The year of wireless

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

Wireless technology helps irrigation professionals dealing with labor shortages and social distancing.

Wireless irrigation devices are here to stay, there’s little doubt about that. Smart controllers that receive weather data wirelessly have been around for years. We have wireless rain, soil moisture and sun sensors, and more recently, wireless flow sensors have been added. Wireless, battery-powered valves appeared in the last couple of years. Both homeowners and caretakers of commercial irrigation sites have become accustomed to using their smartphones to change settings and receive alerts from controllers even when thousands of miles away.

Because of the challenges still facing the industry with COVID-19 and labor issues, it’s looking more and more as if this will be the year that wireless irrigation technology really takes off.

The year 2020 was not normal in any way, with the pandemic affecting virtually every person and business on Earth. Contact-free communications, delivery and control became not merely matters of convenience, but imperatives. All of this has served to push the wireless irrigation revolution forward.

John Crossley, product group manager, residential and commercial irrigation and lighting at The Toro Company’s irrigation division, Riverside, California, sees that as a silver lining.

“This horrible situation we’re in is going to slowly push people into using wireless,” Crossley says.

“If you can get all your diagnostics without physically going to a controller that’s been touched by other people who may not have washed their hands, that’s a good thing.”

The intensity of the past year accelerated people’s needs for more wireless technologies, just like how Zoom and other videoconferencing tools became a part of daily life, says Joe Porazzo, senior product manager of controllers and connected devices at Rain Bird, Azusa, California. “We’ve seen significant growth in our remote customer usage, either for our Wi-Fi or our cellular-connected products. These connected devices are becoming more commonplace as a result of what’s happened.”

The ongoing green industry labor shortage is another log adding fuel to this fire. Wireless technologies have made it easier to manage properties from a distance, meaning fewer field personnel are needed.

Wireless technology is definitely becoming more popular, especially in the realm of large, highend central control systems, says Steven Sadler, assistant service manager at Nature Unlimited Irrigation and Lighting Solutions, Finksburg, Maryland.

“We have a large number of commercial clients, and it’s practically become a requirement to have something that can control the valves remotely, where we don’t have to physically be in front of the controller 100% of the time or need to run back and forth across a large job site.”

Added efficiency

It’s easy to see the benefit of wireless technology for an irrigation contractor, and homeowners are becoming more savvy with it as well, says Porazzo.

“It’s a pretty even split between the contractors and the end users requesting these technologies,” he says. “We’re seeing homeowners also asking for more tools that will make their everyday lives more convenient. It could be as basic as having a connected controller or as complex as having more advanced weather-based data programming.”

Wireless irrigation devices allow for greater efficiency in time management, especially surrounding transit time, says Porazzo. Traveling from site to site takes up a good deal of crew time, and wireless technology can reduce fuel and labor costs there. More contractors are realizing that, accelerating the demand for wireless. “Now we’re seeing contractors that had previously shied away from these technologies, whether they were uncomfortable with them or just didn’t see their value — they’re starting to see it now.”

Sadler says, “Anytime a system can be smart enough to shut itself down when there’s a problem and give us awareness when there’s a problem, that’s obviously a big time and money saver. If we know that there’s an overflow and it’s not just on one specific zone, then we can identify it as a mainline break. That helps us decrease the time spent looking for the leak and saves hours and hours of labor and gallons and gallons of water.”

Ben Sacks, product manager for intermediate commercial controllers at Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California, says, “Now you can literally pull up an app, look at the history and troubleshoot from there. There’s a lot of time, money and labor savings in being able to manage multiple controllers and systems remotely.”

It’s important to have a good read of what’s happening with a client’s flow rates, which is an area where wireless flow sensing devices can be helpful.

Sadler’s company is responsible for a large number of commercial and municipal clients including dozens of systems within the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles. Wireless flow sensing has become vital to maintaining those systems. “We’ve been alerted to major overflows by the wireless flow sensors,” says Sadler. “It’s happened a number of times.”

Sacks, who used to work in sales, says he assisted with contractors who got yelled at when property managers ran across swamps created by a pipe break or other system malfunction. “Now a contractor can have the ability to catch it when it happens. They can be proactive rather than reactive when a problem occurs, which does a lot for client satisfaction.

It builds trust on the part of the client, and for a contractor trust is pretty much everything.”

Sadler can attest to that. “A lot of those commercial sites are high-traffic areas where a lot of money has been invested in the landscape. Limiting problems on those sites for those clients is key to our relationship with their owners or managers. Wireless has definitely made that a lot easier.”

For commercial or municipal settings, adding flow sensors isn’t too difficult to work in as an additional cost. But historically, flow sensing has been too expensive for residential users, says Porazzo.

“Now, the costs are starting to come down to where they make sense for a homeowner,” he says. “I would argue that flow sensing is just as important if not more so in the big picture than having a connected product.”

Dealing with obstacles

Every contractor has dealt with situations where existing hardscape hampers installation. “Costs skyrocket, especially with big commercial systems with a lot of obstacles in the way,” says Sacks. “Then there are all the things that adversely affect wires, from ground squirrels to tree roots. There are all sorts of factors that we could improve upon or eliminate if we had a fully wireless solution.”

It’s important to remember that battery life is a consideration with any wireless installation. Sacks says it’s an obstacle as solid as any cement barrier. “Everyone thinks wireless is super easy — you just put it in the ground and forget about it,” says Sacks. “But batteries are finite. It’s hard to estimate how long a battery will last in a generic irrigation installation, because it depends on how often the system starts up and the operating conditions. If a battery is in a valve box that’s soaked in water all day, every day, how is that going to affect its life span?” A lot still needs to be sorted out before battery power becomes a better option than copper wire, says Sacks. “That’s where harvesting solar energy and using inline water-propelled turbines as generators would come into play as a means of recharging those batteries.”

With anything new comes the need to know how to use it. Implementing these wireless technologies means placing a greater emphasis on training. It’s been that way for the company Sadler works for. “We’ve had to increase our technicians’ knowledge about how to run these wireless systems and manage the controllers,” says Sadler.

Whenever new products are unveiled, manufacturers are brought in to give inhouse tutorials, says Sadler. “The people that are going to be using and installing those new products in the field are sitting in those meetings. The makers make it relatively easy to understand these devices.”

Crossley says that standardizing one or two brands within the irrigation professional’s company makes training much easier and gives added leverage with suppliers. “If someone reaches out to us and says, ‘I’m a contractor, I want to standardize with your products, I need help training my team,’ we’ll hop to it.”

Crossley says that there is another aspect of the wireless revolution that is just as important as a wireless flow sensor or a smart controller. “The biggest trend we’ve seen on the residential side is with the advent of not just Wi-Fi-based communications but cloud-based data storage. The software is becoming more of the product than the hardware hanging in somebody’s garage. Cloud infrastructure is being built into smart homes, whether it be through more of a Zigbee or Z-Wave standard with home automation, like an Amazon Alexa protocol, Apple HomeKit or Google Home. All of that full smart home integration is in the cards now.”

One thing is for sure: Irrigation manufacturers, large and small, will keep working on the dual problems of broadening the range and robustness of wireless signals and elongating battery life.

They’ll keep innovating to make the troubleshooting process easier for irrigation contractors, commercial property managers and homeowners alike.

It’s exciting to think about what the future might bring — and don’t we all need something to look forward to right now?

The author is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at pouncerspy@gmail.com.