Smart Controllers

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

There’s a lot of talk these days about “smart home” technology and the “Internet of Things.” What this really means is remote control for every electrically-powered system in your home, from one central point of access: your smartphone, tablet or laptop computer. You can turn on your lights, monitor your home’s security system, set the temperature for your central air conditioning, pull your drapes open or closed, lock or unlock the front door and more, all while you’re on your way to Paris. The smart devices talk to you, and to each other, through a Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or other wireless technological ‘hub.’

Will smart irrigation systems become fully integrated into smart-home systems? No one has the crystal ball that will tell us the answer to that yet. But we can tell you that every major irrigation manufacturer is looking at this. Also, in the past year or so, a number of startup companies began marketing Wi-Fi based smart controllers that can be accessed via one’s smartphone, tablet or laptop. Some of these can “talk to” smart-home Wi-Fi hubs.

Up until now, this remote-control capability was only available for the commercial market, for large systems with dozens of zones and hundreds of sprinkler heads. It has been slower to come to the residential market. Is this a game-changer? We’ll have to wait and see.

Already, landscape lighting is starting to be integrated into this world. At FX Luminaire, a division of Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California, product manager Ryan Williams says the company has been beta-testing smartphone control that integrates with Lutron’s smart-home control system. And consumers who own certain Hunter smart controllers along with FX Luminaire lighting systems can already control both through a single smartphone app.

“The short answer to ‘Does Hunter have a Wi-Fi controller?’ is ‘Not yet,’ said John Wascher, product manager for residential controllers. “The more complicated answer is that we cater to a different customer when it comes to installation and requirements for connection. Features that are not usually desired by a homeowner are vital for a professional.”

Meanwhile, “Toro doesn’t want to miss out on a section of the market where there’s a significant demand,” said Burnett Jones, senior marketing manager at The Toro Company’s Riverside, California-based irrigation division. “Has it gotten to the point where it’s driven us to do anything? We haven’t released anything yet, but it’s definitely something that we’re keeping our eye on, for sure,” said Jones.

Dan Palmer, CEO of Palo Alto, California-based OnPoint Ecosystems, says that integrating with smart-home technology is “definitely down the road” for his company. Its smart controllers already use Wi-Fi for remote internet access.

Galcon USA, in San Rafael, California, is working on a new product line called ‘Galcon Smart.’ “The Galcon Smart family is not just Wi-Fi, it’s also Bluetooth, it’s also network radio, and it’s also cellular communications,” said Roy Levinson, CEO.

“We’re not limiting ourselves only to Wi-Fi products; we have a whole suite of communicating devices.”

According to Levinson, this new line will bring their controllers into the “Internet of Things.” They’re still in the initial stages of launching the first line of products, and haven’t yet fully integrated them into home automation systems, but are exploring ways of doing that.

How smart-home technology works

Home automation systems aren’t new; they’ve been around for a couple of decades. But they were very expensive and out of the reach of most homeowners. The tech revolution has made the components much cheaper.

These older systems had central hubs that controlled the lighting, air conditioning, security and other systems. Settings were accessed through a control panel on a wall. The central hub acted as an interpreter, because all of the subsystems ‘spoke’ different languages. Adding a new subsystem—say, a pool-heater control—required having someone come out and program it in.

With the new smart-home technology, the hub and the subsystems speak the same language, Wi-Fi. No one has to come out and program anything in. Each subsystem has its own app; a lighting app controls the lighting, the thermostat’s app controls the thermostat, and so on.

Eventually, there may be one central app that can control all the subsystems. But smart-home technology hasn’t quite gotten there yet.

Through Wi-Fi, the subsystems can also connect to one another. For instance, if a fire breaks out in a home equipped with both an integrated smart controller and smoke detectors, the smoke detector will tell the irrigation system to turn on.

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Remote irrigation control for everyone

The units made by these startup companies work this way: the user or contractor picks up his smartphone or tablet device and inputs information about the landscape, such as soil types, sun/shade, slope, plant and sprinkler types, and so forth. This information goes through the hub to the Internet and is stored in the Cloud.

