Taking wireless into uncharted waters
|By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano|
Can you feel the buzz? Innovators both new and old are taking wireless irrigation technology to the next level.
It’s official. The future of irrigation is going to be a wireless one. Rain, evapotranspiration, soil moisture and flow sensors, and now, even entire irrigation systems have exchanged wires for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular and 900 megahertz. Anyone who attended the recent Irrigation Show and Education Conference in Long Beach, California, last December got a glimpse of that future, especially if you walked around the display of entries in the Irrigation Association’s new product contest.
Connectivity is the word of the day as smart irrigation control is increasingly being integrated into the “internet of things.” That has suddenly made smart controllers a hot commodity, attracting companies outside of the irrigation industry to develop them. Some new products have eliminated the box on the wall completely, using a smartphone or tablet as the controller.
For a fascinating window into what’s ahead, we’ve checked out a few of these new products. Some of them are from established irrigation companies and some are from new players.
Wireless irrigation system
Not simply a wireless device that helps with one aspect of irrigation, such as a sensor, Reservoir Spoke is an entire wireless irrigation system. Jesse Lafian, who founded the company in his junior year at the University of Georgia, came up with the product “because I saw that there are several major problems irrigation contractors deal with daily and I wanted to solve them.”
Lafian says two-wire systems, the industry standard for commercial sites, “are very complex, with up to 11 parts. My system simplifies that down to three: a hub, spokes and a DC latching solenoid.”
This system makes it easy to add valves with the push of a button on the phone app. You can add a virtually unlimited number of zones to a system.Because there are no wires in the system, lightning can’t hurt it. Also, since there’s no need to dig up a yard to install this system, there’s no risk of cutting other wires in the ground.
Repair estimating is also easier. “When a contractor troubleshoots a two-wire system, he’s guesstimating the cost of a repair,” says Lafian. With Spoke, he can know exactly how much it’s going to cost.”
There are three options for connectivity from the hub to the cloud: cellular, Wi-Fi or ethernet.
Jay Stephens, owner of Davis Landscape, Atlanta, was an alpha tester of the Spoke product. In business since 1994, he installs irrigation systems as part of landscape installation. He calls the product a “game changer,” with the potential to add $25,000 to $35,000 to his yearly bottom line.
“It’s the first product I’ve seen that’s truly wireless,” he says. “A lot of other products talk about being wireless or internet-enabled or whatever, meaning that you have remote access to the controller, but from the controller to the valves there’s still a wire. With the spoke-and-hub scenario there are no wires. Your smart device is the controller.” He adds, “If I can install irrigation systems and not have to run wire, that’s black magic.”
“If a couple years down the road, I don’t buy any more wire, I can charge less for a system,” he continues. “We install $800,000 a year worth of irrigation.
Some 2 percent of that is wire; not buying it would save me $15,000 to $25,000 a year, conservatively.”
Multiple wireless flow sensing coordinator
Truly wireless flow sensing is something that contractors have wanted for a long time, and they recently got it. But the Nexus Wireless Flow System from Tucor is more like a translator for multiple sensors.
Using a 900 mHz transmitter, the Nexus Wireless Flow System sends out the high-frequency pulses required by the current crop of smart controllers that are looking for rate of flow in gallons per minute as well as flow volume.
It’s compatible with most manufacturers’ controllers and pulse-output flow sensors, with the ability to “read” up to four wireless and two hardwired flow sensors (six total) and sum the pulses to form a combined flow/volume and transmit that information to one receiver gateway. It can then transmit that flow information to two devices, an irrigation controller and a separate injector or other component that requires flow information. You can have a mix of various brands and sizes in the same system.
The Nexus can also figure out average flow by taking the combined pulse count and dividing it by the number of sensors.
Smart sprinkler hub/wireless soil moisture sensor
Sprinkl launched as a company in 2014 with a product called Conserve, a smart rain-and-freeze sensor that connects to any brand of controller. It’s one of the firms that’s entered the irrigation industry from another sector.
