During his tenure as a landscape manager in California's Marin and Sonoma counties, Tom Campbell noticed something alarming. The tremendous overuse of water in landscaping made him jump into action and start a new company dedicated to eliminating water in irrigation.

Now, as owner of Water Scout, Campbell runs a successful business built around applying the best technologies available for efficient irrigation. Among the most important technologies in his practice are irrigation controllers that can be operated via PC.

"My clients love this," says Campbell, who uses a web-based irrigation control system. "If they need to adjust their schedule or if they have a problem, I can help them at a moment's notice, as soon as I have access to a PC. Without this system, I'd have to schedule an appointment."

A web-based system is just one example of the way computer technology is putting science into efficient irrigation while taking the time and guesswork out. Computers are making it possible for water managers and property owners to operate their systems with just a few clicks of the mouse. Remote PC systems enable contractors to adjust irrigation schedules and monitor several properties without ever leaving the office. New products are also bringing computer control technology into the scope and price range of the homeowner.

The convenience and time-saving benefits are obvious, but one of the biggest advantages of these systems lies in water conservation. This is why Campbell got involved.

"Like a lot of places, water management is a big issue in Marin County," says Campbell. "Many consumers continue to think that water just comes from the tap, even if they're constantly reminded that there's a limited supply. I'm trying to educate people to show them that they can have their lush, beautiful gardens, but they can be practical about it. They don't have to waste water."

Computer-operated controllers are one key to this reduced waste because they make an easy task out of precise, flexible, plant-specific watering schedules. By combining a variety of smart technologies, they can help eliminate inefficiencies while delivering the optimum amount of moisture needed for beautiful landscapes.

Most computer-controlled systems have useful water management features built in. Some can be tailored to accommodate the specific plant needs, soil type, exposure, slope, and other conditions found at each zone. Many systems can be programmed to make automatic adjustments based on evapotranspiration (ET) data. ET controllers have been in use for a number of years and numerous studies have demonstrated that they help customers realize significant water savings. Combining this proven technology with an easy, convenient computer interface adds another level of savings.

Landscapes that rely on computer-controlled irrigation can achieve a number of benefits:

Healthier plantings -- systems can be programmed to match the specific watering needs of plants within a zone, promoting stronger plants with better drought resistance.

Dramatic water savings -- irrigation that is automatically and precisely tailored to the plant's needs and weather conditions dramatically reduces over-watering.

Reduced runoff -- irrigation schedules can be fine-tuned to deliver water at rates that match soil and plant uptake, thus eliminating runoff.

Easy system monitoring -- many systems have built-in monitoring features so water managers and customers can easily spot and quickly fix problems.

Reduced travel time -- irrigation specialists can greatly reduce the travel time and fuel costs associated with customer calls by making needed adjustments via computer.

One of the biggest advantages of many computerized systems is the ability for the computer to generate detailed reports that show not only historical data but also trouble spots. Some systems detect and immediately act on leaks and breaks and also send an automatic email to notify the manager.

PC control for all kinds of customers PC control comes in a variety of flavors. Large central control systems enable a single manager to operate several controllers from a single PC. These systems are designed for irrigation specialists who manage a number of different properties or for large organizations such as school districts, municipalities, or industries that have several irrigation sites under one management umbrella. With central control, one PC can remotely control all aspects of one or more controllers in the field.

A typical central control system includes a central computer, satellite controllers or decoders, weather stations and sensors, and a communication system to keep everything connected. Central systems use a variety of communication methods to relay instructions to controllers and return feedback to the controlling computer. Hard-wire phone modem, cellular, radio, fiber-optics, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi are among the technologies used. The exact method will partly depend on whether the controlling PC is located remotely or on-site.

3.jpgRain Bird's Maxicom2 system, designed for multi-site commercial and municipal irrigation management, allows for control of hundreds of sites from one central computer. This system uses a central controller stationed at a primary location along with several cluster-control units that communicate to satellite controllers in the field. These cluster-control units serve as field computers that relay commands to satellite controllers, monitor site conditions, make schedule changes as needed, and then report irrigation data back to the central controller.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rain Bird's new IQ system allows irrigation managers to offer multi-site central control to smaller commercial customers and highend residences. With this system, a computer using MS Windows-compatible software connects by wire or wireless to multiple satellite controllers.

