Feb. 21 2020 06:00 AM

Learn to use smart irrigation devices to deliver results for clients.

Photo: Conserva Irrigation

Technology has put some amazing tools into an irrigator’s toolbox: smart irrigation controllers with smartphone control; soil moisture, rain and flow sensors; Wi-Fi connectivity; and on-site weather stations. The way we use those tools effectively falls under the heading of best practices.

What are the best practices that will allow you as a contractor to get the most out of these powerful tools for your clients — and for your business?

Starting point

“We landscapers and irrigators need to think beyond the clock we’ve put on the wall and the pipes we put into the ground,” says Rich Miller, CLIA, CIC, owner of Rich Miller Landscape Service Inc. in Largo, Florida. Miller delivered his presentation “Fundamentals of the Smart Water Triangle” at the Irrigation Show and Education Week in December.

Miller describes himself as a real stickler about best practices. For him, it doesn’t start with gadgetry, but with the soil. During his presentation, Miller says, “I asked the room, ‘How many people here take a soil sample when they’re on an irrigation appointment?’ Nobody raised their hand.”

The quality of the soil is what determines how water is absorbed, he explained to the group. You need to know the soil texture before you design an irrigation system — or set the controller.

“Us busy landscape contractors and irrigators can talk up the latest whiz-bang product that we can put in for someone — but do we bother to take a soil test? If someone has soil with hardly any water-holding capacity, neither a smart controller nor anything else will improve things.”

Miller says that we can’t just assume that when a lawn or landscape doesn’t look very good, the reason is lack of water, “so we go put another 15 minutes on the clock, which is the very opposite of what we should be doing.”

A tool for cutting water usage

Ideally, we’re using the latest smart control technology to help our clients cut their water use and bills while supporting the thriving landscapes and lawns they desire. One company, Conserva Irrigation, Richmond, Virginia, has based its entire business model on that premise. “We hinge everything on smart irrigation practices and products,” says Jason Pyle, franchise support.

Residential customers who sign up with a Conserva franchise get a Toro Evolution smart controller and an on-site weather station that accesses 40 years of historical weather data for that ZIP code. The controller uses an algorithm that calculates run times based on the last three to seven days of current weather. “The smart controllers, along with accessories like soil moisture sensors, allow us to achieve 40% to 60% reductions in landscape water use,” says Pyle.

Photo: Hunter Industries

In Texas, saving water is of the utmost importance, says Pyle, who works out of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “We have several water districts here that regularly go to one- or two-day-a-week watering, sometimes even as far as one-day-every-two-weeks watering. But people who have smart controllers can get a variance to irrigate additional days.”

“The advantage of a smart controller is that it’s thinking far more about the irrigation than a homeowner is ever going to,” says Matt Hall, product marketing manager for Irritrol and Toro brands at The Toro Company’s irrigation division, Riverside, California. “When you shut the controller door, the homeowner never has to look at it again. Every day it gets its weather information, makes the calculations and adjusts the run times accordingly.”

The beauty of smart control, says Hall, is that it takes the user out of the equation, because the user is not very efficient. He uses himself as an example. “My life is so busy that when I finally notice that fall has come and I should turn my run times down, the grass is already going dormant. I’m a month behind a smart controller that would have already made that calculation and ramped the irrigation schedule and run times down.”

Providing better service

The connectivity revolution has made smart irrigation control as close as the nearest smartphone.It used to be that only expensive central control systems had the capability of managing multiple sites or projects. “Now, contractors can look at a map and see where all the systems are and be able to touch all of them,” says Ben Sacks, associate product manager, controllers, Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California.

“When daylight saving time comes around, they don’t have to physically go to all 100 or 1,000 of those clients and turn their clocks back an hour. They can do it automatically from the comfort of their office or truck.” This amounts to a huge time and labor savings. Sacks says contractors have also been able to charge clients a monthly service fee for the ability to get text alerts and monitor and change schedules remotely.

Photo: Rain Bird

The ability to manage systems from afar may seem like a benefit that’s just for you, the contractor. But it also allows you to give better service to your clients.

“Previous to having this technology, a contractor might be on a client’s property once a month or once a quarter identifying fixes or potential issues,” says Joe Porazzo, product manager, connected devices, contractor division for Rain Bird Corporation, Azusa, California. “Now, when a property owner notices a problem and calls, a contractor can say, ‘We’re aware of it, and a tech is already on route.’ Thisbuilds customer trust and makes you look like a better service provider. In a business that’s built on word of mouth, trust is everything.”

“You can get a push notification on your phone about a catastrophic leak,” says Miller, “and turn off the master valve before the leak damages the landscape or the concrete parking lot. And you can do that while you’re on your vacation, from right aboard the deck of a cruise ship.”

Other smart devices

Is a smart controller enough by itself, or should it be used in conjunction with things such as soil moisture and rain sensors and flow meters to get optimum water savings? Miller thinks so. “You really need to use them with soil moisture and rain sensors for them to work at their optimum level.”

He cites a recent study out of the University of Florida. It found that a smart controller combined with soil moisture sensors is the most powerful of all controller/accessory pairings, saving at least 30% in water use.

Photo: Toro Irrigation

“Rain Bird has done research in this area too,” says Porazzo. “We know that rain sensors on average can save up to 30% on a water bill at a residential property. You add a soil sensor to that, and now you could reduce water consumption by 50% to 55% with little to no negative impact on the health of the property.”

Hydro-Rain has incorporated an element of irrigation auditing into its smartphone app. “It’s one of the coolest things that we’ve implemented — a catch cup test,” says Jared Marshall, marketing manager at Orbit, North Salt Lake, Utah. This app gives you the distribution uniformity, and it is calculated in the background in our algorithm.”

Miller says weather information should come from as close to a site as possible. “Many of the smart controllers that irrigate according to evapotranspiration rates use data from the nearest weather station or from an internet service like Weather Underground. But those weather stations could be miles away and fail to take microclimates into account. In our area in Florida, one street could be dry, but a block away, there could be a downpour. I encourage people who have smart controllers that use weather information to install their own on-site stations.”

More locally to the client, smart home devices are used to integrate systems inside the home such as security, air conditioning and even window shades. But irrigation has been slower to integrate into the “internet of things.”

Photo: Rain Bird

Hall thinks he knows why. “The benefit of smart home connectivity is more on the landscape lighting side, because that brings the property owners outside,” he says. When people have outdoor lighting systems with smartphone control, they want to play with it and create various moods and effects.

The very nature of irrigation doesn’t lend itself to that. “Watering often happens early in the morning or late at night, invisibly,” says Hall. “As a homeowner or property manager, you just want nice, healthy turf and landscape, and you don’t want to think about it.” For landscape irrigation, the smart piece is more important than the smart home piece. That’s where the water conservation comes from.”

Pyle says smart home integration for irrigation has been slow, “but I think we’re on the cusp of a breakthrough. Everything else in the house is already there.” He thinks that what’s more important is closing some of the gaps in smart controller technology, such as adding weather-predictive features.

Smart-hub connectivity plays out differently in the commercial realm, according to Pyle. He says that some of Conserva’s large retail clients wanted smart-hub connectivity when it first came along — but not anymore. “Right now, they’re not okay with having some connected device plugged into their network because of possible data breach issues.”

Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at pouncerspy@gmail.com.