When people think of remote controls, many still imagine the ubiquitous TV remote, and it’s small wonder. TV remotes were the first really popular handheld remote devices, and for most of the public, they were like magic wands made real.
Like most of the major technological advances, remote control quickly brought changes to seemingly unrelated industries. The TV remote also found a use in irrigation systems before too long. Radio frequency (RF) controllers allowed a single crew member to hook a receiver unit into a client’s irrigation system, and operate it from a distance.
Without an RF remote, checking an irrigation system is a cumbersome chore. If you have two technicians on the job, one can walk the site and call instructions back to his partner, who operates the controller. Or, a single technician can do the job by running each zone in sequence. The trouble there is that their pace is then dictated by the timing of the program.
Using an RF remote is more efficient than either of those methods.
On properties where a second technician would be superfluous, a single employee can get the job done. An RF remote is more efficient and it allows the user to pause the wet check and make corrections as he goes. He also never has to worry about falling behind when the program is too fast, or wasting time when it’s too slow.
Years ago, that would have been the whole of the story on any remote-controlled irrigation system, but times have changed. Now the remote is just another tool, and what was magic has become mundane. These days, smartphones are the latest hotbed of innovation and they’ve become so prevalent that we expect all our new gadgets to integrate seamlessly with them.
The manufacturing cost of Wi-Fi connectors has plummeted in the last decade with dramatic effects. When the hardware for a wireless connection costs $100 per unit, only cars and computers get them, but when it’s more like $5 per unit, every appliance becomes connectable. These newly connected devices form the Internet of Things (IoT), and software engineers are still exploring their potential.
Suddenly, almost anything that uses electricity can be hooked to a web-based control, and irrigation systems are no exception. This will bring profound changes to our industry and the products we use.
More and more controller manufacturers are debuting models with Wi-Fi capability, and backend platforms to allow contractors and property owners to control them.
“We’re getting ready to launch a conventional modular controller with a Wi-Fi add-on,” said Erica Bauman, operations director at K- Rain in Riviera Beach, Florida. With a modular system, the property owner plugs the add-on into the controller, types in the local Wi-Fi password, and then they share the controller with you via your email address.
To be sure, the process has more complexity than installing an RF receiver, but the doors it opens are astounding, and can start right at installation. “Once the controller is shared, a tech-savvy employee back at the contractor’s office can be handling all of the backend management,” Bauman said.
That means a less experienced field technician can perform the installation. If he misjudges a variable, or forgets about a zone, then a more experienced tech back at the office can correct him.
If that sounds like a win, then hold onto your hat, because web-based controls can do a lot more for your business. The time and labor savings really start to add up when you’re able to see what an irrigation system is doing in real time.
Kyle Jarvis, sales manager for YardVarks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says that the diagnostic reporting functions of the smart controllers it uses has been their biggest benefit. “If a valve is not functioning properly, not opening to irrigate that zone or staying open too long, the smart controllers are typically really good about giving us an accurate trouble code,” he said.
Remote troubleshooting lets you make more accurate estimations of what each repair job will entail, how long it will take, how many people will have to go on the job, and what materials they’ll need. With a conventional system, those questions are answered onsite. If the crew is missing a part, or needs an additional crew member to get the job done, that’s going to cost you in fuel and labor, not to mention upsetting your schedule for the day.
There are also plenty of situations where the ability to take an irrigation system off autopilot remotely comes in handy. The most common of these is when a system starts running in the rain. Even very smart systems will make this mistake sometimes, and being able to shut the sprinklers off manually from your phone lets you handle the problem as soon as you’re aware of it.
Some rarer problems can be a real handful without remote technology. If a client’s soil or rain sensors start going haywire, manual overrides let you keep his system running smoothly until you can pay him a visit. Or if your client likes to show off his new system to guests, but can’t remember how to put the settings back when he’s done, that’s not a problem. Some controllers let you reset changes to the system from the back office with a minimum of fuss.
All of these time savings are helpful when you apply this technology to an individual customer’s property. When you’re looking at managing a significant percentage of your client base at once, web-based control becomes a godsend.
For example, many smart controllers work by a system of seasonal adjustments, where the schedule from the hottest time of the year is adjusted down in the fall, and then back up again in the spring. On average, this works well, accommodating the way that plants’ watering needs change as sunlight and temperatures fluctuate.
However, we all know that predicting the weather is a tough business.
