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Smart Controllers for the Residential Market

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Remember The Flintstones? The “Modern Stone-Age Family” that powered their cars with their feet and used dinosaurs as power tools? That was a great little cartoon, but it has nothing to do with anything happening today, right?

Well, if you’re a landscape contractor with residential clients, you may have seen irrigation controllers that look like they were made in Bedrock. Old-fashioned, clock-based controllers—essentially big timers with valves hooked up to them. They seem antiquated, especially when you compare them to today’s smart irrigation control devices.

“There are a lot of older technology controllers out there that could potentially be upgraded, there’s no doubt about that,” said John Eggleston of ServiceFirst Irrigation in Lansing, Michigan. Rainstorm or not, freezing conditions or not, these controllers tell systems to water at a certain time, whether plant material needs it or not.

A home that’s being irrigated this way is stuck back in time, maybe not as far as the Jurassic Era, but at least fifteen to thirty years. Most homeowners wouldn’t be caught dead with carpeting this old. Yet when it comes to their irrigation controllers, they probably don’t think about them at all. And most of them don’t realize that they’re costing them money every day in unnecessarily high water bills.

Well, it’s time to bring them into the 21st century. If you have clients who are still watering with Barney Rubble’s controller, you have a ready-made market right at your fingertips. That market is ripe, and getting riper every day. Many analysts are predicting an uptick in the housing market in the near future, as our country begins emerging from the recessionary cocoon.

New housing starts are up, and people will also be looking to upgrade their existing homes.

Now is the time to talk to your clients, whether they are home developers or homeowners, about making the move to smart control.

how they save water and money Smart controllers irrigate only when it’s appropriate. That’s determined through weather information they receive wirelessly or via the Internet. Others use soil- moisture, rain, wind or solar sensors installed on the property itself. Many calculate evapotransporation (ET) values based on the data gathered from the sensors or weather stations. There are also units that use historical weather data by zip code. This is usually combined with sensor or weather station data, or used as a backup should those other information sources fail.

Smart controllers use this information to schedule when and how long to irrigate. However they work, smart controllers cut residential water bills by at least 30 percent and, it’s claimed, possibly as high as 70 percent.

“I think a compelling argument can be made for a smart controller saving [the client] money over the lifetime of the system,” said Maurice Dowell, owner and president of Dowco Enterprises, Inc., a lawn care maintenance and landscape design company in Chesterfield, Missouri.

In the course of doing irrigation repairs, his company replaces conventional controllers when they reach the end of their useful lives. When that happens, “It’s not a hard sell to upgrade clients to a smart controller. People will make the initial investment to get the long-term benefits.”

We’re not talking about pared-down commercial controllers here.

These products are made just for residential applications. For your homeowner client, there are two ways you can go. You can install a brand-spankin’ new controller to replace the old one. Or, you can leave the old controller in place and add to it an additional device that will turn it into a smart unit. Either way is a winner.

New construction, new smart controller?

If you’re trying to get smart controllers into a new subdivision or condo project, you might have more success with the individual home owner rather than the developer. “The landscape contractor is always the last one on the project,” said Alex Fransen, landscape development manager at Steele Blades Lawn and Landscaping in Louisville, Kentucky. “There’s no money left for us. If they didn’t have a huge budget set aside for landscaping, they’re going to go bare bones for irrigation. Smart controllers cost more, and the builders try to beat you down in price. Once the builder’s gone, you’ve got to get in front of the homeowner and show him all the benefits he’ll get from a smart controller.”

“When you get into areas where water concerns are big, such as Texas and the Southwest, there’s a major opportunity to upsell watersaving devices, whether they’re smart controllers or even simple sensors,” says Eggleston. “That’s especially true for high-end residential situations.”

Weather stations—onsite or nearby?

Some smart controllers gather weather information from a wireless or wired weather station or sensors on the property itself. Some use weather data received over the Internet from nearby towers.

“My personal opinion is that anything that’s site-based is going to be more accurate, because it’s dialed into the conditions at that particular site,” says Eggleston. “It gives you a much better picture of what’s happening to your plant material and your soils.”

“Gaining weather data from the actual property is a distinction in smart control,” said Brodie Bruner, vice president of business development for Garland, Texas-based Weathermatic. “We gather ours locally so it’s microclimate-specific, and can be sensitive to the unique weather conditions that exist on any particular property.”

“You have actual measurement of the microclimate of the property,” said Alfonso Meza, product manager for contractor controllers for Rain Bird in Azusa, California. “You’re not getting this remote information that might be incorrect because it’s from too far away. Maybe it’s too hot or too cold there, compared to your property.’

