Controllers Hook Up with the Internet

Wherever you go, whatever you read, people are talking about the Internet. Whether it’s about going online to make purchases, do research, read the latest news, or to check email, a day doesn’t go by that the Internet is not mentioned. So, it was bound to happen that sooner or later a manufacturer of irrigation controllers would take this easy-to-use technology and develop an Internet-based controller. Internet-based irrigation control?

That’s right! You’ve heard of eBay. You’ve heard of Amazon. com, and probably even Yahoo. Well, now there’s iCentral. Huh? Read on . . .

Earlier this year, Simi Valley, California based Rain Master Irrigation Systems took the lead in harnessing the possibilities of the Internet and delivered iCentral, an Internet-based irrigation control system that checks status, initiates shutdowns, sends real-time weather updates and more to its RME Eagle irrigation controller. This new product uses the technology of the Internet to create a low-cost centralized control system. Contractors and irrigation managers can now be just as sophisticated as stock brokers; protecting their investments 24 hours a day. iCentral is capable of monitoring irrigation station flow limits, field wires, and rain sensor status, as well as receiving appropriate irrigation commands to adjust the constantly changing requirements at various sites.

The popularity of wireless technology has helped speed up the development of irrigation concepts and tools, changing the landscape forever. Today, people can open laptops in coffee shops and be instantly connected to the world — retail shops, libraries, etc., and now landscape irrigation.

Wireless has received more attention than most other technologies because of its versatility, ease of use, services, and innovative devices. But more importantly, is the two-way wireless connection which is a key feature for real-time Internet-based irrigation control.

In Commerce City, Colorado, if an operating station exceeds the set flow limits, the station is automatically shut down by the controller and a text message or alarm notification is transmitted back to Parks and Recreation Superintendent Anthony Jaramillo’s cell phone. It reads:

“FLOW ALARM STATION #14 93 GPM.” In his office across town, Jaramillo logs onto the Internet irrigation control site and examines the irrigation program for station #14. Verifying that the station has already been shut down, he is able to notify one of his off-site irrigation managers to head over and fix the problem at station #14 before it has a chance to become a public problem. Time, costs and labor have been saved, and Jaramillo’s city parks are still looking good.

“The availability of this technology gave us a tool to easily manage irrigation systems at a time when we had to be conserving water,” said Jaramillo. “Having text messages sent directly to my cell phone allows me to make system repairs quickly.” As the Internet continues to evolve, its potential as a productivity tool is limitless. Wireless simply adds to it by enabling users to connect to the World Wide Web from Palm Pilots, notebooks, and cell phones to access information. This capability is quickly transforming the way all business is conducted.

Think about it. Not too long ago, we were all in the field without telephones or radios. Communication was in person. Now, information is available anytime, anywhere. The Internet makes it possible to initiate proactive and real-time management, saving time and money as well as water — all important factors to consider when evaluating any investment in new technology. Wireless technology makes it easy and affordable to interact with irrigation controllers without having to install expensive communication equipment or run wires.

Some systems even have the capability of receiving real-time weather data wirelessly from the Internet. Weather data is converted into an evapotranspiration value, or ET as it is commonly called, a measure of how much water has been used by both the plant and the soil combined. Investment in the Internet, wireless communication and modern technology should not be considered without examining the return on investment.

The cost to implement solutions like iCentral, which is meant to keep labor costs down and quality of service and productivity up, is low when the benefits are weighed. The primary benefit is in water savings. Water cost savings alone can reach 20 to 45 percent annually with a weather-based central control system coupled with an efficient proactive management program. In fact, system payback is possible in two to five years, depending on water costs and current irrigation practices. Naturally, the higher the water cost and the less efficient the current practices, the faster the return.

“Cost is one of the most attractive aspects of modern technology. It was important to invest in a system that offered immediate savings for a reasonable price while providing the capability to build on it at a later date,” Jaramilla said. Aside from being affordable, the Internet is also user-friendly. Most of us have figured out how to get online and know how to check e-mail. It isn’t rocket science.

The online irrigation control system is easily mastered by novice Internet users. And some systems are smart, too. Broken heads, pipes, and mainline faults can be detected when a flow sensor is connected to the controller. Some controllers even have the ability to detect wiring faults associated with station field wiring and bad solenoids. Imagine knowing what the problem is before you get there! While weather station-based technology has become widely used in agricultural and golf course irrigation scheduling throughout the United States, its use in the residential and commercial landscape markets continues to be limited. This is likely to change as water utilities begin to take advantage of new technologies that link weather stations, computers and cell phones with irrigation controllers — eliminating water waste and replacing it with ET-based irrigation management. The Internet makes ET-based irrigation possible. The Internet, combined with wireless technology, finally makes ET-based irrigation affordable. The Internet provides an endless supply of ET values for almost anywhere in the world, while wireless technology allows the ET information to be sent to the irrigation controllers in the field at minimal cost.

For the irrigation industry and the end user, this means a shift in the way we irrigate our landscapes. The timing could not be better. With more and more water restrictions being implemented around the country, the irrigation industry often finds itself at odds with state and local water authorities, especially during drought situations.

In Las Vegas, for example, one can be fined for wasting water. The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates 30 billion gallons of water were wasted in 2002 alone, equivalent to 1/3 of their water resources. Runoff, overspray, broken sprinklers or drip emitters, sprinkler system leaks and watering during the hottest hours of the day are responsible for most wasted water.

With the exception of overspray, the amount of water wasted could have been greatly reduced through wider use of smart controllers utilizing ET-based technology and flow sensors. With input from a weather station or other sources of evaporation data, irrigation schedules can be automatically adjusted, at any time, to replace only that water used by the plant material or lost to evaporation, thus, significantly reducing water use. In addition to the ability to set efficient watering schedules, central control can immediately shut down a single valve or multiple irrigation systems in the event of rain, mainline breakage, or other emergency. This feature alone can save thousands of gallons of water and avert the additional costs incurred in replacing ruined landscaping.

The days of wandering out to the fields, manually changing programs, searching for leaks and faulty valves are over. Through the use of Internet irrigation, schedules can be modified, shutdown or started with the click of a mouse from anywhere in the world. As technology continues to drive changes in the landscaping industry, consultants, contractors and specifiers will need to become familiar with the irrigation products of today’s manufacturers to meet the ever-changing requirements of water purveyors and water users. Internet-based control, weather-based irrigation scheduling and wireless technology will make the future of landscape irrigation greener for all.

Editor’s Note: There are a number of companies that are marketing wireless communications to controllers and more are on the way. However, Rain Master is the only company to offer Internet connection with its controllers.
By Keith O’Neill
November 2003