Web-based controllers like Rain Master's iCentral and ET Water's Smart Controller allow contractors and customers to manage their irrigation from anywhere as long as they have PC access. With these systems, controllers in the field communicate with a central server via the Internet. Users log into a website with a user name and password and manage their irrigation system using an intuitive user-friendly interface.

"It's a fantastic, easy-to-use tool," says Campbell of ET Water's system. "My ten-year-old can do it. If someone calls me up to say, 'I'm putting in my vegetables now,' or 'I've re-sodded an area,' I can set up their watering program from my computer. If they're using a controller that's not web-based, that usually means I have to make a long drive."

Both iCentral and the ET Water web-based controllers feature a number of water management features, including weather-based watering schedules. Rainfall and ET adjustments can be made automatically, based on zip code-specific weather data collected from local weather stations.

iCentral uses a completely wireless communication system. A communications card is added to a Rain Master Eagle smart controller, enabling it to communicate with the Internet. A modest monthly service plan provides two-way communication and access to the iCentral website. "Contractors should see this as an investment, not an expense, because of the potentially excellent return on investment," says Steve Springer, vice president of marketing with Rain Master. "For less than $15 a month, they can have a two-way internet connection that provides access to each controller from their PC and automatically updates the ET value every twenty-four hours.

Contractors can't get in their truck, drive across town, and deal with an on-site controller even once a month for that cost. Rain Master also offers its high-end Oasis system for multi-site commercial and municipal use.

Providing the correct amount of water in mixed plant settings can be a challenge. In many landscapes, plantings with lower moisture requirements are often over-watered to allow for the highest need plantings on the property. Both iCentral and the ET Water web-based system allow users to enter a landscape profile for each station. Data related to sprinkler type, plant type, slope, sun exposure, and soil type are all entered to create a customized profile for each zone. The system can then be tailored to respond differently to the needs of each area.

ET Water offers a residential program that can control up to sixteen stations and a commercial version that manages up to forty-eight stations. "If you're a large landscape contractor, you can log on from anywhere and get a report on anything that's happening on any one of your sites," says Steve Snow of ET Water. "This is very important from a customer service standpoint. If a customer calls to report trouble, you don't have to go and check it out. You can look at the specific zone from your own computer, make adjustments and let the customer know instantly what the problem is, and what will be done, or has been done, to correct it."

Irritrol's PC Control is another affordable PC-based product for the residential consumer. With this system, an Irritrol controller is installed in the garage and communicates via wire or wirelessly to the end-user's PC. The controller can also be managed with a hand-held remote by either the homeowner or a maintenance contractor. Although the program is housed on the user's PC, not on the web, it can be accessed when the customer is traveling or at work through remote-access products like GoTo-MyPC or Symantec's PC Anywhere. Irritrol's Scheduling Advisor can be activated to assist in scheduling based on the local forecast along with the landscape profile of the particular zone. "The system will go out to Weather.com for the forecast for the user's zip code," says Keith Shepersky, senior product marketing manager for Irritrol. "You can set up the system to reprogram itself daily to adapt to the forecast."

Irritrol's system is designed to meet the needs of various types of clients. It can be installed by an irrigation professional and operated entirely by the end user, or it can be adjusted as needed on an ongoing basis by a maintenance contractor via remote control. Users and irrigation specialists can also send their programs via the Internet. "Contractors and clients can troubleshoot the system with a few easy questions over the phone or clients can email their data and schedule to the contractor who can then look at it, update it, and send it back."

"More consumers are already doing their banking and shopping by computer," says Shepersky. "This is perfect for those customers who are already using their PC and who are smart about water conservation."

PC-based irrigation control is doing more than watering in the landscape. Many computer-based controllers can also be used to operate outdoor lighting, fountains, gates, and other components of the landscape. Through a partnership with EZ-Flo, ET Water is also offering desktop control of fertigation.

Manufacturers like Calsense, Hunter Industries, Motorola, and Baseline are giving water managers and property owners at all levels a chance to conveniently and scientifically water their landscapes with precision and efficiency with PC-based controllers. This is one thing that makes Tom Campbell very happy in his mission to curb irrigation inefficiency.

"When I started in this business, some people said I was a dreamer," says Campbell. "They said, 'No one will care.' But I care. It's been a great learning experience for me, and it has given me a great opportunity to teach others."