Wireless Irrigation Technology

If you were alive in the ’60s or ’70s, you may remember the old TV remote control, the little ‘clicker’ box with four buttons. One button turned the set on or off; another made the mechanical channel-changer dial move. The third made the volume go up and down; and the fourth adjusted the hue.

The earliest remotes were connected to sets by wires; it was a big breakthrough when those wires disappeared. The company that made the first wireless TV remote controls made millions. But those sets were expensive, so most households used their children as channel-changers.

It’s a very far cry from today, where even little kids carry compact computers around in the form of smartphones. Increasingly, we expect these slim, metal rectangles to control every other electronic device and system in our lives, no matter what brand . . . isn’t there an app for that?

We want them to lock our front doors, watch our houses, turn on our lights and HVAC systems, and control our sprinklers, while we sip lattes, perhaps hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

It’s called the Internet of Things (IoT), and it’s accessed via radio frequencies, either WiFi, 900 MHz or cellular. The increasing integration into the IoT is changing everyone’s lives, and irrigation contractors are no exception.

Wireless valve control

One of the hottest new items to come on the irrigation scene is a truly wireless valve-control device. Wireless components are godsends in situations where running wire simply isn’t feasible, would be too expensive to install, or more importantly, where electrical power lines don’t reach.

This is particularly true in renovation work, when a contractor needs to add one or more valves to a site, but hardscape or a road is in the way. Running wire out to a traditional wired valve would entail boring under those concrete structures, a time- and labor-intensive enterprise.

Earlier this year, Tucor introduced a new wireless valve-control device that solves this problem. It uses proprietary 900 MHz frequencies to talk to any brand of irrigation controller, bringing the non-wired valves back under the aegis of a central control system.

The process uses a 900 MHz radio gateway that is installed at the existing controller by connecting the valve output wires to the gateway terminal. A DC latching batterypowered radio receiver is installed in the turf in its own valve box, adjacent to the existing valve. The two are connected through a DC latching solenoid.

Something like this is what Scott Thompson, water conservation manager at Irrigation Management Systems in Portland, Oregon, has been waiting for. Some of his sites have as many as 40 battery-powered valve controls.

Several manufacturers make these devices, typically powered by one or two standard nine-volt alkaline batteries. Essentially mini-irrigation controllers inside valve boxes, each device has its own individual timer that must be set manually with watering times and dates.

These battery-powered valve controls are ‘wireless,’ but only in the sense that they’re not hard-wired. They have no WiFi or other radio communications capability.

Since they have no way to ‘talk’ to a main controller, having several of these devices on a site defeats the purpose of having a smart central controller that irrigates based on weather or ET information.

“The little battery-operated valve controllers work really well, but the downside is that they’re stand-alone units,” said Malcolm McLaren, vice president and director of operations at EcoTech Services in Monrovia, California. “If you change runtimes with the seasons, you have to go into the field and manually find where each unit is, and change the settings.”

“Up here, in the Pacific Northwest, we may have a week where it’s 60 degrees for three days, then bump up to 80 degrees for four days, and then go back down to 60,” said Thompson. “But a contractor isn’t going to go out and manually adjust all 40 of those, then go back and do it again each time the weather changes.” If those 40 valves were fitted with the new wireless valve-control devices, he wouldn’t have to.

These new wireless valve-control units use longerlife lithium-ion batteries that last five years or more, solving another problem. “Those nine-volts in the other valve controls last about a year, maybe two,” said McLaren. Wireless valve. Photo courtesy: Tucor He’s installed the new wireless valve controls at five different California schools. “Very often, because of building additions over the years, schools will have several irrigation controllers with only one to three stations on them that don’t talk to each other.”

“We were able to get rid of them by putting these new devices on all the single- or two-valve zones,” McLaren continued. “Now, these campuses have just one central controller that runs everything, all accessible from the caretaker’s phone.”

The base system can convert up to six valves to wireless control, and the company’s Link system can convert up to 50 valves.

Wireless smart controllers

Wireless technology brings two main advantages. First, it allows access to information that’s on the internet or stored in the cloud, such as evapotranspiration (ET) and weather data. A smart irrigation controller downloads that information and schedules watering accordingly. Second, it allows control of the device through those radio signals via one’s laptop, tablet or smartphone.

It’s this second capability that has made life easier for professionals like Jason Cooper, irrigation supervisor at GreenView Partners, LLC, Raleigh, North Carolina, a company that does mostly commercial irrigation work.

“WiFi has really changed things,” he said. “A lot of my clients have smart controllers with a linking module that allows it to access WiFi networks.

“Through an app on my smartphone, I can manage every one of those controllers remotely. When it’s time to make seasonal adjustments, I no longer have to physically go to each location to change those settings. That’s a huge timesaver.”

Josh Quinn is irrigation service manager at All Terrain Landscaping, LLC, in Greeley, Colorado. “Our high-end residential clients travel a lot, but they also pay attention to what’s going on with their irrigation, and are very water-conscious.

They’ve seen how having a wireless smart controller cuts their usage, and lets them see what their systems are doing, no matter where they are.”

It’s also made scheduling winter system blowouts much easier. Quinn’s clients don’t have to be home or arrange for someone to open the garage door so he can access the controller. Nor does he have to skip them when they forget.

