May 28 2019 06:00 AM

Smartphone-friendly irrigation controllers are rapidly changing the way we manage irrigation.

Attention: Your smartphone is getting smarter. Already, the number of devices it can control is staggering. It can start your coffee maker, lock your front door, adjust your thermostat, turn off your lights and yes, even begin cooking a delicious roast in your slow cooker, all with a few taps on its screen. It’s all part of a giant technological wave that is just beginning to hit us.

That wave is called the “internet of things,” or IoT. Simply put, the IoT is the connection of everyday objects to the internet and to one another. The idea behind the IoT is to make life easier by providing users with smarter, more efficient ways to do everyday things.

The IoT is gaining traction as more and more individuals begin to adopt this technology — and more and more home appliances come right out of the box already compatible with one or more home hub systems.

Smart irrigation controllers are no exception; they’re being increasingly integrated into the IoT as well. The ones that already use Wi-Fi to connect to the internet and receive weather information or “talk” to soil moisture, rain and flow sensors can communicate with a smart home hub the same way. Why should they be untouched by the IoT tsunami?

While the IoT integration is exciting, it’s not the biggest revolution to hit the smart irrigation controller market. Over the past five years, the most important sea change, especially from a contractor’s point of view, is the ability to control them via an app on a smartphone, tablet or computer. Contractors no longer have to physically drive to a site to manually program or adjust the settings on a controller’s front panel.

Dozens of irrigation controller manufacturers have developed smartphone apps that work with their controllers. While big players like Hunter Industries, Rain Bird Corp. and The Toro Company have created intuitive, well-functioning applications, smaller startup companies like Rachio and Skydrop also offer competitive products.

But lots of new technology seems great on first hearing — and then there’s the real world. The big question for us is, how are landscape and irrigation professionals adapting to using smartphone apps to program irrigation controllers? Pretty well, it seems.

“We have guys who use them that range from 18-year-olds who just started to 50- to 60-year-old guys that aren’t really into technology,” says Jorge Sanchez, owner of Watersedge Landscape in San Diego. He says employees of all ages do well learning and using the apps because virtually everyone today is used to some sort of smartphone.

Saving time and labor

Perhaps the biggest advantage landscape and irrigation companies gain from using these apps is the increased efficiency that comes from being able to program and adjust a controller remotely.

“Now you don’t have to worry about coordinating with a homeowner to get into a garage or building to access a timer. I can’t say how many times you’ll be there working when the homeowner leaves, and just out of nature, they close the garage door. Then you’re locked out and can’t access their timer,” says Greg Winchel, co-owner of Winchel Irrigation in Grandville, Michigan.

But Winchel says his company doesn’t even think about this inconvenience anymore. “Every one of our trucks is equipped with an iPad. We stay connected to the timers so that we can just monitor or check the systems, run through them and make repairs if needed without the homeowners even being home.”

Another way to save time is to use the controller’s app to run a specific program, like when you’ve just seeded or sodded a new lawn. Winchel recounts that when they used older time-based irrigation controllers, they’d have to drive back to a property after four to five weeks of running shorter irrigation cycles just to reprogram the timer back to a normal schedule.

But now, he uses a new lawn growing program on Orbit Irrigation’s B-hyve app to run short cycles for however many days he dictates. When that’s done, he can easily switch to a regular watering schedule using the app. “This saves us extra trips and makes us a lot more efficient. With an app, you’re able to just log on and make the changes without driving back to the site.”

Sanchez appreciates the fact that his irrigation techs don’t even have to be on-site to adjust an irrigation controller. “Having the ability to operate controllers via the app remotely means that even when it rains, we don’t have to go to the site. We can control the irrigation literally from our office.”

Like many green industry employers, Sanchez struggles to find good employees. Any way to operate more efficiently and cut costs is welcomed. “As far as efficiency, it’s huge. These controllers and apps save us tons of time, labor and fuel costs.”

Right now, his goal is to switch every single one of his customers over to smart controllers. “We have thousands of clients, and I’d say right now we have a couple of hundred switched over. Our goal is to get everybody on Hunter’s Hydrawise Wi-Fi-based controller because it’s easier for us to manage remotely.”

Worth the cost?

While the benefits of switching to a smart controller are clear to landscape and irrigation professionals, getting a homeowner to make the switch can sometimes be a challenge.

Waynne Yasuda is a project manager at Nissho of California Inc., a landscape company in Vista, California, where he works predominately with real estate developers on production homes. He says that Wi-Fi-capable irrigation controllers are attractive to developers because they can be a selling point to potential home buyers. A lot of newly constructed homes are being built with smart home systems like Nest or ecobee already installed, so adding a smart controller just makes sense.

However, smart controllers can be a bit of a tough sell directly to homeowners when they’re told about the initial upfront cost. “Explaining the long-term money savings to people is huge,” says Yasuda. “If you can really make it cut and clear that the $100 to $200 controller upgrade will save water just by having the ability to adjust itself, that’s when people get interested.”

Keeping it simple

Smart controllers have suffered from the perception that they’re complicated. This has created an opening for the makers of simplified units like Rachio and Skydrop.

