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The Future of Wireless Technology

DENNE GOLDSTEIN | Irrigation


When you think of wireless, what comes to your mind? Do you conjure up some new technology that would be beneficial for your business, or is it just another gadget for the ‘techies’? From a non-technical and practical point of view—at least in the irrigation market— I think of wireless technology as a time saver, a shortcut to saving steps, and in many cases, a cost savings to all involved.

Wireless has been around for many years. You probably first became aware of this technology when you purchased a television set with a remote control. Our first introduction in the irrigation market was a universal remote control unit that came out more than 25 years ago. It saved a lot of time for the contractor, but it was expensive and the controllers needed some retrofitting to work.


Do you remember when you received a call from one of your residential clients who asked you to come out because one or more of his sprinklers wasn’t working, or wasn’t working properly? When you got to the site, you found yourself going to the controller to turn it on, to the front to check out which sprinkler head was not working, then back to the controller to shut it off, and back again to the front to repair the sprinkler head.

What would you have given for a remote control unit that would have saved you a lot of time? One of the earliest and best uses of wireless technology is in remote controls. “Remotes allow our technicians to be more thorough and productive,” reports Marc Dutton, president of Marc Dutton Irrigation, Waterford, Michigan.

“If a technician spots a clogged nozzle as he is checking a system, he can turn off the zone with the touch of a button, clean the nozzle, and turn it back on to verify proper operation in less than two minutes. Remotes allow us to deliver a higher level of service and attention to detail that our customers really appreciate.

And our technicians love not having to run back to the controller every time they need to turn something on or off. All of that walking can wear you out after a full day of service calls.”

“Due to the success of remote control units, all of our residential and commercial controllers are now built with remote control capabilities,” says Jeff Kremicki, product marketing manager at Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California. ”We offer two remotes: one economical, residential remote designed for homeowners and contractors working on smaller sites, and a higher-range remote (up to two-mile distance) that is used as a contractor tool for large residential to commercial sites.”

Can you recall when you installed an irrigation controller, especially in a commercial environment, and you had to go there to program it? Each time there was a problem, or a change of seasons, you had to go to the site and re-program the controller.

“The sensor is self-contained, with batteries and an RF transmitter. It will send data to a receiver mounted near the controller, wirelessly—no more wires.”

Today, if a problem arises, you can make contact with any one—or all—of your customers’ controllers to troubleshoot a problem from your smartphone or iPad. Let’s say you’re away on a business trip or a vacation when you receive notice that one of your clients is having a problem with his irrigation system. Using your smartphone or iPad, you can access the troubled controller and make adjustments, as necessary, to fix the problem from anywhere in the world.

Or, let’s say, you’re in your office and you receive notice about some problems with one of your client’s system. Without leaving the office, you can access his controller and take care of the problem. At any time, you can log into the controller, monitor the status of the irrigation system, retrieve information such as flow data, and make programming changes without leaving your desk. Talk about saving time—and what about saving your client money because you didn’t bill him for the trip out there! When problems do arise and it’s something that needs a service call, the system can notify you so that you can schedule a technician to make that service call as well.

As you get used to working with wireless products, you begin to realize how much more effective and productive you can become. Especially now, with the advent of smartphones, iPads and tablets, the benefits of wireless technology take on an even more important role.

At the same time that remote control units were being recognized by contractors as time savers, those in the commercial market were installing small Internet-based central controllers that could be accessed from anywhere.

Wireless technology was on the move in the irrigation business.

Rain sensors were introduced about 35 or 40 years ago, and had to be hardwired directly to the controller. Now, many governments and municipalities have enacted legislation mandating that residential homes have a rain-sensing device attached to the irrigation controller. Sensors are an important water conservation tool. During a rain event, and when there is sufficient rainfall, the sensor will send a signal to the controller to disable watering. Today, rain sensors come in wireless versions; all you have to do is mount the wireless rain sensor to the roof and connect a receiver at the controller. No wire, no mess, no fuss. In addition, wireless rain sensors save

labor costs and make it easy to retrofit existing irrigation controllers to include rain sensor capability.

As the concept of water sustainability gathers momentum, the importance of moisture-sensing devices comes into play. Just think . . . you installed the irrigation system some years ago. Only a short time ago, you retrofitted the system with a smart water controller and low-precipitation sprinkler heads. Now, to be even more efficient, you’d like to install soil moisture-sensing units. The client may be interested, but do you really want to dig up his yard to run wires back to the controller?

Wireless technology can solve this for you. “Just find the place where you want to install a moisture device, dig a hole and put it in the ground,” says Tom Runge, senior engineering manager, The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota. “The sensor is self-contained, with batteries and an RF transmitter. It will send data to a receiver mounted near the controller, wirelessly—no more wires.”

Coming on the scene in the near future are sprinklers that can operate wirelessly. Think about this for a moment. Unless you’re working with a 2-wire system, it could be an involved project should you need additional sprinklers added to your existing irrigation system. Once this new sprinkler technology comes to market, you won’t have to run wire all over the place again; they will be wireless.

“We have all heard the term ‘smart grid’ being kicked around. The next application you’ll see is the integration of residential and commercial irrigation metering being wirelessly integrated into the broadband networks created for demand management of the utilities,” says Larry Sarver, president of Tucor, Wexford, Pennslyvania.

“With the advent of the smart controllers and the integration with the utilities infrastructure, water districts will be able to forecast and balance irrigation demand with capacity, minimizing the need for increased capacity for peak seasonal needs,” Sarver added.

To be sure, wireless is not only for irrigation systems; it’s expanding its use throughout the landscape industry. Ecolink, Carlsbad, California, introduced a wireless product to the market several years ago. Marketed under the ABT brand called Zone Control, it is designed for landscape lighting. Zone Control can split up a transformer output into three separate lighting zones. Each zone has a built-in independent timer and can be controlled with a wireless remote.

From this basic unit, you can purchase a sunset light sensor that synchronizes the lighting with the sunset. Once the sun sinks below a certain threshold, the landscape lights will turn on.

Ecolink also offers a motion-control wireless device. This can be the safety device you’ve been looking for. For example, you can install the sensor so that as you’re walking by your path lights, they will light up. You can hook them up to lights near the pool, so if a child happens to wander near the pool at night, the lights will go on.


These are exciting times, and they couldn’t come at a better time for our industry. With labor being in short supply, these labor-saving devices will allow us to service our customers and still keep our costs in line.

While all this is going on in the irrigation and lighting segments of the landscape industry, power equipment manufacturers have not been asleep at the switch. Husqvarna, Charlotte, North Carolina, has been marketing a mower that cuts the lawn by itself. By using settings via the keypad and display, the mower can be adjusted.

It won’t be long before units like these will be commercially feasible. These are exciting times, and they couldn’t come at a better time for our industry. With labor being in short supply, these laborsaving devices will allow us to service our customers and still keep our costs in line. Wireless technology as we know it today is only the beginning.


 
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