Aug. 16 2019 06:00 AM

The standard, strictly time-based irrigation controller may not be cutting edge, but it’s the workhorse that many contractors depend on.

It seems like every day there’s some shiny new gizmo that promises to revolutionize our lives, streamline our businesses and take 30 pounds off our bellies overnight. But at the same time, the breathtaking speed of technology creates a longing for the stripped-down, the tried-and-true, the classic; that’s why there are nostalgia catalogs that still sell cassette players and manual typewriters.

Consider the standard, basic, plain-vanilla irrigation controller. Anyone who works in the green industry has seen a million of them, because there are millions of them still out there, turning on sprinklers and turning them off at the appointed times — and nothing more.

These little workhorses may not be terribly exciting, but they’re hardly obsolete. And no one can argue that they don’t do their jobs, keeping turf and planter beds green and thriving. Just don’t ask them to make any complicated decisions, and you’ll get along with them just fine.

At this point, you might be asking, “Why write about them at all? Shouldn’t we be promoting smart control at this stage of the game?” Of course we should — and we do. But the fact remains, basic controllers still have an important role to play in landscape irrigation, and for certain types of applications, they’re ideal.

The mere fact that so many of them are still being manufactured, installed and maintained is reason enough to talk about them. Yes, we now have ingenious smart controllers that use local weather information, evapotranspiration data and input from sensors to manage irrigation, but not everyone has those devices nor wants them, for a number of reasons.

Rick Arena, CIC, CID, CLIA, has spent over 30 years in irrigation. He’s been a contractor and an irrigation designer and has worked in distribution and sales. Currently, he’s irrigation training manager at SiteOne Landscape Supply LLC, Charlotte, North Carolina. He says, “Probably 75% or more of all controllers sold right now are still the old style.”

James Harris, product manager for irrigation controllers at Rain Bird, Azusa, California, says, “The standard controller is still a great solution. It’s worked well for many, many years. New technology like smart controllers always has an adoption curve, and not everyone is ready to adopt it at the same time.”

Standard controllers are well-suited for applications where water must be applied at regular intervals, no exceptions. “Growing new sod is a perfect example of where you don’t want any ET adjustments,” says Matt Hall, product marketing manager for Irritrol components at The Toro Company’s Riverside, California, irrigation division.

“You’ve got to water frequently and continually for 30 to 45 days, say, 10 minutes every hour, until the grass takes root,” he adds “In that situation you wouldn’t want an ET calculation to start ratcheting back your water because you need to give the turf a lot of it in frequent, short bursts.”

As he puts it, grass seedlings can’t wait for a buyer to close on a new home and start installing internet and Wi-Fi; the grass wouldn’t last. In a case like this, a standard irrigation timer will often be installed at least temporarily to keep up the curb appeal.

“Simple, basic irrigation controllers have their place and it’s site-specific,” Arena adds. “Maybe you have a lot of flower beds that need to be watered on a regular basis. There might be trees or bushes in big containers or plants that need to be sheltered under a covered patio roof because too much rainfall will kill them. You’ve got to treat those differently than you would if they were out in the field.”

Standard controllers have one more positive attribute that many contractors appreciate: They’re simple and easy to understand. “If I have people who I feel for some reason just aren’t going to grasp a more complex controller, then I probably won’t even offer it to them,” says Jim Lewis, owner and president of Lewis Landscape Services LLC, Beaverton, Oregon.

Lewis also appreciates the reliability of basic controllers, saying that there just aren’t that many parts in them that can go wrong, whereas a smart controller has a few different components that could cause system errors.

The last positive Lewis lists is cost. You can get a standard controller for a lot less than a smart one, and some of his clients find that appealing.

But shouldn’t every controller be smart?

At this point in time, with the scarcity of potable water becoming more of an issue around the world and more communities stressing the need for efficient irrigation, shouldn’t every irrigation controller ideally be a smart one?

“To be good stewards of water, our precious commodity, absolutely,” says Hall, “and selfishly, too, as a business matter, because all those smart controllers sell for a higher price. Is that going to happen? Not overnight, but if you ask me this again in five years, the number of standard timers being replaced by smart timers will be much higher.”

Hall adds that one of the challenges Toro and its competitors have is educating some contractors and end users to all of the many benefits smart controllers offer.

Arena says the idealistic side of him says, yes, every controller should be a smart controller, because they could save probably unfathomable amounts of water, while his realistic side says they’re not necessarily the best choice in all situations. “For the most part, yes, they should be. But the practicality of that, again, you have to go back to who’s installing the controllers and who’s maintaining them. Is anyone actually looking at them?’”

Eric Bond, CIT, CLIA, is service manager at KC Irrigation, Kansas City, Kansas, a company with 1,200 clients, a mix of residential and commercial, only about 70 of which are currently using smart controllers.

Bond would prefer it if all of KC Irrigation’s 1,200 customers had smart controllers “for a multitude of reasons. It would allow us to help them program schedules remotely. If I’m just making a simple controller adjustment, I can do it from the office. When a customer texts me saying, ‘You need to make this change,’ I don’t have to try and cram a service call into my day.”

