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2Wire: Getting More for Less

DANNY FASOLD | Controllers

IN 1966, A PROFESSIONAL plant pathologist named Walter Cordua created a brand new type of irrigation system for farmers to use to better water their crops. What was unique about this system was that it ran on only four wires: two wires would carry the power while two wires carried the signal to turn the water on. It was this 4-wire system that later led to the DC-powered Binar System, introduced by Johns Manville in 1975, and ultimately led to the 2Wire technology being used today.

These 2Wire systems are generations ahead of the traditional multi-wire systems still in use today. Those systems ran on so much wire that going back and repairing them when there was a break in one of the wires (a common occurrence in older systems where the wires had become corroded and frail) was an enormous headache. It meant troubleshooting literally every wire one by one until the break was found. When dealing with systems that ran on as many as 100 valves, each of which was connected to its own wire, it’s easy to see how maintaining them would become a tangled mess. What 2Wire had to offer was an alternative to such headaches. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that troubleshooting two wires as opposed to 100 wires is a lot less time consuming. And the savings they provided in the cost of wire alone were enough to make you change your ways.

However, the early 2Wire systems didn’t quite take off. As novel and as beneficial as they were, they were also plagued with problems. There was very little done in the area of lightning protection and grounding, and as a result the system would often short circuit during storms. Also, if there were any nicks in the wire, it would disintegrate. 06.jpg

“Back then, if you had a problem with one wire, the whole system would be down,” says Paul Cordua, Walter Cordua’s son and current president of HIT Products in Lindsay, California, a manufacturer of 2Wire systems. “And since lightning damage was so common back then, it seemed like more trouble than it was worth to maintain a 2Wire system if the whole thing was going to short circuit all the time.”

Fortunately, the technology was later refined and updated to run on AC current, using a sealed decoder to protect against lightning damage. With many of its early problems solved, 2Wire began to take off in terms of popularity, but only in Europe. It wasn’t until 15 years ago that the United States started to come around to the technology. But even then, it wasn’t utilized to its full potential. For a long time, 2Wire was used only within the golf industry.

In the last several years, however, companies such as HIT Products and Tucor have begun marketing 2Wire for the residential and commercial markets. Although it might sound odd that it’s taken so many years for 2Wire to really hit its stride in all aspects of the irrigation industry, it makes sense when you factor in the cost of what 2Wire systems once were.

“They used to cost tens of thousands of dollars,” claims George Cook, vice president of HIT Products. “Now that the technology has gotten more sophisticated, we’re getting to the point where you can purchase a small system for around $1,000.” There are still plenty of regions where 2Wire has yet to really catch on, particularly on the West Coast. Part of the reason can be attributed to people’s resistance to change. Why convert to 2Wire when you’re comfortable with the system you’ve been using? And there are still plenty of people out there who are entirely unaware of the technology. That said, what exactly is 2Wire? How does it work? And what can it offer besides less wire? These are questions that any qualified contractor would ask, and with good reason.

What is 2Wire? In a regular system, you have to run one common wire plus a hot wire from every valve in the system back to the controller. In other words, however many valves there are in that system is equal to the number of hot wires there are. Say you’re working on installing a 5-station system in a football field. The first valve is 20 yards away from the controller and would require 20 yards of wire. The second is 40 yards and would require an additional 40 yards. At 60 yards out, you’d require another 60 yards of wire and so on. When you’ve totaled all these yards of wire together, along with the 100 yards of common wire you’d need to thread everything together, you’re looking at 400 yards of wire . 07.jpg

That’s 1,200 feet! On the other hand, 2Wire is only comprised of two wires. Makes sense, right? Every valve in the system is connected to that same pair of wires (picture a strand of Christmas lights). So, using the example given above but applying it to a 2Wire system, you’re using only 200 yards of wire total: 100 yards for the first wire, and another 100 yards for the second. Not only are you looking at a drastic cut in the cost of wire (after all, you’re using only half of what you’d use had you gone with a multi-wire system in this instance), but you’re also dealing with less time and labor to install the system.

“With a 2Wire system, you use a lot less wire than you would use in a conventional system,” says Larry Sarver, president of Tucor, Wexford, Pennsylvania, “so you don’t have to worry about trenching a bundle of wires that’s as thick as your thigh to the valves. It’s definitely green-friendly.” According to Cook, “2Wire has completely revolutionized the market. It’s eliminated the need to have a dedicated hot wire and common wire going to every valve in the system, and with continuous technological improvement, you can now T and cross your wires any way you need to. This makes the installation process so much easier.”

This system operates off of a series of decoders installed at every valve. These devices translate signals they receive from the controller and will tell the valves to turn on or off. The 2Wire systems also offer you a great deal in terms of distance. If you’re working on a massive commercial project that stretches several miles, you can run the system as far out as six miles from the controller. “You’ll never have a reason to go beyond six miles,” says Sarver, “so for all intents and purposes, there are no limitations on the amount of distance our systems will run, at least in the practical sense.”

