July 22 2021 09:39 AM

New trends in smart irrigation controllers take advantage of technology

For irrigation controller manufacturers, the summer of 2021 has become a showcase to demonstrate the value of their products, as more than a dozen states deal with drought status, bringing water conservation issues even further to the forefront. Fresh technology trends have stepped up to provide solutions for current and new system installations.

“Controllers with smart features that are super intuitive are a necessity now, and they’re easier to use to conserve water,” says Dan Hymas, president at Smart Rain, Centerville, Utah. “Smart irrigation controllers are becoming more accessible, and people are becoming more educated on them. This is leading to more ease of use in the landscaping industry.”

Before making any controller choices, it’s important to take stock of what you need to take care of right away while keeping an eye to the future for your client, says Alexis Bookman, marketing communication manager for The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota.

“Look for a controller that suits your immediate needs but also one that can grow and upgrade,” says Bookman. “No one can predict the future, and replacing a controller every time new technology becomes available can get expensive. If you select an option that can grow as the landscape, water restrictions and other factors change, it will make adapting and ultimately water management that much easier.”

As energy sources face unstable, rising costs, one potentially helpful trend in irrigation controllers comes in using the sun to keep it powered, says Mike Merlesena, national sales product manager for Dig Corporation, Vista, California.

“Landscape consultants like this product because they do not have to worry about identifying power in common areas, and they can build a system without upfront costs,” says Merlesena. “We know this is a new way of managing irrigation control systems, and we feel like this is going to be the major trend moving forward.”

Solar-powered and ambient light-powered irrigation control systems do not require direct sunlight, further minimizing expenses compared to standard AC-powered control systems. Without having to rely on a power grid, station management isn’t susceptible to issues like summer power outages that disturb carefully planned water management schedules.

“These control systems use electricity that is stored in super capacitors to power the system, regardless of the weather or environment,” says Merlesena. “The super capacitor that runs these systems will outlast the electronic component of a controller and deliver substantial cost savings in the long run.”

Scheduling software

Not only has predictive analytics taken over and changed the sport of baseball, it has done the same with irrigation and water management inside the landscaping industry. Trends in software management for forecasting and scheduling both simple and complex watering schedules are popular for landscape professionals who have seen their jobs be performed across even more remote locations in the past 18 months. Software that helps choose the best times for effective irrigation can make a big difference for clients, says Hymas.

“Using enhanced software for irrigation controllers should save 30% to 50% of water usage,” he says.

Controllers that use artificial intelligence and predictive analysis can better utilize rainwater and reduce runoff and site visits, says Richard Restuccia, vice president of water management at Jain Irrigation Inc., Fresno, California. Predictive analytics software makes adjustments from lessons learned from past weather trends, giving the controllers insight into when it might be the best time to irrigate.

“On the East Coast it rains during the summer, so we use our predictive analysis to identify that there is not as strong of a need to put watering into the schedule compared to other portions of the country,” Restuccia says.

When using a weather-tracking controller, a cloud-based system will allow for regular weather calculations and updates based on climate shifts for a more efficient system, he says. The more often a system checks in on the forecast, the more accurate that watering schedule will be. Hourly calculations compared to daily calculations can reduce water use by up to 60%, especially in areas with active rainy seasons. The controllers analyze the times of lowest probability for rain and precipitation and use that guidance as the foundation for a customized irrigation schedule. The feedback on the weather predictive system has been very positive in the past year.

While it’s not a crystal ball, some predictive analytics software allows end users to look ahead into the next few weeks as well, says Rick Malkin, central controls product manager for Rain Bird, Azusa, California. That can include estimates of how much total water will be used, how many stations will be running and when irrigation will start and stop.

Providing an ongoing service to provide more effective water use can possibly allow contractors to add water management services as a separate line item to further drive revenue, says Restuccia.

“Promoting water management services to commercial properties, homeowner associations and other large entities is a way landscapers can add to their profits without having to make large capital or personnel investments,” he says.

Built for bluetooth

Remote access of the irrigation system and advanced water management features are important on any new irrigation controller, says Malkin. Web-based cloud services allow users to log in and control the irrigation system from smartphone or tablet touchscreens. They work well for organizations with multiple irrigation system administrators or users who are often off-site. That might make them a good fit for remote work environments, which have been expanding in the past year.

While weather tracking and schedule customization are both big trends in the irrigation controller space, having the capability to stay connected by internet or Bluetooth is one of the most important new features, says Darik Chandler, product manager of battery and standard controllers, Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California.

Bluetooth can be especially useful in areas where Wi-Fi service isn’t an option and can reduce the amount of installation time needed in adding the controller to the client’s home network, says Malkin.

Some systems include capabilities to remotely edit multiple watering schedules at once, if several stations need to be handled together, says Malkin. The schedules also include the capability to set days off in advance to manage irrigation around particular dates. That can be handy for dealing with weekends, but it also might keep an Independence Day barbecue from accidentally getting interrupted by sprinklers.

“Our system is designed to work with large irrigation systems where total water usage is being looked at as the key metric, so we always start from there when proving our results,” says Rick Malkin, central controls product manager for Rain Bird. “It always comes back to ‘Here’s how much water we are using, and here’s how much we are saving.’” Despite a heavy reliance on technology, Chandler advises that landscapers do not solely rely on a quick technology pitch to the client when it comes to selecting an irrigation control system. Talking about the new features and how they all connect to a smartphone can leave some clients dizzy with terminology. Instead, he says to take a step back and look at the total offering that the system brings, including the software, the service and the supplier. Features like email reports on the irrigation system’s efficiency including the amount of water saved over time can go a long way to showing a client the benefits. Even a retrofit of an old system should give an irrigation professional plenty of evidence that both water and money can be saved.

“New controllers should be saving around 50% of water use based on an unadjusted schedule,” he says.

It’s also important to think not only of benefits to the client when choosing a manufacturer, says Chandler. A good partnership with a reliable manufacturer will help streamline future installations and back you up when troubleshooting issues.

“Look for a manufacturer that has been in business for years serving the globe with not just controllers but the entire system, A-to-Z,” he says. “Look for a manufacturer that provides at least a two-year warranty, as well as provides the controller, solenoids, flow meter, rain sensor, and sprinkler valves and heads for the best performance. That is going to save you time, money and energy in the long run.”

Rodric Hurdle-Bradford is associate editor for Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at rodric@igin.com.