Like the founders of Rachio and Skydrop, Sprinkl’s two co-founders come from a tech background.
Noel Geren is a software developer and engineer, and Daniel Pruesner is an electronics engineer. Mark James, one of the company’s main investors, says, “We’re not like the traditional irrigation company. We’re a tech company; we use technology to create sustainable situations for water, a very precious and valuable resource, and to solve problems.”
What led to the development of that initial product, Conserve? “Noel Geren, one of our co-founders, was out of town when a cold spell hit,” says James. “A neighbor called and said, ‘Your sprinkler system’s still on, do you want me to turn it off?’ There was no way he could do that because everything was locked up.”
Geren “being the hacker that he is,” went to work. He reportedly developed the prototype with the help of a 3D printer and a modified Easy-Bake Oven.
One of the two new products Sprinkl entered in the contest is called simply “Control.” Sprinkl characterizes it as “the first smart sprinkler hub.” The Control wall module looks nothing like a conventional controller. Open up the green box, and all you will see are the terminals for the valves. There are no buttons or dials; your smartphone is the controller.
The complexity of smart controllers confused many end users and even some contractors. This created a window for app-based smart-control products that were simple, user-friendly and low-priced, sending shockwaves into the irrigation industry.
“That’s where Sprinkl also differentiates,” says James. “Our user interface is really simple. That’s where I think we have a leg up.”
Use Control in tandem with one or more Sense moisture sensors, Sprinkl’s other new product, and you just may remove the need for scheduling altogether, says Geren. The Sense devices will determine if watering is required.
Advanced flow monitoring for commercial sites
Sean Penn, vice president, product management and marketing for HydroPoint, explains WeatherTRAK Optiflow XR’s place in the company’s product line. “We have a kind of ‘good, better, best:’ WeatherTRAK LC+ is for light commercial. Then we have the WeatherTRAK ET Pro3, which has been our workhorse, kind of the flagship controller. At the high end, we now have the Optiflow XR, adding advanced flow management to our suite of controllers.”
“What is really innovative about this, and new in the industry, is the ability for multiple controllers on a mainline to coordinate their schedules in the cloud,” Penn continues. “Once you have all of the schedules, zones and hydraulics of a site, they can run the maximum number of stations at any one time that the mainline or the hydraulics will support and look at that on a minute-by-minute basis using the latest weather data to get shorter irrigation cycles.”
Penn says that someone trying to do the math himself could end up with a water-wasting eight hour irrigation cycle. Using this product, and the software tools that come with it, all of that calculating is done automatically, translating into shortened runtimes and compliance with watering restrictions.
Optiflow XR allows multiple controllers to wirelessly share flow, master valve and point-of-connection information. All of that is coordinated through the cloud and wirelessly using a cellular frequency.
Battery-operated irrigation controller with Bluetooth
You might think the TBOS-BT was developed as an answer to the Hunter Node. Joe Porrazzo, product manager for controllers at Rain Bird, says that product was actually launched in 2018, a batteryoperated residential/light commercial controller called the ESP-9V. “The TBOS-BT evolved from us seeing an opportunity to incorporate the transmitter that everyone carries with them, the cell phone.”
Battery power makes the TBOS-BT ideal for retrofitting situations and for temporary irrigation on new construction sites. It’s no cream puff either — it has a vandal-resistant (and waterproof) case for installation in high-foot-traffic areas.
With this product, too, there is no irrigation controller in a box mounted somewhere. To change settings, you use the free Rain Bird mobile app or a TBOS II Field Transmitter. The app also allows you to remotely check battery life.
Bluetooth-enabled tap timer
The BTT Tap Timer from Hunter Industries is a solution to the problem of keeping container plants, window boxes and raised beds well watered when inground irrigation isn’t available. No controller is needed; An iOS or Android device is used to schedule.