This data is then coordinated with ET-based weather information from local weather stations, also through the Internet. The unit then schedules irrigation accordingly, although the times and days can be changed, such as when watering restrictions have been mandated.

You may be thinking, “That’s a description of smart irrigation control. We can already do all of those things now, and we’ve been doing them for years.” That’s correct.

“The mere fact that a controller is connected via a smartphone or through the Internet isn’t what makes a controller ‘smart,’” said Wascher. “A smart controller, as defined by the EPA’s WaterSense program, is one that makes adjustments to irrigation scheduling, in order to compensate for various weather conditions.”

Jones said that Toro has had remote-control capability on the commercial side in a number of ways, through cellular or Ethernet connections, and the emphasis on Wi-Fi is just pushing it down to the homeowner level. Is there a true demand from homeowners for a Wi-Fi connected controller? He thinks that remains to be seen.

“Most people want to forget about their irrigation controller. They don’t even want to know it’s there; they just want to know that it’s doing its job. Tell me when there’s a problem, but other than that, I’d rather not even deal with it.”

There are all different kinds of customers, and Jones concedes that the more ‘techie’ type of person may want the ability to ‘play’ with his irrigation settings, just as he plays with his HVAC or lighting system. “There will be a residential market for this, undoubtedly, and I think it’ll be a market that will grow, but probably much slower than what some people are thinking.”

Tony Dilluvio, owner of Elmswood, New York-based Aqua-Turf Irrigation Systems, has been working with NEST, focusing on his higher-end, more tech-savvy customers.

“What I like about this smart-home technology is that installing one of these Wi-Fi-enabled controllers gets me into a customer’s home. Once I’m in there, I can sell them on a landscape lighting system, or some other service.”

About a year ago, AquaTurf started researching smart irrigation controllers from ten companies, and settled on three: ETwater (based in Novato, California) Rachio (Denver, Colorado) and Hydrawise (Australia). “They all make smart controllers that are ET-based, connected to the Internet and several weather stations,” said AquaTurf’s general manager Alfred Dilluvio. “They all allow you to manage irrigation schedules from any web-based application platform.”

The feedback from customers has been positive. Many of them have never had smart control before. “They love that it’s no longer a system of dials and knobs. I’m excited from both a money-saving and a conservation standpoint.”

What about contractors? What’s their reaction? Initially, Jeff Welch, vice president of business development at H2O Designs, LLC, Vancouver, Washington, chose one of the startup Wi-Fi units for his residential clients, mainly because of its simplicity. But what he really likes now is that it makes his small company work like a big one.

“There are one-and-a-half people in my company. We do about $1.1 million a year in annual revenue. People ask, ‘So how do you manage to work in all 50 states?’ “If I didn’t have this type of technology, I could only be a local contractor,” explained Welch.

“Now, I’m a national contractor. I manage controllers on homes I’ve never even been to. I can see and manage 500 controllers remotely from a laptop, an iPad, a smartphone, from wherever I am, even 30,000 feet in the air.”

But don’t other smart and central-control systems already have that capability? “Yes, commercial-type controllers for large complexes and lots of zones,” answers Welch. “Up until now, homeowner units never had that ability.”

For Zack Williams, owner of Regenesis Ecological Designs in Ashland, Oregon, an environmental landscape, irrigation and design/build firm, the remote-control aspect is also key. “I don’t have to dispatch someone to drive to a home and spend fifteen minutes fiddling around in a garage when I need to make changes.”

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The contractor’s role

Many contractors are not very tech-savvy. Some are only now beginning to really understand smart control. Even the ones who do understand it are going to need some time to catch up to the brave new world of smart-home technology.

