carry through the house,” Finnegan said. If you’re wiring it in directly, that means you have to be able to physically connect a CAT5 cable to their router.

That Internet connection opens up a whole host of possibilities for smart controllers and the contractors who install them. Wireless devices have gotten a lot smaller and cheaper in the past few years, and it’s now commercially viable to add Wi-Fi into all sorts of devices that nobody expected to be web-enabled.

That means a lot of the classic smart controllers that contractors already know are now Wi-Fi capable.

Hunter recently acquired Hydrawise, and will be using their web platform on their HC controllers, while Toro has announced a web-based control is coming to their modular controller.

It also means that a lot of software companies are getting into the irrigation business. They have introduced some new and exciting features to the market, but it’s important to keep in mind that some of those units are consumer-focused.

For a lot of people, something is ‘smart’ when they can control it from their smartphone. “A lot of people ask me, ‘When will I be able to connect my controller to this?’ with their phone held in the air,” says John Wascher, Hunter Industries’ product manager for residential and light commercial controllers. “They don’t always know how that connection works, or what the nuances are. They just want the app.”

For tech-focused homeowners, a smart irrigation controller is a fun, new conversation piece that they control from their phone. It’s a status symbol which lightens their water bill and helps the environment. When looking at what smart controller you want to install, it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s built primarily as an appliance for the user, or as a tool for the contractor.

That’s a question that starts at installation. A controller geared toward homeowners will probably require you to get their Wi-Fi password, or use their smartphone as part of the installation process. People are protective of their Wi-Fi, and doubly-so of their phones.

Some web-based controllers can be set up and even run without Internet access, which means you don’t have to pester the homeowner for a password they may be uncomfortable giving you. It’s also a nice feature if you need to visit when a client’s service is down, or on new home installations, where the Internet may not be installed yet.

“Where most controllers are designed for the consumer, the homeowner,” Finnegan said, “our whole system is designed for the contractor—the professional.” So what makes a web-enabled controller a tool and not a toy? It all boils down to what the contractor can do with the controller. Professionally-focused controllers generally offer a web-based platform that will allow you to monitor all of your clients’ controllers in one place.

“In our system, you can set up alerts, so you’ll get an email if zone 4 on Mrs. Jones’ property didn’t run last night,” said Finnegan. “You get the email, and you can look it up and see that it didn’t run because of a solenoid fault. Then you can call up Mrs. Jones and say, ‘Hey, I see zone 4 didn’t run last night, so I’m going to send out a guy to take care of it. It looks like it’s a solenoid on valve #4.”

Rather than finding out about an irrigation problem when the lawn starts dying, you’re aware of it in real time. You’re then able to handle the problem before it can cause any damage. All told, that means easier house calls, fewer costly repairs that would be covered under warranty anyway, and you save time and money.

With one client, that’s a customerservice coup, but when it’s your entire client base, that’s a game changer. “For contractors, there’s a lot of scalability that web-based controllers can bring to their business,” said Christopher Klein, co-founder of Denver, Colorado-based Rachio. “You may change the way you charge for things, the way you break up your services. If you no longer need to adjust the schedules, what other value-added services can you offer your clients?”

An ideal web-based platform, where monitoring and adjusting all of your clients’ controllers at once is as quick and easy as changing one of them, will have profound effects on your business. Some customers see contractors as irrigation mechanics; they will pay you when something breaks, or they will pay you to keep something from breaking. A good web-based platform could let you challenge their assumptions.

With smart controller management services, you could rebrand yourself in your clients’ eyes as a concierge service. A hurricane is rolling in? They don’t have to worry about it; you’ve already scheduled it to turn off. Watering restrictions kicked in? No problem. For every little question they may have about when each zone of their systems ran last Thursday, you’ll have an answer right at your fingertips.

On the horizon for all involved parties are the possibilities that will open up when the data starts being collected and put together on a massive scale. All the stakeholders in landscape irrigation: clients, contractors, town councils, water companies and state governments, will have more and better information to use when making decisions about water use.

Better information nearly always translates into wiser decisions in the long term and the large scale. Every smart controller you hook up brings that future one step closer. There are some really exciting possibilities out there right now, and your choice in controllers will help determine which of those possibilities will become realities.