Controllers: What’s New?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

IRRIGATION EQUIPMENT COMPANIES today have their heads in “the cloud.” And that’s not a criticism.

The same technological explosion that’s affecting all of our electronic devices is happening to irrigation controllers, too. They’re getting smarter all the time, adding functionality and gaining ease of use, and they’re using the cloud to do it.

“There’s that ‘cloud’ again,” you may be saying right now. Yes, we’ve all been hearing more and more about “cloud computing” lately, but most of us don’t know what it means. Simply speaking, it’s storing and accessing data and programs over the Internet instead of on hard drives, discs or other storage devices.

“What does this have to do with irrigation controllers?” you may be asking. Just this: you used to have to buy new controllers to get new features. Now, you can just download them. And, you can get firmware updates as soon as they’re ready. Controllers now have the ability to stay, like the song says, “forever young.” There are also add-on devices that can turn old, conventional controllers into new, smart ones.

The other news is about smartphone remote capability. These pocket gadgets are fast becoming remote controls for just about everything in our lives. With the right apps, our phones can control our home’s lighting, security and HVAC systems—why not the sprinklers, too?

“Smart-home technology is becoming more and more prevalent,” said John Wascher, product manager, residential controllers, for Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California. So are more water-efficient products in our increasingly drought-conscious country.

“But we still have to do a good job of due diligence, and recognizing who our customers are,” says Wascher. “A one-off for a homeowner is one thing, but working with our contractor base is quite another. You don’t want to launch something that’s not going to be useful for the folks who are installing your devices.” Hunter, like other irrigation equipment manufacturers, is keeping its ears open to find out exactly what their contractor base wants.

Let’s see what’s new out there.

Baseline’s newest, FlowStation, isn’t a controller, per se; it’s more of a “controller of controllers.” The Boise, Idaho-based company debuted the flow-sharing device last fall. You can hook up as many as 30 BaseStation 3200 controllers to it, and the FlowStation will see to it that they efficiently share a single water resource. Advanced flow monitoring capability means that the FlowStation will act if a problem is detected and shut off the connection.

The company has also revamped its Base Station 1000, and the higher-end 3200 V12 controllers. The 3200 V12 now has advanced flow monitoring and management capability. It can support up to 99 programs, 200 zones and 25 soil moisture sensors, as well as eight master valves, flow meters and main lines.

The company’s added Ethernet CAT- 5 ports to its controllers, providing speedier connection to its cloud-based central control platform, Base Manager 2.0 with Live View. A web app allows you to use your cell phone to manage one controller or many, make programming changes, get reports, and start and stop zones remotely.

The controllers don’t use weather sensors or historical information; they gather data through Baseline’s soil moisture sensors, so you must buy those as well in order to have smart irrigation. “We don’t do weather-based irrigation,” said Nick Toyn, national sales and marketing manager. “We don’t think it works as well as using soil moisture sensors.”

ETwater is working on a new “flagship” controller, but won’t be making any announcements until the IA show in November. They are also working on a new platform capability, and a new cloud-based service associated with it.

HermitCrab, the add-on device that allows you to change virtually any brand of controller into a smart one, continues to add to the list of brands it works with. It’s recently become compatible with the Aqua Conserve product line. There is now a HermitCrab 2 (right) which supports flow sensors and other flow control products.

The company uses cloudbased “big data” to help its controllers make irrigation decisions. “For example, we have 50 or 60 different data attributes on soil types,” said Lee Williams, senior vice president, product development at the company’s Novato, California headquarters. “We know the consistency of the soil in a particular area, what geological shelves that soil comes from, the age of the typical topsoil, the slope, and the UV indexes. This data goes well beyond a soil moisture sensor’s capabilities.”

Hunter has “nothing that we want to tip our hand about,” said Wascher. However, the company is looking at “emerging technology that utilizes the Internet.”

Irritrol, a division of Toro, “has nothing new right now,” according to product manager Keith Shepersky.

OnPoint EcoSystems is new on the scene, having only been around for a couple of years. The Palo Alto, California-based company has “Irrigation Made Simple” as its company motto.

