Can Batteries Keep Turf Clocks Ticking?

Commercial irrigation wouldn't be what it is today if controllers ceased to exist.

Let's face it, without the timely, precisely measured application of water to maintain turf and landscapes in good and uniform condition, irrigation as we know it would be no more. Here lies the importance of quality controllers.

In areas like median strips, islands and other remote locations, difficult or impossible to reach with traditional electrical control systems, the battery-powered alternative is a natural. A consumer society that demands convenience is another factor that has played a huge part in the manufacture of battery-powered controllers. In the past, these controllers had their drawbacks, most of which have been eliminated by new technology.

There are currently three types of battery-powered controllers on the market, including stand-alone valve box controllers, externally programmable valve box controllers, and multiple station controllers.

The stand-alone models are the most common types in the United States, undoubtedly because of their handy design. The typical mount is directly atop the valve, and most commonly used for a single station. To program, the user simply lifts the box cover and adjusts the settings.

The externally programmable valve box controllers are typically mounted to a sidewall in the valve box, but have no program controls. Instead, a detached programmer is set at another location (making it more convenient than programming on site), attached via cable to the valve box and downloaded.

Multiple station controllers are primarily used for six stations or more, and are mounted on a pedestal or on a wall. The programming is more comprehensive and similar to the conventional AC-powered controllers.

Controllers garner their power from either "AA" batteries, 9-volt or lantern batteries, depending on the model. Although these controllers have been around for two decades, some in the industry (and, consequently, the consumer base) doubt the true grit of these versatile turf clocks.

"In years past — about 15 years ago — battery-powered controllers weren't reliable," says Rick Heenan, sales manager for the commercial division of DIG Corporation, manufacturers of controllers in San Marcos, California. "Contractors got a bad taste for how they performed, and some of that perception is still out there."

To understand the upside and downside of battery-powered controllers, it's important to compare their operation to a traditional, electrically wired system. This will allow for a well-informed decision when searching for the most feasible and reliable controller, and give fuel to reasons behind the battery alternative.

Cliff Burwell of Northridge, California-based Dayni Controls, knows the controller market well. His company is one that specializes in manufacturing battery-powered controllers. "If you have trouble getting power, the battery is the way to go," says Burwell. "Depending on the site, like where lightning is common or power outages are a problem, there are many more advantages to a battery controller compared to an electrical system."

In addressing the difference between battery and electrical power, the main concern is with the power supply. The controller and solenoid each need electric current to operate (controlling water output and timing), whether from a battery or electric source. The efficiency of the power supply determines whether or not to use battery power.

Submersion is another factor to address when choosing controllers. In the past, submersion was a problem with battery-powered units. "The electronics weren't waterproof," explains Heenan. "It's only been in the past three to five years that a few companies have come up with the technology that protects the electronics."

Radio transmitters are also used with some models to program controllers via radio. Using these transmitters eliminates the need to open the valve box cover, other than to change the batteries.

In terms of current draw, the latching solenoid requires a significant amount of energy. For a battery-powered supply, this normally limits the valve box controller to operate only one valve at a time, but at a short distance.

George Alexanian, president of Alex-Tronix Controls, a pioneer company in the development of battery and other specialty controls for over 20 years, says that greater distances of valve operation are a must — especially for the commercial unit with multiple stations.

Valve operation at longer distance expands the use of battery controls for specification agencies and the commercial end-user. Through new and patented technology owned by Alex-Tronix, the problems of power for long distance and extended battery life have been eliminated.Energy allocation is the key difference with the operating distance issue. With an electric controller, a constant flow of electricity is supplied to the solenoid, keeping the valves operating as needed. A battery sends surges to the solenoid as needed to open and again to close, to conserve energy and prolong battery life. Otherwise, a battery's life would be drastically shortened — the normal life span of battery-powered controllers is estimated at 1,000 valve cycles, or about one year. With this new technology, the life span has been increased to 10 times that amount.

