Once upon a time, there was little need for smart irrigation. Water was plentiful, falling from the sky at regular intervals. Oh, there might be a dry spell once in awhile, but soon enough, the rain would fall again, turning everything green once more. If a site had an irrigation system, it was usually cranked up full bore, with little concern for conservation.

But over the years, as our population grew—and with a slight change in the weather pattern—we began to realize the need for water efficiency. Then came the massive drought of 2012. In 66 percent of the country, vast areas of turf that had always been green turned brown.

Seemingly overnight, commercial developments such as corporate campuses, condominium developments and homeowners’ associations (HOAs) in the Midwest, West and South that didn’t have irrigation systems suddenly needed them. Even those properties that did have irrigation systems could only use them on certain days for specified amounts of time, or there were penalties to pay. People in charge of these sites who previously couldn’t see a need to invest in smart irrigation now could.

Saving water—the new imperative

We have to face the fact that water is now a scarce commodity that must be managed. The importance of saving water has created a new opportunity for irrigation contractors. Whether they’re new installations or retrofits, you’re probably going to find a much more receptive audience now when you start talking about smart controllers. In some areas of the country, they have to listen.

A growing number of municipalities are requiring the use of smart controllers for new developments. California, for example, has the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (WELO), which mandates automatic irrigation scheduling using local evapotranspiration (ET) data.

“As water continues to become part of the everyday conversation worldwide, availability and the resulting rate increases are causing water users to become more aware of how they operate and manage their irrigation systems,” said Phil Burkart, vice president of Toro Irrigation in Riverside, California, and president of the Irrigation Association.

“With increased accessibility to affordable ET sources, central control is becoming more popular. In addition to ET, soil sensing is adding a new dimension to irrigation central control, indicating how well we are applying water and illustrating how technology can further save water,” adds Burkart.

Pat McIntyre, CEO of ETwater in Novato, California, says, “I think that the legislation we’ve seen is largely kind of a knee-jerk response to shortages. When you don’t have water, you understand the true value of it.”

“As a contractor, you want to have a sustainability program,” said Mike Mason , CEO of Weathermatic, located in Garland, Texas. “Every single customer wants it. They want to use less water and reduce runoff, but they still want a beautiful landscape. With a smart controller, the property owner is saving a ton on water. We rarely see a situation where water use isn’t cut by at least a third; in many cases, double that.”

Bob Broughton owns Empire Landscaping in Victor, Montana. On the commercial sites he maintains, he uses smart controllers.

“Irrigation with ET is a big deal here in the high desert of western Montana, where we get humidity levels down to 12 percent. We’ve not been required by law to use it, but we do, because it keeps the plants in better health.”

How smart are smart controllers?

The short answer is: very. Today’s smart controllers for commercial applications are truly brainy. They use a variety of different methods to figure out how much water to use and for how long to use it, based on the science of ET.

The simple definition of ET is the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration. Evaporation is the movement of water to air. Transpiration is the movement of water within a plant, and the subsequent loss as it vapors through its leaves. ET values are calculated from a number of variables, such as information about plant material, amount of solar radiation, and percentage of slope and soil type for each individual zone, figured into a calculus equation.

Thankfully, we don’t have to do this math; the microprocessors in the smart controllers do it for us— once we’ve input the proper parameters for every zone, that is. The other important thing to know about evapotranspiration is that the word is being incorporated into the verbiage of legislation. It may not be mandated yet in your community, but ET-based smart irrigation is, quite simply, the wave of the future.

But do they save money?

In McIntyre’s opinion, rising water bills are also forcing the switch to smart water controllers. “Big capital expenditures by water purveyors for system upgrades are getting amortized into the unit cost of water. People are paying more, so they’re becoming more aware of water’s expense.”

Many large property owners do experience real value from smart controllers. “We’ve seen a 25 to 40 percent water savings since 2007, when we started putting these systems in,” said Josh White, vice president of landscape for MAA, a Memphis, Tennessee-based apartment-only real estate investment trust. “Last summer was a pretty intense drought in our Texas market, yet we never exceeded the amount of water we were using before we installed the system. That was a really welcome sight.”