Installation is simple, just screw it onto any standard threaded hose faucet with a ¾-inch inlet. Drip or microirrigation emitters can be attached to the module with an optional BTT-LOC device.
Two alkaline AA batteries should power the device for up to six months. Once they reach a low point, an alert is sent to one’s smartphone or tablet. A red LED on the unit itself also flashes when batteries need to be changed.
“Contractors have been asking for something like this and our homeowners as well,” says Darik Chandler, Hunter associate product manager. “It’s also a very popular product globally.”
Change is good, but it also can be scary. While game-changing products like these new wireless irrigation components are exciting, there is an adjustment period while one learns the new rules. Don’t make the mistake of letting that minor obstacle keep you on the sidelines spectating while others run with the ball, score and win.
The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at email@example.com.
Consensus among contractors?
What do contractors think about wireless? Count Joshua Pool as a fan. The chief operations officer at Timberline Landscaping Inc., Colorado Springs, Colorado, has found wireless irrigation products to be great time- and money-savers for his company. “On all our new residential design/builds, we’re using Rain Bird’s LNK system as the standard controller. It gives a homeowner the ability to log in from his mobile device and use it like a remote, setting run times and schedules, turning it on and off.”
Wireless technology means his techs can make seasonal changes to a controller without the client being home; all he needs is a passcode. “If there’s a break, we can shut down a system from wherever we are so they’re not wasting water.”
“We use Rain Bird’s WR2-48 wireless rain/freeze sensors as our standard, where a lot of our competitors have them as upgrades. It even has a function where it shuts it down for a predetermined amount of time, like 48 or 72 hours. We feel that, in this era of water shortages, rain/freeze sensors and smart controllers need to be standard equipment. We try and be good stewards of water by having these standards in place.”
Judith Benson, president and owner of Clear Water PSI, Winter Springs, Florida, while excited about wireless irrigation technology (she calls herself a gadget-lover), her appreciation is more nuanced. “The only wireless things we’re using currently are wireless ET and rain sensors,” she says. “We did install some wireless soil moisture sensors, but it’s been awhile since I put any of those in the ground. The industry, for the most part, is still heavy on ET and weather-based controllers, not soil sensors, because of the cost. I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.”
From her observations, soil moisture sensors are probably 25 to 50 percent more effective than ET sensors or ET-based controllers at conserving water.
“When you have a sensor on the side of the house or on an eave or fence, the ET sensors are really just monitoring water in the atmosphere. But the soil sensors are buried in the ground, at the root zone of the plants, and know exactly how much water is needed. I have some data from a test we did that showed soil sensors, both wired and wireless, were bringing water use down 50 to 70 percent, where the ET sensors reduced it by maybe 30 to 40 percent.”
She points a drawback that wireless devices have. “A property owner may not realize that a sensor has stopped working. If the battery dies, those savings are lost, sometimes for a long time. All the conservation settings are gone once the sensors fail.”
Benson also has found that battery-life claims are often exaggerated. For example, the wireless sensor she installed at a residence in June of 2017. “The manufacturer claims that its lithium-ion battery will last 10 years. But it’s already depleted. A lot of times I find many of these supposed five- and 10-year batteries failing in two to three years. Some last less than two years out in the field.” She would caution contractors not to put these things in and walk away, thinking, “I’m good for the next five to 10 years.”
Jay Stephens, owner of Davis Landscape, Atlanta, who alpha-tested Reservoir Spoke, is enthusiastic about wireless. But he also made this comment: “I take care of irrigation as a matter of service to my landscape maintenance clients, but I’m not an irrigation service contractor. For those guys, there’s some risk that a product like Reservoir Spoke could take a revenue stream away, not unlike how, when LEDs became prevalent, lighting contractors didn’t get to go replace the bulbs every year like they used to.
However, Stephens adds that “there are always ways to create new revenue streams around new products.”