Sept. 16 2015 03:23 PM

Irrigation control is one of many automated processes now joining the Internet of Things. With the proliferation of WiFi-enabled controllers, the industry is entering a unique point in defining its market. There are two user groups—irrigation contractors, who have to manage complex irrigation systems, and homeowners, who don’t. The struggle to cater to both these users mirrors a similar period in the history of personal computing.

Sometime after the flourishing of the Internet, but before computers were pocket-sized, designers of operating systems were struggling to define a similarly fractured market. One answer, the iMac, offered the most user-friendly experience, but it was dumbed down, and more experienced users found it restrictive.

Another, Linux, offered the most power and flexibility, but only the very computer-savvy could use it.

Finally, there was Windows, which struck a happy balance between usability and power. A computer newbie could do simple tasks with a bit of trial and error, and an experienced user could customize nearly as much on a Windows machine as on a Linux.

Smart irrigation controllers are in much the same place now. Some are so complex that only contractors can manage them. Others are so focused on marketing to the property owner that they sacrifice functionality. What can contractors use when they need a smart irrigation controller that is friendly enough for the client, but customizable enough for the needs of the landscape?

This was the question that Alfred Dilluvio, general manager of AquaTurf Irrigation Systems LLC in Elmsford, New York, needed to answer. His client was a landscape designer, and her needs were specific. The landscape around her house had diverse plant material in multiple zones, and she didn’t want to have to take a trip to the basement every time she needed to adjust the controller.

“She was just tired of dealing with a counterintuitive product,” said Dilluvio. “She wanted to group certain zones and certain irrigation schedules together, and she wanted to be able to deliver those schedules easily and reliably, and when she needed to.” He showed her the Hydrawise controller, made sure she had sufficient WiFi signal to operate the device, installed it, and wiped his hands—job done.

So what makes this particular smart controller suited to this particular case? Well, there are a number of factors. Firstly, each controller has a serial number which both the client and the contractor can use to adjust the system. This means that clients who want to interact with their system can do so remotely from their phones.

Among other functions, they can toggle their system, set up new schedules and even irrigation designs, and save them online. Then, when the same client wants his contractor to handle any micromanaging, that contractor doesn’t have to bug the client for his login info.

Secondly, it has a clean, intuitive, user interface. Simple, customizable icons and a clear, legible font may not seem like a big deal to an irrigation contractor experienced with ET calculations. However, for an end-user who is used to tablet computing and his iPhone, it can make or break a sale. “I can potentially wow a new customer with it,” Dilluvio said. “Because it’s so easy to explain and teach somebody, they automatically feel empowered by it.”

Last, but not least, the Hydrawise controller has a couple of important hardware features; it comes with faulty-solenoid detection and manual controls. “There’s a traditional controller on the unit itself, which some smart controllers don’t have,” he said. “I like that, because a lot of times technicians are reluctant to embrace new technology.” The system can detect leaks before plants start to die, and run manually in the event of a WiFi outage.

But it isn’t all sunshine and roses. The Hydrawise controller doesn’t come with an outdoor version in the U.S., and can only withstand temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It is designed for a very specific market—clients who want a smart irrigation controller with a lot of power and control, that they can still interact with.

“The way they’ve allowed contractors and property owners to share access to a controller and make adjustments concurrently in real time, separates it from the competition,” said Dilluvio. “We’ve got about 50 of them installed.” For his clients, this controller is just the ticket.