When and if smart irrigation does become fully integrated into smart-home control, it’s the contractors

who’ll be on the front lines. Yet the startup companies began by marketing directly to consumers. That strategy seems to be changing, as they discover that contractors are the main conduit to the customers they seek. “They’re finding out that the homeowner market isn’t catching on as much as they’d hoped,” opined Jones.

Joe Jackson manages the water management division at Salt Lake City, Utah-based Sprinkler Supply Company. He says that even though these new controllers are being touted as “DIY” products, it’s mostly contractors who are buying and installing them. “A homeowner will say, ‘Mr. Contractor, I want to have one of these Wi-Fi units; please install it for me.’” Rachio has started reaching out to irrigation and landscape contractors. “We know that the bulk of the market is to the pros, and we’re actively recruiting them,” said Ric Miles, the person in charge of the company’s business development and strategy.

Some of these companies have developed portals just for professionals, to enable them to view and manage all the units under an account. One of them has even started sending contractors business leads. When customers come to its website looking for installers, they’re directed to member contractors.

The new companies seem fated to make plenty of missteps. “The people behind these new startups are techies who don’t know the irrigation business, and I think it’s going to take them a long time to learn it,” said Palmer. He added that since his company—which is also a relatively new startup—had to go through the learning curve, these companies will too, probably to an even greater degree.

Will annual fees go away?

The startups use the fact that they don’t charge annual subscription fees for access to their Internet-based weather information as a selling point. That may not be sustainable for them, however.

“There is no subscription fee at this time, but we don’t know if we will have one in the future,” said Clay Kraus, director of professional programs for Rachio. “The only way we would have a fee is if there was some kind of value to it.”

Mack Dalley, a product developer for Lehi, Utah-based Skydrop, says that the company is looking at making its product a little more ‘robust’ for contractor use. “As we develop more features that would allow them to have better reporting, then we’ll develop some packages that may have a yearly subscription fee.”

Jones says these companies may find themselves having to eventually charge fees for a number of reasons. There’s the cost for upkeep of online databases, and for access to outside servers. And developers have to be kept on salary.

Fees may be a stumbling block for a residential customer, but a few hundred dollars a year is not a big deal for the manager of a large commercial account. The fees are usually more than offset by the savings.

It may be that access fees eventually disappear for home smart controllers, but remain for commercial systems.

What about commercial systems?

Will Wi-Fi-based smart controllers ever be found running the sprinkler systems in corporate parks or condo developments? Chris Manchuck, senior vice president of sales and cofounder of Petaluma, California-based HydroPoint Data Systems, Inc., thinks not.

“There’s definitely an inherent scalability issue with the Wi-Fi solution versus cellular. Lots of high value, high-touch, critical services use the cellular network. You don’t see those types of things on Wi-Fi just yet because of those issues.”

Because cellular is more robust, and operates outside of a firewall, its reliability is more controllable. With Wi-Fi, you have to depend on a network being up and a large number of ever-changing passwords. And since Wi-Fi only has a range of 200 to 300 feet, you may need a whole new infrastructure, a network of repeaters.

In opting for simplicity, the startups may have sacrificed some of the more sophisticated functionality that managers of large commercial systems need and want. “Some of our branches have demo-tested some Rachio units,” said Eric Santos, vice president of irrigation services for ValleyCrest/Brickman (soon to be rebranded as BrightView). “I’ve personally tried Skydrop.”

How did he find the experience?

“Frustrating. Compared to smart-control products we’ve used in the past, it just didn’t have the capability and flexibility of other products that have been around for a long time.”

What was missing for him? Being able to drill down into very specific aspects of zone characteristics, for one. The ability to fine-tune and make adjustments to precipitation rates of various types of sprinkler heads, for another.

For now, most of the Wi-Fi controller companies are making products that can only control up to 16 zones. As for the commercial market, “That’s off our radar right now; we’re really trying to hit the masses here,” said Miles.

Smart-home technology might eventually embrace smart irrigation control. Presently, the relationship is in the courtship stage. Things are changing rapidly; we’ll just have to stay tuned to see what happens.