Smart irrigation controllers save time and money for landscapers and clients

By Larry Bernstein

Irrigation controllers are not only becoming easier to program, they’re saving on time and water for landscaping companies and their customers.

Imagine driving down the street in a suburban development in the wee hours of the morning and it starts pouring. Your windshield wipers are going full blast so you can see clearly the road ahead. As you make your way down the street you look over and see a sprinkler system spraying water on the front lawn of one of the homes.

What a waste! Of water, money and energy. That homeowner’s landscaper clearly hasn’t installed any rain interruption device. That sprinkler system must have been on a timer, and maybe the homeowner wasn’t home to stop it. He may not have even been aware that he could have saved on his water bill had he not had his sprinkler system running while it was raining. Or if he had just had a smart controller, he wouldn’t have needed to be home to stop the sprinklers from starting.

That’s where an irrigation specialist can come in and give this homeowner an upgrade. Just as motion sensors have saved countless kilowatt hours of electricity when that same homeowner installed one on his front steps, giving his irrigation a little technology upgrade also will result in savings. What’s more, this homeowner also happens to care about the environment so an option that can save water goes deeper than his pocketbook.

A smart controller will ensure his lawn is watered at the correct level for the environment based on the landscape. How is that even possible? Just like every other aspect of life, technology is taking over.

Smart irrigation controllers themselves are not new to the industry. “The big thing is not the change in technology, but the overall increase in the use of it,” says Eric Santos, vice president of irrigation services at BrightView Landscapes, a full service commercial landscape contractor headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. “Wi-Fi is just about everywhere, and virtually everyone has a smartphone”

Working smarter

Even the smartest of technology is only effective when it is installed and used correctly. If programmed properly, the new smart irrigation controllers can eliminate the guesswork for your customers’ lawns. More than ever, the options available to your customers are many. These various controllers on the market ensure that lawns get the correct amount of water at the right time and for the exact duration necessary, no more, no less.

Smart controllers can track a number of variables. Perhaps the most important of these is evapotranspiration.

ET is the process of transferring moisture from the earth to the atmosphere by evaporation of water and transpiration from plants. It’s actually a complicated calculus equation that the controller figures out for us. The greater-accuracy smart controllers give us saves a great deal of water, which is more and more vital these days. Local water purveyors recognize this and often give rebates for installing them.

The controller has settings for soil type, slope, amount of sun and shade and the types of sprinklers and plant material found in each zone. These variables are put into the ET equation, and it’s up to the controller to figure out a precise watering schedule based on them.

To create a schedule, smart controllers need access to weather data. Many pull this from local weather stations via the internet or an on-site weather station. Some use historical weather data for that location based on inputting the ZIP code, but that is not as accurate as it’s based on what happened last year on that date. Sometimes historical data is used as a backup should there be an interruption in the flow of real-time weather information.

“You can tell them the ZIP code, and they will pull historic ET data to determine a watering schedule. They also take into consideration real-time weather and make real-time adjustments. This makes them practically foolproof,” says Orion Goe, marketing manager for residential and commercial irrigation for The Toro Company, irrigation division, Riverside, California.

Here’s how the weather data from an outside source can work with a controller: if a watering was scheduled for a particular time and day, but the forecast is calling for rain, the watering can be automatically cancelled. Even if the rain is not predicted to fall for a couple of days, the watering may be put off if the probability is high enough. If the rain pattern changes, the watering can be automatically rescheduled to catch up.

Goe says this feature is relatively new in the residential arena with the advent of IoT (internet of things) and the flurry of web-connected devices.

Of course, like any computer, a smart controller must have the right inputs to do its job properly. Sometimes problems occur when an irrigation contractor installs smart controllers, and a groundskeeper who doesn’t understand them disables the smart features. He turns them into non-responsive timers again. Education about how these things work is essential for the people maintaining and monitoring them if they are to do their job of watering efficiently.

Making the switch

No question, smart controllers have joined the Wi-Fi-connected IoT world. Now a client or his contractor can schedule, start or stop irrigation or receive notifications all via a smartphone app. If there is an action that needs to be taken, it can be ordered through the app even while the system’s owner is on vacation in a foreign country.

“Smart controllers use cloud services to communicate, and that enables us to provide real-time alerts and notifications that can immediately detect and help address leaks as they occur, rather than receiving a painfully large water bill two months later,” says Meg Mason, senior director of marketing at Hydro- Point, Petaluma, California.

The apps are intuitive. This sort of control is very appealing to homeowners who are excited about smart home technology; the sprinklers are one more system to put under that umbrella. Some smart irrigation apps include pictures of each zone. You simply tap on the picture to turn on that zone.

“The new breed of Wi-Fi controllers are accessible via smart phone. You can get used to the app quickly, and it’s easy to operate,” says Mark Stuhlsatz, vice president of irrigation for Ryan Lawn & Tree, a residential and landscaping company with locations in St. Louis; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Wichita, Kansas. “The apps are friendly toward the user.”

“A customer has the ability to share access with his or her landscape or irrigation professional, which allows for remote access and management of the property through the app,” says Niko Poulos, senior business development manager for Denver-based Rachio.

What about those people who are not do-it-yourself or gadget people? Apps, alerts and tapping pictures might be one more thing to have to worry about during a busy day. The desire for a smart system lies at least partially in consumers wanting to use their smarts for other things.

The app caters to that type of customer as well.

Stuhlsatz says, “If a pro sets it up, the customer can choose to have nothing to do after that. You can turn it on, and it will take care of itself after the parameters are set.” In other words, if a client prefers, he can turn the whole thing over to his landscape contractor.

Time savings

Remote access is a cost and time saver for both the homeowner and the landscape professional. The landscape professional no longer has to coordinate with the homeowner for access to the controller, which is often locked inside someone’s garage.

“A professional can sit in his office and program multiple controllers. This type of setup is labor saving, and the controllers are better managed,” says Tom Penning, president of Irrometer, Riverside, California.

Consumers aren’t the only ones who appreciate the simplicity of these apps. With unemployment at historically low rates in the U.S., it can be challenging for landscapers to identify and retain employees. Therefore, the easier it is to understand and operate the apps, the easier it is to train crews. Not to mention the upcoming workforce and its propensity toward more technology-driven than labor-intensive jobs.

Various brands offer different types of training for their products. Hydro- Point offers a training program called HydroPoint University, which features video-based instructional content, on-demand courses and how-to instructional videos.

Training is also available from the Rain Bird Academy, both online and through traveling workshops, with continuing education credits available.

Rachio’s Pro Program allows landscape and irrigation professionals to gain access to training on how to install its hardware and connect its software.

Smart irrigation controllers offer many benefits and greater flexibility for both residential and commercial clients. They can keep landscapes looking beautiful and do it in a way that uses just the right amount of water.

Larry Bernstein is a freelance writer who writes on various industry topics. He can be reached at lardavbern@gmail.com.