OnPoint’s latest release is the WaterSage, a weather-based (using an onsite weather station) smart controller.

Its functions can be accessed via WiFi using the company’s myOnPoint Cloud service from a tablet, smartphone or computer.

The most interesting feature of this controller is its user-friendly picture interface, the Water- Sage Wizard (left). For each zone, you simply click the pictures that most closely match the conditions—for instance, under “soil,” there are pictures for clay, loam, or sand—and it will do the rest, including recommending the maximum/minimum cycle-and-soak times. Or, choose “Expert Mode” to customize a schedule. It features master valve and pump support, and will run up to 16 zones, expandable to 32.

“From our market research, we saw some issues with weather-based smart controllers,” said company president Dan Palmer. “For one, ease of use. A regular clock-based controller can be intimidating enough for some people. Then, when they try to figure out an ET-based controller, they’re really intimidated.”

“Another was subscription fees. A lot of weather-based controllers use Internet data sources and charge fees for access. We’ve heard that these systems usually get turned off and turned back into time-based controllers as soon as it’s time to start paying.”

Rain Bird, headquartered in Azusa, California, has revamped almost its entire controller lineup. Five of its seven contractor-grade controllers are either new or updated. “We’ve revisited every single thing we’ve done,” said product manager Sean Azad, “focusing in on the features our customers want, based on the feedback we’ve gotten from irrigation contractors, distributors, landscape architects and other specifiers.”

And what do their customers want?

“Ease of use, and intuitiveness,” said Azad. An example is how the company revamped the battery-operated T-BOS- II controller. “The biggest complaint about the T-BOS-II platform was that it used an icon system. There was an icon that told you it was programmed wrong; another to say it was watering a station. If you didn’t know what these icons meant, they were like hieroglyphics.” Now it uses plain language instead.

“Anybody who makes anything, whether it’s a smartphone or a microwave oven, knows the user interface is what’ll determine if a product is going to be accepted by customers,” says Azad.

Usability was enhanced for the ESP- SMTe controller as well, with a restructuring of menus, screens, and vocabulary. “Our approach the first time around was, let’s use the proper industry terms,” said Azad. “But in reality, it’s a whole lot easier to comprehend, ‘How much did it rain today,’ than, ‘What moisture level was added to the soil?’ We had to take a step back and see what was more intuitive.” Station count was also expanded.

Rain Bird has bundled the ESP-LX series smart controller with the ET Manager Cartridge to create Rain Bird ESP-ET series controllers. “This came as a direct result of listening to our customers,” said Azad. “Previously, we’d sold the ESP-LX controller and the ET add-on separately. Our customers told us it would be really great to be able to buy them in one package. Now, you can.”

Rain Master, a division of Irritrol, a Toro company, will have some announcements in a few months. “There are some pretty cool things coming down the pike, such as enhancements to our Eagle Plus smart controller, that we’re purposely holding for the IA show in Phoenix,” said product marketing manager John Crossley.

“We’re really excited about the advancements we’re making in our communications technology for our iCentral line. We’re also updating the DX-2/Oasis, our flagship controller that runs cities and school districts. We’ll be improving ease of use and adding advanced functions, water management and drought-busting features.”

Toro debuted its Evolution controller (left) in May of 2013. “We built that product to be a platform that we would evolve over time; hence the name,” said Burnett Jones, senior marketing manager for Toro’s Riverside, California-based residential and commercial irrigation division.

“We’re about to release version 2.1 of the firmware. You’ll simply download it to a USB stick, put the stick in the port in back of the controller, and you’ll get those new features.”

These include an increased diagnostics capability. “Initially, the system would tell you where there was a short on a valve; now you can see the current readout, too. This can tell you if you have a broken wire or a bad solenoid.”

“One of the Evolution’s main selling points is its interface,” says Jones. “It’s been completely revamped from the traditional standard-controller look, with a dial and a fixed-segment display. And there are no cryptic little icons.” Evolution’s LCD display “is menu-driven, like a DVR or iPod, with a similar feel to the things we work with today.”

