Oct. 26 2018 06:00 AM

Irrigation, landscape and landscape maintenance contractors need to keep up with new trends in technology to see what the future has in store for their businesses.

The green industry has certainly come a long way during the 24 years that I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of it. It’s amazing to see how technology has influenced its direction.

Irrigation controllers, for example. The days of electromechanical time-based irrigation controllers like the Rain Bird RC-7 are certainly in the past. When these controllers first came out, they were ahead of their time, and were well-made, with many of them literally lasting a lifetime. But when it comes to managing water efficiently, they couldn’t provide the level of sophistication that’s available today.

Today’s irrigation controllers, often referred to as “smart,” incorporate intelligent functions such as utilizing weather and/or soil moisture sensor data to properly schedule irrigation frequency and runtimes. Products such as Hunter’s Hydrawise platform, Rain Bird’s ESP-Me with LNK

Wi-Fi Module, Toro’s Evolution, Weathermatic’s Smart- Line and others are now the norm in most distribution stores, including Ewing Irrigation and Landscape Supply.

Baseline Inc.’s BaseStation controller platforms and soil moisture sensors are being used by municipalities and high-profile green roof projects like the one at the Facebook corporate campus in Menlo Park, California. The Internet of Things has found its way into irrigation controllers, and they can now be accessed and run remotely from your cell phone, tablet or laptop.

On the residential level, home automation systems have integrated the irrigation controller, tying it into popular home hub products equipped with artificial intelligence assistants such as Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod and Google Home, to name a few.

The way we irrigate turfgrass and large landscape beds has also changed dramatically. While plenty of spray bodies are still around, water-saving precision nozzles and high-efficiency rotating nozzles producing multiple streams of water are available now, along with sophisticated low-volume and drip irrigation options.

The evolution of technology in irrigation

Granted, technology isn’t perfect, especially early on. Anyone who’s been around a while may remember what happened when low-flow water-saving toilets were first introduced; you often had to flush them twice! It didn’t take long, however, before they worked the bugs out.

Now it’s standard technology, and municipalities all over North America are requiring that new toilets must have the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense certification before they can be installed because they really do save water.

Smart irrigation controllers also had their share of challenges, especially when they were first introduced; overwatering was very common.

The Irrigation Association’s Smart Water Application Technologies initiative, begun in 2002, involved a coalition of water purveyors, equipment manufacturers and irrigation professionals. One of the first priorities was to develop testing protocols for weather-based irrigation controllers. These testing protocols determine if a weather-based controller deserves to wear the WaterSense label.

After many installations and lots of experience, landscape professionals helped irrigation equipment manufacturers work out the bugs in their weather-based irrigation controllers and dramatically improved their performance.

Smart irrigation controllers are much more prevalent in the marketplace today, available from all the major irrigation equipment manufacturers and the many new companies that have joined the space.

In fact, many water purveyors are offering rebates for the installation of smart irrigation controllers and even are paying for the entire cost of the equipment and installation in some instances.

Hitting the mainstream media

Smart controllers are popping up on product review websites outside of our industry and are even hitting the mainstream media. Recently, Wirecutter posted reviews of smart controllers and chose one as “The Best Smart Sprinkler Controller.” This goes to show that smart irrigation technology is getting a lot of traction at the consumer level.

Another consumer trend that’s heating up is leak detection. There are several new products on the market that can provide a homeowner peace of mind by notifying him of a leak, and in some cases, will shut the water off until it can be resolved.

Leak detection technology that uses the cloud can provide instant notification when a leak event occurs. These products grew out of the sort of leak detection equipment that used to be available only to irrigation professionals.

All these advancements are bringing irrigation needs and capabilities to the attention of homeowners and other consumers. There’s been a slight shift in the market as more consumers make specific irrigation product purchases through their contractors or try to go the do-it-yourself route. Happily, those choosing the latter option are still a minority.

Important role for irrigation professionals

Regardless of technological improvements, smart products can never replace trained irrigation professionals who understand the importance of proper irrigation system design, installation and maintenance. I like to think of irrigation best practices as a three-legged stool — if one leg is missing, the stool will fall over.

A poorly designed irrigation system, even if installed properly, will not perform efficiently. Even a well-designed, properly installed irrigation system will lose efficiency and no longer perform properly if it doesn’t receive regular maintenance.

If you’re an irrigation professional who wants a way to stand out from the crowd, consider becoming certified by organizations such as the Irrigation Association.

The function of landscapes is transforming as well, not as much as the result of technology, but in terms of the benefits they provide.

It was more common in the past to view landscaping as something that enhances the aesthetics of an outdoor area, but this is changing. Now, it’s become just as important to show how outdoor green spaces benefit the overall ecosystem. Landscape professionals need to be able to articulate what those benefits are.

In the paper he co-wrote with Madeline W. Dickson, Dr. Charlie Hall, professor and Ellison Chair at the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University, discusses the many economic and other benefits that landscapes provide.

Some of these benefits, he admits, are a bit abstract and intangible, such as reduced health care costs, increased beautification and visual appeal. But the economic benefits landscapes bestow are indeed tangible, including boosting room occupancy rates and other tourism revenues, creating jobs, increasing property values and reducing the need for street repairs.

Additionally, according to the EPA, “introducing green infrastructure to supplement the existing gray infrastructure can promote urban livability and add to communities’ bottom lines.”

One example is the ability to treat stormwater on-site instead of piping it away to a storm sewer, which used to be the only option. In many cities, sewer systems are overwhelmed during significant rain events, at times causing massive amounts of property-damaging overflow.

But when a landscape is used as a green infrastructure, it keeps the stormwater on-site where it can eventually percolate down to the groundwater or at least, slows its flow. This benefits both property owners and municipalities.

