The future of irrigation tech is here

The future of irrigation tech is here

The Water Issue - Cover Story: The Water Issue

The devices designed for large, commercial properties and golf sites have seeped into the residential space.

August 7, 2019

© Illustration by Christina Chung

You know who’s standing at your front door because your smart doorbell shows you. Fido won’t go thirsty because you received an alert that the dog dish is empty that triggered a refill. Your laundry is washed – the machine just texted an update to your phone.

And, more good news, you saved your customers 40 percent on their water bills this year because of a smart irrigation controller with connected components that shut off the system based on soil moisture and weather conditions.

For some time now, remote access with Wi-Fi enabled irrigation controllers has been the norm in the golf and commercial space. But now, homeowners with modest-sized residential lawns can affordably connect their sprinkler system controllers with technology platforms that give them a similar power to adjust run times and identify system problems.

“Everyone wants to manage their lives remotely,” says Ben Sacks, associate product manager of controllers at Hunter Industries. “Irrigation contractors have a huge opportunity to sell the dream of controlling and managing your irrigation system from your phone.”

From soil sensor technology to connected flow sensors, and dashboards that give irrigation contractors tools to remotely managing customers’ sprinklers, the world of Irrigation IoT (internet of things) is now available and affordable for homeowner clients. Irrigation contractors can provide more responsive, thorough customer service when their clients are on board.

“We are seeing technology that was expensive technology in the golf, agricultural and commercial markets get refined and drop into the residential segment,” says James Harris, global product manager of IoT controllers at Rain Bird. “As technologies continue to improve, it becomes more affordable for homeowners to have advance benefits.”

Photos courtesy of Hunter Industries

Smart soil solutions.

Soil science and soil awareness is the next frontier in the residential space, says Orion Goe, Toro’s marketing manager for commercial and residential irrigation.

Soil moisture technology is an expected practice in the golf and sports field spaces. “Professional grounds managers have been using soil moisture sensors for a number of years to look at soil temperature, mineral content, soil moisture and a number of variables that, while important, probably is information overload for the residential customer,” he says.

Not to mention, the technology was cost-prohibitive for a typical homeowner until recently, when simplified and connected soil sensing technology came on to the market. “Now, soil sensor technology has reached a scale where it is accessible and cost-effective for residential contractors and their homeowner customers,” Goe says.

Goe calls soil moisture information a “vital sign” of turf health. It’s a sign that most homeowners completely ignore because residential customers generally base their opinion of turf health on grass color. But what lies beneath, as irrigation contractors know, can significantly alter how often an irrigation system actually needs to run.

So, there is a significant potential for residential customers to save on water bills if their system is detecting soil moisture levels and adjusting run times accordingly.

When smart soil sensors were implemented on customers’ irrigation systems – turning the water on or off based on data – customers’ average annual water savings was 25 to 35 percent. Savings were a bit less if the system already had a weather station in place.

The sensor is wirelessly connected to the irrigation controller, and an irrigation contractor can simply push it into the ground with no digging required. Installation is simple, and the information is power.

“When we know how the soil is doing, we have a better indication of turf health, which helps contractors better manage the turf and save water,” Goe says.

Flow sensors that were previously reserved for larger commercial properties have come down to the residential market.

Know the flow.

Flow sensors that were previously reserved for larger commercial properties have come down to the residential market, and Harris says this is an untapped opportunity for irrigation contractors and their homeowner clients. “With a (connected)flow sensor, a controller can be notified of the average amount of flow that should be going through the system, and when it knows that average, it can monitor for situations where that amount is lower or higher,” Harris says.

High flow can indicate a leak or break. Perhaps a component is dislodged or broken. “This can waste a lot of water, and on top of that, it can damage property,” Harris says.

A controller with a flow sensor can detect high/low water flow and react by shutting down specific, affected zones. “We have tried to design the flow sensors so they are very simple to use,” Harris says. Basically, once connected to the controller, the flow sensors “memorize” the flow for each water station. After this initial setup, which happens automatically, the system begins monitoring flow.

“So, it’s easy to be use, and it’s almost an insurance policy against high-water events,” Harris says. “Contractors should make sure that customers are aware of flow sensors because it’s a real benefit, and it can help contractors improve their relationships with customers.”

The latest smart controllers can be paired with soil monitors and flow sensors to provide clients and techs with all the information they need remotely.

Connected to savings.

Wireless water management is not only accessible for homeowners – it’s the way of the future, and can be a major labor-saving, efficiency tool for irrigation contractors. Sacks points out that contractors can market system upgrades to customers, who will realize an ROI because during the course of a year, those who adopt these technologies see big savings on their water bills.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” Sacks says, adding that there are some potential obstacles to implementing wireless irrigation systems. Namely, when connectivity to Wi-Fi is spotty, homeowners might require a Wi-Fi booster or extender, or they might need to reposition a router to improve a connection.

On call, remotely.

Not only do smart irrigation upgrades save water and give customers a real-time connection to what’s going on with their systems, but contractors can generate more revenue when clients adopt the technology. Irrigation technicians can manage multiple properties from a single platform, Sacks says.

“You can see all of your customers at a glance,” Sacks says. “The system has visual indicators so you can see Mr. Smith’s residence is red and that means you need to send him a text or email and say, ‘Check your router or controller,’ or you can send a notification that his system has high flow. You have the ability to gather information about each individual property.” Some homeowners might want to control their own systems and appreciate the notifications. Others prefer an irrigation contractor to field and act on the alerts, and this is possible. Systems can be adjusted remotely.

“The ability to monitor and interact with a system remotely from off-site via a phone, tablet or computer is a big step forward,” Goe says. “In essence, you can do everything remotely that you would do on location, save installing new hardware. You can program systems, check their status – those capabilities are literally in the palms of a contractor’s hands, and that is a value-added piece for homeowners.”

Goe likens it to a virtual checkup. Rather than spending time on a site that’s up and running efficiently, they can focus on areas that require improvement for saving water and improving plant health.

Contractors can be first to recognize an issue rather than waiting for a customer call. “It’s valuable when a contractor can say, ‘Hey, I noticed something is happening to your irrigation system, can I come out?’” Goe says, “as opposed to a homeowner calling to say, ‘Something’s wrong with my system. You need to come out.’

“This technology positions irrigation contractors to be the best service providers they can be,” Goe says. “We’re all in business to help homeowners so they can enjoy their landscapes.”