Aug. 18 2008 12:00 AM

Of all industries, the green industry used to seem the least likely to be swamped by the trend towards mass high tech. And yet with the increasing adoption of smart irrigation controllers, computerized routing schedules, remote-controlled mowers and computerized timekeeping services, to name only a few, the green industry is moving irreversibly into higher tech pastures. While the digital revolution is intimidating, especially for many green industry professionals who are comfortable with hands-on, pen-and-paper processes, it offers efficiency benefits that can’t be ignored.

Advantages of going remote

With just the touch of a button, you can streamline work that would otherwise require you to drive to a jobsite or spend time on the phone with a client. You can also test and troubleshoot irrigation systems—or even program controllers with the right remote control. That’s right, a remote control, such as the ones you use to turn on your television, start your DVD player or close your garage door. And like those remote controls, they offer considerable convenience and time savings to contractors, especially those who focus on irrigation maintenance. No man (or woman) is an island, they say. But sometimes a little separation from the crowd can be a good thing.

These battery-powered devices use a simple keypad to turn stations on and off from pretty much anywhere on a jobsite. This can mean that only one person is required to flush out a new irrigation system or perform a winterization job instead of two. Using a remote, the operator can walk the property and make an assessment on the spot. No more trips to the controller every time you need to turn a station on or off.

4.jpgTo be clear, this type of add-on will probably set you back anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand. However, you’ll get what you pay for here. More expensive models can usually transmit a signal over a greater distance. But, like any equipment investment, the return helps determine a product’s real value. “Maintenance remotes are tremendous time and labor savers,” swears Keith Shepersky, senior product manager for Irritrol in Riverside, California. “They usually pay for themselves after only one or two uses.”

When you consider that one worker can be eliminated from two-worker irrigation tasks, the savings become clearer. Keeping your operating expenses to a minimum offers you a real advantage. Let’s say, for example, your employees Amy and Bill generally perform irrigation maintenance tasks for your flourishing business. With summer here, you’re thinking about ways to expand your services into the new housing development just outside of town. But Amy and Bill’s schedules are already overcrowded. And you’ve had a few callbacks from times when Amy and Bill had to rush to the next jobsite.

With a remote, Amy can do all of those same jobs without Bill. He can take on new jobs of his own, and you’ve avoided the expensive and time-consuming process of hiring additional employees. You may even be able to price bids more competitively, knowing that they will require half the labor to complete. The cost of an employee’s weekly salary could probably recoup the cost of the remote, if the expansion in business doesn’t.

Convenience is a big benefit for Gene Gonzales, parks supervisor for the City of Oxnard, California, Parks & Facilities department. When the department needs to check a sprinkler head or flush out an irrigation system at one of the city’s median strips, it’s a “quick and easy” job, as Gonzales says. “Remotes eliminate another person on the job who would otherwise have to go back and forth between a valve and the clock to turn it on and off,” he explains.

And rather than relying on a client to give you access to a controller, you can access it yourself without having to contend with locked gates or barking dogs. “Remotes allow contractors scheduling flexibility,” adds Kevin Gordon, regional sales manager for Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California. “When a receiver is mounted outside the home, nobody has to be there for a contractor to make a service call. Many irrigation contractors swear by remotes; they’re one tool they’d never give up.”

Rick Heenan, national sales manager, commercial division for DIG Corporation in Vista, California, notes that remotes can also help contractors work more safely. Municipal workers who maintain irrigation systems in busy areas can troubleshoot from a truck across the street rather than having to contend with traffic. Their remote-controlled system offers the option of placing the control unit in a valve box. Heenan says, “The unit can be programmed without ever having to open the valve box. Contractors don’t have to worry about what might be lurking in there.”

The labor and money savings that can be passed on to your clients makes them popular with residential end users, too. Gordon says, “Remotes are nice add-ons that bring contractors extra revenue. Quite often, contractors use them during a final walkthrough with a client. Sure enough, the client becomes interested in the remote and, before you know it, wants one to check his or her own system.”

Juan Lago, owner of CHM Landscape Services in Santa Barbara, California, installed a remote-controlled system for the elderly owner of a ranch who had difficulty getting up and down a large hill on his property. Once Lago showed the property owner that a remote could work within 300’ of the controller, the owner was quickly sold. “He loves to use it and doesn’t let it out of his sight,” Lago says.

In fact, it’s the enthusiasm of homeowners that has effectively brought low-cost remote control options to the residential market. Says Heenan, “Homeowners like remotes because they’re convenient and affordable.” Moreover, having a remote control allows them to stay one step ahead of the Joneses— and allows you to distinguish yourself from the competition.

