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The Changing Face of Controllers

Katherine Woodford | Controllers

Shaking his head, as he looks at the new controller his grandson, Kenny, is demonstrating for their prospective client, Asa’s thoughts stray back to days gone by. He quietly chuckles to himself at the memories of the “good ol’ days.”

When Asa and his wife started their landscape and irrigation business all those years ago, irrigation meant laying pipe, hooking up manual valves, hose bibs and sprinklers. Controllers had not been thought of yet. Ah, yes, the good ol’ days of having to turn each zone on and off manually to run a specific amount of time. “Good thing there were no water police on patrol back then. There could be no dozing on that job during a time of extreme drought!”

Asa’s son, Wes, returning from a jobsite inspection, interrupts his rumination. “Well, Dad, what do you think? Sure looks better than the old solid states they came out with to replace the electro-mechanical controllers years ago.” Wes painfully remembers the issues that the contractors had when the first solid-state controllers were introduced in the early ’80s.

There was quite a bit of backlash from customers over the first solid-state controllers. They didn’t like the display, which was an LED (light emitting diode). The field was small and the characters were red so that they would show up in the sunlight. Even so, it was still hard to see. Being accustomed to the dials of the electro-mechanical controllers, customers also did not care for the new touch pads.

Touch pads were becoming very popular during that time period because many manufacturers unrelated to irrigation were introducing them on their products. However, contractors didn’t understand them on the irrigation controllers, didn’t like using them in the field. The instructions were not clear. They had to touch one button, enter an amount and then touch another button and if you touched things in the wrong order, confusion would set in for both the customer and the controller.

Wes and his father have been installing hybrid controllers since manufacturers redesigned the original solid-state controllers. These controllers offer the best of both worlds by incorporating a dial or slide switch front for ease of use, and hiding the solid-state internal mechanisms inside for accuracy. The solid-state technology dramatically increased the features available and brought a reduction in the cost of the controllers.

Things are changing around the family business these days. Wes’ son, Kenny, has graduated from college and returned home to officially join the family business, where he has worked all his life. Asa is semi-retired but still seems to be at work as much as always. After extensive research Kenny recently introduced a line of next generation controllers to their clients.

Asa sat down to read Kenny’s research notes . . .

What all the manufacturers are striving to put on the residential and commercial market today is a reliable, durable, but most importantly user-friendly controller. Some are total touch pad while others carry over the combination dial or slide switch plus buttons. The manufacturers have endeavored to develop their controllers for the contractor who is generally familiar with how controllers work, to be able to walk up and program it without reading a manual.

The computer chips today are more powerful and can hold more information than those available in the ’80s. They are also much less expensive. This translates into more power for less money. However this can also be a problem. “From our research we found that you can put too much into a controller, and make it too complicated,” explains Jeff Carowitz, vice president of marketing, Hunter Industries Inc. “Sometimes simpler is better; there is a fine line there, it’s always a balancing act.”
Every manufacturer has their own special features that they highlight in addition to the basic features. These features are based on market surveys and input from their customer base, the contractors who use their controllers.

Abacus is the new kid on the block, hitting the market three years ago with a high-tech controller designed by contractors. There are four main features that set their controller apart from the rest.

Self-prompting programming – When the contractor first plugs the timer in, it starts talking, giving instructions on what to do next; each step is in sequence.

Independently Programmed – Each zone has its own program. Nine zones on the controller, nine programs.

Diagnostic Circuitry – Should any electrical problems occur within your system, the controller is going to indicate what the problem is. There are three different color ID’s. If the problem is a short circuit on zone three, a red indicator light will show up next to zone three on the display. If the problem is a broken wire on zone four, an orange indicator light will show up next to zone four on the display. If everything is all right, the indicator light shows green.

Remote and Remote Box – The contractor can blow out the system with the remote control. With the remote, four valves can be opened up at one time.

Another feature on the remote is called the scan button. Push this button and the remote will tell you if there are any electrical problems with the system from outside the house.

Buckner by Storm has aimed for simplicity and ease of programming. They have updated their hybrid controller so that it can be programmed in as few as three or four steps. Everything else is an option. An audio fault system error is built in. The controller will beep when there is an error. The homeowner turns the dial to the error readout, reads the code, then refers to the listing inside the door to see what is wrong, whether it is a system problem or a controller problem such as wiring, water or valve.
A remote control kit to be released shortly will have a 700 ft. range and a LCD readout, so that what is seen on the controller is also seen on the transmitter.

Buckner controllers also have the water by minutes and water by seconds feature that can be set by station rather than by program. It has multiple pump starts, so if a pressure regulating valve is used, the system can operate at two different pressure levels plus full flow.