Jones says that an advancement from Evolution is its “smart connect” capability that allows input from up to three Precision Soil Sensors and other devices. A handheld remote allows walk-around servicing. And a remote relay allows you to hook up other 110- volt devices, such as lighting transformers, water pumps for fountains or misting systems, even holiday lights, and schedule them with the controller.

Tucor has two new items. The first, the Hybrid 3D (right), a universal add-on for any brand of controller, was launched by the Wexford, Pennsylvania-based company 14 months ago. “When you add a Hybrid 3D to any existing controller, it allows you to bring in flow metering and master valve control using the existing wires,” says Larry Sarver, owner and president.

“That’s huge,” says Sarver, “because there are a lot of applications where, to really call it ‘smart control,’ you’ll need to monitor flow.” This is particularly true of larger commercial installations.

The Hybrid 3D also allows you to combine two or three controllers in one location. Many smart controllers are Internet-based and require annual server fees. Combining units in one location, thus paying just one server fee, can be a real money-saver.

“Also, a lot of people are putting in drip irrigation now,” says Sarver. “Installing a Hybrid 3D allows them to put in additional zones for drip off of the existing wires.”

Changes have also been made to the company’s Flowmaster series of two-wire controllers for large (up to 500 valves) commercial applications. “Right now, one of the biggest moves in the industry is toward the use of alternative water sources,” says Sarver. “About eight or nine months ago, we added a new capability (through a firmware upgrade); Flowmaster controllers are now Internet- and sensor-based, for better management of filtration, UV lights and injection systems.”

“We’re doing a lot of graywater and rainwater harvesting applications,” adds Sarver. Flowmasters are remotely managing the ponds and transfer valves at Irvine, California’s Great Park. “Now I can sit here and work with engineers in San Francisco on the calibration of the ponds in Irvine, and implement changes remotely.”

Weathermatic has “some pretty cool splashes coming,” according to Bill Savelle, executive vice president in charge of the products division and new product development for the Garland, Texas-based company. “There are a few things I can’t talk about yet.”

The SmartLink software that manages irrigation through the SmartLine ET-based smart controllers is now in version 2.0, and has moved to the cloud.

What do contractors think?

Russ Jundt, founder and president of Conserva Irrigation, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota, uses three different features of his Toro Evolution controllers together to give him a total picture of site conditions. He uses the 40 years of historical weather data by zip code, stored in the unit’s memory; current weather data via an onsite ET sensor; and one or more Toro Precision Soil Sensors (right).

He pictures these three data sources talking to each other. “The controller says, ‘Relative to a standard, 40-year-average July 29th, we’ll need to water this amount for this length of time.’ Then, the ET sensor says, ‘Actually, we’ve been cooler and rainier than that, so we’ll probably need about a third to a half that amount of water.’ Then the soil sensors have the last word, saying, ‘But I’ve got 75 percent water content in the soil, so I’m going to suspend watering until next time.’ We view those three inputs together as a smart-technology trifecta.”

Rhett Kramer, owner and president of Memphis, Tennessee-based Echo Systems, Inc., is an irrigation and landscape contractor with mostly commercial clients. He’s installed ETwater’s HermitCrabs on many of his mostly commercial properties. He likes the product because “It’s a way to become water efficient without the costs that you might incur if you had to change out an entire control system.”

The controllers get local weather from WeatherBug, an Internet-based service. “We feel this works better than a soil probe,” explains Kramer, “because the soils in Memphis can be different from the front yard to the backyard. Unless you have one in every area of a landscape, you’re not getting as accurate a reading.”

Kramer also likes using Internet-based weather data better than rain sensors. “A rain sensor will still irrigate, even if the forecast calls for rain later that day. But these controllers will wait 12 hours to see if it really will rain; only then will it commence watering.” He says his clients are realizing water savings from 30 to 50 percent.

Whether they get feedback from focus groups, surveys, or their own distributors, irrigation equipment manufacturers are always looking for ways to make their products more useful and appealing to you, the contractor— either with brand-new rollouts or tweaks to existing products. It’s up to you to let them know what you want. They’re listening.