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Take Control with Smart Controllers

ELIZABETH LEXAU | Controllers
When they first came on the market, conventional landscape irrigation controllers were a marvelous innovation. Automated watering meant you could set the controller and plants would have plenty of water when they needed it . . . and even when they didn’t. In an era of abundant water supplies, a little over-watering seemed like a small price to pay for this convenience.

Today, over-watering is a serious and costly practice. Skyrocketing water bills, tightening water budgets and tiered-rate structures are pressuring customers to seek new ways to conserve. Property owners who want to keep their landscapes healthy without going broke are looking for help.

One of the easiest, most costeffective ways to offer that help is by introducing them to smart controllers.

Unlike conventional controllers which rely on timing alone, smart controllers use factors such as weather, soil moisture and other conditions to adjust watering schedules to meet the changing moisture requirements of plants. As weather and other factors change, smart controllers respond with an updated schedule. They allow water when plants need it and reduce or eliminate irrigation when they don’t.

“Today, there is a wider range of smart controller product choices available to customers,” says Jeffery Kremicki, product marketing manager, electronics products, Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California. “They range from fairly sophisticated sensor platforms, to smart controllers that receive broadcast data, to affordable, simple-to-use products that use small, on-site weather sensors.”

While they incorporate different technologies, smart controllers all have the potential to significantly reduce excess consumption of water in the landscape. In an era of limited water supplies, contractors who bring this technology to consumers can stay ahead of the game.

“Most consumers don’t have any idea that these technologies even exist, or that they can save as much as they can,” says John Fordemwalt, president, Baseline, Inc., Meridian, Idaho. “Irrigation professionals have a huge opportunity in front of them to take these proven systems to their existing customers and grow new business in their area. Those who embrace the change, educate themselves and start educating their customers will grow over the next several years. Those who don’t will lose customers to those who do.”

High impact opportunity

Outdoor water use is getting a lot of attention these days, as water agencies look for high-impact, lowcost ways to conserve.

“Outdoor water use has been shown to represent anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of residential water use,” says Don Clark, senior product manager, Rain Bird, Azusa, California. “The vast majority of that water is being used for landscapes. Research has also shown that most homeowners are actually over-watering their landscapes by 30 to 70 percent.”

It’s easy to see how conventional controllers can contribute to overwatering.

“In many situations, controllers are programmed to meet the highest demands of peak summer watering and may remain at that level throughout the year,” says Kremicki.

“This can result in a significant amount of water wasted. Depending on current irrigation practices, smart controllers can potentially reduce the amount of water waste associated with landscape irrigation an average of approximately 25 to 30 percent.”

Water authorities recognize the savings smart controllers can offer and many promote them through incentives or mandates. For many contractors, this means much of the marketing for these products has already been done in their area.

“It’s critical to stay on top of these issues even if you’re not in an area of water scarcity,” says Brian Ries, marketing manager for the irrigation division of The Toro Company, Riverside, California. “Just because it’s not an issue in your area now, doesn’t mean it won’t be.”

But Ries also points out that the benefits of smart controllers go beyond saving water. “It’s also about making sure plants get the right amount of water. The smart controller determines how much water plants need and when they need it to maintain the best health.”

Smart control for all

There are smart controllers in all price points and it’s critical to understand the needs of the customer when determining which product is the best fit. Is it a commercial client looking for a sophisticated state-of-the art system that requires expert operation but delivers maximum efficiency? Or is it Joe Homeower who wants a simple system that offers set-it-and-forget-it savings?

Different systems rely on different types of data for their irrigation “decision-making.” Temperature, wind, rain, evapo-transpiration (ET), soil moisture, and even plant type, soil type, and slope can all be part of the equation. Even systems that use the most basic data on historical ET can have a big impact.

Some smart controllers use onsite weather stations to collect realtime, local data. Others receive real-time data from off-site weather stations or weather service providers via satellite, the Internet, cell phone or radio connections.

“Our technology is based on remote weather stations,” says Pat McIntyre, CEO, ET Water Systems Inc., Novato, California. “We also integrate specific data from your landscape like your plant material, soil type, slope, the sun-shade mix, the maturity of your landscape material and the output of your particular system. It’s organized by station and input online through the Internet.”

“We have one that listens to the weather from an orbiting satellite every afternoon and then reprograms its schedule,” says Keith Shepersky, senior product marketing manager, Irritrol, Riverside, California.

“It listens for the zip code and down comes the ET number for that day.”

Some systems use historical weather data from a particular geographic area or zip code to calculate moisture requirements throughout the year. Others rely on a combination of historical data coupled with real-time data collected remotely or onsite.

