Smart irrigation controllers have been around for a while, and they can greatly reduce water bills and consumption by responding to changes in the weather automatically. Recently, there has been a proliferation of different types, from models with historical weather information to controllers that communicate wirelessly to a weather sensor installed on site, all the way to cloud-based units that monitor the weather websites and can be remotely programmed from anywhere in the world. Essentially, there are two classes of smart controllers, one for residential and light-commercial use, and one for larger sites such as homeowner associations, city parks, shopping centers and business parks.
I’d like to briefly discuss controllers for homeowners and those applications that typically do not need more than 24 stations.
Smart Means Responding to Changes in Weather. In simplest terms, smart controllers are updated regularly with weather information so that when the irrigation cycle begins at the next scheduled start, the run time for each station is automatically adjusted. If the day is cooler than normal, your irrigation controller will reduce the amount of time the sprinklers are on – automatically. Turf and plants need far less water in the spring and fall, making the greatest benefit of these controllers the ability to apply only the amounts of water needed for current weather conditions.
The Key to Saving Water – Easy to Install, Program and Use. There was an initial push to become extremely accurate, attempting to identify plant types, soil type, sprinkler application rates, sprinkler-efficiency factors, micro-climates and slope intensity. Even irrigation professionals had difficulty with navigating through the laborious programming process. Realizing this trend was too complex, the current focus is towards simpler units that are more affordable, easier to set up and program, easier to monitor yet, save water because they adjust to the weather daily. Leading manufacturers developed simple and affordable controllers that have created the most water savings – because people can understand them. As the old saying goes, “What’s the best camera to use? The one you know how to work.”
What About Costs? Smart controller costs have been an ongoing issue. Even just a few years ago, the industry was struggling with how to make a weather-based control system in the $200-to-$300 range. Homeowners and end-users balked at the idea of a controller in the $600 range, and then having to pay an annual fee for weather information on top of that. However, the industry responded with effective smart-control systems within the target range.
Criteria for Selecting a Weather-Based, Smart-Control System. The return on investment of a smart controller can be as soon as one year depending on the weather. Based on thousands of installations and follow-up, here are some key qualifying aspects that make a smart controller worth the investment:
- Tiered water rates and/or prices
- Properly installed and maintained irrigation systems
- Restrictions mandated by the local water agency
Fix the Irrigation System First. It is extremely important to have a professional irrigation contractor analyze the system first, fixing and updating everything for the best possible zoning and coverage. Even a genius controller cannot correct brown spots, broken or misplaced sprinkler heads, poor zoning or heads that are clogged or buried too deep.
Whether it’s because of the rising cost of water, watering restrictions or the need to irrigate more efficiently, there are smart irrigation controllers available that continue to evolve in order to meet the needs of the irrigation professional contractor and the demands of our customers.
Michael Edmiston, is the New York metropolitan district sales manager of The Toro Company