A model soon to be introduced will have a flow control feature. With this feature, the contractor runs each station for approximately three minutes and it will calculate how many gallons of water are going through the lines. The contractor then programs in the desired parameters. Should the water usage rise above 103% then the valve should be shut off. If there is a broken water line or head, the valve controller will shut off the valve and the display will show an error message on that line while the rest of the system continues to operate. The Storm Controller Series, available with six to twenty-four stations, is Buckner’s most popular line of controllers.

HIT Irrigation Products has a line of standard dedicated, wire controllers, as well as a line of controllers utilizing two-wire technology.
Two-wire technology eliminates the need for a dedicated wire in the field for each and every valve. With two-wire technology, there are only two wires that come out of the controller for field wiring. These two wires do all the work of the numerous wires required in a conventional controller with no loss of features. These two standard wires in one continuous path are connected in all the valves in series. As valves are added, you sinply extend these same two wires to additional valves. In order for the controller to communicate with each individual valve there is a receiver installed with a unique address. When the controller is scheduled to activate a specific valve, it sends out a unique code that only that specific receiver/valve can respond to, turning that valve on or off.

HIT has developed an adapter that converts any controller to two-wire output so that the contractor may have all the features, benefits, and communication capabilities with their chosen control system. The Universal 2 adapter is designed to save the contractor money on the cost of wire, in addition to the cost of labor to install the wire, and minimize follow-up calls for wire repair. On larger jobs the cost savings on the wire alone is substantial.

Hunter Industries has done their market re-search, and reports that contractors are saying that the consumers are opposed to the all touch pad, preferring the modernized dial programming.

Hunter’s ProC and the ICC controllers feature modularity, updated power surge protection, and one of the first affordable PC features for the lower-end residential controllers.

The PC software is offered free on the Hunter Web site. The program is set up on a Windows-based PC and then sent to the controller. For a more elaborate central control system, as compared to those used for commercial sites and golf courses, a $100 software program can be purchased. A schedule is set up into a little box provided by Hunter, and the box is taken to the controller. At the press of a button, it loads the schedule into the controller. This is a handy feature for the contractor who needs to send a field person who may not be knowledgeable enough to program a controller on his own.

There seems to be a lot of homeowner confusion as to what a water budget is. When the watering times are globally changed by a certain percentage, they will water at that rate until changed back. Many manufacturers bury the function within the controller, so often the homeowner forgets he has made this change and then wonders why the system is putting out too little or too much water. The ProC controller has the water budget on the display so that it is seen at all times.

Irritrol’s most popular line is the Rain Dial Plus Series, that offers the contractor standard features plus a 365-day calendar for odd/even day watering and three independent programs with concurrent operation capability. The company also has battery-powered controllers that are used in areas where you cannot get electricity to the valves. For situations where there is the need for only one zone, there is an individual control that snaps on the valve itself. The contractor programs it, and leaves it in the valve box with the valve.

Irritrol just introduced the IBOC-100, with a two-year battery. The IBOC-Plus is a bigger, commercial controller that uses a lantern size battery or a solar module. The solar module, SPC-2, is a solar power converter that is mounted on top of the controller, requiring two hours of sunlight a day to keep it charged. These controllers are used in medians or on large estates where power cannot be reached.

Most controllers have more features than the contractor or homeowner requires. Irritrol likes to cover all the special applications. The features are there, but fortunately they do not get in the way for the contractors who do not need them.

Orbit Irrigation stayed with the slide switches when they went to the hybrid controllers. Alan Ence, brand manager, Professional Product Line, says Orbit tried to “hang onto the pluses of the electromechanical and adapt them to the pluses of the solid state, which were accuracy and programming.” Orbit specializes in the light commercial or custom residential controller. ? Orbit’s Control Center line has a unique feature called radio time. The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Fort Collins, Colorado, transmits radio waves to calibrate atomic time-based clocks throughout the U.S. An antenna embedded in the controller, keeping the time accurate, receives this signal three times daily. ? Other features include four cycle start times, the capability of operating two valves and a pump start relay per station, a diagnostic review mode that identifies faulty stations, programmable pump start and master valve by each station, and a 365-day calendar. The controller is modular so it is expandable without having to remove it from the wall.

Rain Bird manufactures several lines of controllers, their ESP family being the most popular. There are four different controllers in this group, from the lower cost ESPSI to the higher cost, professional controller, the ESP MC, that is compatible with central controllers run by PCs. One unique feature about this family of controllers is that the programming is all the same — you turn the dial, push the button and the sequencing is the same. ? Many Rain Bird controllers have a feature called the RASTER test— Rapid Station Test Routine. It is a self-diagnostic test, and will alert if there is an open or short in the field wiring and valve solenoid, identifying which station has the loose connection. This is a new feature and will eventually be available in all controllers.

Rain Bird recently upgraded their controllers to be remote control-compatible and have two remote control systems available; one operates up to 700 ft. and uses a multi-function keypad, the second is a one-button system that has a 500 ft. range.