Irritrol is introducing a new system this summer that combines data from an onsite weather sensor with historical data stored in a module that plugs into their existing controller. The weather sensor wirelessly feeds data to the module.

“You enter your zip code. The module has a complete database stored in it,” says Shepersky. “Once you plug it in, it also starts collecting its own data. It has a rain shutoff which the user can set to determine how much rain should shut the system down. It has a cold temperature shutoff to prevent irrigation in freezing weather. And it grabs the water budget for the controller and decreases watering time in cooler weather and turns it back up in warmer weather.”

Soil moisture sensors offer another piece of data for some smart controllers. When installed on the property, these provide feedback to the controller to adjust schedules based on the actual moisture content in the soil.

With so many conventional controllers already in place, some manufacturers are turning to add-on components that turn conventional controllers into smart controllers.

“We offer a module that attaches to any existing residential controller or commercial controller with up to 8 stations,” says Dominic Shows, national sales manager, Alextronix, Fresno, California. “You enter the zip code and the irrigation schedule, and with that information we can budget your irrigation based on your location and temperature. It’s based on an algorithm that the owner developed and patented. It comes within five percent of actual ET rates.”

He says contractors should pay attention to the existing controllers already out there. “The reason we got in to add-on modules is because there are 13,000,000 homes that haven’t converted to smart controllers.

Not all of them are going to want to or can afford it. Here is an opportunity for contractors to address this market with an add-on module that’s easy to program and easy to install.”

Today, homeowners have access to smart controller technology that was available in years past only to the turf and large commercial market.

“We’re seeing a lot of the technology from premier upper-end systems trickle down into the residential marketplace because of limited availability of water,” says Ries. “We can look at high-end systems today and see what we’ll probably have in more basic systems in the future.”

Remote operation

One way to make a smart system even smarter is to allow human managers remote access to the controller from a PC or even a cell phone.

For example, ET Water recently added an application that allows managers to activate, deactivate and make scheduling changes from their smart phone.

Scott Miller, Owner of Gazebo Gardens Nursery Company and Miller Clark Landscape and Nursery, Fresno, California, put this system to an extreme test while vacationing in France.

“I was using the system at a shopping center,” says Miller. “We got the controllers installed and programmed and then I went to France. I was a few days into the vacation on a dinner cruise on a river when I got a text that the manager noticed a spot where the irrigation system needed adjustment. I got on my iPhone and fixed it from my cruise ship without anyone else at the table knowing I was doing it. This is a 40-acre site that has 11 controllers with 30 or 40 stations on each controller. If I can manage that from my phone on a boat 2,500 miles away, that’s cool!” Miller acknowledges that the day-to-day labor savings possible with smart controllers are what really matter. “It’s not only about water savings; it’s a tremendous labor savings. When you use a smart controller, you save the time you would spend as a contractor reprogramming clocks as the seasons change.

It’s all done for you.”


Tapping old markets

Property owners who are watching wide-eyed as their water bills creep up are very receptive to new information.

“The irrigation professional plays an extremely important role in educating end users about the benefits of smart controllers,” says Kremicki.

One huge opportunity to market smart controllers and other improved technologies is through retrofits.

“More progressive contractors are turning old customers back into new ones by retrofitting old, out-ofdate systems,” says Clark. “Usually the payback on these upgraded systems is one to five years. This is broadening their business during very trying economic times.”

Smart controllers need smart systems

The smartest controller can’t fix a stupid system.

Contractors can make a real impact on water savings by looking at the entire irrigation design and its individual components to find opportunities for improved efficiency. “Some think of the smart controller as a panacea,” says Clark. “It’s just one of the tools.

Replacing the controller when there are other system problems is like having a mechanic tune up your car to optimize the gas mileage but then driving around with the emergency brake on.

Putting a smart controller on a dumb system might only hide problems.”

“Installing a smart controller on a poorly designed or poorly maintained system will result in lower overall savings and fewer happy customers,” says Fordemwalt. “With new construction as slow as it is, the big opportunity for installers is to sell retrofits—not just the controllers, but with new high-uniformity sprinkler heads when needed.

A short audit of an existing system will tell the story, and it’s quick and easy to do. It’s the whole package of good uniformity and smart controls that result in the happiest customers.”

Embrace it

Becoming the local expert on smart controllers and other efficient irrigation methods is always good business for green industry providers.

“Don’t be afraid of smart technology—embrace it,” says Shows.

“If contractors can sell their clients a whole water saving package, that’s a new revenue stream for their business. It’s being tapped by a lot of contractors, but there are still a lot out there who aren’t doing that.”

To learn more about smart controllers and other efficient irrigation technologies, visit the Smart Water Application Technologies page of the Irrigation Association at http://www.irrigation.org/ SWAT/Industry/.

 
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