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In the Commercial Market Smart Controllers Reign

| Controllers

Once upon a time, smart irrigation control was a hard sell. Property owners, grounds managers and homeowners associations didn't see a need for it. "Why put in an expensive smart irrigation system when the old one works just fine?"

Well, times have changed. Severe drought, rising water costs and an increasingly stringent regulatory climate have made statements like the above pretty much a thing of the past. They’ve changed so much, in fact, that one can hardly imagine any contractor installing a conventional timer-based irrigation system on any commercial job.

“No one does that anymore,” says one of the foremost irrigation consultants, David Pagano, of d.d.

Pagano Irrigation Consultants, Inc. in Orange, California. “Because of the water issues across the country now, we all have to really pay attention. We need to apply water to optimize the landscape, as opposed to the past when we just had timers, and you watered for ten minutes every day. Everything looked good, but we were wasting water.”

Pagano believes that “we’re in a new era in the landscape industry, where we must start conserving this important natural resource. One way to do this is to only apply the water that landscapes need. Not only does this conserve water, it makes the plants healthier, and smart controllers are the tools we use to do that.” This is especially true in the commercial arena, where millions of gallons of water are used every year. And the larger the properties, the more water used.

A conventional controller waters by the clock. For example, at 12:00 midnight, Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, hot or cold, rain or shine, it will irrigate zones 3, 4, and 5 for ten minutes.

Smart controllers work by calculating a landscape’s actual water needs. Some measure evapotranspiration (ET) using either an onsite weather station or a nearby one via the Internet, or data from onsite soil/moisture, temperature, wind and solar radiation sensors. Some also mix in historical weather data by zip code, or use it as a backup.

Smart Controller, Smart Programming

Still, Pagano reminds us, they can’t figure everything out by themselves. Even gifted kids have to go to school. Just as we can’t expect a computer to run without an operating system, a smart controller needs to be told what types of plants it’s irrigating, what types of soils those plants are in, and whether they’re in sun or in shade. All of these things will affect how much water needs to be applied.

“With smart controllers, it’s critical that they be properly programmed at the time they’re installed,” said Bob Dobson, president of Middletown Sprinkler Company in Port Monmouth, New Jersey, and president of the Irrigation Association. “In order to really maximize their efficiency, they need to be “tweaked” for the first few weeks. It’s very difficult to program them for maximum efficiency right off the bat. But once we get smart controllers dialed in, they do an excellent job.”

“The controller will devise an irrigation schedule that will be so much better than you could do yourself,” said Pagano. “I could do it with a pad and pencil, but it would take me all day. It just isn’t worth it when we have a better tool now. And I always think of a smart controller as a tool.”

That tool needs sharpening, however. “It’s very important that the installer understands the soil/water/ plant relationship, irrigation precipitation rates and all the information that’s necessary to program the controller,” said Dobson. “If accurate data is not entered into the smart controller, it is not going to manage water properly.” And when that happens, according to him, “the tendency is not to point the finger at the person who programmed the controller, but to blame the technology itself.”

But it’s usually not the controller’s fault. When a smart controller fails, “it’s generally the result of an error that’s been made when inputting data,” said Dobson. In other words, ‘garbage in, garbage out.’

Education is Vital 

Of course, a smart irrigation system is only as smart as it’s allowed to be. This is especially true in the commercial arena, “unless you’re also doing the maintenance as well.

When you turn it over to the maintenance personnel, sometimes they don’t get it, or find it too confusing, and they wind up turning off the smart features,” said Judith Benson, president of Clearwater PSI in Winter Springs, Florida. “I have found that happening on several properties.”

So has Pagano. “Part of the problem is that the maintenance people aren’t being trained. You know how to drive your car, but do you know how to fix it?

No, you take it to someone who does.”

“If you’re paying someone to look after your maintenance, then you should hire the right person, just like you take your car to a trained mechanic,” Pagano continued.

He says that on his larger commercial projects, the clients know how to hire ‘the right people,’ contractors who are up to speed on smart control and have a welltrained maintenance staff. The problem comes with the smaller commercial projects, such as strip malls. “They might have one controller and five valves. They’re trying to make ends meet, so they hire someone who just does mowing and doesn’t understand the water needs of plants.”

Dobson found that very s cenario happening on several planned retirement communities he’s worked on. “Too many complaints were coming in, so the maintenance staffs disabled the smart features and were running them as conventional controllers.”

Dobson found a compromise: they set up the controllers so that the system runs at predictable times, but not when the ET-based weather station or moisture sensors have determined it shouldn’t. (His company also conducted educational talks for the residents to explain how the new controllers work).

This half-smart solution “still saves an awful lot of water, and does so in a predictable manner that’s acceptable to the residents. We have records for one community we set up that way. Their average water consumption for the preceding five years, before we put the system in, was 47 million gallons a year. The first year the system was operational, we cut usage to 26 million, less than 60 percent of what they were using previously.”

“Smart controllers have been developed over the years by some pretty smart people at universities and manufacturing companies, with input from some of the larger maintenance contractors and consultants like myself,” says Pagano. “They’ve incorporated the best of everybody’s ideas, and the units work just great if you understand them.”

Therein lies the rub. “The biggest obstacle we face is maintenance personnel,” says Pagano. “They need to be trained so they understand the main aspects of smart control, how it works, and why it works. It’s not that hard to grasp.”