Expansions

Expanding your clients’ irrigation systems is a task made easy using 2Wire. A new valve can be added onto a system simply by splicing it into an existing 2Wire path and installing a decoder to receive signals from the controller. You can expand an existing 2Wire system or, using technology such as that offered by Underhill, you can add new 2Wire zones to a conventional multi-wire system. This is a great feature for those who have grown comfortable with what they’ve been using, as they can keep the same controller that they’ve come to know while still reaping the benefits of a 2Wire system.

“Contractors can take any two wires that exist in the current conventional system and connect them to our ICC module,” says Ed Underhill, owner of Underhill International, Lake Forest, California. “That connection will become their new 2Wire path. From wherever those two wires go out, they can continue that path for a total distance of as far as 8,000 feet before you start to lose voltage.” This is leaps and bounds more practical than adding a multi-wire path to an existing multi-wire system. You would have to dig all the way back to the controller to lay down the wire.

This can be a real hassle, especially if that involves trenching across parking lots or roadways to get back to the controller. To add a new 2Wire zone, simply splice it into the existing path, slap on as many decoders as you need and you’re done. There is also the option of converting a conventional system entirely into a 2Wire system. “It’s just a matter of getting the decoders wired up and replacing the controller,” claims Shannon Eastridge, general manager of Ballad Irrigation in Mooresville, Indiana. “With a three man crew, we were able to convert a 52-zone system in one day.”

Wired to the future

As more and more manufacturers continue to produce and market 2Wire systems—a growing trend we’ve seen within the last several years—more contractors and property owners are coming around to the advantages the technology affords them.

“Several years ago, contractors would come into our trade shows and have no idea what 2Wire was about,” says Underhill. “These days, they come in and know exactly what it is and how to use it. It’s amazing how its popularity has grown.”

Not only are 2Wire systems growing in popularity, they’re also growing in sophistication. Strides are being made to cut back on the amount of power usage with these systems, and more companies are looking into the production of wireless remote controls for their systems. Smaller 2Wire systems are being created to attract 2Wire technology into the residential market.

Through the use of DC latching solenoids, which operate on DC current, The Toro Company, Irrigation Division, Riverside, California, has designed a system which requires considerably less power to open its valves. “On a traditional decoder system, you’re sending constant AC power out to the valve to keep it open,” says Jeff Miller, product manager for Toro. “Our decoder’s DC latching solenoids let us send out a pulse which will keep the valves open without using any current. We’re basically taking the approach of battery-operated controllers, which don’t need any power to stay open.”

Companies such as Weathermatic and HIT Products are offering solar energy as a green-friendly way to power their 2Wire systems. HIT’s new homeowner-friendly 2Wire product, the Pro2, is capable of running exclusively on solar power. “It will always have constant power, no matter what the input is,” says Cordua. “You could theoretically plug it into your car battery and have it operate. But if you want to go completely green, you can unplug the power supply and have it be solar-powered.” Weathermatic’s SmartWire has been well accepted in the residential market because of its ease of programming as well as its expandability. The beauty of SmartWire is that when it’s time to expand to more zones, instead of changing out the controller and having to learn how to program a new controller, you can just add a module. You can also add a decoder for a 2Wire system as well as a unit for a solar system.

At only 16 stations, Pro2 is exactly the small-time system homeowners might be looking for to water their properties. “Homeowners never had the opportunity to expand their systems with 2Wire because it was too cost prohibitive,” says Cordua. “We see them becoming more cost effective for the homeowner, and we expect a lot more people will be talking about it.”

You can also use remote controllers to operate 2Wire systems. With these wireless controllers, you can turn the valves on or off from as far as two miles away.

Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California, is looking to further wireless controller technology to allow for more capability than ever before. “We’re developing a handheld meter for decoder programming and diagnostics as part of our ongoing commitment to the 2Wire revolution,” says product manager Dave Shoup. “This device will further aid and simplify field service of large decoder installations.” 2Wire: Here to stay Given the way 2Wire costs are continuing to drop, as well as the innovations being made in the technology, it would not be too presumptuous to predict that 2Wire will be around for some time. No matter how the price of copper continues to fluctuate, the range of flexibility and ease of maintenance that 2Wire offers gives it a leg up over any conventional multi-wire system, and across the United States, people are catching on.

“We’ve been using 2Wire for about five years, and it’s probably the best addition our company has made,” says Eastridge. “They give you so much distance with the wires, which is nice, and our customers love it.”

There’s still a large percentage of the irrigation market that has yet to understand the advantages of 2Wire, but as the technology matures, and the prices continue to drop, that percentage is sure to drop as well.

 
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