Back in the early part of the last century, an exciting invention called the ‘wireless’ was the word of the day. Radio was not only brand new, it was transformative—suddenly, the world was different, linked, for the first time, by mass communications.

Here in 2017, wireless is again a hot topic. But this time, the context is the new smart-home, “Internet of Things” (IoT) technology that uses wireless radio signals to work its magic. Smart irrigation controllers are joining that revolution.

Saving water, irrigating only when a landscape needs it is, of course, nothing new for smart controllers. We’ve had them for a while now, in the form of hardwired units, or those that worked off cellular phone networks or 900 MHz. That older technology is fast being surpassed in response to the increasing demand by consumers for connectivity with IoT hubs. That means wireless.

About five years ago, we started seeing some new players in the smart-controller game. New companies such as Rachio, Skydrop, Blossom, Blue Wave and others offered low-cost, completely wireless irrigation controllers that were simple to use and install.

The people behind these startups came from the IT world, not irrigation, so contractors approached with caution. After all, the high-tech world is littered with products that launched with great fanfare, only to fizzle out in a year or two, or even less time.

Now, the major, longer-established irrigation manufacturers are also embracing wireless technology. That’s the biggest sign that this revolution is here to stay.

“WiFi control of irrigation systems is truly a benefit to both contractors and homeowners,” said Chip Kah, president of K-Rain in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“Contractors can manage multiple accounts from their smartphones, tablets or web browsers, dramatically increasing their efficiency. The service side of irrigation will be greatly impacted, as alerts from the controller notify the contractor of problems when they occur, minimizing response times and satisfying customers.”

Kim Hayes, director of marketing for Hydro-Rain in North Salt Lake City, Utah, said that it all boils down to two different kinds of advantages. “One of them is purely a water conservation thing, being able to, through the web, connect to weather data and control watering so that we’re only applying water when necessary.”

“That’s one side of it. The other side of is system management. These controllers allow a contractor or a maintenance manager to control irrigation on a site without having to physically go there, from the convenience of his office, car or wherever. They can save so much in time and resources by being able to make schedule adjustments, have notices sent to them if the controller or the system malfunctions, is turned off, or if a program has been changed by someone.”

Kah added that the integration of flow and weather data that’s made possible with smart controllers saves water, positively impacts the environment, and, very often, the water bills of homeowners. “All in all, intelligent WiFi controllers are good for our industry.”

Smart controllers made even smarter

We’ve had smart irrigation controllers for a while. “The thing that’s really new about these controllers is the fact that you can communicate with them wirelessly,” said Kurt K. Thompson, owner of K. Thompson & Associates, LLC, a water-use consulting and training company. “And they, in turn, use WiFi to receive weather information without any ongoing subscription costs. Other than that, they’re just smart controllers.”

So what is it about these new devices that’s caught the public’s imagination? It has a lot to do with that little computer everyone carries around in their pockets, the smartphone.

“Now that everyone has a phone in his hand, people are really starting to see the value of smart home products,” said Damon Miller, vice president of marketing at Rachio in Denver, Colorado. “It’s the ability to access and control these devices from anywhere, anytime, and through voice, in a way that they couldn’t before.”

Some earlier models of smart controllers could be communicated with remotely, but only within a very limited range. They used dedicated remotes with radio receivers built in.

The controller transmitted only to that specific remote, which meant that multiple types of systems necessitated multiple remotes. WiFi is a huge improvement over those earlier modalities.

“Most of them, except for a few very high-end commercial units, all used 900 or 430 MHz,” said Hayes. “They were fine for use on a site; a contractor could walk around, turning things on and off. But even in the best case, they only worked up to about mile or so away. Most of them had a range of only about 300 or 400 feet. The big difference today is that, with WiFi, he can now do that from the other side of the world.”

Going through WiFi bestows another benefit, said Miller. The continuous updating of schedules, using real-time weather data from the Internet, tailored to the needs of a landscape, results in even greater water savings.

What does he mean by ‘real time’? The newer wireless controllers update weather frequently, as often as once an hour in some cases, instead of just once a day. In places where weather changes quickly, once a day may not be often enough.

Thompson made reference to the subscription fee, the annual payment that Internet sites such as Weather Underground charge. Some controller manufacturers pass that cost along to the end-users. These fees can be a couple of hundred dollars a year, which is a turnoff for some customers.

The new wireless controllers use Internet weather information, too, but so far, the companies making them have not charged the customer or contractor for it. Whether things stay that way remains to be seen.

The other reason these little units have caught on may lie in the way their makers approached the marketplace. Instead of going through contractors, they pitched directly to consumers. So, a client will say, ‘I saw this online, or at the home show, and it’s really cool; can you install it for me?’ That’s unprecedented in the professional irrigation world. It’s analogous to the way new prescription drugs are being advertised straight to patients, who then ask their doctors for them.

“We’re in a completely different market now, where buyers are better educated, in terms of the amount of information they approach their contractors with,” said Thompson. “A homeowner would never ask for a ‘Model ABC-123’ controller by ‘Brand X Irrigation Company.’ But they do know the names of some of these new ones, and will ask for them. This was brilliant marketing on the part of those startups.”

The next selling point is their ability to be integrated with smart-home gateways such as Alexa, Google Home, Nest and others. In this era of talking smartphones, consumers want to be able to say, “Water the side yard,” and voilà—the side yard sprinklers come alive.