He says, “A simple explanation is all that’s needed, without going into the calculus involved.

Explain why it’s better for the plants. I think most people could get that.” Benson agrees. “There is vast confusion in the industry by the ‘boots on the ground,’ and I think that’s due to lack of education.”

Results may be the best teacher.

Pagano cites the following example. “Back in the mid-1990s (around the same time that smart control really got rolling), the Irvine Ranch Water District started requiring water allocations based on the size of landscapes, and they monitored the usage. When those regulations first came out, and we put in smart control to deal with it, the contractors said, ‘Our plants are all going to die; this isn’t going to work.’ Ten years later, these same contractors are going to other communities and saying, ‘I know how to manage water, because I’ve learned.’” Clients and maintenance people aren’t the only ones who might need some education. Just knowing how to install the hardware isn’t enough. Dobson said that many irrigation contractors “are deficient in knowledge about plant materials.”

It’s critical to understand the soil/water/plant relationship. “The subject is taught in all the major agricultural schools, or to anyone who’s studied landscape architecture,” said Dobson. “A big part of those curriculums is teaching about the water storage capacities of different soils. You could install two identical irrigation systems, but depending on their locations, they would have to be programmed differently because they’re in different types of soil.”

Retrofitting

You’d think that retrofitting a commercial property might be an easier task than putting in an entire system from scratch. Not if you ask Pagano. “Retrofits can be more difficult. It’s easy to rip everything out and put everything back new. But if we need to save the old equipment, that sometimes becomes problematic.”

Many times, in the interests of saving money, contractors are required to mix old with new. The question comes in, as Pagano points out, when you’re trying to incorporate something that’s been in the ground for 10 to 15 years. Is the new contractor responsible for that old part if it fails? “If you’re a smart contractor, you might figure out that there could be a problem with these aged fittings. They might not work like they’re supposed to. So it becomes a lot trickier.”

Clients may think that slapping on a smart controller will fix whatever problems they might be having. “A smart controller can only accomplish what an irrigation system will let it accomplish,” cautions Pagano. “If you have a poor or inefficient system, a smart controller’s not going to help you.”

If the sprinkler heads are spaced too far apart, or not operating at the proper pressures, you’ll have poor distribution uniformity. That means some spots get a lot of water, while others go thirsty. “Typically, that’s remedied by increasing the timing to make those brown spots disappear,” said Dobson. “What are you doing to all the spots that are already green? You’re grossly overwatering them.” Smart controllers can’t change poor equipment selection, bad design, improper spacing or incorrect operating pressures.

Trying to resuscitate the older parts of a system may be more trouble than they’re worth. The client may think he’s saving money, but he’s likely being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Anyone who’s tried to keep an old car running knows this story. At some point, it becomes cheaper to replace it with something new.

Desirable Features

On large commercial properties, features like central control, moisture and rain sensors, and remote access via smartphones or tablets become highly desirable.

“At one large, planned community, we replaced 46 individual controllers with a central control system,” said Dobson. “They are now able to control well over 600 irrigation zones from one central location.”

His company is installing remote access later this year on another planned residential community and a summer resort. “It will give the superintendents the ability to monitor the systems from home or from wherever they might be.”

“On our commercial sites, we prefer to install quick-response rain sensors that’ll interrupt irrigation almost at the first drop of rain,” Dobson said. This is important from a public relations standpoint. People who drive by and see sprinklers running during a rainstorm aren’t getting a positive image of that business.

“Rain sensors are a code item here, required in the state of Florida,” says Benson. “Whether they’re functioning or not, that’s another story.”

One piece of technology that Benson really likes is soil/moisture sensors. “They have their pros and cons, but if you’re talking water savings, our records indicate they’re stronger (than ET-based systems). The savings are phenomenal if you can get clients to convert to them.”

However, sometimes there’s a problem with acceptance of the soil/moisture sensors. “They’re so foreign,” said Benson. “Once they’re installed, they still have to prove their reliability to the property owners or managers, which they do.”

Still, there have been times when maintenance contractors have come by and disengaged the sensors. “On several commercial sites, we’ve had maintenance contractors blaming the sensors for plants that were dying on them. They didn’t understand the technology.”

Benson has found that ET-based systems are more easily accepted by her commercial customers, probably due to their lower installation costs. “It’s an easier upgrade. These systems also have their pros and cons, but you can still get very respectable savings, depending on which units you use.”

“With ET-based controllers, I tell my commercial clients that they can expect a water savings of 20 to 30 percent. But on some of our larger properties, where we’ve installed multiple soil moisture sensors, we’ve easily seen 60 to 70 percent savings.”

Smart Control: It’s the Law?

If you’re in a water-critical state, you may find the government selling smart control for you. Increasingly, states and municipalities are starting to mandate it for new developments. That’s the case in New Jersey, according to Dobson.

“As far as Florida goes, they haven’t gotten that specific on a state level,” says Benson. “But there is a state statute that allows you to get variances from day-specific water restrictions if you have smart control in place. That’s not a mandate, it’s an opportunity.”

In the commercial arena, the question is no longer, “Why should we go with smart control?” but, “What type, and what features shall we buy?” The answer to that will depend on your clients’ sites, the climate, their budget, and a host of other factors. As word has gotten out about how good smart control is, more developers and site managers are demanding it.

It’s a good time to be an irrigation contractor who truly understands what smart control has to offer, and can communicate that effectively to his commercial clients.

 
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