It’s no secret that smart controllers are the future of irrigation. Increasingly, that future is now. Smart water, smart irrigation—whatever it’s being called at the moment—is being mandated by more and more governmental entities, especially as changing weather patterns seem to indicate that water is becoming a scarce commodity.

Budget-conscious homeowners, landscape managers, and homeowner’s associations (HOAs) might not see the immediate need for retrofits. But even if they feel that their old systems work “just fine,” they’ll eventually come around.

They have to. Fines and penalties for excessive water usage, and sharp upticks in water rates combined with increasing regulatory pressure will sooner or later make them smart controller customers.

More and more landscape managers are getting “the shove from above” about lowering irrigation bills. WaterLogic is a Houston, Texas-based water management company of licensed irrigators whose sole mission is to help companies cut their water usage.

“A lot of companies have these green initiatives now,” said John O’Donnell, vice president of technology. “That greases the skids on the sled, so to speak, so they’re willing to look at outside-the-box thinking.”

Add-on devices are that think-outside-the-box solution. They are the lower-cost bridge between old and new, giving conventional controllers an IQ boost without the capital outlay that a start-from-scratch smart control system would require. Not that many years ago, you either had a conventional controller or a smart controller. It is only with new technology and innovation that this niche has developed and grown, and it hasn’t stopped yet.

We should probably start by defining what “smart” means. A “smart” controller doesn’t just open valves according to a timer. It takes information from sensing devices or weather stations, either directly or via the Internet, and schedules when to irrigate accordingly; some use evapotranspiration (ET).

But what if you’ve got a large commercial site with a variety of controllers made by different manufacturers? How are you going to retrofit that? “Oftentimes, when you’re talking about a particular site, the irrigation system may have evolved over a period of years, with a mix of different host controllers,” said Pat McCormick, CEO of ETwater in Novato, California. Fortunately, there are a number of add-on products that will work with any existing controller of any brand.

ETwater’s Hermit Crab is one of those products. It is easy to install and works equally as well for residential and commercial installations, and it’s compatible with 50 different “host” controllers.

Irrigation controllers aren’t standardized like computers are. There’s no such thing as a USB-type “universal” port that all manufacturers use.

By putting all the protocols for the different “host” controllers into Hermit Crab’s microprocessor, the problem is solved. You can now connect to an existing controller through the remote access port using one of the six different supplied cables. These cables work with 50 different controllers.

The Hermit Crab uses the existing host controller’s electronics and power, and the units are portable. If you want to relocate the device to another site, you simply remove it, restore the host controller back to its original schedule, move the unit to its new site and plug it in.

Another add-on solution, Smart Works, for Rain Bird’s ESP-MC and ESP-SAT, takes these conventional controllers and converts them into smart controllers. When installed, it also adds flow monitoring capability to the system.

Both Hermit Crab and SmartWorks get their local weather information from WeatherBug, an Internet weather service. From that, they calculate ET. They both use the same software platform, ETwater Manager, accessible from any Internet-connected device. (The WeatherBug subscription is free, but there is a $199 per-year fee for access to ETwater Manager.) Through this, clients can access one dashboard and see what’s happening at a glance, across all of their sites. Manager now incorporates rainfall forecast data into its scheduling engine, allowing for automated suspension of irrigation before it rains.

Chris Husband, co-owner of Liquid Technologies, LLC in Phoenix, Arizona, is an irrigation contractor and consultant who concentrates on commercial renovation work. He describes himself as a “power user” of both Hermit Crab and SmartWorks replacement panels, because “the cost is right, and they’re user friendly. I can charge a couple of hundred bucks for an installation and spend less than twenty minutes actually doing it.”

Husband says he has been able to cut his clients’ water usage an average of thirty-five percent. Even more impressive to the client is the amount of money they have saved. “We just did a job in Scottsdale for a large commercial client, where we achieved forty-five to fifty percent water savings.

That translated to a savings of $40,000 for him in the first four months.”

“We started [doing] smart control about ten years ago,” said Steve Moore, CEO of Irrisoft in Logan, Utah. “Our very first product was an add-on device that eventually evolved into the Rain Bird ET Manager (which Irrisoft still manufactures for Rain Bird).

