Irrigtion Controllers Go From Smart To Smarter


Smart controllers are a significant improvement over irrigation clocks of a generation ago. Even so, the manufacturers of irrigation products agree that smart controllers are only as efficient as the systems they are set to control.

In other words, in terms of water savings, they cannot compensate for poorly calibrated pressure regulators, damaged and bent spray heads, defective nozzles or rotors and poor design and shoddy maintenance. Any of these system shortcomings can lead to overspray, resulting in water waste, runoff and unhealthy turfgrass and ornamentals.

But, what exactly is a smart controller?

The Irrigation Association (IA) says “smart controllers leverage the latest technology to ensure your landscape receives the precise amount of water based on a number of factors including plant material, soil type, slope, sprinkler type, temperature, humidity and rainfall.”

It does this by automatically reducing watering times on a property as the weather gets cooler and less water is needed. Conversely, it adds more water as days get warmer and drier. There are several ways a smart controller may do this, depending on the particular irrigation system.

Experienced irrigators appreciate what smart technology offers, but they also realize it must be used intelligently to meet plant water needs and still conserve water. Photo: TORO

The controller may use historical weather and water use data for a specific area to determine the amount of water needed. This may be as simple as programming in the area’s zip code. While this method will result in water savings, it is not perfect and it may require periodic manual adjustments to account for unusual weather conditions, such as a prolonged period of hot and dry weather. Adding a temperature sensor reduces the need for manual adjustments.

Other smart controllers may rely upon water and weather data provided by a remote source, perhaps a local weather station or some other source that has collected historical data for the site and is accessed via the Internet or telephone. Still, other systems depend upon their own weather stations that collect real-time water and weather data, and often with sensors—rain and soil moisture sensors, for example.

The point is that a smart controller is merely one component—albeit a more sophisticated and conditions-responsive version than the set-it-and-forget-it clock of yesteryear—in a total smart system.

“Putting a smart controller on a dumb or poorly designed irrigation system or one with inefficient components could exacerbate weak spots and lead to poor performance,” says Donn Mann, specification manager and public agency account manager, Rain Bird.

Mike Baron, Toro Water Management, concurs, explaining even controllers with moisture sensors can’t do their jobs if system components are not functioning properly. “Controllers can’t perform at optimum levels if other components are in disrepair,” he says.

A smarter way to water

Smart controllers monitor water-flow run times and run-time frequency, application timing and how often watering is necessary. Smart irrigation systems can incorporate advanced technologies in their controllers, such as rain sensors, which prevent systems from running during or after a rainfall, and soil moisture sensors, which prevent systems from running when soil moisture is adequate.

Baron says remote control water management using smart systems is growing in popularity.

“Real-time phone apps allow property managers to adjust systems from miles away. And large institutions, such as colleges and universities that have a multitude of sports fields and high-traffic areas, can be monitored with controllers connected to a central computer system,” says Baron.

Adds Mann of Rain Bird: “Commercial smart irrigation models offer station-to-station communications system tracking watering cycles that adjust to real-time conditions and offer remote monitoring central control systems, which send run times, reports and alarms in seconds, minutes and hours.” This technology is well suited for HOAs, retail centers, businesses and institutions, he adds.

Smart controllers can deliver more than 25 percent water savings when they are matched with high-efficiency rotors to optimize ‘cycle and soak,’ which breaks run times into multiple cycles. This provides short windows of time that allow the water to soak into the soil before additional watering, lessening the chance for dissipation, pooling and runoff. Also, pressure-regulated nozzles are designed to operate at an optimal range in pressure. Many rotors and spray heads come available with built-in pressure regulators allowing the nozzle to operate at maximum efficient pressure.

Photo: Rain Bird

How much does it cost?

Contractors often close sales by explaining to property owners how water rates are calculated, and how they can save water, thus reducing irrigation costs, by retrofitting or installing smart irrigation systems. Properly designed and installed smart systems can pay for themselves in one to three years depending on local water rates and usage. Therein lies the trouble: Water rates are confusing to calculate and are charged in units of hundred cubic feet (HFC). Each unit represents 748 gallons of water. Different rates are charged for sewage and there is usually a monthly fixed charge and taxes. To calculate an exact return on investment would take a spreadsheet and an hour of time, which most people don’t have.

“A general rule-of-thumb is that if customers are paying more than $2.50 per HCF, they can recoup their investment quickly—in as little as a year’s time,” Baron says.

