April 23 2008 12:00 AM

 “An up-to-date contractor has to have battery-operated controllers in his arsenal,” says Randy Symonds, electronic product manager for Peoria, Illinois-based L.R. Nelson.
“It allows a contractor to bid those sorts of jobs like city parks and development projects,” says Symonds. “If one guy comes in with a bid and has to break up asphalt and run lines, there’s a lot of cost there. Another guy comes in with battery-operated controllers, turns it into an automatic system, he can do it for a fraction of the cost. He’s the guy who’ll get the job.”tex.jpg

Those with battery controllers in their toolbox will be in a favorable position to bid the job, due to the otherwise exorbitant expense of running electricity. Simply put, the contractor who is able to temporarily irrigate will have the advantage.

“You don’t normally have power in a remote area,” explains George Alexanian, president of Alex-Tronix Controls, a pioneer company in the development of battery and other specialty controls for more than 20 years. “Bringing in power would be very expensive; an expense to the contractor who has to pass it on to the customer.”

Battery controllers for residential and light commercial property can range from about $30 to more than $200. Additional features, such as remote programming capabilities, increase the price of the product. Since battery-powered controllers’ infancy, prices on the handy devices have dropped steadily.

“In the last 25 or 30 years since I’ve been in the industry, the price has gone down,” says Alexanian from his Fresno, California, office.  “In the old days when we didn’t have many electronics (they were mostly electromechanical or partially electronic with gears and motors), they were more expensive than they are now, and they had fewer features.  The price has gone down significantly because they’re mass-produced now.”

 Of the one million-plus controllers sold annually in the United States, approximately 10% operate on battery power. According to Cliff Burwell of Northridge, California-based Dayni Controls, a company that specializes in the manufacture of battery-powered controllers, this small percentage stems from a narrow field of knowledge among contractors. “We have to make contractors aware of the benefits of battery-powered controllers and how they can be a real boon to their business.”

“A contractor, after getting his lead for a project, can go to that home or business, analyze the job and determine the best way to put [the system] in,” says Burwell. “So he’s out there making the decision, and that’s good as long as he understands the flexibility that he has with that controller.”

“The real key to using battery-operated controllers is in their tremendous time savings,” says Symonds. “The number one time-saver for a contractor is when he gets a call on a busy day for a cut line. There’s a certain amount of time allotted for any given day, and for him to stop what he’s doing to go to a site, and repair a cut line isn’t always feasible.  If he has a battery controller, he can simply unscrew the electric solenoid and throw on a battery unit. Then he can go back to that system at his leisure and repair it later.”

Battery-powered controllers are usually offered as a service when nothing else will work. 

“I’ve been selling battery controllers for 20 years now,” says Rick Hennan, sales manager for the commercial division of DIG Corporation, manufacturers of controllers in San Marcos, California. “As part of a contractor’s arsenal, they’re definitely a must.”

“Here’s where a contractor has an advantage,” Hennan explains.  “Say you get a job where the customer wants everything to look nice and green, like a builder or developer, so he can have an easy time selling the homes. But until the power comes in, how do you do it?  By using battery-powered controllers, the site is irrigated automatically and he doesn’t have to invest in the man-hours. Think of the alternatives to using battery power: run irrigation systems with lines that are manually laid out, or watering it by hand, lugging a hose around. Those are not good options.

“For the project that will eventually be on a regular irrigation system with AC power, when power is finally allocated to that property, the contractor replaces the battery controllers with a conventional system.” This kind of service ingratiates the contractor to the client.

After the conventional system is installed, the battery-controlled system is taken out, and used again and again. Hennan points out the example of California cities, which mandate vegetated slopes in most developments, from shopping malls to housing additions. To meet this mandate, before the city divvies out power throughout the zone, the only practical system is a battery-powered one.

Another specialty need for battery is anywhere obstacles, such as concrete driveways or sidewalks, are present. The savings in labor and maintenance, which battery controllers can provide, is evident when seeing an AC installation.  Burwell describes a typical residential AC installation, where a controller box is mounted inside the garage, from which power must extend to valves in the front and back yard. 

“They have to take a low-voltage line from that controller, go through the stucco and take it outside,” says Burwell. “Then they drop the line down and take those lines under a sidewalk or driveway, over to the location of the valves.  When they run the lines to the back yard, they can’t go under the house because most of the homes today are on a concrete slab foundation. So they have to run these lines through flower beds or through an attic, exposing them all along.”

It is often the lines which, when inadvertently cut, cannot be repaired without extensive (and expensive) digging, jack hammering and extraction. With battery-powered controllers, no lines are strewn above, down or around, and there’s no risk of cutting through a line.
“You’ve eliminated all that wiring and all that mess,” says Burwell. “Everything is nice and clean.”

Those times of emergency, such as a wire cut, are also times of profit, found in savings.

“We don’t look at selling these controllers as a profit maker as much as a way to lower costs in emergency situations,” says Marion Shepherd, operations manager for Stemler Irrigation in Jeffersonville, Indiana. “In one particular situation, we came to a job site and there was a wire that was cut from a system we didn’t put in. The wire was cut some place along the blacktop, which was about 300 feet long.  There was no way to get wire back to the controller, so we just installed a battery-operated solenoid valve for that particular zone, which was in the middle of a field.”

Shepherd’s experience saved cutting asphalt, possibly running into many thousands of dollars, versus making a $100 investment in battery power and an hour’s worth of labor.

Burwell considers offering commercial customers a way to fix a problem without disrupting business as money saved. 

“With some of these big shopping centers, they may have AC lines running for a block, and if they need to replace those lines under blacktop, it disrupts the parking and the shopping,” notes Burwell. “If you’re going to tear it up, first you have to trace the lines to find out where those lines are, which is difficult. Then you have to cut up the blacktop and run those lines across, which is a terrible expense.”

Emergency uses can yield substantial savings, but is there profit to be made with big jobs, such as with highway departments and city parks? Scott Sesson thinks so, as he stands amid the world’s largest, one-time urban tree-planting project along the Sugar Pines Trail in Clovis, California.

Speaking of battery controllers, Sesson notes, “They’ve been working out great; they were easy to install.” This in itself is great news for Sesson, superintendent for Wadkin & Borgolussi, as he supervised the irrigation for “Tree Fresno,” the planting of over 4,000 trees by 2,500 volunteers along a 7 1/2 mile walking and jogging trail.  For the irrigation, Sesson and his team ran about 2,000 feet of pipe.

“What’s so great about using these battery controllers is that we do a lot of work for Cal Trans — a lot of large projects,” says Sesson. “I’m going to highly recommend these controllers to them. For the long range wiring runs on this project, it will really accommodate them in areas where they have problems with power.”

Battery-powered controllers offer many advantages, by giving the contractor an affordable, easy-to-install and maintain alternative to AC controllers. We’ve spotlighted some of the uses of wireless controllers. You are only limited by your imagination.