Smart Controllers Are Changing Fast
At the end of last year, I spent my New Year’s Eve where most of us do, at a party. After the year turned, one of my friends pulled out his guitar and led us all in a rendition of the classic Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The moment felt right and everyone joined in, because right now we seem to be living in momentous times.
Technology is progressing faster than ever before. Everyone is working hard to keep up, and the irrigation industry is no exception. Smart controllers, in particular, seem to be advancing at a lightning pace. So to keep you on top of things, we’re going to cover what changes have occurred in that market since we covered it last June.
In the few months since then, Hunter acquired Hydrawise, a company from Australia. Toro and Irritrol rolled out the SMRT Logic gateway, Hydro-Rain introduced the HRC 400, Rachio’s web platform got even easier to use, and Rain Bird launched the LNK-WiFi. It goes without saying that the other smart controller manufacturers made important developments and launched new products, but there are simply too many to cover them all in one article.
Let’s start with the SMRT Logic gateway, which connects smart controllers from both Toro and Irritrol to the Internet. The SMRT Logic gateway plugs into the router through a wired connection, and communicates with the controllers using a 900 mHz radio signal.
Anthony Hall, product manager for Toro Irrigation in Riverside, California, emphasized the benefits of relying on radio signals in the design. For one, hacking is a numbers game, and by using a radio signal instead of the popular WiFi format, hacking the gateway becomes more trouble for the hacker than it’s worth.
Radio signals also reach longer than equivalent WiFi-signals, which helps circumvent the problem of reaching the controller from the router that many contractors run into on large properties. “That is why we decided to go with 900 mHz,” said Hall. “Now we’re going three times further than WiFi, so we’re going to get through the walls. Even if you have a controller that is out in a little shed, away from the house, you’ll still make that connection.”
Like other platforms, SMRT Logic has both a website and a mobile app, and contractors or owners can use either to control the device remotely. In SMRT Logic’s case, the site is also set up to work with landscape lighting. “We have the Light Logic gateway, that is an essentially identical platform, and those databases all run together on our system here,” said Hall.
Hooking into the Internet opens up many retrofitting markets as well. Smart controllers have been around for years, but there are still simple timer systems running on properties right now, which could be upgraded to smart controllers. Also, many smart systems will have room to upgrade, too.
Randy Montgomery, early product research manager at Rain Bird, Tucson, Arizona, says that his company also decided to create a product with retrofits in mind, rather than creating a whole new controller from scratch. “The LNK WiFi is a plug-in module for contractors who have customers with existing units,” he said. “Combined with a new faceplate, it is compatible with our ESP-ME controller, and turns it into a WiFi controller.”
Montgomery laid out a scenario that describes the savings potential of web-enabled controllers for irrigation contractors. “It’s Sunday and the customer calls, saying they’ve got a spray head that’s shooting water 13 feet straight up into the air,” he said. “Typically, a contractor would have to send a truck out to the site. Now, he can just log on to the controller, shut the system off on his phone, and tell the customer, “I’ve stopped the sprinklers; I’ll see you on Monday.”
Getting hooked up to the Internet also allows a smart controller to get even smarter. For controllers which already do seasonal adjustments, it is now possible to follow the weather conditions more closely, resulting in better adjust ments.
It effectively turns a standard controller into an ET-sensing controller. When the LNK upgrade is paired with a rain sensor, the ESP-ME qualifies as EPA WaterSense-certified.
Even for contractors comfortable with installing smart controllers, controlling them via phone can feel alien. There are plenty of contractors who are more comfortable with the old physical controls than they are with a scheme that relies entirely on software. Anthony Long, product manager for Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California, said that the company has been working on making its controls more contractor-friendly.
“A WiFi controller typically doesn’t look like an irrigation controller, and contractors aren’t used to them,” said Long. He came to Hunter through its purchase of WiFi controller manufacturer Hydrawise last year. “So what we’ve spent a fair bit of time doing is making our controller more familiar, like a commercial controller.”
Controller manufacturers are trying to please both tech-savvy owners, who are looking for apps in the mold of Twitter or Uber, and contractors who are looking for physical buttons and dials. In the case of Hunter’s Pro-HC, the classic dial has been replaced with a touchscreen. This allows the contractor to program the machine at the controller itself, while still providing a more modern interface that won’t be off-putting to property owners.
A few contractors are adapting to the new controllers by trying out different business models. Long knows of two contractors who are leasing smart controllers to their clients as part of their irrigation services, to the tune of about $80 per month. “The property owner gets the benefit of having someone looking at his irrigation system in much more detail,” he said. “They get an up-todate controller, and increased water savings as well.”
Kim Hayes, director of marketing for Hydro-Rain in North Salt Lake, Utah, says he hasn’t encountered any contractors who are renting out controllers. Instead, he does know of some contractors who are paying to switch out their clients’ controllers for them.