Attempts have been made to combat this problem by using low-power latching solenoids, but hydraulic performance is limited, which is discussed below. Solar panels are also an option to maintaining and restoring a battery pack's life. While these panels are efficient at combating battery life, they do not address the longer distance issue and are subject to damage and vandalism, and can only restore energy capacitors in sunny or ambient light. The solar panel option also raises the price tag of these controllers substantially.

Another question raised about the amount of juice needed to run one or multiple stations hinges on the reliability of latching solenoids. To address the aforementioned issue of valve operating distance, technological advancements have created low-power latching solenoids. These types of solenoids conserve energy, but at a cost — low magnetic force sometimes fails to adjust to adverse conditions like high water pressure and low battery voltage. Because of this, reliability of these types of solenoids may result in sub-par performance..

Filling a Need

To further prove the worth of this burgeoning alternative to traditional electrical systems, Peoria, Illinois-based L.R. Nelson Corporation continues to evolve their line of wireless controllers. Since L.R. Nelson's acquisition of the French company Microprocess Applications three years ago, the bar has been raised on turf clock quality and dependability.

Improvements were made in manufacturing existent product, as well as adding radio technology. The product line, tagged SoloRain, is the key player in what Randy Symonds, the Electronic Product Manager for Nelson, says is the most complete line in the United States." In fact," says Symonds, "we have the only radio programmed controller in the U.S."

Nelson's focus on honing its wireless product exemplifies the company's faith in filling a need. "What we've done is made improvements to the design of battery operated controllers," Symonds notes. "And we've also implemented manufacturing processes and quality checks that ensure the product will last in the field." Nelson stands behind SoloRain with a two-year warranty.

Radio programming has been the major product addition, and features "true two-way communications," according to Symonds. "We have a range of 60 feet in ground, and full programming capabilities."

The benefits of radio include timesavings, particularly if frequent program changes are common, and safety. Taking the example of using battery operated controllers in a highway median, with radio there is no need to cross a busy highway to reach the controller.

Looking forward, Symonds is excited about what's in the wireless works at Nelson. "We'll see widespread use of this technology," Symonds comments with a spark of excitement. "We really expect the market to grow. And you'll start to see the battery operated controller reaching the mainstream of irrigation."

"I can say that the reliability and performance
has improved drastically. Contractors need to take a
second look at battery controllers, and not just or remote areas."

An age-old problem with battery controls is the compatibility question. Most battery-operated controllers are designed to operate a particular latching solenoid. While there are adapters available to interface from certain latching solenoids to other valves, most controllers can only operate a limited number of solenoids. All aspects of compatibility should be considered when specifying or using any battery-powered controller.

So why go battery, you may ask?
When you do not have power or it's too expensive to get, there are many benefits to a wireless controller:

    • No permits are needed to run wire.
    • No need to hire electricians to run wire.
    • No need to reprogram or reset after power spikes, brownouts or other electrical mishaps.
    • Practically instant add-on for adding a station.

New digital display screens are available, making it easy for the user to follow step-by-step programming icons.

With every system there are setbacks and room for improvement. Battery-powered controllers are no different. The future is bright in the battery-powered controller arena, as technological improvements surround their manufacturing each year. Most of the downsides to battery usage will undoubtedly be addressed in the near future, allowing all types of controllers to maximize their potential and usefulness.

"There's room for everybody in this industry, battery and electric," says Burwell. "However, when getting electricity to the controller is not feasible, battery's the way to go."

Heenan concurs: "I've been selling battery controllers for 18 years now — the good ones and the bad ones. I can say that the reliability and performance has improved drastically. Contractors need to take a second look at battery controllers, and not just for remote areas."

Alexanian agrees that battery-powered controllers have improved significantly in recent years. He says, "We have addressed all four major concerns of distance, battery life, compatibility and reliability, and have been successful." This accomplishment, along with future research and development, will yield even more interest, confidence and use of battery-operated units.