Remote control options

Almost all controllers can be upgraded to be compatible with remote controls. Remotes are either manufacturer-specific or universal. Proprietary remotes will work only with the controllers of the designated manufacturer. Because they are specific to a certain manufacturer, they usually are kept onsite rather than transported from site to site. This cuts down on the hassle of transporting multiple remotes. And given that they require less circuitry to only work with a specific brand of controllers, proprietary remotes may be a less expensive option. 5.jpg

Universal remotes, on the other hand, allow a contractor to manage all of his or her clients’ remoteequipped controllers from just one remote. For contractors whose clients use a variety of brand name controllers, a universal remote may be the better option. However, universal remotes can be more cumbersome to use as wiring varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. They can also cost more than proprietary remotes for this reason.

In the past, remote controls often suffered from reliability and transmission issues, but today’s models use stronger signals that can be transmitted through buildings, walls, trees and other obstacles. Most residential controllers will be able to transmit a signal within several hundred feet line-of-sight of the controller. Commercial controllers may be able to transmit over thousands of feet line-of-sight. However, anything with the potential to interfere with a radio signal can interrupt the remote’s signal. This can include high-power electrical lines, transformers and air conditioners in close proximity to receivers.

Just as cell phone technology has evolved and those clunky boxes have scaled down into slimmer models, so too have remote controls. Most remotes are small, sleek devices that are not difficult to transport. More importantly, they’re often waterproof and durable enough to withstand abuse, wear and tear and the occasional dropping. Some higher- end models also take precautions against the problems that can arise with multiple users. User codes and password protection come in handy when a remote control is shared among more than one employee. Similarly, the ability to track changes help maintain order in case any one employee inadvertently makes unwanted changes to the programming. For home-owners, smart capabilities like allowing for extra cycles without altering the regular schedule keep systems running smoothly.

When remote is REALLY remote

Central control options extend the idea of “remote control” to allow a contractor to work from his or her office without having to visit the jobsite at all. Using satellites, personal computers or even the Internet, central controls allow for remote programming of irrigation controllers spread across a large geographic distance. With the Internet option, you could be anywhere in the world that offers Internet access and still check up on your clients’ properties. As gas prices continue to jump every week, this feature is an attractive option.

A step up from remotes, central controls can perform almost every function of an irrigation controller as well as make intelligent decisions about when and how much to water by calculating evapotranspiration (ET). These systems track historical data for tracking, analysis and reporting purposes, too.

Central control also brings the ability to respond immediately to broken sprinkler valves or highflow situations by shutting down the appropriate valves. Then, the system may send an email or page to alert the contractor of the situation. It can also warn you if any of the data deviate from the normal range.

If it starts to rain, you can shut down your clients’ controllers from your computer rather than having to drive from property to property. Talk about lean management. Your lightning-fast responsiveness can give you an edge over the competition, too. “You can use central control for just about any job,” Gordon says. “And as inexpensive as it has become these days, it’s a cost-effective option for maintenance contractors.”

6.jpgMost computer and satellite-based systems will also work with remotes for communication with a controller and easier maintenance. By either plugging into the face panel of a controller or coming within close proximity to it, the remote can download information to be sent back to the PC. Shepersky adds that features such as the ability to control outdoor lighting, which is available on their PC control remote, offer additional convenience. “If a homeowner hears a noise in the middle of the night, he or she can press the light bulb button on the remote and turn on all of the landscape lights.”

As these options gain popularity, now is a good time to gain familiarity with the basics. Of course the issue that most contractors have with adopting new technology is the difficult learning curve. Some central controls may require a substantial time investment to gain proficiency. Others may even require the help of a specialist. But most are purposefully designed to be easy to setup and use. “A user will have to learn the programming,” says Shepersky, “But our PC control system, for example, uses visual pictures of zones and a calendar to make usage simple.” And manufacturers generally offer training and technical support, the latter of which can come in handy in times of system crashes and other problems.

Lago agrees that new technology takes time, but says that “those who are willing to learn will be fine.” He suggests, “Take classes and talk to the manufacturers. They have to support you.” And remember that the advantages of technology don’t cancel out the responsibility of the contractor. “No matter the system, you have to stay current with it. Otherwise, it won’t work accurately,” Lago cautions.

Regardless of the remote or central control option, they can all offer some efficiency benefits that will translate into time and labor savings. Although the transition into the world of remote and central control can seem difficult, those who have used the technology recognize that it helps them become better at their jobs, and they often swear by it. Our industry has adapted not because using technology is trendy, but because we want to be more efficient and, ultimately, make money. So don’t be afraid to jump right in!