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Controllers Past... Present... Future

Jim Shilander | Controllers

There was a time—and it’s actually not that long ago—when irrigation systems were turned on and off by hand. For those who have come into the business since then, it might be as difficult to imagine as silent movies, telegrams and computers the size of a gymnasium. But in the age of smart phones, 3-D movies, and tablet computers millions of times more powerful than those gym-sized monsters, irrigation controllers have made similar leaps.

The first hydraulic controller systems could be found on the large estates of the rich and famous, and even those were primitive compared to today’s systems. They were simple systems attached to a clock, which turned on a hydraulic system that sent water through individual pipes.

The real growth of controllers began after World War II, in the 1950s. With veterans returning home, getting married and starting to raise families, there was a demand for housing. To make housing affordable, builders and developers built homes in the suburbs.

Every house had a front and back yard, and landscaping became a growth industry. In areas with ready access to water, some folks managed to just plant grass and shrubs and leave it at that. However, in the Sunbelt states, in arid Arizona and semi-arid Southern California, it was necessary to install irrigation systems to water the plant material.

Originally, these irrigation systems were built with valves that were manually turned on and off. By the early 1960s, irrigation controllers began to gain popularity. Turning on your sprinkler by hand was becoming a thing of the past. By retrofitting the valves with a solenoid, your client could now have a timing device that would allow automatic watering. No longer did you have to manually turn on each valve on and off; the solenoid would receive an electrical pulse from the electro-mechanical controller. This pulse would open the valve at a set time, and then shut it at a set time.

By the early 1980s, a company called Irri-Trol delivered the first solid-state controller to the marketplace. It was the hottest product of the time; it had so much more to offer than the electro-mechanical controllers.

However, landscape contractors were having a hard time learning how to program these new solid-state controllers.

The instructions were poorly written and many a contractor, if he wanted to use these new controllers, would have to have someone—probably from the place from which it was purchased—come out and show him how to program it.

Still, technology moved forward. Although the first solid-state controllers caught the attention of the market, contractors were slow to embrace them. Keith Shepersky, brand manager for Irritrol, recalled, “They weren’t that reliable, but part of their rejection was also due to a lack of acceptance of new technologies.”

Contractors were reluctant to install these new solid-state controllers, and if the contractor was having a hard time programming, you can imagine how hard it would be for the property owner. That meant that the contractor would have to make many visits to the property just to get the programming right.

Because of this hesitation, the market quickly moved on to hybrid systems. These hybrids had the circuit boards used in solid-state controllers, but gave the contractor and the property owner the look of the electro-mechanical devices. This reduced the fear factor and made the user more comfortable, because he was familiar dials and knobs.

Solid-state controllers made their way back to the forefront as advances in technology made them more user-friendly.

“With the electro-mechanical controllers, if you wanted to add another program, you would have to add another knob and row of pins to make it work,” Shepersky said. “The solid-state controllers were much more flexible. Early on, they might have been too flexible. People didn’t know how to program them.”

With the advent of the digital age, solid-state controllers have come a long way. Today’s models offer virtually anything you would need to water your landscape. Rain-sensing and moisture-sensing devices are being added. Two-wire systems and battery-operated controllers are quite effective these days.

Optimal programming to use minimal amounts of water can now be measured by satellite, or in real time, or using ground weather stations that are readily available.

In this last decade, with water conservation becoming a real issue and water purveyors dictating mandatory restrictions, new solid-state controllers offer a level of sophistication never seen before.

One of the newer products that has been introduced over the past few years is a unit that can be attached to a conventional controller tol give it the capability of being a ‘smart water’ controller.

Pat Halahan, vice president of engineering at ET Water, noted that when consumers got more sophisticated, so did their demands. Suddenly, there was a greater emphasis on the cost of water and consequently, the need to save water and money.

It was this concern that led to the first evapotranspiration (ET) sensors. Those first sensors compiled their information over the course of a week. It provided a lot more information on what was actually going on, in terms of weather and of usage, but since it gave weekly information, conditions could vary wildly over that period of time. Due to those fluctuations, information is now compiled daily.

Web-based controllers allow you to program a controller from anywhere on earth, and can precisely program when it should water and for how long. This is not by guess or by golly, but in real time, based on how much moisture is in the air. With water conservation being all the buzz, it couldn’t be more timely.

With microprocessors more widely available, controllers and sensors became more sophisticated. Add to that, advances in wireless technology and suddenly many of the physical difficulties associated with adding more features disappeared. Today, contractors have volumes more information available almost instantly, and controllers— although sophisticated—are easy enough to manage.

While the next game-changing innovation for controllers is being developed, Halahan and Shepersky both agree about the modifications for the immediate future. As more municipalities move toward further water restrictions and climate changes take hold, sensors built to monitor and restrict flow seem like a good bet.

“To reduce water usage, we’re going to need to measure the data even more accurately. We’re going to see more flow measurements,” Halahan predicts. “Controllers will have to be able to be programmed to respond to whatever restrictions are in place for a given area.”

It looks like the future will bring an even greater level of control over watering the landscape. Pretty soon, both men said, you’ll be able to essentially watch the system from afar, and know if something has gone wrong instantly. If a sprinkler head accidentally gets mowed off in the morning, you’ll know about it right after the blades do their thing, rather than days or weeks later.

That level of insight will likely extend to system management. Just as those suburban pioneers got a greater level of control with their electro-mechanical controllers, the marketplace is going to demand even more precision and control, and the means to do it.

 
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06.29.2012 at 10:42 Reply

I've been involved with Smart Controllers and landscape water conservation for many years.  The concpet is great but there remains a fundamental flaw in the underlying programming logic that manages controllers.  in water challenged climates, we want to irrigate deeply but infrequently.  Instead,  controllers are programmed such that run times are freuquent and short.  In fact, with some systems, there is a maximum run time of 30 minutes per station.  That makes sense if you are running overhead spray that puts out water on the scale of gallongs per minute.  It doesn't make any sense  for the far more efficient drip irrigation systems, which operate at gallons per hour, and require longer run times.  Its a challenge to get  water (and therefore the roots) deep - one of the keys to drought tolerance.   I've spoken to smart controller engineers about this and they tell me that the public "expects" frequent, shallow watering, so that's what they program to.  Until this changes, smart controllers won't reach their potential, and neither will the people who install the, operate them, or rely on them.

 

 
 
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