We’ve all seen the commercials: “Alexa, play ‘It’s Raining Tacos.’” My favorite one showed a dad using a home hub device to turn the sprinklers and outdoor floodlights on, surprising a teenaged swain sneaking to his daughter’s bedroom window.
I don’t own one of these gizmos yet, partly because I’m not sure which one to buy — Amazon Echo? Google Home? Samsung SmartThings? One of the other dozens of options? Much of the public is in this same quandary.
It can be hard — especially for those of us over 15 — to keep up with all this burgeoning new technology. It was just a few short years ago that we started being able to buy smart controllers that scheduled irrigation based on weather information they received over the internet. Now those controllers are being integrated into the IoT or Internet of Things.
Some of these smart controllers had a bit of a learning curve, so some homeowners and caretakers of commercial properties set them back to being “dumb” timers again, irrigating by the clock, defeating the entire purpose of smart irrigation. They were also more expensive than the old controllers.
In 2014, things started to change yet again. Rachio, Skydrop, and a few other inexpensive, simple Wi-Fi-enabled irrigation controllers hit the market. They didn’t come from the established irrigation companies and were marketed straight to consumers.
The irrigation manufacturers responded by coming out with their own Wi-Fi enabled smart controllers, and a revolution had begun.
“That’s one of the things that’s unique about this,” says Chris Pine, CID, CIC, CLWM, CLIA, CIT, MCLP, CLVLT, president of BluGreen Solutions and a partner in IrriTech Training, Pocasset, Massachusetts.
“It’s a major shift in end-user demand that’s driven something in our industry. These companies had a platform that was very appealing to the end user” ... and some contractors.
Taylor Cicala, owner of ValleyScape Irrigation & Landscape Lighting Solutions, Murrieta, California, loves Wi-Fi controllers. “I’m of the younger generation (he’s in his 30s), and I love having that flexibility.”
As a Rachio installer, he’s found that these units and others like them do what smart controllers are supposed to do, which is cut water use. “We did a study with our local water agency where we installed Rachios on five high-water-use sites and we found some huge savings.”
One question that dogged me when I first started exploring this subject was that we’ve had smart irrigation controllers for some time, even ones with smartphone interfaces — so what’s the big whoop now that they’re Wi-Fi?
Cicala answers: “It’s the ease of use. Yes, we’ve seen these capabilities before on older smart controllers, but they were complicated, and nobody liked dealing with them. These new Wi-Fi controllers take all that functionality and make it simple.”
Connectivity and how to get it
Smart controllers connect to the internet either through Wi-Fi, cellular phone cards (that often come with annual fees) or a 900 MHz bridge. The Wi-Fi revolution hasn’t gotten rid of those other methods, mainly because Wi-Fi signals have limited range, about 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors.
“Wi-Fi, cellular and 900 MHz all have different characteristics that are appropriate for the different types of installations,” says Pine. “Wi-Fi isn’t always readily available in all the places a controller might be, outdoors, or in a garage or basement. It’s going to require something to boost that signal.”
Mike Garcia, owner and founder of Enviroscape L.A., Redondo Beach, California, has experienced this. “It’s happened on a couple of jobs, especially by the beach, where a lot of my clients are — the Wi-Fi signal there may not be the best.”
“We’ve had clients with three-level houses where we’ve had to put Wi-Fi boosters on each level because the signal is so weak, it won’t go outside of the house or reach the controller.”
This is why Toro has chosen another method.
“We always ask, ‘where is the Wi-Fi router in your home?’” says Matt Hall, product marketing manager for controllers, Toro Irrigation, Riverside, California. “Inside the house, right? But where’s your irrigation controller? It’s outside.”
Toro has decided to use, with its Smart Logic controllers, a proprietary 900 MHz radio technology with about three times greater range than Wi-Fi.
The legacy problem
A major consideration for the “bigs” such as Toro, Rain Bird, Hunter and others is what to do about the many older controllers that are still in use. Could they be retrofitted for smartphone connectivity? The answer seems to be mostly “yes.”
“People don’t necessarily have to buy new controllers,” says Hall. “There are hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of Irritrol Rain Dials (Irritrol is a Toro brand) on people’s walls.
“But with our Climate Logic, I can turn that 10-year-old unit into a smart clock. And I can also add Smart Logic to it. It’s backward compatible to any blue-faced Irritrol controller that’s out in the world today. We’ve made sure all of our devices are backward-compatible.” And Smart Logic is compatible with Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Rain Bird has taken the modular approach. In 2016, it made its ESP-Me model Wi-Fi-upgradeable with the addition of the LNK Wi-Fi module.
Its ESP-TM2 fixed station controllers are also Wi- Fi enabled when combined with the LNK Wi-Fi module. It allows connectivity to smart home devices from Amazon and Alarm.com.
“The response to LNK by the market has been phenomenal,” says Nick Kelsch, senior product manager, controllers, for Rain Bird Corp., Azusa, California. “Contractors love the subscription fee — there is none — and the ability to make a remote service call without ever leaving their trucks or offices.”
Landscape Management Service, West Jordan, Utah, has been installing Rain Bird products for more than 20 years on commercial properties. “The thing I like about their Wi-Fi stick (the LNK module) is the simplicity of it and the ability to control everything from your phone,” says Brad Curtis, senior project manager.
“It’s pretty slick, easy to operate and set up. You download the app, then link to your internet connection. In minutes you’ve got it set up and labeled, and you’re able to access a sprinkler system from the palm of your hand. You can be anywhere in the world and control irrigation.”
One way to get into the Wi-Fi technology game is to buy a company that already has it. That’s the main reason Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California, acquired Hydrawise in May 2016.