When asked if wireless technology is a coming trend in the landscape irrigation world, Peter Lackner, a product manager at Toro’s Riverside, California irrigation division, says, “I would argue that it already is. Wireless has been around for a long time, but a few years ago, in its infancy, it wasn’t as reliable.”

“Now, of course, everyone uses wireless devices, almost every minute of every day, and the trust in them has improved over the past couple of decades. We’re at the point now where their reliability has been established. And, wireless components are a heck of a lot easier to install, because you don’t have to dig big trenches.”

Looking around at people at an airport, with everyone on their phones, gives you an idea where we’re headed, according to Brad Wardle, director of the B-HYVE division of Hydro-Rain in North Salt Lake City, Utah.

“It’s going to be using the technologies that people already have on their phones—WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular,” said Wardle. “We sold remotecontrolled irrigation controllers for years, but people didn’t buy them in nearly the numbers that they’re buying WiFi-enabled controllers, because they required their own dedicated remotes, separate pieces of equipment.”

San Marcos, California-based Hunter Industries, for its part, is betting heavily on the market’s growing acceptance of wireless. It demonstrated that when it purchased Hydrawise, the maker of one of the first WiFi irrigation controllers.

Using wireless components can also cut installation costs. For example, “To set up a traditionally-wired 24- station irrigation system for, say, a sports field, the cost of the infrastructure would be about $3,000,” said Hydrawise product manager Anthony Long. “That same installation, done with wireless components, would be $1,000.”

Going wireless can save contractors and their clients a great deal of money. Wire is expensive; trenching for it is time and labor-intensive, and there’s always a risk of cutting into a utility wire or pipeline. By contrast, the proliferation of wireless technology is driving its cost down.

As Long says, “A lot of devices have WiFi in them now.Because WiFi is mass-produced, the components have become much cheaper.”

Wireless flow-sensing

Knowing how much, and where, water is flowing through a system is invaluable to a contractor or water manager who is responsible for maintaining the irrigation at a commercial site. “Flow sensing is everything,” said Cooper. “It gives us all the information we need to adequately build our programs.”

Without it, he’d have to go back to the old-school way, doing a calculation based on counting the number of nozzles and minutes of runtime. A flow sensor does all that work for him, letting him know immediately that a system is putting out 50 gallons per minute (gpm).

Wired flow sensors were a big deal when they hit the market. “Most irrigation systems are ten years old or older,” said Cooper. “Flow sensors weren’t even talked about when those systems were first installed.” Wireless flow sensors have also been around for awhile, but will only work with a controller of the same brand.

Flow sensing’s greatest asset, however, may be its ability to indicate that there’s a hidden leak somewhere in a system. As Thompson points out, most irrigation, especially on commercial sites, takes place overnight, after water managers have gone home.

No one may notice that a zone has three or four broken heads, a lateral break, or a stuck valve. That water could run virtually forever, especially if it’s underground, wasting thousands, even millions of gallons before it’s finally discovered.

A flow sensor will detect the problem, and within five minutes, will shut the system down and send an alert. The next morning, the person managing the water can simply glance at his phone, and see that there was a problem the night before. It gets taken care of right away, instead of days or weeks later, or when someone notices that the water bill is much higher.

Back at the office one day, Thompson got an alert to a serious break at one of his large commercial sites. Using a leak detector, he found a broken irrigation pipe underground that was pouring water into an electrical vault. “Without that flow sensor, who knows how long this leak could have gone on, because the water never did come to the surface.”

But, as Thompson goes on to say, there are a lot of sites that need to have flow-sensing capabilities but don’t have it, either because the needed wire can’t be installed due to physical barriers, or because it would be too expensive to do. In those cases, a wireless option would be helpful.

Tucor has finished testing a new device that brings wireless functionality to any flow sensor, and is officially launching it at the IA show this month. This means that sites which couldn’t previously take advantage of this technology now can.

“We’re not selling a flow sensor,” said Sarver. “The beauty of this device is that it works with anybody’s controller—not just ours. It’s actually an add-on kit that will fit with any manufacturers’ flow sensor, and send data back to anybody’s controller.”

Rain and soil-moisture sensors

Soil-moisture and rain sensors have been around for quite a while, of course, Usually, these were wired back to the irrigation controller. That limited how far from the controller they could be placed. Adding WiFi capability allows more freedom.

Cooper appreciates that he can put a wireless rain sensor in the optimum location to catch rainfall.

“For years, the model we used was limited to the 25-foot wire that came with it. We could extend it, but then we’d have to add another connection point, a weak spot. Now we can go up to 200 feet, and mount that sensor in the best possible location.”

McLaren does a lot of work at schools, where vandalism is a problem. Anything that gets a rain sensor higher up on a roof, or away from the kids’ line of sight, is great in his book. And for his residential clients, losing the wire means he can mount the sensor where it doesn’t affect curb appeal.

There’s little doubt that there will be more wireless irrigation devices to come, and further refinements to the ones we have now.

Will wireless irrigation technology be as exciting and transformative as the early TV ‘clickers’ were? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to keep watching this show to see what happens next.