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Grow your Business with Battery Power

Lisa Fratt | Controllers
Versatile, reliable, flexible, these are just a few adjectives that could pertain to battery-powered controllers. New technology over the past few years and sleek new designs have put these controllers in the forefront.

Battery-powered controllers have come a long way in the last few years. “There are a lot of positive to battery-operated controllers,” says Jeff Kremicke, product manager for controllers for Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California. “They’re really versatile and meet a growing need to get water to areas without access to AC power.” David Levy, president of DIG Corp. Vista, California. adds, “Today’s battery controllers are easy to use, reliable and handy problem solvers.”

This is quite a shift from five or six years ago when a fair number of contractors might have described the 9-volt devices as unreliable with limited range and programming capabilities, to be used only as a last resort. But the irrigation contractor who hangs on to such outdated ideas could potentially be giving up some opportunities that come his way.

Where are contractors likely to use battery-powered controllers? Battery-powered controllers are the natural choice in remote areas where there is no electric power. They also make sense on segmented median strips and traffic circles, where it may not be cost-effective to run electricity because of the price of a meter and running electricity under the road.

In these cases, a contractor who can demonstrate his battery-powered knowledge` just may outpower his competition. Tim Malooly, president of Irrigation by Design Plymouth, Minnesota, points out, “Battery-powered controllers are a necessary part of the irrigation business. In fact, when electric power isn’t available, battery-operated controllers are really the only solution.”

Many contractors find battery-powered controllers are perfect for certain projects. Take Gene Barnes, president of Gallion Irrigation Inc. Houston, Texas. His company targets the upscale residential design market where battery-powered devices are frequently used in areas without electricity such as interior courtyards. Malooly, on the other hand, uses battery-powered controllers in temporary installations in areas without power.

Although that isn’t the lion’s share of the controller market, battery-powered controllers represent a 10 percent of the irrigation controller market. In fact, all the major manufacturers of irrigation controllers have at least one battery-powered unit in the product line. This is a strong indication of where battery-powered controllers are heading.
If the contractor has a good understanding of battery-powered controllers, it can help win bids that require battery-powered devices.
Stephen Ralowicz, head of sales and service for Irrigation Station in Houston, Texas, points out, “If an irrigation contractor wants to grow out of the residential market, he really needs to get a handle on battery-powered controllers.”
Ralowicz divides contractors into three groups. Contractors serving the land development and commercial communities certainly need to understand battery-powered controllers because these clients service areas without access to electricity or where the cost of running electrical lines is prohibitively expensive. Contractors who bridge from residential to small commercial projects need to use battery-powered controllers at least occasionally because small commercial projects may have sites without power. Medians are a prime example in this subset. And residential irrigation contractors may not necessarily need to use battery-powered controllers as most of their projects have access to electricity. Even among the final group, however, smart contractors are turning to battery-powered controllers more and more often.

Kremicki says battery operated controllers are increasing in popularity. In fact, he knows a number of contractors who carry several battery-powered controllers in the backs of their trucks in case they run into an emergency where the controller could save the day.
“More and more contractors are considering battery-powered controllers as the independent power-water management solution even when power is easily accessible,” says Rick Heenan, sales manager for DIG Corp. “Contractors can save time in controlling common or shared area irrigation systems because they don’t need to tap into power sources or wait for power permits. They can also reduce the cost associated with a conventional AC powered system by eliminating the need for a power drop, electrical meter and ongoing electricity bills.”

The upshot is that battery-powered controllers are a key part of the industry. And the good news is that today’s battery-powered controllers are far superior to those of just a few years ago. So if you are one those battery-shy contractors it just may be time to take a new model for a spin. You’ll find that the line separating DC and AC powered controllers is becoming increasingly blurry; manufacturers of battery-powered units are doing their best to match the functionality of 120 volt controllers by building battery-powered controllers that are reliable and offer contractor-friendly features such as the ability to remotely program the controller.

The New and Improved Battery-Powered Controllers

If you haven’t looked at a battery-powered controller in the past few years, maybe you should re-visit that. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Sleek new design and new improved technology have put this product back of the front burner Ralowicz explains, “You can probably do anything with a battery-operated controller that you could do with an AC-powered controller. This includes multiple starts in a day, infrared and remote operation and multiple station controllers. People shouldn’t be afraid of battery-powered controllers.”