Keeping it simple

“Design is important to this new generation of homeowners and consumers,” said Orion Goe, marketing manager for residential and commercial irrigation for The Toro Company. “Look at companies like Apple. They spend a ton of money on design. Their hardware may be similar to their competitors’, but it’s the user experience that sets their products apart.”

The aesthetic for all kinds of devices today is stripped-down and streamlined. While still clearly high-tech, the intimidation factor has been dialed way down.

All the manufacturers are making their wireless irrigation controllers as user-friendly as possible. This is a good thing, because simplicity makes it less likely that the smart features of a controller will be disabled, and the unit turned into a mere timer, not a device that saves water.

“Homeowners, particularly younger ones, don’t want something attached to their houses that looks like it came from 1995,” said Spencer Oberan, vice president of business development for Skydrop in American Fork, Utah. “If everything else in their homes are sleek and modern, like the 60-inch flat screen TV, they don’t want an irrigation controller that reminds them of an old VCR.”

Ease of use is what both contractors and the public like about these controllers the most. “There are some products out there that make the poor homeowner go absolutely nuts,” said Cory Flippin, project manager at Andy’s Sprinkler, Drainage & Lighting in Carrollton, Texas. “They’re just too complicated. You almost need a degree to program and schedule them.”

Doug Brown is owner and president of The Sprinkler Doctor, Inc., in St. George, Utah. When you ask him what he likes most about WiFi controllers, he cites their design and ease of use. “These units look great, and are easy to understand. They tell me when the water is on, and whether they’re in standby mode or have lost WiFi reception. I can get an alert over my phone if there’s a solenoid short on a valve, or something else is wrong on a client’s system.”

Responding to the change 

The success of the new wireless controllers is impacting the major irrigation manufacturers. Some of them have responded by creating additional accessories that retrofit their existing smart controllers to make them wireless.

“Over the past six to eight months, we’ve completely revamped our entire line of residential irrigation controllers,” said Elias Campos, senior product manager of contractor controllers for Rain Bird. “We have two controllers that are WiFi-compatible. One is a new, entry-level product that talks to the Internet via a linking device. There is also an accessory that you add to one of the controller’s connector ports. It’s an upgrade to a very much established product.”

Toro went a similar route. Instead of creating a whole new wireless controller, the company created an add-on device that essentially converts all of its existing and legacy controllers into wireless models.

“What we’ve made is a connected platform, a little different from a true wireless component,” said Goe. “It’s actually an Internet gateway for Cloud-based landscape irrigation control.” Once the unit is plugged into a home’s WiFi router, the user or contractor can manipulate the smart controller wirelessly through an app, via his smartphone, laptop or tablet.

Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California, responded to the wireless revolution by purchasing the Australian manufacturer Hydrawise in May of last year. Hunter continues to refine the product and add capabilities.

Tucor, Inc., in Wexford, Pennsylvania, has a new wireless controller, with a goal of eventually being able to offer a completely wireless irrigation system. “We can already bring soil moisture sensors in wirelessly, and weather data, connected either through a cellular network or Wi-Fi,” said company president Larry Sarver. “Now we also have wireless valves, and we’re working on a wireless flow sensor.”

The newer kids on the block are also continuing to tweak their offerings. “We launched our Generation Two product a year ago, and since then, have done some hardware and software updates,” said Miller. The newer Rachio models added local controls, making it easier for a contractor or homeowner to make adjustments, test zones or water manually. Ports were also added for soil moisture, rain and flow sensors.

Other benefits of wireless

Wireless control allows a contractor to input scheduling changes to all of his customers’ controllers at the same time. This is very handy when, for instance, watering restrictions are imposed. It will also send him alerts when something is wrong.

He can shut off a system that’s sprung a leak, even if he’s miles away, thus saving hundreds of gallons of water from being wasted and damaging a customers’ property. All this by simply pressing a button on his smartphone.

Wireless controllers are a retrofitter’s dream. They can be installed where hardscape barriers prevent a wired installation.

They save other hassles for contractors, too. “Ninety percent of controllers are mounted in people’s garages,” said Antonio Zeppa, co-owner of Zeppa’s, a landscape company in Louisville, Kentucky.

“But people don’t want to tell us the codes for their garage-door openers. So, we tell Mrs. Jones that we’ll be over around 9:00 a.m. to do her spring turn-on, and she says, ‘Fine, I’ll be home all day.’” “Then, when we get there, she’s had to run out for some reason, so we have to reschedule. Meanwhile, we’ve got 50 or more startups to do, and it makes it very difficult for us to get our work done. Still, I’ve lost customers when I’ve told them that they’ll have to give us their garage-door opener codes, or we can’t schedule them.”

Wireless controllers solve this problem. It wouldn’t matter where a box was located or whether anyone was home. A contractor or technician could simply turn on the system and set it, all from his smartphone.

Lee Brown, irrigation department manager for Ryan Lawn & Tree’s Springfield, Missouri branch, thought at first that wireless controllers were just cool gadgets, appealing to people because they could operate them with their cell phones.

“What we found was, though, that they make it really easy to manage our customers, because we can monitor all of their controllers online. A service manager can change the settings without customers needing to be home. That’s extremely convenient.”