Overall, your clients should save money. White can see this from both sides—as a landscape professional with a degree in turf management and as an MBA who’s been in a corporate setting for ten years. “I understand the plight of the landscape contractor trying to push this technology.”

White continues, “What we’ve been able to sell to MAA is, first of all, that it’s just archaic to manually set controllers when you’ve got this kind of technology available; it takes out the guesswork. We’re going to see a little bit of a savings initially, but a huge savings over a longer window of time.”

“I’ve made believers out of owners and managers of several large commercial sites,” said Gary Smith, project manager for Robertson’s Landscaping in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “In the case of the World Arena, when they said, ‘Our water bills haven’t changed,’ I was able to show them how the smart controllers we’d put in reduced their water usage. I pointed out that water is more expensive now than it was a year ago, but their bills didn’t go up because their usage came down.”

ET and how they get it

ET data is gathered in a variety of ways, depending upon the manufacturer. Some use a combination of historical weather by zip code and current weather data, such as temperature, wind, humidity and, of course, rainfall. Daily weather stats are gathered either via an onsite weather station (which you have to purchase separately) or via a network, such as WeatherReach.

Some companies offer their own proprietary systems, like Tucor Inc., Wexford, Pennsylvania, which has its Total Cycle Management system. It uses both soil moisture sensors and weather stations in combination to calculate ET. It works with either an onsite weather station or a WeatherReach-type network. Most smart irrigation systems, even though they may not come with soil moisture sensors, allow you to integrate information from them into their water management programs. Rain sensors and flow sensors are also part of some systems, or may be attached.

Other companies, such as Baseline, headquartered in Boise, Idaho, measure the effects of ET directly in the soil using soil moisture sensors. “It’s all the same math,” said John Fordemwalt, president of Baseline. “Whether you calculate water need based on weather or soil moisture data, modern smart controllers can do an exceptional job of improving water efficiency.” Baseline’s Base- Station 3200 and BaseStation 1000 controllers use soil moisture sensors to pinpoint irrigation control.

Hunter Industries, headquartered in San Marcos, California, decided to go with onsite weather for its I-Core, Dual, ACC and other commercial systems. “We think that having an onsite weather sensor that’s connected directly to the controller is the better way to go,” said Hunter’s senior product development manager Jeff Kremicki.

“With broadcasted information, you have to ask, ‘Where is it coming from?’ If the closest tower is pretty far away, it’s not going to be as accurate. Also, that signal goes through a server. If that server goes down, you’re stuck with the data that you previously had. There aren’t enough weather stations across the U.S. to handle all the different microclimates. Plus, with an onsite weather station, there is no annual fee.”

The Climate Logic system from Irritrol, Riverside, California, uses 40 years of historical weather data on an SD card that is plugged into the bottom of the controller, accessed once you type in a specific zip code. It compares and contrasts that data with the daily weather information. “It’s working off of the combination of historical and live local weather data,” said Keith Shepersky, senior product marketing manager. “Then, if the sensor loses communication with the Climate Logic, it reverts to 100 percent historical data until you get the communication running again.”

“We offer Internet ET, which is called WeatherSense,” said Rick Capitanio, vice president of sales for Carlsbad, California-based Calsense. “Using the latitude and longitude of a controller’s location, weather patterns and datasets, an ET value that’s appropriate for that location will be sent to the controller.”

Central control

The other major difference with smart controllers is in how you access the system and change the settings. A central control system can be fully accessed via any web-enabled device, such as a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Through these devices, one can receive alerts and reports, turn irrigation on or off, and change settings. Most of the higherend smart controllers that would be used for commercial sites are programmable via laptop computer, and with an optional dedicated remote. Many of them have the additional flexibility of being accessible via tablet or smartphone.

“I feel that the Toro Sentinel Central Control is the most powerful control system out there,” said Peter Lackner, product manager for Toro’s Irrigation Business division. “It’s got every option built into it that you can possibly imagine. We do a great deal of custom-build work for clients as well, to fit their exact needs.” Sentinel allows control and access to up to 999 stations.