“The property owner signs a three-year contract for maintenance, and in return, the company pays for the controller and installs it,” he said. “It is quite an investment on the part of the contractor, but they figure that whatever money they spend up front, they’ll earn back overtime. Every service call they can take care of remotely is a savings.”
A major selling point for the latest controllers is how much water they will conserve on a property through more efficient irrigation. Even in regions of the country that generally get plenty of water, conservation is becoming a popular idea. How much water a given controller will save depends on two factors: how smart the controller is in its programming, and the quality of the data it is using.
Web-enabled controllers generally receive local weather forecasts, and analyze data from nearby weather stations to determine how much water to apply. That said, ‘nearby’ could mean the data is local to the nearest town, the nearest zip code, or the nearest crossing of latitude and longitude on the map. In areas with interesting topography, or out in rural zones, that can make a real difference.
In the best-case scenario, a client is willing to purchase his own weather station for the most accurate reading. Most of the time, the customer isn’t willing to go that far, and the controller is using whatever weather data the controller manufacturer has to offer.
Not all weather stations are created equal, either. “We prefer to use airport weather stations, because the insurance companies make sure that planes land on time,” Long said. “Their weather stations are $35,000 units, and they get maintained every two to four weeks.”
With good data, a controller can make a big difference. To accommodate good data, Hydro-Rain made their web-enabled controller, the HRC 400, able to calculate a water audit. The contractor can plug catch can values directly in to the controller, and it automatically generates a runtime.
By combining the audit with weather data from its B-Hyve Pro platform, the controller gets a complete picture of how much water the landscape has, and what it needs. “You can analyze the system regarding its water usage and what it’s doing,” said Hayes. “You can see where the fill capacity is in the soil, how much water has been added, and how much water has been taken away through evapotranspiration.”
When it comes to considering what controller to get for your business, there are many factors to keep in mind; what controllers most of your clients use and what controllers your preferred distributor carries, for example. There are some other factors, though, which aren’t as straightforward, and require careful thought.
Last year, some of the controllers that entered the market from the Silicon Valley ended up giving installers headaches, because the manufacturers missed a factor. “What happened is that they put in tiny terminal strips,” said Long. “Physically, they were just too small, so when contractors encounter one, they have to trim the wires in order to make them fit, which is very frustrating.”
Physically inspecting a new controller is a good way to avoid that kind of pitfall, but thinking through the software side is just as important for your business. Consider all the things you will want to be able to do once you can remotely control most of your customers’ irrigation systems through the web.
Does the software of the controller in question handle batch—or bulk— commands quickly and efficiently? Can you sort the accounts you manage by location? Does it show those locations on a map? Some apps color-code the systems you control on a built-in map, and turn them red if they break. Others will automatically draw you a route between your location and a given property, if there’s a problem. Some platforms will let you put in complex programming commands for your clients’ controllers, too.
All this new technology puts the irrigation industry at a crossroads. If routers had been this cheap twenty years ago, and controllers had been this smart, it would have been up to contractors, for the most part, to decide which controllers would win out. In the age of Windows 95 and Netscape, consumers weren’t as willing to trust new gadgets.
Now they seem to be, and consumer-oriented smart controllers are likely to be a bigger slice of the controller market in the years to come. Chris Klein, CEO of Rachio in Denver, Colorado, pointed to the increased sales of the Amazon Echo as proof that consumers are more interested in smart home appliances than ever before. Compared to the 2015 holidays, Amazon sold nine times as many Echos this holiday season.
How do sales of some Amazon gizmo affect irrigation controllers? I’ll explain. The Echo, like Google Home, is an Internet of Things (IoT) device that controls other web-enabled appliances, like lights and thermostats (and Rachio controllers) via WiFi. Echo listens for the owner to say a keyword, and then follows the owner’s commands, like ‘Turn the sprinklers on.’ “Our controller works with voice,” said Klein, “because voice is going to become another new gateway for home automation.”
Understanding the IoT trend is important, because it explains another major trend in the smart controller market. This past fall, a massive computer network made of IoT-enabled webcams and DVRs was used to disable a number of major Internet services like Twitter, Netflix and Paypal. The devices had been infected because the default passwords had been left in place.
The attack highlighted the need for good security practices among the manufacturers and owners of web-enabled devices. “If you’re going to be putting a connected product into a home, you have to be sure that you’re putting a secure product in,” said Klein. “Otherwise, you’re going to be exposing your client’s information.” To be safe, manufacturers make sure their devices use secure protocols to communicate with their servers, and keep up to date on the latest malware threats.
For those of us who pre-date the World Wide Web, this can all seem a little scary, like the machines are taking over and we are but the lowly peons carrying out the work they recommend. Rest assured, this does not present a danger to us, but an opportunity. Contractors who learn how to handle the new controllers will be swimming in work.
Consumers who are upgrading to smart controllers from old-school timers will still need irrigation experts to monitor their controllers, and audit their systems. Web-enabled controllers won’t cut down on the number of jobs, just make them easier to handle. We are still the irrigation experts, and will be for some time to come.