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Getting Smart with Smart Water Controllers

DANNY FASOLD | Controllers

It wasn’t so very long ago that the water situation in many states had reached crisis proportions, resulting in the implementation of some of the toughest watering restrictions that had ever been seen. You can imagine the amount of rejoicing when deluges of rain brought many states in the Southeast back up to comfortable water levels. In south Florida, for example, some water restrictions were actually lifted, as were those in Georgia and the Carolinas.

However, droughts come and go in cycles. Although there might be more water to go around now in certain areas of the country, that doesn’t mean there won’t be more droughts to come later on down the line. And in areas like south Texas and the West Coast, the water crisis still rages on, and cities there are doing all they can to ensure high levels of water efficiency.

Many water agencies believe that irrigation for landscaping accounts for more than 50 percent of the total amount of water used in most homes. So it makes sense that if we’re trying to cut back on water, the first places we should look to are the irrigation systems.

Try taking a look at your existing client base. How are their irrigation systems 07.jpgrunning? Are they overwatering? Is there excess water runoff? How accurate are their watering schedules? The key word here is watering. Chances are, many of your clients are watering their properties using a conventional controller.

This controller is essentially a clock which sends an electrical impulse to open and close the valves at a specified time, for a specified period of time. What these clients probably fail to realize, however, is that they’re wasting enormous amounts of water. Conventional controllers will continue watering regardless of rainy days, seasonal changes or plant material. Without anyone going in and adjusting the clock to take such variables into account, these controllers will inevitably overwater and create runoff.

Those interested in saving water should consider using smart water controllers to regulate their systems. Rather than following the same watering schedule day in, day out, these controllers will adjust their watering schedules based on the data they receive from soil moisture sensors, on-site weather sensors or virtual weather sources. Using this data, they will calculate ET (evapotranspiration) values on a daily basis. This will tell the controllers exactly how much water needs to be applied (no more, no less) in order to keep the plants healthy. This way, smart controllers never run the risk of overwatering.

“The frequency of irrigation and the amount of water necessary to keep an optimal moisture balance for the entire property is based on data that’s input in the controller,” says Don Clark, senior product manager at Rain Bird, Tucson, Arizona. “The controller automatically makes adjustments daily, based on weather patterns, so what you’ll typically find with smart controllers is that the rate of irrigation becomes less frequent.”

If your clients aren’t yet using this technology, maybe now is the time to introduce them to the features smart controllers have to offer. Even though there is an initial cost to upgrading, they will save in water and energy.

Whole new markets

As the technology continues to grow more sophisticated, it’s also becoming easier for novices to use. Not only that, but prices continue to drop while the demand for water soars. For these reasons, smart controllers are quickly becoming practical solutions not only for the commercial market, but the residential market as well. “With all the innovative and cutting-edge products being produced, manufacturers are making it easier and more affordable for residential users to upgrade their irrigation systems to smart control,” claims Jeff Kremicki, product marketing manager for Hunter Industries, San Marco, California. 08.jpg

Already, cities are offering rebates to homeowners who take advantage of smart water technology. In San Diego, California, for instance, homeowners can get enough money back from the city to pay for a smart controller in full, although this depends on what water district they’re in. And, in accordance with California’s AB1881 assembly bill, all new irrigation installations made in the state after 2012 must run on smart controllers.

“What we’re seeing in the industry right now is that the technology is being driven down to the residential marketplace to meet these impending deadlines, like the AB1881 Bill,” says Brian Ries, marketing manager for The Toro Company’s Irrigation Division in Riverside, California.

What this means is that a lot of existing systems are going to be out-of-date in the coming years unless they’re upgraded. This brings us to retrofitting, or replacing a conventional controller with smart water technology.

Retrofitting a conventional controller is not as difficult as some might think. In fact, it can be done in less than two hours if you’re quick. Simply go in and replace the existing controller with a smart controller, do the necessary programming and you’re done. “The biggest market opportunity we have is to retrofit our existing customer base with smart controllers,” explains Mike Mason, president and CEO for Weathermatic, Dallas, Texas. “I know contractors who are literally making as much money right now as they ever have because they’re doing nothing but retrofitting properties.”

Where does it get its data, anyway?09.jpg

Just how does a smart controller perform those calculations? This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Depending on how your smart controller is set up, the answer can vary.

There are three basic sources for smart control: soil moisture and rain sensors, on-site weather stations and virtual weather sources.

Soil moisture sensors determine the amount of water that has already been absorbed by the soil. If it’s rained recently and there’s a sufficient level of water in the soil, a soil moisture sensor will relate this information back to the controller.