Tucor’s Total Cycle Management, Baseline’s BaseManager 2 Central Control, and ETwater’s systems use web-based “cloud” computing. That means the software and settings aren’t stored on your PC, but with a web-based service, just like Hotmail or Gmail stores your email.

“Also, when there are improvements to the software, you get them automatically,” said Larry Sarver, president of Tucor. “Integration with cloud-based mapping tools allow seamless integration with mobile devices as well,” commented Baseline’s For-demwalt. “Tools like Google Maps have been integrated into many apps, but have been slow to come to the irrigation market. This is changing fast.”

Smith of Robertson’s Landscaping likes Rain Master’s iCentral system. “The iCentral website is very easy to understand. There are checkboxes next to days of the week and numbers of start times. At a glance, you can see, for instance, that Program One is running two start times a day, at 100 percent of water budget, two to three days a week. Then you can scroll down the list of zones, and see what they’re running. The edit function will give you an end time for the entire cycle. That info is all right there at your fingertips.”

“Rain Master, in Riverside, California, was the first to introduce Internet-based central control to the irrigation market. Their new Eagle Plus controller and iCentral software offer irrigation managers even greater water and labor savings for either conventional or two-wire decoder systems,” said Bill Wolfe, product marketing manager. “The Eagle Plus offers real-time, two-way communication and alerts, mobile access and automated daily adjustments through its ZipET weather source.”

Remote access

You can still buy a separate remote for most systems. But with smartphone control, why would you want one? As Smith illustrates, “Our weather here in Colorado Springs is spotty. It may be pouring rain on one side of town, hot and windy on the other. If I’m in my car on the high way and I get a call from an HOA manager that it’s raining, I can shut their system down from my smartphone.”

Fordemwalt added, “Contractors are naturally mobile people, but the irrigation industry has lagged in providing easy-to-use customized solutions to help contractors be more efficient. We expect to see more and more well designed, effective mobile tools added to central control systems, making contractors more and more efficient. Jobs that used to take two people can now be done with one, and the expertise of your best people can more effectively support a larger number of crews out on a broader set of properties. Contractors who use these technologies and use them well will have a real cost edge on their competition.”

The smartphone is no substitute for the PC, however. Only some of the controller functions can be accessed via smartphones, but manufacturers are working on expanding that list. One of the limitations is the smartphone’s small screen size.

Installation is key

But a smart irrigation system is no good if it’s not properly installed. Irrigation consultant and president of ISC Group in Livermore, California, Ivy Munion has seen a lot of poor installations in her 25-plus years of experience. She recommends that you go with a company that has a good training program. “A lot of manufacturers have these programs integrated into the purchase of the controllers.”

“The contractor or end-user has a hand-holding experience, at least for their first installation. But some companies kind of leave you on your own,” continues Munion. “And without that support, the systems don’t get installed or grounded properly. And if they don’t get installed properly, they don’t get maintained properly, either. Then they don’t operate the way the company intended.”

She relates a story of what can happen when installation goes awry. “One client, with a 36-zone commercial site, was all up-in-arms one day, ready to take me to court, screaming that, ‘The system isn’t working!’ Well, I did an inspection, and the reason all the plant material was dying was that half of the system wasn’t installed correctly. They had put all the moisture sensors in, but not one of them was connected.”

“Soil moisture sensors are fabulous,” adds Munion. “But you can have an issue when the installer doesn’t compact the soil properly, and now you have an air pocket right next to the sensor. It’s going to read dry all the time. Part of using these smart controllers is in understanding how to troubleshoot them.”

Keeping it simple

John Eggleston is a manager and irrigation consultant at Service First Irrigation, and also with Federal Supply in Lansing, Michigan. He’s found that the very complexity of these systems can be their biggest drawback. “It’s a very serious learning curve for both the contractor and the end-user. Smart controllers are a management tool; it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it-type of thing. Getting the maximum benefit from a smart system takes constant site observation and evaluation. Otherwise, you’re going to compromise turf and plant health.”

