Well, we still don't have robotic assistants, but we do have remote controls. Who can imagine watching television without using a remote?
What, get up and change the channel? How about satellite TV? Those enormous dishes that we saw on hotel properties not too many years ago have given way to small saucer-like units that receive a beam from a satellite. We can now program our entire house to turn the lights on at a certain time, to shut them off, and to heat or cool the house, etc., all by wireless remote. What's nice about wireless is that you can even program these functions through the telephone from a distant location. Things like this we now take for granted.
So it was only logical that some of these high-tech products would eventually find their way into the landscape industry. It started slowly; a couple of irrigation manufacturers introduced a wireless remote control unit to turn the controller on and off. Until you use this type of unit, you don't realize how much time you can save.
Say, for example, that you wanted to check the irrigation system to see if all the stations were working. Before remotes, you would go to the controller, which, let's say, was on the side of the house, and turn it on to station number 1. You would then have to go to station 1 and physically look to see if all the sprinklers were working properly. You would then go back to the controller (on the side of the house) and turn it to station 2. Station 2 waters the other side of the house, so you would have to walk there and check to see if the sprinklers were working. You would repeat this procedure for all the stations on that property.
Like everyone else, landscape contractors are creatures of habit, so it takes a while for them to accept new products; however, this seems to be changing. Perhaps it's due in part to the shortage of labor. There are more companies offering a myriad of products that will have a powerful impact on our business. Time-saving products will become more important as the workload increases. For those who do maintenance, imagine some day in the not-too-distant future, you will visit your client's property, take a lawn mower off your vehicle and get it started. It will then cut the lawn by itself, without having someone behind pushing the mower.
Envision, if you will, the day when you can schedule a route, and send one man in a truck to do what now takes a minimum of three or four people. While the mower is doing its job, your crew of one could be trimming the shrubs, cleaning the flower beds, adjusting sprinklers, etc.
Sounds crazy? Not really! And it might come just in the nick of time. Our industry is beginning to feel the pinch of a shortage in the labor pool. H-2B has its limitations, and at best it's difficult and frustrating. Wireless, remotes, and global positioning systems (GPS), might just be the ticket to the future. It could offer you a way to grow your business with limited labor resources.
Self Guided Systems (SGS), LLC, Rochester Hills, Michigan, has developed a commercial mower that is guided around the property by laser technology. They produced the first prototype in 2002, and began testing. "We have developed a strong business plan and I'm excited about the future," said Paul Angott, president of SGS. "The new prototype has the power to cut a football field. It has a 12hp Kohler engine that charges batteries to run the machine." Eight-and-one-half-million dollars later, they're about a year or so away from bringing the product to market. This piece of equipment holds great promise.
Although projects like these are usually brought to market by inventors , The Toro Company has its vision as well. They are working on a prototype that works on GPS. Still in its early stages, they are reluctant to talk about it until they are closer to bringing it to market.
Luis Medina, owner of Evatech Industries, Tarpon Springs, Florida, has built a remote-controlled lawn mower. It uses a wireless transmitter that sends a signal to the mower and is maneuvered around like a remote-controlled car, with a hand-held unit. It weighs about 125 pounds.
Medina, co-founder of the company, began experimenting in 2000 and started to market his mower in 2004. He realized that it was easier to sit on his porch and work with a wireless control than to push the mower. The potential for this mower is not as great as those mentioned above, because you need a pair of hands to work the controls. The approximate cost of the mower is $3,500. But why stop there?how about attaching a blade to a lawnmower to push snow? For another $300, you can add a snow plow to push up to a foot of snow.
What about building a pond -- a pondless water feature without wires for the pump? How about landscape lighting going wireless? That technology has been around for years and is now beginning to make inroads in our markets.
Advanced Bridging Technologies (ABT), Carlsbad, California, was established to take advantage of the tens of millions of dollars that was spent on research to develop life safety products for use outside the medical monitoring and security markets. The parent company, Secure Wireless, specializes in the security and medical monitoring areas.
"If you've ever forgotten to turn off a fountain, you know that it's only a matter of days before it starts sucking air and eventually burns out the pump," says Mike Lamb, director of Advanced Bridging Technologies. "We've designed a remote control unit that's as small as a chicklet that will turn the pump off automatically if you don't. It can also monitor the level of the water and alert the homeowner with a flashing light when the water runs out."
Now you can add wireless control to any transformer for your landscape lighting system. It's relatively easy; all you have to do is wire a receiver into the transformer. Once the receiver is wired in, you have the capability to control up to four taps or zones.
Let's say there are three taps for lighting the front of your home and three taps for the backyard, and they are hooked up to two transformers. You can set the time on each transformer to turn the lights on and off; however, your client only wants the back lit when they have visitors. Instead of having to run out to the transformer to turn it on when the guests arrive and then off when they leave, with the remote unit, you can turn the lights on and off at will.
This not only saves energy, but time and frustration as well.
Remote controllers have been around for quite a number of years now; wireless rain sensing devices came on the market four or five years ago. Wireless hand-held devices can program a controller from just about anyplace in the world. Some irrigation controllers use the technology of monitoring by satellite. Controllers can now be used with and through your personal computer, wireless of course, and new concepts pop up almost daily.
"It's always easier to use wireless," says Dave Shoup, product manager for central systems at Hunter Industries. "No wire means no hassle. Wires are the weak links. They can get chewed on by ground squirrels, dug up by humans, or worse, blown up by lightning. Wires that run up walls are prime targets in lightning storms."
Of course, the simplest wireless to use is the remote office. A number of companies use this technique on a regular basis, especially with their sales people. Now you too can use it to network with your contemporaries in other parts of the country.
For example, take Virginia-based Basnight Lawn & Landscape, serving a large client base in Virginia, Washington D.C. and the Maryland area . They have retained Judy Guido of Guido & Associates, in Moorpark, California, one of the foremost consultants in the green industry, as their vice president of sales and marketing. Every Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, Guido is connected via wireless TV cameras in her office in California to the main office in Virginia. The entire executive team gathers in the board room, where there are also TV cameras. They review the past week's sales and production. They project sales figures and numbers on the screen, and Guido critiques them and makes her suggestions.
In high-tech markets, this is all ho-hum, technology that has been around for years. In a low-tech industry like landscaping, this may sound like rocket science. I can assure you it's not. Unlike the remote control for your television set that allows you to be a couch potato, wireless makes a lot of sense in our industry. One day, all we'll see is wireless. The sooner we learn to take advantage of the technology, the more productive we can become. And who knows, sometime in that not too distant future, we may also have that robotic assistant.