Under control

Under control

How smart controllers can save you time and your customers money.

July 18, 2012

The smartest part of any irrigation system is still the installer running it.

New irrigation technology and innovative products impact our customers in a positive way. The product making the biggest water savings impact in the shortest period of time is smart controllers. When it comes to controllers, there are many options with many features and benefits. Here’s how we integrate controllers into our projects.

First step.
We talk to the customer to determine goals first, and when appropriate, integrate smart irrigation controllers into the overall landscape plan. The majority of companies I work with haven’t integrated smart controllers, so it is a perfect time to talk about developing a water management plan for their facility. It’s our goal to provide the proper solutions for their water management objectives.

Many customers simply don’t know where to start because there are numerous parts to an average irrigation system. That’s where an experienced landscape maintenance contractor becomes a valuable partner. We have 64 irrigation technicians across the country who are licensed by the Irrigation Association. We’re seeing more contractors across the industry taking our classes and attending conferences where we teach water management practices. Contractors expecting to be successful in the future must make water management a primary focus and educate and train accordingly.

How they work.
Several things make a controller smart. Instead of turning valves on and off at the programmed time, a smart controller calculates weather conditions and adjusts to optimize water usage. Scheduling capabilities, and the ability to manage your controllers anywhere you can get an internet connection are optional features. The ability to measure flow and shut off water when there is a break in a line and then alert an irrigation technician or manager there is a problem is one of the most practical advanced features. The water (and time) savings from this can be enormous.

Smart controllers can provide a quick return for your green investment. As the price of technology decreases and water becomes more expensive it’s now more critical than ever to evaluate if smart controllers are right for your client’s property.

Rising rates. Clearly, there’s increased customer demand for water management expertise. Increasing water rates are one of the key drivers. Water rates are increasing across the country so companies now pay closer attention to their water bills. This increase often leads to requests for us to do water audits and water assessments to determine how to manage water more efficiently. Owners and managers look to us to advise them about water management as part of an overall landscape program. Some are integrating water management into entire portfolios as a way to manage costs for what is becoming an expensive operational line item.

We examine and analyze historical evapotranspiration (or ET) information for customers, and then determine the plant water requirements for a specific period of time and measure the water requirement against the actual water usage. This gives us an idea of how much water we could save by installing smart controllers. We use this to create a return on investment calculation, and by sharing the potential return on investment we help customers make better educated decisions. Many times we can recommend a smart controller with an ROI of 24 months or less.  

Smart controllers need smart contractors

10 years ago, when you looked at irrigation controllers, the notion of a smart controller was pretty much unheard of. Fast forward and all the major manufacturers now have smart controller products. Back then, technology wasn’t as big of an emphasis.

Adjusting for weather was done on large commercial sites or golf courses that had their own weather station. The introduction of smart controllers has allowed that technology to be brought down to the consumer level. And from a price point and a feature standpoint, there’s been more of an emphasis on water rebate programs across the country.

It’s still very much heavily focused on the West Coast, but that’s changing. They’re talking about smart controllers in the Midwest and central states and southeast. Whatever you want to believe about climate change and weather patterns, drought conditions get people to focus on water efficiency.

Remember, a smart controller takes a smart irrigation professional to install it. You need proper training. Especially during fall when people don’t turn their systems down – that’s where you see the biggest savings potential because the controller will start dialing down the rate of water due to lower temperatures or less moisture in the ground

The biggest thing to look at is how old the system you’re working with is. If you’re working with a controller that isn’t as advanced as some of the new technologies, this is an opportunity to upgrade that controller. Anything 20 years old, even within 10 years isn’t a bad idea. – Warren Gorowitz, vice president of sustainability and conservation, Ewing

How to use them.
Smart controller systems require a strategic approach. They are not a set-it-and-forget-it solution, and training and field experience play big roles in the long-term success of an installation. The Irrigation Association conducts independent testing of controllers to help you determine which fits the needs of your project. The testing also provides multiple product options and offers a measure of quality control for the industry. Incorporating a smart controller system starts with landscape contractors deciding to be proactive.

Customers are hungry to implement smart water management plans at their properties. Every week, I am asked to advise customers from property management companies or corporate facilities how systems work, what the process is and how it can save them money.

Once they see the scientific process they get comfortable and are willing to sit down and target the biggest water users so we can work out a plan together. Commercial managers understand the value to the owner or investor.

Community managers recognize justifying the investment to their board is easier when they can show the ROI calculation, and the board can evaluate the investment using the data. 

More functionality, better service

We’re seeing smart controllers and ET systems installed across the country for different reasons. In some circumstances, particularly with estate- or large-scale residential, or high-end commercial properties, contractors love the service element associated with the two-way communication. It’s not unusual for them to get an emergency service call, and they want to respond immediately. When you’re dealing with one-, two- or three-acre estates, that counts for a lot.

We’re also seeing a lot of influence from the Irvine Ranch Water District to get property owners to manage their water to a budget. They’re very active in holding a landscape company to a budget. Here, people use flow, or measuring the water used per week, and configure the water used to the billing cycle. There are some progressive landscape companies selling their water savings Bemus Landscaping in southern California and Southern Botanicals in Dallas.

We’re working to put more functionality into our smartphone application to give contractors broader management ability. People want full access, whether you’re on your laptop or your cell phone. – Pat McIntyre, CEO, ET Water Systems

More modular control

There has been a huge effort by manufacturers over the past several years to develop controllers that can automatically adjust watering schedules for daily changes in weather. It is common for the controller to stay programmed for peak summer watering throughout the year rather than be adjusted to accommodate changes in seasonality.

The contractor is much more tech-savvy than even just a few years ago. Customers continue to put pressure on manufacturers to provide them with more advanced features and capabilities, such as weather-based control, two-wire control and central control. So controller products are continually evolving to meet customer demands. Electronics manufacturers are improving the components that go into our controllers, which lets us improve performance and lower the overall cost.

Depending upon the situation, it can be a relatively easy task to upgrade an existing irrigation system. For most applications it is as easy as removing the old controller and attaching a newer, more advanced controller in its place. Adding weather sensors to controllers to make them ‘smart’ is also easy to do. The customer today is getting much more value for his or her money than they were with irrigation controllers made 10 years ago. – Jeffery J. Kremicki, senior product development manager, Hunter Industries


The author is director of water management solutions for ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., Calabassas, Calif.

For a round-up of the latest controllers and moisture sensors available to irrigation contractors, visit www.lawnandlandscape.com and search “controllers.”