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Masterminds of the Irrigation System

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As a landscape pro installing irrigation, you look at water in a different way.

Your early morning commute on a warm weather morning might take you past a block of homes where every sprinkler is going full blast. You wince, and two thoughts come to mind. First, those homeowners are wasting water and money. Second, if you irrigated that thoughtlessly at an office park or condominium complex, you could find yourself fired.

Fortunately, recent years have brought to market the contractor’s best friend when it comes to saving water, saving money, and making a property look great: irrigation central controllers.

A central controller is exactly what it sounds like: a centralized, computer-guided control system that allows you to program, monitor, adjust, and fine-tune any large irrigation program or programs. Like military command-and-control, central control responds to specific conditions on the ground. It takes in and uses every bit of available information to suggest informed watering decisions and nimble adjustments.

“There are so many factors that affect how much water needs to be applied to a set of specific locations,” says Nick Toyn, national sales manager at Baseline Systems in Meridian, Idaho. “As water becomes a more important controlled resource, the ability to make real-time watering decisions becomes more important as well. The only way to manage those real-time watering decisions is with information.”

According to Larry Sarver, president of Tucor, Inc., in Wexford, Pennsylvania, some of the new central controllers will even make the decisions for you. “Once a user is set up with a modern central controller system,” Sarver says, “that user can essentially control an unlimited number of projects and use the available technology to fine-tune watering decisions in a way that was unheard of a decade or two ago.”

As you know, the range of information that needs to be factored in when making commercial watering decisions requires some expertise. There’s climate, beginning with temperature—not just the expected highs and lows for your region, but micro-clime variations. In Los Angeles, for example, daily highs and lows can vary significantly, even within a particular zip code. There’s recent precipitation and expected precipitation, plus the rest of the short-term and long-term weather forecasts.

There’s flora, starting with the type of plant material that you’re expected to water. You’re looking at anything from turf to groundcover, from carefully tended gardens to shrubbery, from young trees to wizened, majestic old growth. Some require deep watering, some require more frequent watering; for others minimal watering is sufficient.

Then there’s the soil itself. At some sites, it’s simply flat and uniform, other places are hilly; some are undulating. And of course, we have to take into consideration the different soil types—sandy here, rich and loamy there, and clay-like in a third location. Some places it’s in full sun, other places shaded.

There are even legal issues for you to factor in. If you’ve got local wateruse restrictions to take into account, you ignore them at your own peril. A homeowner might get away with it in his backyard, but if your company provides the service at an office park or condominium, you want to be in compliance, not only for you, but for your client.

Jeff Miller, marketing manager of Irrigation Business at The Toro Company, Riverside, California, employs a military analogy. “You can hope for a constant, daily rate of evapotranspiration (ET) throughout the year—the rate at which moisture leaves the soil, whether through evaporation or the plant taking it up,” Miller says. “You can hope for consistent weather and consistent, moderate rainfall throughout the season. But, as they say in the military, hope is not a plan. Hope will not give you precise irrigation each and every day. To save water—and save money—you need precision irrigation that adapts daily.”

With intuitive, plain-English (and, in many cases, plain-Spanish) and pictorial displays, the central controller can account and adjust for weather, plant material, ET, soil, and even legal factors. It can take in information from soil monitoring probes and your own onsite weather station. What’s more, the systems will even tell you when you’ve got a broken sprinkler head or leaky underground pipe. In the event of a catastrophe, it can even shut your system down automatically and let you know why.

Photo courtesy: Hunter Industries

To get this urgent information, you don’t even have to be at your desk. “Not long ago, most central controllers were located onsite,” relates Mark Puckett, product manager at San Francisco-based ET Water. “You’d have the person in charge with his onsite computer and his onsite software. That software would be proprietary, and the manager would use the computer to make adjustments, which are then communicated with satellite controllers out in the field, whether by hardwired system or wirelessly.”

Onsite, single-computer-based central controllers can work fine. Many irrigation professionals and property managers use them daily. They can process all the information you need and let you make any adjustments you want. With them, you can adjust multiple satellite controllers and sites. Communication is handled via telephone line, Ethernet, narrow-band radio, UHF transmission and the like.

Photo courtesy: Irrometer

They work very well. That is, until you face something out of the ordinary—one of those things that’s not a problem until it’s a problem.

