Remote irrigation control for everyone

The units made by these startup companies work this way: the user or contractor picks up his smartphone or tablet device and inputs information about the landscape, such as soil types, sun/shade, slope, plant and sprinkler types, and so forth. This information goes through the hub to the Internet and is stored in the Cloud.

This data is then coordinated with ET-based weather information from local weather stations, also through the Internet. The unit then schedules irrigation accordingly, although the times and days can be changed, such as when watering restrictions have been mandated.

You may be thinking, “That’s a description of smart irrigation control. We can already do all of those things now, and we’ve been doing them for years.” That’s correct.

“The mere fact that a controller is connected via a smartphone or through the Internet isn’t what makes a controller ‘smart,’” said Wascher. “A smart controller, as defined by the EPA’s WaterSense program, is one that makes adjustments to irrigation scheduling, in order to compensate for various weather conditions.”

Jones said that Toro has had remote-control capability on the commercial side in a number of ways, through cellular or Ethernet connections, and the emphasis on Wi-Fi is just pushing it down to the homeowner level. Is there a true demand from homeowners for a Wi-Fi connected controller? He thinks that remains to be seen.

“Most people want to forget about their irrigation controller. They don’t even want to know it’s there; they just want to know that it’s doing its job. Tell me when there’s a problem, but other than that, I’d rather not even deal with it.”

There are all different kinds of customers, and Jones concedes that the more ‘techie’ type of person may want the ability to ‘play’ with his irrigation settings, just as he plays with his HVAC or lighting system. “There will be a residential market for this, undoubtedly, and I think it’ll be a market that will grow, but probably much slower than what some people are thinking.”

Tony Dilluvio, owner of Elmswood, New York-based Aqua-Turf Irrigation Systems, has been working with NEST, focusing on his higher-end, more tech-savvy customers.

“What I like about this smart-home technology is that installing one of these Wi-Fi-enabled controllers gets me into a customer’s home. Once I’m in there, I can sell them on a landscape lighting system, or some other service.”

About a year ago, AquaTurf started researching smart irrigation controllers from ten companies, and settled on three: ETwater (based in Novato, California) Rachio (Denver, Colorado) and Hydrawise (Australia). “They all make smart controllers that are ET-based, connected to the Internet and several weather stations,” said AquaTurf’s general manager Alfred Dilluvio. “They all allow you to manage irrigation schedules from any web-based application platform.”

The feedback from customers has been positive. Many of them have never had smart control before. “They love that it’s no longer a system of dials and knobs. I’m excited from both a money-saving and a conservation standpoint.”

What about contractors? What’s their reaction? Initially, Jeff Welch, vice president of business development at H2O Designs, LLC, Vancouver, Washington, chose one of the startup Wi-Fi units for his residential clients, mainly because of its simplicity. But what he really likes now is that it makes his small company work like a big one.

“There are one-and-a-half people in my company. We do about $1.1 million a year in annual revenue. People ask, ‘So how do you manage to work in all 50 states?’ “If I didn’t have this type of technology, I could only be a local contractor,” explained Welch.

“Now, I’m a national contractor. I manage controllers on homes I’ve never even been to. I can see and manage 500 controllers remotely from a laptop, an iPad, a smartphone, from wherever I am, even 30,000 feet in the air.”

But don’t other smart and central-control systems already have that capability? “Yes, commercial-type controllers for large complexes and lots of zones,” answers Welch. “Up until now, homeowner units never had that ability.”

For Zack Williams, owner of Regenesis Ecological Designs in Ashland, Oregon, an environmental landscape, irrigation and design/build firm, the remote-control aspect is also key. “I don’t have to dispatch someone to drive to a home and spend fifteen minutes fiddling around in a garage when I need to make changes.”

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