In fact, you can probably do more with a battery-powered controller. One point comes to mind. Let’s say you want to irrigate an area that is inside a building. It might be easier and simpler install a valve automated with a batter control, which can cost less than $100, to control this area. It certainly eliminates bringing wire under or around the area, then drill a hole for the wire to enter. These one station controls give the contractor tremendous flexibility.

Like other battery-powered devices, the battery itself can be a concern. Battery life on new controllers is great. Some new controllers arrive equipped with batteries that can last from two to five years greatly reducing the need to install new batteries. Conventional wisdom, however, recommends annual battery changes. No contractor wants to see an installation lose its green because of a simple failure to change a battery.

As with any potentially sensitive equipment that remains outdoors, water resistance is a key consideration with battery-operated controllers. Manufacturers insist that these units are indeed waterproof. Malooly, who has relied on battery-operated controllers for up to one year in Minnesota’s wet and cold climate, confirms, “Battery-powered controllers are definitely water-resistant.”
Another new and improved feature is range, aka the distance between a controller and a valve of battery-powered controllers. The industry has upped the range on battery-powered controllers to 1000 - 2000 feet.

It can take a few go-rounds to get the knack of programming battery-operated controllers. Malooly explains, “Battery-powered controllers aren’t easier or harder than AC controllers, they’re just different. You need to be open to reading instructions and learning how to program a timer.”

Compatibility between the latching solenoid and the valve is another new and improved feature. It used to be that each latching solenoid only worked with certain valves. But there are several simple answers to this issue. Today, most manufacturers mount their valve box controllers on the solenoid to bypass any compatibility issues between the latching solenoid and the valve.

In the past, if a contractor wanted (or needed) to use a new controller from a different manufacturer it entailed changing the valve. One fairly new option, however, is to use an adaptor to facilitate the connection between the valve and latching solenoid. This is certainly easier than changing out the valve, says Ralowicz. Regardless of the availability of adaptors, a contractor’s best bet and simplest installation is to purchase matching valves and solenoids from the same manufacturer when possible.

A final plus of battery-operated controllers comes on the vandalism front. Levy points out, “A battery-powered controllers can be used in a municipal application to water parks, medians or traffic circles where an in-valve box instead of a pedestal mounted controller can mitigate vandalism and improve aesthetics.”

Today, contractors will find that there are some advantages to battery-powered controllers. They certainly allow the contractor to save time and money in a number of ways. They eliminate the need to run and maintain wiring and dig trenches, which takes time and costs money. Finally, battery-powered controllers shut down automatically in rainy weather, and they aren’t susceptible to lightening or power surges.

Battery-Powered Flavors

Some varieties of battery-powered controllers are manually programmed, which works well in isolated areas where the contractor isn’t responsible for multiple controllers. For example, if a contractor needs to install a controller in a remote area of a landscape without power, a simple single station battery-powered controller is a perfect fit.

A waterproof control module and latching solenoid can be screwed onto a valve for direct in the valve box installation. Ralowicz points out that this simple solution can cover quite a few applications. The one-battery-one knob controllers can drive anything from a inch to 3-inch valve.

Battery-powered controllers come in other varieties as well. Medium sized landscape installations may require waterproof, programmable multiple station controllers that manage anywhere from two to twelve valves.

Some of the newer battery powered controllers can be programmed remotely with an infrared controller. This does require a learning curve, but can be a real timesaver if the contractor has installed multiple controllers on a median strip.

How does it work? The contractor sets the program on the infrared commander and downloads it to individual controllers by walking along the median strip and pointing and shooting (or blipping) the commander at each controller. Radio and infrared systems are excellent options for contractors who manage controllers on larger or isolated projects. New features enable contractors to manage a number of controllers with a single transmitter and set different programs for various types of vegetation on different sites. Infrared controllers can also provide feedback on battery life, helping the contractor more efficiently manage resources.

A final battery-operated option is the solar-powered controllers. Ralowicz sees a number of local contractors using solar panels and invertors in new land developments and effectively establishing grass and erosion control without power.

If you are one those irrigation contractors who has not yet tried the latest generation of battery-powered controllers, it might be time to give it a try. The updated power and features may surprise you, and your new knowledge of battery controllers could help you garner some new clients.

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JULY 2004

 
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