For example, the only person who knows how to run your system gets sick on the same day that an unexpected series of thunderstorms blow through. Then, you might see sprinklers running full blast, with no one sure of how to shut the whole system down. Or, it’s a national holiday and that same operator is camping in the Ozarks. Or, your operator suddenly leaves his or her job and no one else has learned the proprietary software.

Or—and this could be most daunting—your base computer gets attacked by a virus or malware and you find yourself shut out of your system when you most need to get into it. It could happen.

These days, more and more central control systems are moving to web-based operation. That is, the only equipment that an authorized person needs to get into the control system is their name, a good secure password, and a smartphone. Any laptop or desktop with an Internet connection will do the trick, too.

leIt controller using ambient light. Photo courtesy: dIG

“You don’t need the controller software on your PC,” Sarver says. “Anyone in your organization who has the right username and the right password can log in and make crucial, real-time adjustments. Instead of the controller software being located on a hard drive that can fail, we’ve got everything on an overseas server, with built-in multiple backup redundancies to safeguard it.”

Puckett concurs. “Internet-based central controller systems are similar in theory to off-premises computer systems that so many of us use every day.” That is, the same way that your email and banking information is securely stored offsite and is accessible from any mobile device, it works the same way with your watering and irrigation information.

The advantages of web-based central control are many. Onsite computer hardware disasters are a thing of the past. No matter where you are, whether you carry a laptop, netbook, iPad, or smartphone, you’re connected to your work.


Web-based central control units give you enormous flexibility, with intuitive controls that can get a new user up and running in less than an hour. If you’re in charge of irrigation for a site in Maine, a site in Texas, and a site in Florida, your web-based central controller can take you from location to location with a click of your mouse or a tap on your touch screen . . . even if you’re home with the flu or away on a working vacation.

The system can be configured to send you reports and alerts— both routine and emergency—by email and text.

“Some people like to know daily, right down to the gallon, how much water was used to irrigate a particular site,” Miller declares. “That report can be generated. For others, that’s an information overload. But everyone wants to know ASAP when there’s a leak, or when a satellite controller in the field isn’t communicating with the central control unit. That’s crucial.”

Kate Wing, director of marketing at ET Water, explains that trouble alerts can be sent to you just about as fast as trouble arises. “If a squirrel chews through an irrigation pipe, it’s going to affect the flow rate. If the flow rate changes, the satellite controller in the field will send a message to the central controller, and you’ll be notified by email and/or text. If the squirrel did his thing at 8:00 a.m., you could know by 8:05 a.m.”

Landscape professional Brad Klein at Eco Landscape in Studio City, California, is a staunch believer in smart central controllers. “I put them in all the time,” he says.

Not only does Klein install them at many of his projects, but he uses a web-based system at home. He even has an iPhone app to control his home system.

The biggest challenge he finds with his customers is psychological, which brings us back to the homeowner watering the lawn again:

“Customers sometimes have trouble adapting, when they feel safe knowing their water comes on at 6:30 a.m. and they hear it shut off again at 6:40 a.m.

But with education and a trust for the technology, they become believers.”

Klein has found that careful installation programming makes all the difference when it comes to efficiency and water savings. He makes sure to account for such variables as sun and shade on particular proper ties when he sets up a system for his customers.

Not long ago, most central controllers were located onsite; these days, with a web-based controller, programming or troubleshooting a problem can now be done from an ipad, iphone or laptop from anywhere in the world.

For large water users, and areas under drought restriction, central controllers become indispensible. “I absolutely could not operate without a central controller,” says Douglas Green, parks superintendent for the city of Plano, Texas. Plano has been under water restrictions for months now, due to severe drought. Current regulation restricts watering to once every other week.

“I’ve got 120 miles of trees planted on road medians, with more than 200 satellite controllers for those trees alone. I have another 1,200 acres of parks, with more than 200 additional satellite controllers,” Green remarked. “To make global adjustments across the system with just a few keystrokes—that’s crucial.”

What will the future bring for central controllers? Like computers, flat screen televisions and smartphones, the technology should get less costly and more accessible. A decade from now, your morning commute discomfort watching sprinklers dumping unneeded water on saturated front lawns could be a memory. As water gets more and more precious, smart central controllers might even be mandatory.

With modern central control systems, the future is now.

 
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