Hydrawise, founded in 2011 by an Australian IT expert and entrepreneur, claims to have had the first Wi-Fi-enabled controller on the market. “The days when you had to buy a big central controller for a commercial site for $10,000, those days are gone,” says Anthony Long, product manager for Hydrawise. “Now you can control all the irrigation for under $1,000 with all the same bells and whistles the expensive system had. Wi-Fi has given us cheap access to the internet.”
As he explains it, in older central control systems, a modem would “call” each controller; 20 controllers meant 20 phone calls and the airtime charges. Wi- Fi lets an irrigation manager monitor hundreds of controllers at once for what his internet access costs.
Hunter’s expanded on the original Hydrawise platform. Its controllers are compatible with Amazon Alexa smart voice control and Control4. A Hydrawise controller can activate the PX power transformer on an FXLuminaire (another Hunter company) low-voltage lighting system.
Which brings us to smart irrigation control and its integration with smart home hubs and the IoT.
Smart hubs and the Internet of Things
What is a “smart hub?” It’s the thing that allows you to talk to all of the wirelessly connected devices in your home; the door locks, motion sensors and more, and lets them talk to each other.
High-dollar custom home automation systems have been around for some time. But hubs, and voice assistants that act as hubs, are only around $100. The Wi-Fi revolution has made home automation accessible to ordinary homeowners.
Not every IoT device communicates using the same wireless standard, so we have a bit of a Tower of Babel out there. There’s Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Zigbee and some others, all using different frequencies.
We don’t yet have a universal translator for all of those signals. Happily, most hubs are compatible with a few standards. Samsung SmartThings and Wink 2 hubs, for instance, can understand not only Wi-Fi but also Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave.
Will one standard eventually become dominant? Maybe, or things may also evolve to where every hub device is a little C-3PO, a translator droid able to understand any number of different Wi-Fi protocols.
“A lot of the big players are racing to be the smarthome platform to be on,” says Erik Petrek, marketing lead, consumer acquisition at Rachio, Denver. “Right now it’s a bit of an arms race to see who’s going to win. And you have the likes of Amazon in that race, Apple, Google, massive tech companies with lots of sway and plenty of budget to push things with.
“A lot of manufacturers like ourselves are ‘agnostic,’ meaning that we integrate with everything; Alexa, Google, and IFTTT (If This, Then That, the technology that allows a smart thermostat to assume there’s a fire and tell the irrigation system to come on). “We’re also compatible with smart home platforms like Crestron, Control4 and IControl.”
What does this mean for the contractor? Wi-Fi is here to stay, and until the next big sea change comes along — Vulcan telepathic control? The Force? — it seems logical to offer Wi-Fi enabled controllers to one’s clients. “What everyone wants nowadays is for everything to work from their phone,” says Curtis. People have come to expect that.
Yes, we’ve had smart control for years, but Wi-Fi enabled controllers add the “sexiness” of smartphone and home-hub voice control. And some of those new gizmos look really cool and hi-tech on one’s wall.
As Brian Moran, owner and president of American Lawn Sprinkler Inc., Dryden, Michigan, puts it, “There are a lot of homes being built now, and they’re being set up as smart homes, with automatic lights, cameras, all that stuff. This (Wi-Fi enabled irrigation) goes hand-in-hand with that.”
Contractors are seeing the benefits of Wi-Fi. As Curtis says, “Wi-Fi has been an easy solution for us with the real estate developments we manage. It can be hard to get on a property at times, so being able to adjust things from our phones made life a lot easier.”
Wi-Fi’s utility keeps expanding. “Wi-Fi flow sensing is gaining steam,” says Pine. “Being able to monitor the amount of water moving through a system was never even close to being cost effective for a residence. Wi-Fi has made that possible.”
“Irrigation contractors have been after us to develop wireless flow sensors and meters so they don’t have to run so much cable,” says Long.
Pine says that contractors should recognize the new world of Wi-Fi connectivity for the great opportunity it represents. “Being able to remotely access and monitor their client’s irrigation systems is huge, and it’s where the new frontier is.”
So, saddle up! The new frontier awaits.
Smart or vulnerable?
When a story hit the news about an Amazon Echo device having recorded a couple’s private conversation and sent it to one of the people on their contact list, it gave people pause about home automation. People also worry that Wi-Fi hubs could give hackers access to personal information and passwords through their smart devices.
“Consumers unfortunately have good reason to be worried about IoT security,” says Nicole Hayward, cofounder and chief marketing officer of Minim, a home network security and management company. “Last year, a smart sprinkler system in Manchester, New Hampshire was caught exchanging data packets with an entity in Latvia at an IP address that’s been cited in abuse databases.”
The security firm Symantec found a 600 percent increase in overall IoT attacks from 2016 to 2017. The growing number of connected devices in the home is described as a growing 'attack surface.’
“Smart homes face external issues such as botnet formation, identity theft, ransomware and router compromises, as well as internal issues, such as unpatched devices, malware and one compromised device attacking another,” says Hayward. “So, yes, it's unfortunately possible that your connected devices are spying on you.”
A spokesperson for Google says that all the devices that come with the Google Assistant are designed with privacy in mind. “Google only stores voice-based queries received immediately after recognizing the hotwords 'OK Google’ or 'Hey Google.' We’re constantly updating and improving our security measures to ensure that consumers are safe.”
And an Amazon spokesperson says that “Echo devices are not always listening and recording conversations; the devices listen for the wake word and only the wake word (Alexa, Echo, Computer, Amazon). Whenever Echo devices are streaming voice interactions to the cloud, customers see a visual indicator (the blue light ring on top of the device). All Echo devices have multiple layers of built-in privacy protections.”
The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.