Add-ons

< p style="">There’s another way to crack that lucrative retrofit market without ripping the old controller completely off the wall. You don’t always have to start from scratch. Upgrading your client to a smart controller could be as easy as plugging something into a socket.

“It depends on what’s in place already,” said Eggleston. “Say they’ve got something that’s not too old, with a pretty good life ahead of it, or good programming capabilities—it’s got possibilities.”

This is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. In the customer’s best interest, you need to look at using some of the add-ons instead of jumping into an expensive control system right off the bat, Eggleston feels. “Here in my market, Michigan, some smart control systems are being put in with the potential to be added to down the road, using just a simple sensor right now. You have to look at each site and determine what’s appropriate.”

Rebates for installation

You may not be the only one who wants your client to install a smart control at his house. “We’re seeing rebates to incentivize property owners to upgrade their control systems,” says Bruner. “Additionally, we’ve seen state and local mandates and changes in building codes that are incentivizing upgrades as well. We have rebates for the retrofit market and building code enhancements for the new construction market. It’s definitely a growing trend, as water becomes more important.”

In some areas, developers are literally required to install smart control in new housing in order to receive their certificates of occupancy. Rebates are available from water districts that make the installation of smart control virtually free in some areas, such as parts of Southern California, and in the states of Washington, Utah, Texas and Florida.

For the last eight years, Weathermatic has been part of water district programs where SmartLine controllers and weather stations have been given away free to homeowners. That’s how much some municipalities believe in smart control.

Overcoming resistance

If you have a balky homeowner who points to his old conventional sprinkler timer and says, “It’s working just fine; leave it alone,” what do you say? You need to educate him. “We’ve got two things going on,” said Irrisoft’s CEO Steve Moore. “You’ve got some contractors who are afraid of technology, because they don’t understand it or have experience with it. And some have been burned by products out there that aren’t doing it right. I think it’s important that contractors get educated—not only on how to install smart control, but also about how this technology works and the science behind it.”

Brandon Walker is service manager for Sprinklawn Irrigation, Inc., in Springfield, Illinois. They’ve installed smart controllers for many of their residential clients. Walker agrees that many homeowners have found smart controllers to be complicated, especially older models. “The newer models are a bit more customer-friendly. Generally, we program them ourselves, and tell the customers not to touch them.”

This hasn’t been a problem, since their clients didn’t really touch the old controllers either, even when their sprinklers came on during rainstorms. “These new systems have worked out great, because they are based on how much rainfall we get. They’ll shut off [for rain], calculate how much rain we actually got, then water accordingly over the following week.”

“People are very good about turning their sprinkler timers up, because the landscape screams at them that it needs more water,” said Moore. “There’s a lot more apprehension about turning the sprinkler timer down, because the landscape doesn’t scream as loud that it’s getting overwatered. Plants are very adaptable. That’s where I think there’s an education job that the landscape contractor has to have with the client.” He points out that climate-controlled irrigation, because of its reaction to hourly conditions, is more efficient and gives plants just the right amount of water. He adds, “Let technology do its job; it works.”

But some homeowners and contractors aren’t completely comfortable “letting the technology do its job,” and letting a smart controller completely take over scheduling. That’s why Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California, decided that theirs shouldn’t. “We still want homeowners to see the system coming on at the times they feel it should come on,” said product manager John Wascher. “If it’s a Monday/Wednesday/Friday setting, then the controller is going to come on during those days.”

Only the length of time changes. Hunter based this decision on experience. “We used to sell a big, complicated controller, where you’d input the soil and plant types, slopes and everything else, and it fully took over the scheduling,” said Wascher. “But it was very confusing for people. We’d get a phone call from a homeowner saying, ‘The system’s not working.’ It was working, it had just decided that it wasn’t going to irrigate that day.”

That being said, “Consumers are getting more sophisticated and interested in saving water,” said Bruner. “There’s a higher level of interest in everything ‘smart’ around the home, not just using smart irrigation controllers.”

“The irrigation industry is going the way of the computer industry,” says Fransen. “If you’ve had a smart controller for a year now, it’s out of date. This technology is outdoing itself every season. As it does, things are going to get cheaper. We may have a couple of more years to go, but eventually, you’re going to buy a Rain Bird EXP or Hunter PRO-C and be able to throw a smart controller in there for maybe twenty bucks more.” While this may be a bit of an overstatement, in general, he’s probably correct.

Smart controllers are here to stay, and they’re going to keep getting better. Best of all, from your point of view, they practically sell themselves. Do a good job explaining the water and monetary savings, add the benefit to plant material that smart control brings, and you should be able to pull Fred and Wilma into 2013, pronto.

 
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