The contractor’s role

Many contractors are not very tech-savvy. Some are only now beginning to really understand smart control. Even the ones who do understand it are going to need some time to catch up to the brave new world of smart-home technology.

When and if smart irrigation does become fully integrated into smart-home control, it’s the contractors

who’ll be on the front lines. Yet the startup companies began by marketing directly to consumers. That strategy seems to be changing, as they discover that contractors are the main conduit to the customers they seek. “They’re finding out that the homeowner market isn’t catching on as much as they’d hoped,” opined Jones.

Joe Jackson manages the water management division at Salt Lake City, Utah-based Sprinkler Supply Company. He says that even though these new controllers are being touted as “DIY” products, it’s mostly contractors who are buying and installing them. “A homeowner will say, ‘Mr. Contractor, I want to have one of these Wi-Fi units; please install it for me.’” Rachio has started reaching out to irrigation and landscape contractors. “We know that the bulk of the market is to the pros, and we’re actively recruiting them,” said Ric Miles, the person in charge of the company’s business development and strategy.

Some of these companies have developed portals just for professionals, to enable them to view and manage all the units under an account. One of them has even started sending contractors business leads. When customers come to its website looking for installers, they’re directed to member contractors.

The new companies seem fated to make plenty of missteps. “The people behind these new startups are techies who don’t know the irrigation business, and I think it’s going to take them a long time to learn it,” said Palmer. He added that since his company—which is also a relatively new startup—had to go through the learning curve, these companies will too, probably to an even greater degree.

Will annual fees go away?

The startups use the fact that they don’t charge annual subscription fees for access to their Internet-based weather information as a selling point. That may not be sustainable for them, however.

“There is no subscription fee at this time, but we don’t know if we will have one in the future,” said Clay Kraus, director of professional programs for Rachio. “The only way we would have a fee is if there was some kind of value to it.”

Mack Dalley, a product developer for Lehi, Utah-based Skydrop, says that the company is looking at making its product a little more ‘robust’ for contractor use. “As we develop more features that would allow them to have better reporting, then we’ll develop some packages that may have a yearly subscription fee.”

Jones says these companies may find themselves having to eventually charge fees for a number of reasons. There’s the cost for upkeep of online databases, and for access to outside servers. And developers have to be kept on salary.

Fees may be a stumbling block for a residential customer, but a few hundred dollars a year is not a big deal for the manager of a large commercial account. The fees are usually more than offset by the savings.

It may be that access fees eventually disappear for home smart controllers, but remain for commercial systems.

What about commercial systems?

Will Wi-Fi-based smart controllers ever be found running the sprinkler systems in corporate parks or condo developments? Chris Manchuck, senior vice president of sales and cofounder of Petaluma, California-based HydroPoint Data Systems, Inc., thinks not.

“There’s definitely an inherent scalability issue with the Wi-Fi solution versus cellular. Lots of high value, high-touch, critical services use the cellular network. You don’t see those types of things on Wi-Fi just yet because of those issues.”

Because cellular is more robust, and operates outside of a firewall, its reliability is more controllable. With Wi-Fi, you have to depend on a network being up and a large number of ever-changing passwords. And since Wi-Fi only has a range of 200 to 300 feet, you may need a whole new infrastructure, a network of repeaters.

In opting for simplicity, the startups may have sacrificed some of the more sophisticated functionality that managers of large commercial systems need and want. “Some of our branches have demo-tested some Rachio units,” said Eric Santos, vice president of irrigation services for ValleyCrest/Brickman (soon to be rebranded as BrightView). “I’ve personally tried Skydrop.”

How did he find the experience?

“Frustrating. Compared to smart-control products we’ve used in the past, it just didn’t have the capability and flexibility of other products that have been around for a long time.”

What was missing for him? Being able to drill down into very specific aspects of zone characteristics, for one. The ability to fine-tune and make adjustments to precipitation rates of various types of sprinkler heads, for another.

For now, most of the Wi-Fi controller companies are making products that can only control up to 16 zones. As for the commercial market, “That’s off our radar right now; we’re really trying to hit the masses here,” said Miles.

Smart-home technology might eventually embrace smart irrigation control. Presently, the relationship is in the courtship stage. Things are changing rapidly; we’ll just have to stay tuned to see what happens.

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