Irrisoft’s Controller Link can also be added to any conventional controller. It gets local weather information from the nearest Weather Reach tower. It’s accessible via any web-enabled device, such as a smartphone. The company claims they’ve made the web interface “smarter, more interactive and more intuitive,” with at-a-glance water usage information. It also claims that the unit has “documented water savings up to 70 percent.”

Water Logic’s O’Donnell is seeing about 40 percent water savings from the 1,000 or so Controller Link units he’s placed on large commercial sites. He especially likes the web interface. “You can bring it up online and see exactly what it has or has not done. Even better, it can email you so that you know immediately if there is an issue, like it hasn’t gotten the weather signal, or it’s shut down for another reason, maybe a freeze. That can be handy when you’ve got a client that’s calling you wanting to know what’s going on with his irrigation system.”

Moore feels that “what Irrisoft is doing with rain is what sets us apart.” Controller Link uses ET data combined with rainfall. “Rainfall is actually the more important (weather) measurement,” said Moore. He points out that, as you start moving east, or into the northwest, you get more annual rainfall. That is why Irrisoft decided to have Controller Link use total rainfall to manage irrigation, rather than a simple “rain-its-off, no rain-its on” kind of system.

Controller Link can receive rainfall information in three ways. One: from a remote weather station, a Weather Reach tower. Two: from Irrisoft’s own version of the “tipping bucket” rain sensor, or three: Irrisoft’s more elaborate “rain station.”

Irritrol, a division of The Toro Company, located in Riverside, California, has an add-on called Climate Logic. This can be attached to Irritrol’s Rain Dial-R, Total Control-R and KwikDial controllers. It is compatible with the newest generation of MC-E commercial controllers (the MC-E Blue series).

It also works with several Toro controllers, the TMC-212, TMC-424 and the Custom Command Series. With Climate Logic installed, these controllers become SWAT- and EPA WaterSensecertified.

Included with every Climate Logic unit is a weather sensor that communicates wirelessly with it. This reads the temperature, sunlight and rainfall. That data is combined with information from an included smart digital (SD) card containing 40 years of historical weather information, including average humidity and wind readings.

You plug in the SD card and enter the zip code. From this, Climate Logic calculates a “water budget” and irrigates accordingly. In case of battery failure in the sensor, Climate Logic will revert to 100 percent historical.

Michael N. Hofman is executive vice president of Janet Moyer Landscaping in San Francisco, California. He’s a California Landscape Contractors Association certified water manager, an Irrigation Association (IA) certified landscape irrigation auditor and IA certified irrigation contractor.

His company services residential clients, and he has installed 44 Climate Logic units in the past year. He likes them for several reasons; among them is the rain sensor. “It allows the units to respond immediately to rain events,” he says. He feels that the units are easier for clients to understand. In addition, Hofman says that his clients are saving water, too. “Most of our clients who are using Climate Logic have seen a twenty percent savings.”

You plug the unit into the existing controller’s remote port. Since this makes the remote port no longer available, a separate remote can be purchased. This is the only way to control the unit remotely, since it is not smart phone-accessible. Hofman’s company has programmed all of its clients’ Climate Logic units with the same remote codes, making it very easy to check valves for maintenance using these remotes.

What if you had a conventional controller that could eventually turn into a smart controller? This was the idea behind Toro’s new Evolution units, unveiled recently. The Evolution series begin as conventional residential irrigation controllers that, with the installation of additional modules, can “evolve” into smart controllers as the user wishes. If smart features aren’t desired, the basic unit can be used as just that—a basic, conventional con- troller. If smart features are desired, such as adding a soil/moisture sensor, an additional receiver for that sensor isn’t necessary. It’s already built into the unit.

Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California, has a whole series of add- on devices that smarten up conventional controllers. With the exception of the Mini-Clik and the Flow-Clik, most of them only work with Hunter controllers. Their names describe pretty much what they do. Rain-Clik, Wireless Rain-Clik and Mini-Clik are rain shutoff devices. Rain-Clik and Wireless Rain-Clik have a “Quick Response” feature that tells a controller to shut off immediately when rain starts.