Munion suggests that contractors know who’s going to be maintaining the system before recommending a certain type or brand of smart controller. That could be the owner, the developer—or you, the maintenance contractor. “You need to get a type of smart controller that they’re going to be able to program easily. That’s the one that’s going to give the enduser what he wants—a healthy landscape that uses as little water as possible,” said Munion.

What’s new

There are some new developments in the smart controller field. Many were announced at the 2012 IA show, held this past November.

Baseline’s BaseManager 2.0 platform, just released this summer, will allow contractors to ‘place’ valves, sensors, controllers, and more using the GPS system built into their mobile phones and tablets. “You can literally stand on the valve box and push a button to locate the valve on the map—as easy as that,” said Fordemwalt.

ETwater announced that they now have the ability to manage irrigation based on forecasted weather. McIntyre explains, “Smart irrigation systems, as they’re currently designed, trail weather events. Here’s the difference in what we’re doing: suppose it’s forecast that there’s a 50 percent chance of rain tomorrow. I know the weather patterns in my area, so a 50 percent chance means that it probably will rain tomorrow. I have an irrigation event that should also occur tomorrow. I can program the system so that, if it’s forecasted to rain within three days at 50 percent or greater probability, it will suspend watering until that event has passed. And if it didn’t rain, then the system will immediately irrigate.”

“We’ve also introduced the Quick- Connect SmartWorks panel,” says McIntyre, “and we’ve put more functionality into Hermit Crab; now it can be used with more than 50 different host controllers. We’re also enhancing the dashboard of our soft ware so you’ll be able to monitor multiple sites. You can schedule, diagnose under- or excess-flow or electrical issues on your valve systems.

If you’ve planted color, you can put an establishment schedule in, then every day that’ll show up on your dashboard, so you don’t lose sight of that and over-irrigate.”

“The latest generation of Toro’s Sentinel Central Control System has a redesigned interface that’s even more user-friendly,” said Lackner. “It has shortcut buttons that make it much easier to program.” The advantage to this is that if you’re on the site and you see something that needs to be adjusted, you don’t have to run and get your PC, you can just change the settings in the field.

The new Sentinel unit is also being tied in with a new commercial version of TurfGuard’s wireless soil sensors. For the first time, the controller out in the field will be able to ”talk” directly to up to 16 soil sensors and adjust irrigation accordingly—a significant change, says Lackner.

According to Rain Bird product manager Sean Azad, “In an effort to make it easier for our customers to use our smart controllers, Rain Bird has introduced a new controller, taking two existing products that were once sold separately and packaging them together at a price savings.” He added, “Currently, our LX series of commercial controllers can be upgraded to be smart controllers by putting in an ET cartridge, sold separately.”

Tucor has something new, too. “A lot of the systems that are going in right now haven’t had flow meters in them,” said Sarver. “You often can’t install them because hardscape is in the way. We’ve come out with a product you can put on top of anybody’s controller, and connect a flow meter using existing wires.”

Only as smart as you make them

Munion emphasizes that with smart controllers, there’s no ‘one size fits all.’ Every situation is different, so no single controller is good for every application. “If that were true, I’d be putting the same controllers and valves on every single project, and I don’t. On every project, there are different desired outcomes,” says Munion.

A system that is properly installed, observed and adjusted, and then properly maintained and monitored can save a lot of water. “If they really get things dialed in right, I have seen soil moisture-based systems reduce water use by 40 to 50 percent.

Systems that use ET by itself will still reduce water use by 30 to 35 percent,” says Eggleston. “But it’s not ‘plug and play.’ Unless you do proper installation and monitoring, smart controllers aren’t going to accomplish what you want them to do.”

Broughton agrees. “No electronic device replaces one of our maintenance people walking the site, doing weekly checks.”

Smart controllers are, indeed, very smart, and getting smarter. But the real brains behind smart irrigation are ultimately the contractors and end-users who really understand these systems and make them work the way they were intended. Without smart people telling them what to do, smart controllers are just fancy boxes. It’s up to you to put the brains in. Once you do, a substantial savings in both water and in dollars should be the reward.