May 22 2020 06:00 AM

Today’s connected controllers make irrigation easier and more efficient.

Photo: Hunter Industries

Irrigation controller maintenance used to mean that a contractor had to spend hours systematically working through clients’ properties, fixing small problems as they came up.

Now, as smart irrigation controllers are more connected than ever, that information is going straight to the contractor. But as controllers get smarter, they’re also gaining new ways to gather and analyze the data they’re collecting.

Getting connected

From a homeowner perspective, more clients are looking for controllers with wireless or online capabilities, says Anthony Long, product manager at Hunter Industries Inc. of San Marcos, California.

“We’re seeing the transition away from the dial controller I used to have on my wall that I never touched, to an automatic controller that I can talk to via my phone,” Long says.

Having the ability to connect via smart device makes clients more prone to interact with their overall water usage, he says. They’re more inclined to make small adjustments to the program because it’s convenient on their phones.

A controller that’s operated via Bluetooth or wireless capabilities makes maintenance more straightforward, says Mike Merlesena, national commercial sales manager for Dig Corp., of Vista, California.

“People like it because they don’t have to go into the valve box,” Merlesena says. “They can have the full screen pulled up on their smart device. It makes programming a lot easier.”

Connected devices collect more information that can be used to narrow down issues with a system, Long says. Monitoring the electrical current can point to a solenoid or broken wire, for example.

Wireless technology can also help in troubleshooting, says A.J. van de Ven, president of Calsense, based in Carlsbad, California. If a system’s not acting correctly, a contractor can connect using a separate controller to test it without having to worry about dealing with wiring. That can give the contractor a head start in identifying if the problem is with the controller or the device itself.

Digging into data

The main thing Long sees in new trends is a drive for more automatic responses based on collected data such as weather, he says.

“They want to look at the local weather that they’re experiencing at their house, and they want that to influence and change the program,” he says. “They want to have the ability to do it manually, but what they really want is for the controller to handle itself.”

Weather data analysis is most helpful when it’s predictive, says Richard Restuccia, vice president of water management solutions at Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd., in Fresno, California.

“I can water today based on what’s happened yesterday and the day before and the week before, but what is equally important is what’s going to happen tomorrow. Why would I irrigate today if it’s going to rain tomorrow?” Restuccia says.

Predictive analysis will be a feature that more controller manufacturers will be focusing on, he says.

Besides customers being too busy to worry about the day-to-day changes of the irrigation system, data from water districts show that homeowners aren’t usually very efficient at it, Long says. Being able to manage irrigation both remotely and automatically makes most properties much more water-efficient.

The development of data analytics has also opened the door for irrigation professionals to do work that’s more personalized to individual customers and to use data trends to diagnose problems more quickly for clients, says van de Ven.

“One of the things that we’re seeing more of is using that data and extrapolating, for example, your property’s data with 100 properties around you in a couple-mile radius,” van de Ven says. “And seeing that information presented to the user or contractor in a way they can actually use.”

Increased connectivity and improved data analytics provide an opportunity to develop real-time evapotranspiration scheduling programs rather than just using past data, says Restuccia.

“There is a big difference in the accuracy of the water that you’ll apply and the water savings between historical and real-time,” he says.

Choosing controllers

Price is a good starting point for consideration, says Merlesena, but the most important thing to consider is how easy the system is to use and teach to a client.

“You need to look at how user-friendly the controller is from a logic standpoint,” he says.

Another point that comes into play is how well a controller allows a contractor to manage irrigation without having to be directly on-site, says van de Ven. It should also have the capability to add more functionality later if necessary.

Beyond that, the company’s support behind the product will make a huge difference throughout the life of the product, Merlesena says. Talk to your distributor and discuss which controller might be the best fit for the application you have in mind. Doing your own research through trusted professional connections and online resources can help as well.

While it’s helpful for monitors to gather information remotely, consider what would be most useful to you and your client, says Long. Once the data is determined, make certain that it can be gathered in a way that is actually understandable and useful. As you incorporate smart controllers into your offerings, make sure you have team members on staff that are trained to use them correctly.

“All this information that’s being managed should be easily accessible by people in your office,” he says. “Make sure you’ve got the tools to use them in the office.”

That information should then be able to be packaged in a way that shows a client the benefits of working with an irrigation professional or the need for system upgrades, says Restuccia.

“We’re using a push notification, a weekly email out to users that says, this is the amount of water you use, this is how your system is working,” he says. “We’re trying to raise the level of the conversation and bring the meaningful information so they can discuss this in an intelligent way.”

To view the 2020 smartphone-friendly irrigation controller comparison chart, click here.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.