Mini-Clik is a less expensive version of Rain-Clik. It shuts off irrigation when it detects that a pre-set level of rain has fallen. It can be installed on any automatic irrigation system.

Freeze-Clik automatically stops the flow of water when outdoor temperatures drop to near freezing. Wind-Clik shuts off systems during periods of high wind and automatically resets the system when conditions are more favorable. Both work with Hunter controllers.

Flow-Clik can be programmed to shut down irrigation if it detects a flow rate higher than the programmed limit. It works with all Hunter and most non-Hunter controllers. A more sophisticated flow control device from Hunter is Flow-Sync. It meters, and provides automatic reaction to high or low flow conditions. It is used with Hunter’s ACC and I-Core controllers.

Rain Bird has a number of add-on products, including ET Manager and ET Manager Cartridge. “ET Manager can be used with any company’s controllers,” said Sean Azad, product manager for Azusa, Californiabased Rain Bird.

It converts them from conventional to weather-and water-smart controllers.

The company claims that ET Manager helps to maintain the optimum moisture balance in your soil, allowing your controller to water only when needed. The technology is based on the standardized ET equation, and includes data from solar radiation, temperature, wind and humidity it receives from the nearest Weather Reach transmitting tower. (Weather Reach is a system of weather stations across the country. Access to this system requires a separate annual fee.) An optional onsite rain gauge is also available.

ET Manager uses something called “management-allowed depletion,” that allows the soil’s moisture balance to reach a user-set moisture level. The company claims that this allows less frequent but deeper watering, increasing oxygen and promoting deeper root systems.

Azad uses the “toilet paper roll” analogy to explain the concept. “You change a toilet paper roll once it’s empty, not when it’s at the halfway point, right?” Management-allowed depletion means you water only when the plant materials’ “roll” is empty, instead of restoring moisture daily.

ET Manager installs quickly. It can be used on both residential and large commercial applications. ET Manager Scheduler software is included at no extra charge.

The ET Manager Cartridge upgrades Rain Bird’s ESP-LXD and ESP- LXME conventional controllers to ET/weather-based smart controllers. It also gets weather information from Weather Reach.

Soil moisture, rain, freeze and flow sensors

There are other devices, other than what are essentially second controllers piggybacked onto existing conventional controllers. “People don’t think about soil sensors when it comes to add-on devices,” said Peter Lackner, product manager for Toro Irrigation.

“But a Precision Soil Sensor, (PSS), when added to a conventional controller, makes it smart.” And PSS units are compatible with any brand of controller.

The Precision Soil Sensors continuously measure moisture levels in the soil to determine when to allow controllers to water. Communication between sensor probes and receivers is completely wireless. No digging is required to install the sensors.

Weathermatic in Garland, Texas, makes the SLW5 Weather Station. This turns any Weathermatic-brand SmartLine conventional controller into an ET-based smart controller. The addition of a SmartLink aircard makes the controller accessible from any web-enabled device, including tablets and smartphones. “SmartLink is the single most successful product we’ve ever launched,” said CEO Mike Mason. It includes email alerts and real-time reporting to track your water savings and the ability to quickly adjust irrigation to comply with water restrictions and avoid fines.

A T-type flow sensor works by sending a square-wave digital pulse signal. It will work with some other brands of controllers, in addition to Weathermatic.

In Wexford, Pennsylvania, Tucor, Inc., has a brand new add-on device for 2013 called Hybrid 3D. It allows you to add a flow meter and master valve to an irrigation system without running wires back to the controller, especially useful for existing sites where hardscapes can be in the way. Plus, Hybrid 3D is compatible with any existing controller on the market.

Each 3D unit can operate one flow sensor, one master valve and up to 24 valves. Multiple 3D devices can be added to a controller. “Every irrigation controller that’s smart should be connected to a flow meter,” said Larry Sarver, Tucor president. Tucor also makes soil and moisture sensors for use with its controllers.

Converting conventional controllers over to smart control is easier than ever. There are a lot of different options available for both residential and commercial applications. Their relatively low cost and ease of installation make them very smart choices, for both you and your clients.