A new release, expected by late summer, is a high-end commercial controller called the IM. Expandable to 48 stations, it has slow sensing and ET capabilities and is a stand-alone controller.

Superior Controls still carries the oldest simple electro-mechanical controller that was introduced 40 years ago. Superior’s top seller, the Sterling Second Generation controller, is a high-end residential and commercial controller. ? In addition to the standard features, it has a loop program capability. This feature allows the controller to repeat itself immediately, or after a program delay. It will repeat itself for as many times a day as is needed. A ten-year lithium battery keeps the time accurate even when there are indefinite power outages. A lightning protection board option that extends the three-year warranty to cover lightning is also available. ? There is also an option to add a larger transformer so that the contractor can run six zones simultaneously. There is a fault indicator that skips a station if it has a short in it and then flashes a message on the display of the controller to indicate the station with the problem. ? Superior is currently working on a water management controller that will be more advanced than the Sterling. It will have flow monitoring capabilities, monitoring how much water usage there is, and gives the contractor the option to adjust the water automatically in response to ET. This product is still in the development stage. ?

Toro Irrigation has modular controllers designed for ease of use and flexibility on the consumer’s budget. The GreenKeeper 212 is a modular that starts with four stations and can be increased to 12 stations in increments of two. For the high residential and commercial properties, there is the Custom Command. The plastic version goes to 24 stations. ? The Vision II Plus is their hybrid model. It has electronic timing but has the “at a glance” programming feature. Available in six, nine, and 12 stations, these hybrid controllers are still more expensive than the dial face clocks. ?

Tucor controllers have a two-wire based system, upgradeable from 25 to 500 valves, all on a two-wire path; they’re shipped with modems and software. In addition, they offer a controller that will mount in parallel with existing controllers, allowing the consumer to tap into a PC, phone line or connect into a LAN. The importance of this is that the existing controller does not have to be replaced. ? Tucor controllers do not have pins, dials, or LEDs; they need to be accessed through a Palm Pilot or a similar device. A control box is installed at each controller and hooked into a phone line or a LAN connection, and a PC accesses it. Tucor controllers will give reports on water consumption, alarm conditions, and even call a pager.

Weathermatic has introduced two new controllers over the last two years. The Weathermate is their residential controller, and its unique feature is the larger housing, allowing for more room for the wiring, and a large display that is easier to read. ? New this season is the residential remote control for wireless operation of the Weathermate. It has a two-button design for simplicity of use with a range of 600 ft. The receiver can be installed inside the Weathermate housing in less than five minutes, and the transmitter is stored inside the controller door.

The SL, a stand-alone commercial controller, has up to 42 stations, a built-in flow meter and is compatible with a central control system, as well as being PC-compatible. It has a pump start or is master valve assignable by station, with four start times and four soak cycles per program.

After Asa completed reading Kenny’s research, he understood why Kenny had been unable to decide on one trade name of controllers to install. Kenny was smart; he had chosen a variety of controllers to learn about so that he would have the right one for whatever application comes up.

May 2001

THE "HOT" FEATURES FOR CONTROLLERS ON THE MARKET TODAY INCLUDES:

Water Budgeting
This feature allows you to globally change all the watering times in the controller by a certain percentage. If you set every zone up to water for 20 minutes and the weather is dry, then you can globally increase the watering time by 50% and every zone will water for 30 minutes.

Power Surge Protection
With solid-state controller’s computer chips, power surges can scramble the memory at times. With the power surge protection feature the controller can actually handle power surges without blowing up or getting scrambled.

Non-Volatile Memory
This memory keeps the time that has been programmed in the controller even if there is a power outage for a short time period. It won’t scramble the memory and it won’t come back blinking 12:00. The short time period varies on the technology used, from 10 hours to 100 years.

Remote Control Capacity
The controller has the capability to be operated by remote. The receiver is either connected directly to the controller, or if the controller is in a locked area it can be mounted outside and wired into the controller. Some manufacturers have their own remote kits, while others have made their controllers remote control compatible.

PC Programming
New to the residential market are the controllers that you can program with your PC. The PC is used to set up all the scheduling. Usually for under $100 you can have a program that will set up the schedule for a residential controller on a Windows-based PC. Download the schedule into a portable box, take the box to the controller, press the button, and it loads the schedule into the controller. It is very handy for the contractor who wants to send one of his workers into the field who doesn’t know how to program a controller.

Modularity
With this feature there is a basic four-station controller (the number of stations on the basic controller may vary). The contractor may purchase modules to add additional stations. These cost an average of $20-$25. The modules snap in and snap back out. The contractor can custom-configure the unit to the project. If there is a problem, he can just replace the module; the whole unit does not have to be replaced.

Rain Sensors
Rain sensors are basic, inexpensive, and connect to the controller to interrupt the program when it rains. When it dries up again, the program resumes and the controller is turned back on. Not all manufacturers have their own rain sensor but most controllers have a rain sensor terminal.

 
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