In recent years, irrigation controllers have only gotten increasingly smarter. While some controller companies have made huge advancements to their products, many start-up companies have also entered the playing field, creating controllers that offer a bevy of features. With more and more customers needing these advanced, efficient controllers, irrigation professionals are preparing for a very smart future.

How do you define smart?

While smart sounds good in theory, you need to know exactly what smart means when it comes to these controllers before you invest in one. Established companies, including Rain Bird, Hunter and Toro, as well as others, have added extra features to traditional irrigation controllers that make them more efficient and water conscious, including the all-important incorporation of Wi-Fi connectivity. While irrigation controllers are nothing new to the landscape industry, it is the intelligent upgrades that have made their way onto the market in recent years. These features that have made these devices much more efficient than their predecessors.

Now updating information on your controller is as easy as picking up a Wi-Fi device. Not only are these advancements convenient, they are good for the environment as well. The list of features the controllers have, however, depends on the distributor. Toro’s senior marketing manager Burnett Jones explains how his company defines “smart.”

“You can break up the advancements into two different areas. One being the efficient use of water or the control of putting the right amount of water down. The other one is even more than that, which is the connectivity piece of someone being able to connect to their controller remotely. In many cases in a particular product they will have both types of features,” Jones says.

Steve McCarter, the national water efficiency products manager of Ewing Irrigation & Landscape Supply, has a vast knowledge of irrigation controllers and their capabilities. He suggests focusing on what software features fit your landscaping plan best rather than choosing a device based on hardware.

McCarter recommends asking this question when choosing a device: “What’s the software package and the support that goes with that that allows for the high efficiency controller?”

McCarter continues with additional important questions: “How do I access the weather stations? How close are they? Can I actually customize it with a particular application rate on a zone? Can I tell it what soil type I have, what slope, what sun/ shade exposure I have, what the plant material is, whether it’s a cool-season grass or warm-season grass, trees, shrubs, groundcover?”

The various controllers on the market not only differ based on what features they offer but also based on what determines the distribution of water. While some smart controllers irrigate according to past and present weather trends, others irrigate based on soil moisture levels. These sensors may intelligently make all of the necessary irrigation adjustments, but contractors still need to know which sensor is most appropriate for their clients.

“For instance, at my personal home I am using two different types of technology that we provide. One is a weather-based sensor that I use in the backyard, and in the front yard I use a soil sensor,” Jones explains.

Why get smart?

Unless you fear that technology is going to take over the world as we know it, investing in smarter devices seems to be the obvious choice when it comes to landscaping. With the most advanced controllers being in the early adoption phase, however, irrigation professionals and homeowners alike still have a lot of questions when it comes to these powerful little machines.

Rick Robinson is the president of Stillwater Landscape Management LLC in Phoenix, Arizona. Robinson is so well-versed in the usage of smart controllers that he led an entire discussion in Colorado revolving around these revolutionary gadgets. Stillwater works strictly with homeowners’ associations and provides irrigation technology consulting services. Robinson has learned that smart also applies to cost when it comes to controllers. As many professionals claim, smart controllers often yield a high return on investment. Distributors state that their controllers reduce water use by 60 to 70 percent.

Stillwater Landscape Management LLC conducts an irrigation audit when installing a smart irrigation system.

Photo: Stillwater Landscape Management LLC

“Many of these products do not cost much more than the products they are replacing. Many of the smart controllers have a higher price than conventional controllers, but it is also a simple matter to illustrate how increased efficiency will offset the higher cost in only a few years,” Robinson explains.

According to McCarter, the list price on Wi-Fi controllers ranges from $250 to $350. Professionals are certain that the initial price is well worth the benefits that accompany these controllers.

Jones explains the two returns on investments he believes smart controllers provide. “One, you are going to save water and two, depending on the technology you use, you can drastically improve the health of your turf and your landscape,” he points out.

What is the future of smart controllers?

Just a few years ago, irrigation professionals would have never predicted they would ever be able to make adjustments to their customers’ controllers from the sandy beaches of Mexico. Only time will tell just how much “smarter” these controllers will get, but professionals do have some predictions on future adoption of this technology.

Since these smart controllers are still such a new development, it is hard for the industry to guess what other advancements are to come. Robinson, however, can confidently say that his clients cannot avoid considering smart irrigation controllers for too long.

“Increasing water rates and increasing associated taxes and fees are forcing [homeowners’ associations] to use an increasingly larger proportion of their budgets on irrigation water, and as a result they are looking for landscape maintenance contractors who genuinely value their roles as professional water managers,” Robinson states.

Jones has noticed an increased interest in these devices in recent years as awareness of them has simultaneously increased. While experts disagree on whether homeowners or irrigation professionals are driving the sales of these products, Jones knows that a number of initiatives will make these adoption numbers grow even more in the upcoming years.

“I would say that we are seeing the demand for smart controllers increase. It’s still on an early adopter wave, I would say, but with a lot of the pressures from water agencies and drought conditions, and even the green movement, there’s definitely a lot more interest in it,” Jones expresses.

One thing is for sure, these devices are becoming exactly what homeowners and irrigation professionals have been seeking in terms of easy and environmentally conscious water management. As Jones states, people are happy simply not having to worry about accidentally leaving their summer irrigation settings on all year long.

Rick Robinson, president of Stillwater Landscape Management LLC, shows his foreman how to work with a smart irrigation system.

Photo: Stillwater Landscape Management LLC

“I think we are going to see more and more adoption. The nice thing about these types of controllers is they really are starting to become ‘set it and forget it’ devices, which is what people really want them to be,” Jones expresses.

Now if you are planning a big trip to Mexico, just don’t forget to pack your wireless device.

Be Smart — Avoid These Mistakes

Smart irrigation controllers can truly transform a client’s landscaping plan and water conservation, but that only happens if contractors know what they are dealing with when it comes to these devices. Knowing the market is essential to selling your customers the right products for their homes, according to Rick Robinson, president of Stillwater Landscape Management LLC in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Most contractors don’t necessarily make many mistakes in controller installation; rather they fail to research options with new or improved controllers and offer such options to their clients,” Robinson states.

Burnett Jones, Toro’s senior marketing manager, finds that another mistake comes following the sale of a device. It is integral that contractors thoroughly educate their clients on the controller upgrades they are receiving. Even explaining the difference between how a weather sensor works versus a soil sensor can save both professionals and customers a big headache.

Jones gives an example of a major difference between weather sensors and soil sensors that contractors should detail to their clients. “Let’s say you walk outside every morning, and you typically see the sprinklers running, or you can tell that the sprinklers did run because the grass is wet. If, all of the sudden, you put in a soil sensor and the system shuts down for five days because it doesn’t need any water and the homeowner doesn’t see any water on the sidewalk, he’ll think there’s a problem with the irrigation system and that it’s not running,” he says.

Sometimes, it is as simple as running an assessment of the property and the home’s technology to make sure it is equipped for a smart controller.

Above all else, do not make the mistake of installing a controller in a home where it will not work, advises Steve McCarter, the national water efficiency products manager of Ewing Irrigation & Landscape Supply.

“If you have an incredibly inefficient sprinkler system, this doesn’t completely solve the problem. If the home doesn’t have Wi-Fi, it can’t access the cloud to get the weather information,” McCarter explains.