In water-plentiful central Ohio, the rates are split: $2.596 for the first 5 HCF and $2.886 for over 5 HCF. In drought-ridden Los Angeles, water rates range from $4.685 to $5.805 per HCF. In some areas of the country, rebates are available from local and state governments looking to conserve water.

Bert Wood, water conservation manager for Rain Bird, says a smart system with real-time monitoring is like buying a security system. “A client may never need it, but if they do need it the security is there,” he says. “A break in a pipe or bent sprinkler heads can cost a lot of money and waste a lot of resources if they go unnoticed for a period of time.”

Government pushes conservation

Water conservation is typically a local government or state issue, but the federal government is also focusing on landscape water use.

“In California, more than 50 percent of water is used for landscape irrigation,” Baron says. “The local water districts have established many rebate programs like the one in Azusa, California, where residents can get up to $1,400 back by installing drip irrigation or by planting indigenous turf, flowers, trees, shrubs and groundcover.”

The regulations feature a mandate to reduce water use by 10 percent for outdoor irrigation of ornamental landscape and turf. “There are studies being done presently to establish water budgets; instead of getting a bill after-the-fact, some municipalities will work with citizens to establish a pre-paid budget and if they go over budget penalties or higher costs ensue,” Baron says. “The idea is to make people more cognizant of the amounts of water they use.”

The EPA goes further in its estimates and says that nationwide some 70 percent of water is used for lawn irrigation. Baron says at some locales in California, fines of up to $100 a day can be assessed for not following water restrictions.

The Irrigation Association (IA) offers training, classes and certifications in nine different disciplines in irrigation, including offering Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor (CLIA). The course covers billing records, inspection of site conditions, tune-up irrigation systems, conducting performance tests, creating irrigation schedules and implementing efficient landscape water management programs.

The IA and American Society of Irrigation Consultants (ASIC) have developed guidelines for best practices in irrigation design and products to promote the efficient use of water. The strategies cover new water-saving parts and new technologies, as well as layout and design, installation and management. The guidelines can be viewed at the IA website. Manufacturers also offer education and opportunities to gain certification credits.

“Certification gives us instant creditability with builders and homeowners alike,” says Tom Horn, owner, All-N-One Outdoor Solutions, Jefferson City, Missouri, and a Rain Bird Select Contractor CIC. “It has really spurred our installation business. Existing sprinkler systems can be retrofitted to save 40 to 50 percent in water usage.”

Irrigation professionals must rely on overall smart irrigation technology, in addition to smart controllers, to ensure the most efficient watering. Photo: Rain Bird

Certifications are becoming more important as the public focuses on environmental and conservation issues. New building construction is moving quickly toward LEED certifications (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for major corporations where 69 points are needed to obtain LEED certification. Reaching 69 points is difficult and builders look for every possible avenue to gain points. Water-efficient landscaping can gain contractors one point for a 50 percent reduction in water consumption for irrigation from a calculated mid-summer baseline case. Two points are awarded for a 100 percent reduction.

In San Diego, mandatory watering restrictions include limiting watering lawns to three days a week; limiting watering to seven minutes per station during the cooler weather months; requiring using hoses with shut-off nozzles or timed-sprinkler systems to provide water to landscaped areas; limiting watering potted plants, vegetable gardens and fruit trees to before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m.; and prohibiting watering lawns or plants on rainy days.

Restrictions are common throughout the Southwest. The entire state of Nevada is under water restrictions, and in Austin, Texas, and Denver, Colorado, water restrictions apply, but are not as draconian. Even in Indianapolis, as recently as 2012, water restrictions were in place.

Get certified and utilize WaterSmart

There is a growing market for smart irrigation systems and retrofitting outdated smart controllers with integrated parts and systems.

Certification of professional contractors, although not yet mandatory, will most likely mirror pesticide applicators with licensing or some type of minimum standards and certification. Certainly drought areas and environmental legislation are drivers for this increased demand, but smart irrigation systems are not limited by sales and service options to drought areas.

Landscape contractors offering irrigation services might consider growing technological advances, professional certifications and adjusting to the EPA standards of WaterSmart products to meet the expected growing demand of irrigation services in the landscape industry

Instead of relying solely upon the technology embedded in a smart controller, contractors should view smart irrigation more broadly as an integrated systems approach to watering efficiently, as opposed to simply relying on controllers by themselves.

“Smart irrigation expands from the lessons learned and broadens the scope of smart practices that should be implemented to ensure a good performing and highly efficient irrigation system,” Mann says.