Making a basic controller smart

Thanks to today’s technology, a standard “dumb timer” doesn’t have to stay that way; it’s a simple matter to smarten it up by plugging in an add-on device. Hunter’s Rain-Clik, Mini-Clik, Freeze-Clik, Soil-Clic and Mini-Weather Station add-ons “are virtually ‘controller agnostic’ as they will work with virtually any controller, regardless of brand,” says Dave Shoup, product manager, central controllers. Irritrol’s Climate Logic works with any standard Irritrol controller and now uses on-site weather information to adjust schedules.

Rain Bird’s LNK Wi-Fi module brings weather-based water management, Wi-Fi access, smartphone and tablet control to ESP-TM2 and ESP-Me Series controllers manufactured after Nov. 2, 2016. Rain Bird controllers made prior to that can be made smart by installing a Wi-Fi-compatible replacement panel. “You can make our basic Rain Bird controllers EPA WaterSense-certified by just adding the Wi-Fi module and a rain sensor,” says James Harris, product manager for irrigation controllers at Rain Bird, Azusa, California.

Rick Arena, CIC, CID, CLIA, irrigation training manager at SiteOne Landscape Supply LLC, Charlotte, North Carolina, says practically every basic controller manufactured in the last 10 or 20 years has sensor terminals inside where a rain or soil moisture sensor can be connected. Even earlier models that lack those terminals can still be hooked up with a little field wiring; he’s done it.

It is possible to save water using a basic controller. “Our standard units have seasonal adjustment settings,” says Harris. “There are websites and other resources that will tell you, ‘for this part of the country your percentage of watering is 40% this month.’ You program for the hottest, driest time of year and turn it down on a percentage basis depending on what time of year it is now. If you did that once a month, once a week or once a day, it would save a lot of water and money.”

Arena saved a homeowners association a lot of water with a simple tweak. “They were using about 2.5 million gallons of water a year. Looking at their system, we found they had virtually no working rain sensors. Just by adding them to their basic controllers, we cut their water use by a million gallons of water in one year.”

The “old-timers” and the old timers

If smart controllers are so great, why doesn’t everybody have one by now?Ramzi White, key account manager at SiteOne Landscape Supply LLC, Lubbock, Texas, says most of the irrigation companies in his area have not completely adopted smart controllers — or even seem to know what a smart controller is, really. Basic units from Hunter or Rain Bird are still the primary controllers purchased by the contractors who come into his store.

When asked why he thinks that’s so, White says, “It’s the learning curve. They’re just not really wanting to learn the new products; that’s the main issue. These basic units are what they’ve always used, and they feel they do a good enough job. They’re simple and easy, not continually asking them questions. They just want to put the thing on a time basis and let it go that route.”

White says he’s had contractors who’ve replaced smart controllers with standard units just because they didn’t know how to use the smart ones and weren’t willing to learn.

Hall can attest to that. “The Irritrol Rain Dial has been around for a long time. Most people in the irrigation business know it and understand it. A lot of contractors know what they know, and if it isn’t broken, they’re not fixing it. They’ll say, ‘I’ve been using the Rain Dial for 20 years and it’s never let me down. I’m going to keep using it ’til they pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.’ Even as new contractors come into the business, if they’ve learned the Rain Dial from an old-timer, they might just continue using it.”

Not to be ageist, but the general perception is that most contractors over 50 — the “old-timers” Hall is referring to — are less receptive to new technology than the younger crowd. Lewis agrees, saying, “The younger guys are a lot more open minded to using the more modern controllers. Some of the older contractors can be sort of set in their ways and kind of grumpy.”

Lewis is 47, but says he’s always been more of a tech-curious kind of person. “If there’s something new I’ll check it out, and if I like it, I’ll adopt it quickly because I can see the value in it. Other people will be like, ‘I’m going to wait a few years and see it really works.’”

A Hunter Rain-Clik added to any brand of basic controller will halt irrigation during rainstorms, saving water.
Photo: Hunter Industries

Older homeowners are often baffled by all the smart controller settings as well. “Sometimes these things are too complicated, in my opinion,” says Matt Hinton, owner/operator of Irrigation Works, Knoxville, Tennessee. “A large contingent of my client base is older. They’re just getting around to emailing and texting, and the thought of trying to get a 70-year-old interested in a Wi-Fi controller is like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ The young kids in the starter homes like using their phones to change settings, but frankly, I think it’s a novelty to them.”

While Hinton can see the benefits of smart control for saving water, he’s uncomfortable asking clients for Wi-Fi passwords and worries about the hackability of smart home devices.

Bond has also observed that many of his company’s older clients are “a little bit pushed off” by technology in general and are overwhelmed by the complexity of smart controllers. Cost is another interfering factor.

As for the younger homeowners, true to stereotype, Bond has found millennials and anyone in their mid-40s or younger who’ve dealt with technology their whole lives to be “about as easy a sell for smart control as they come.” They’re excited about integrating it with all their other internet of things devices such as Alexa.

Companies like Rachio have capitalized on the “too many settings” problem by making simple, easy-to-understand yet smart controllers at a low price point. These devices are like a bridge to both worlds, encompassing all the water-saving features of smart controllers with the reduced complexity and price of basic controllers. Will devices like these point the way to the future? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, millions of standard irrigation controllers will continue doing what they do without a lot of fanfare, keeping lawns and bedding plants hydrated and alive. They may not make anyone’s heart beat faster, but you can count on these reliable standbys to stay on the job like clockwork, day after day after day.

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at