When a heat wave strikes, or if the weather is a lot wetter than usual, conventional systems would need to be adjusted by hand. Web-based controls can save you from rushing out to reach each of your clients’ properties every time Mother Nature throws a curveball.
“As a contractor, it’s nice to be able to manage multiple properties, and dial down your water if it’s cooler and wetter than expected,” said Jarvis. “It saves your customers on their water bills, but it also saves the plants from getting too much water, which can cause fungal infections. That’s a big advantage that we see from remote control—the ease of adjustments as we go through the seasons and need to make changes.”
All these advancements are beginning a revolution in how some companies manage their clients’ irrigation. Last year, Anthony Brucia, owner of Mountain Water & Irrigation, LLC, in Park City, Utah, pivoted his entire business towards irrigation management. “We’re pursuing this pathway right now because we’re seeing a trend in the industry, where this is becoming more and more prevalent,” he said.
While being an early adopter can be risky, it’s also self-marketing. “I can’t tell you how many people will walk up to us when we’re working and ask, ‘Are you running the sprinklers with an iPad? Is that waterproof?’ It’s like, welcome to 2016!” he said. Brucia loves irrigation work, and says his business model wouldn’t work without web-based control.
In addition to the standard installation and repair services, his company also offers system monitoring, where a tight tab is kept on everything a system does. The reporting software on the backend of the systems the company installs allows a tech to have ready answers to any question a client might ask, and get a handle on any problems quickly.
For instance, a month after installing an irrigation system at a school, the entire east side of the property was turned into a two-foot-deep lake of water overnight. When Brucia got the call at 7:30 the next morning, he was instantly able to pull up the previous night’s control logs, and show flow monitoring data which proved the irrigation system wasn’t at fault.
As it happened, the previous afternoon, an attendee of the baseball game across the street had punctured one of the diamond’s two-inch water lines with a tent pole. The diamond did not have any safeguards, so when the sprinklers switched on in the early hours of the morning, the line blew and flooded the school.
Now the municipality is considering hiring Brucia to upgrade the diamond with flow detection. “I knew before I looked at the data that it wasn’t me,” he said. “Our system is set up to recognize a mainline break from the flow monitoring feed. Had it been me, it would have only run for three minutes, then it would have reached the mainline break threshold and shut down.”
That degree of automatic protection helps him sleep soundly at night, literally. He’s set his monitoring software to hold all automatic late night emails until the morning. Brucia knows that emergency failsafes are in place, and that the worst case scenario his client might face is losing a night of watering.
Remote monitoring isn’t just for emergencies, though. With it, you can offer your clients an unprecedented amount of information about their systems. You can tell them how much water they use, how their usage in April stacks up against the usage from March, or last April for that matter. This helps your customers understand how much more efficient they are, while reassuring them that you’ve got their back.
Another great way to add value when you touch base is to ask if the client has any outdoor events coming up. You can schedule in events beforehand, to ensure that your client won’t be interrupted by the sprinklers when the time comes.
If you’re the first in your area to offer this irrigation-monitoring service, you might find it opening new doors for you. Even property owners who already have an irrigation guy they’re happy with might consider taking you on, if you market it as a third-party service.
You install the smart controller, you monitor their system, and if there’s a problem, you pass the repair job onto their contractor; much like a security company passes news of a break-in on to the police. You get more work, the clients get quicker repairs, and their contractor knows what’s wrong before they arrive, so everybody wins.
Make no mistake, for companies getting into remote irrigation, the opportunities out there are only going to grow. Brucia and Jarvis both said that smart controllers are not used on the majority of commercial systems, and have only begun to penetrate the upper margins of the residential market. When smart controllers reach that degree of affordability, it’ll be a sea change for contractors.
Coonsidering the growing ‘Internet of Things,’ a public that’s thirsty for phone-based controls, and a regulatory climate increasingly concerned with water conservation, Wi-Fi-enabled controllers have some serious momentum behind them. Like previous advances in the controller market, when they start to become the majority, contractors who are well-versed in the technology will be out ahead of the pack.
There are a lot of controller manufacturers out there, each with their own take on what makes a smart controller, each with their own platform for helping us manage our clients. Now, in particular, the controller market offers a wide variety of features from which to choose.
Your choice of which smart controller or controllers to install for your clients will likely dictate the shape of your market in years to come, so you need to pick ones that move your business forward. The next time you’re buying a controller, ask yourself how well you can manage it from your phone, tablet or computer, because you’ll be doing that a lot in the years to come.