If there was only a slight drizzle earlier in the day and the soil still needs more water (but not as much water as it would on a dry day), a soil moisture sensor will tell the controller the exact amount of water the turf needs to stay healthy.

On-site weather stations, on the other hand, measure a variety of elements that relate directly to the weather. Controllers that are weather station-based will measure temperature, solar radiation, rain fall, humidity and wind to determine how it will water the turf. Virtual weather sources are the latest and most exciting of the smart water sources. What separates virtual weather source-based controllers from those that run on sensors or weather stations is that they receive all of their data wirelessly from the Internet, paging networks, cellular transmissions or other wireless sources.

Using a virtual weather source can be as simple as going to www.weather.com to get a feel for what your ET value should be, or— even better—depending on the type of smart controller you have, you may be able to configure it so that it receives a regular feed of real-time weather data. As your controller receives this data, it will self-adjust the run times accordingly. Many states offer their own weather station networks (such as SIMIS in California), so check with your state’s agricultural department to see what’s available.

“We use WeatherTRAK’s ET Everywhere service,” says Ries. “It’s wireless weather data from literally all over the place.” Programs such as ET Everywhere pull its data from upwards of 25,000 different sources across the country, from weather stations at airports, universities and even satellites.
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“All of that data from all of those sources gets broken down and disseminated to our controllers on a daily basis,” claims Ries. “They’re getting all the variables they need to determine an ET value.”

Smart technology made easier

Thanks to online weather services, nowadays monitoring your system’s watering schedule can be as simple as logging in. You can adjust your watering times from your home computer right before you go to bed, or from your cell phone.

Anywhere in the world where you have access to the web, you have access to the irrigation system. There are monetary benefits to web-based systems as well. Because they’re wireless, you can save a lot of time and money, simply given the fact that you don’t have to run an Ethernet cord from the controller back to a PC-based computer.

“There’s a lot of labor expense in hooking your system up to a centralized PC, especially if you’re in a city,” claims Steve Springer, senior marketing manager for Rain Master, Simi Valley, California. “You’d have to run cables across roads and into parks . . . you can very easily find yourself spending $50,000 just to get two wires from point A to point B. In addition, you have to continue to buy new software to keep up with the new features.

“If you’re running off an Internet system that doesn’t require any software and all you have to do is
log in, then right there you’ve solved two of the key complaints you’ll hear for the stand-alone PC-controlled system.” 11.jpg

Certain companies such as Rain Master will allow you to configure your smart controller to alert you every time something goes wrong.

Say a pipe breaks; with smart water technology, your system will know to shut down immediately before sending an alert back to central control telling you what has happened. If you’re running off of a web-based system, those alerts can go straight to your email or your cell phone.

You can even customize your system to receive only the kinds of alerts you want. Let’s say you manage a property where you’re afraid that someone might tamper with the field controller. You can actually customize your system so you will receive alerts every time a change has been made in one of the programs.

“With our system, there are 16 alerts that you can program, and you can set the criteria any way you want for all 16 of them,” says Springer.

Weathermatic’s SmartLine feature is another useful innovation in smart water technology. It’s a sensor that actually measures how long it takes for the soil to dry out after it’s rained. “If it rains for three days straight and then stops, do you really want to irrigate the soil for the next three days after that?” asks Mason.

“Heckno , you don’t! The soil already has enough water. Our Smart- Line product knows not to apply water during that time, and knows exactly when it should start applying.” With Rain Bird’s latest smart controllers, you can even choose between navigating the controller’s system in English or in Spanish. You can make your language selection simply by pressing a button. It also includes a handy programming wizard to help you through the system’s menus and programs.

Crash course irrigation

The Irrigation Association hosts a two-day course called the Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor program, which teaches students how to correctly install smart water controllers. Companies such as Rain Bird offer on-site training for contractors who want to learn more about smart controllers.

“To effectively use smart con trollers, people should really get 12.jpgsome background knowledge,” says Clark. “We have a free online training program that anyone can participate in, including homeowners.” Of course, converting to smart water technology is just the beginning.

If you’re following poor irrigation practices (for instance, if you have spray heads shooting water out onto the sidewalk or you’re watering plants that call for less water than you’re giving them), then it really won’t matter how good your irrigation watering schedule is because your system still won’t be running efficiently.

“Most people think smart controllers are the panacea, the silver bullet,” says Clark. “But they’re just one of the bullets you need in your gun. You have to get the whole thing running in a smart manner if you want to do things right. I’d recommend getting an irrigation audit to bring the whole system up to speed. After you’ve done that, you can augment what you’ve done by installing a smart controller.”

Smart water technology could mean big business for you, especially as more states make it a mandatory requirement for future installations. Get up to speed now to stay ahead of the curve.

 
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