Technology disruptions

When was the last time you were in an actual taxicab? Ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft have changed how we get around the cities we travel to and live in. It's a great example of how technology can disrupt business practices.

Taking that one step further, with the self-driving car rapidly becoming a reality, automobile manufacturers are investing in that technology or are working on it with other car manufacturers. These innovations are not just impactful within their own industries but across all business verticals.

Just look at smartphone apps and how they’ve led to disruption in the automobile market. Teenagers aren’t anxious to buy cars anymore — or even get driver’s licenses — because they’re able to get transportation whenever they need it using an app to access ridesharing services.

These same innovations are trending in the green industry, and they’re not limited to the ability to manage one’s smart controller through an app. On-demand services for lawn mowing and snow removal have been around since 2012, and more are on the way. Within minutes, consumers receive bids from landscape maintenance companies interested in providing their services. It won’t be long before someone jumps on the idea of requesting irrigation repairs the same way.

Not just for Amazon

There are other surprising ways technology is impacting the green industry. Drones, for instance. They’re not just for delivering Amazon packages or taking breathtaking videos from the sky anymore. With the continued advancement of drone technology — and the cost of drones coming down, they’re increasingly being used to help farmers and golf course turf managers visually monitor crop or turf quality and observe moisture patterns in the soil.

Not only does a drone give one a bird’seye view of a site, but the information it gathers can be used to make irrigation and soil management decisions. It may not be long before this technology finds its way into residential yards and landscapes.

Earlier this year, Toro made an investment in GreenSight Agronomics, a drone company that provides dynamic mapping, nutrient and moisture monitoring for golf courses and agricultural crops. The drones provide thermal maps of a site, displaying surface temperatures, thus helping a turf manager or farmer make better watering decisions.

In addition, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index imagery can graphically detect plant health issues, often before they’re noticeable by the human eye.

This precision data insight makes it easier to avoid large-scale losses of plant material. One day, drones could even provide a simpler way of performing residential and commercial soil moisture audits.

Ultimately, the information gathered by drones will be integrated into smart irrigation controllers to help make irrigation schedules even more accurate. While this is not yet available today, I wouldn’t be surprised if this technology hits the market within the next few years.

Technology will continue to claim more territory in the green industry; it’s no longer a question of if but of when. The only question is, how will you adapt your business to take advantage of all the benefits that technology can offer?

Warren Gorowitz is vice president of sustainability for Ewing Irrigation and Landscape Supply, Phoenix, where he oversees all sustainability initiatives nationwide and is also responsible for Ewing’s Sustainable Solutions products and services. He also serves as president of the Irrigation Association.

The power of IoT-enabled sensors

Today, everything from wristwatches and cars to home appliances and industrial machinery is “alive,” able to talk to us like never before. It may sound like magic, but it’s actually the Internet of Things — the network of physical objects that are connected to the internet to collect and communicate data.

Sensors provide the link between the object and the internet. Although different IoT companies use different hardware, the sensors can be as small as a credit card or even a silver dollar. Different sensors measure different things, such as moisture, movement, temperature and countless other metrics. They are embedded with self-contained electronic circuitry that collects the sensor’s data and then sends the data to a mobile device or computer via the cloud. Each circuit board has its own power source and can communicate with other sensors as well as the software program that analyzes data.

Some IoT companies, such as Atomation, use edge computing, which provides three main benefits. One, data is preserved in the event of a power outage or other catastrophe. Two, edge computing allows only abnormal data points to be communicated, saving users from sifting through thousands of data points. Three, it prevents battery drain on the sensor, prolonging its lifespan.

To put it simply, the sensor and its circuitry work together to deliver data that businesses use to increase efficiency and facilitate predictive maintenance. An irrigation company, for instance, might install IoT-enabled sensors in the ground to measure moisture levels. The data collected from the sensors would tell company operators exactly how much water was needed and would prevent employees from having to manually check the ground — no more guesswork required. It would also prevent the company from wasting water.

Of course, it is no new trick for landscape and irrigation firms to use sensors to detect moisture. But the difference between analog and IoT-enabled sensors is similar to the difference between having a home answering machine and carrying a smartphone in your pocket: they both collect data, but the smartphone is so much more, a powerful tool putting valuable information at your fingertips and fitting seamlessly into your day.

Consider Atomation’s work with an international agriculture firm. Before partnering with Atomation, the company had analog sensors installed in its greenhouses. These required manual data extraction, leaving a wide margin for error. With IoT-enabled sensors, there are fewer mistakes and the business has seen yields increase by 20 percent and operating costs decrease by 20 percent.

IoT-enabled sensors are cutting-edge tech, but reaping the benefits is within reach for even small irrigation companies. Many IoT platforms are customizable, scalable and offer complete integration solutions. Many also operate under a platform as a service model, which makes integration cost-effective and quick.

By Guy Weitzman, CEO and co-founder of Atomation, with U.S. headquarters in St. Louis. More information is available at www.atomation.net.

Partnering with tech

Want to check out some of the app-based lawn maintenance services mentioned in the article? If these companies are available in your area, you might want to consider how to partner with them as an avenue for capturing new customers.

• serves 12 different metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago
• offers mowing and weeding services
• works with more than 10,000 businesses
• new vendors can join for free

• serves 7 different cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia
• offers access to lawn care, gardening services, pressure washing for decks and patios, irrigation and snow and ice services
• provides robust FAQs for customers

Plowz & Mowz
• serves 24 different metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis
• offers access to lawn and yard care, trimming and pruning, overseeding, power washing, haul-away and snow removal services
• easy for contractors to sign up