The established irrigation manufacturers have taken note of this trend, and they’re catching up. Yasuda has noticed Rain Bird recently simplified and lowered the number of buttons and dial positions on its Wi-Fi compatible ESP-ME3 series controllers for easier programming.

“The direction that ESP-ME series controllers are going in is to set it, let the rain sensor and seasonal adjustments do their thing and leave it. If it gets too complex, people will shy away from using it,” Yasuda says, “Eliminating the need for the average homeowner from ever having to really touch it is key. And that’s basically where it is now.”

Not only are the apps easy for contractors or technicians to program and adjust, they’re also simple for homeowners to use. And while they’re a convenient option to have, Yasuda says that, generally, most homeowners don’t get too involved with their irrigation controllers.

“Personally, I’ve seen a lot of people that don’t even touch their irrigation clock, and they don’t even think about it. They just set it once and leave it all year long,” he says.

“Set it and forget it” seems to be the territory smart controllers are heading toward. A controller connected to the internet is self-adjusting based on the weather data it receives anyway, so there’s little or no reason to manually adjust it.

“We’ll install them on a job and let the homeowner know. But these homeowners, especially on the newer construction homes that we’re working on, have got their hands full just dealing with the house,” he says. “They’re not really interested in sitting down and understanding the app. It’s more something they’ll look into down the road.”

Yasuda says new technology can be challenging for members of the older generation. But as the already tech-savvy younger people age and become homeowners themselves, they’ll expect to be able to control everything with their phones.

“Alexa, turn on the sprinklers”

Many current smart irrigation controllers are compatible with virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. But are homeowners that have these devices really using them to turn their sprinklers on and off? The consensus, at least among the contractors in this article, is “probably not.” Yasuda says it would definitely take an especially tech-savvy client to use a virtual assistant to control an irrigation system.

Just as homeowners who have smart controllers shouldn’t need to continually adjust their irrigation schedules through a smartphone app, they wouldn’t need to tell Alexa to do it, either.

“The beauty of the smart timer is that when you connect it to Wi-Fi, it connects to the local weather network and uses that data to reprogram itself. So, essentially, the homeowner has to have very little interaction with the timer,” says Winchel.

“If the system is designed correctly and is using a smart controller, you really don’t need that (hub device). What you’re doing with Alexa is you’re telling it to turn the sprinklers on or off once in a while or make minor adjustments. But if it’s a true smart timer, it’s going to make those self-adjustments off the weather data anyway.”

Now that's lit!

Outdoor lighting control is another feature that is being incorporated into smart irrigation controllers. A few examples of models with this capability come from Toro, Irritrol and Galcon. Users can program these irrigation controllers to adjust pond lights, fountains, awnings, holiday lights and indoor lamps. With the increase of IoT devices, the integration of various functions beyond watering in smart irrigation controllers is expected to create huge opportunities in the coming years.

Retrofitting older controllers

What about homeowners who already have irrigation controllers and want to upgrade to the Wi-Fienabled version? The good news is there is a cost-effective way for you to give them what they want. Many older time-based irrigation controllers can be retrofitted with a front panel replacement. This facelift makes them into smart controllers with Wi- Fi connectivity and settings that can be changed via smartphone.

“It’s a really easy fix, says Sanchez. “It’s around $100 of material cost and maybe a couple hundred dollars in labor to program. There’s no physical mounting or wiring because it’s already been done.”

Watersedge Landscape prefers to retrofit an old controller versus installing a new one. “It literally takes a minute to do, and then the rest of it is just programming it ahead of time,” Sanchez says. “After we sell them, we’ll program them in the office and then the tech takes them out to the field, plugs them in and the controls work.”

The future

It’s incredible to see how far irrigation controllers have evolved over the past decade. If they can already be controlled via your phone halfway across the world, what’s next for this technology?

Smart controllers are already getting smarter, with the help of ancillary devices such as soil moisture sensors. Already used in many irrigation systems, Winchel believes we’ll see these sort of components becoming even more integral.

One barrier to the widespread use of soil sensors is their cost, which he says is a deterrent to the average client. Winchel’s company has used them, and even though they work really well, he says it doesn’t make sense to use them unless you can place one in every zone.

Winchel also predicts the use of flow sensors will grow. “If a flow sensor typically reads 20 gallons per minute, and all of a sudden it starts reading 25 gpm, it knows there’s either a broken line or a broken sprinkler head. It’ll shut that zone down, send an alert to the homeowner or the contractor via the app so that it can be repaired and not continue to run like that for days or weeks before somebody catches it.”

As all these components become more prevalent, irrigation systems will become easier for contractors and homeowners alike to manage. It’s also a given that along with ease of use, irrigation systems of the future continue to get more efficient.

The pace at which technology is advancing in our industry and in so many others can at times be intimidating. And yes, sometimes it’s hard to adapt to new ways of doing things.

But we have to, don’t we? We can either let the wave wash us away — or learn how to ride its crest. No matter what the future holds for the landscape and irrigation industry, the best way to deal with change is to embrace it.

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.

Discover More

The irrigation controllers these contractors mentioned are only a few of the dozens available on the market. How do all smartphone-friendly irrigation controllers and their apps stack up against each other? Check out the Irrigation Association’s smartphone compatible irrigation controllers at www.igin.com/2019-smartphone-friendly-irrigation-controllers.