Monitor from afar

Irrigation sensors can be an easy add-on to help your customer conserve water.

Irrigation sensors are an integral component in any new system install, but educating customers on their use is key in making sure the technology lives up to its potential. Recent advances, including wireless receivers, have made today’s irrigation sensors easier to use than their predecessors. The days of hard-wiring sensors, mounting them on buildings and trying to hide them for aesthetic reasons are gone.

Additionally, the signal strength between sensors and controllers has improved dramatically in recent years.

“All sensors are very easy and user-friendly to install,” says Ryan Jardine, founder of Quality Irrigation based in Omaha, Neb. “Depending on what sensor you desire, very little work goes into installation and having a water efficient system.”

Sensor types and goals.

Sensors typically fall into one of a few categories – rain sensors that shut off when the right amount of precipitation has fallen; rain/freeze sensors which feature a temperature gauge to let a customer know when freezing is occurring; moisture sensors, in which a dried out sensor will signal the system to turn back on; and entire weather stations, which can be custom set for specific climate and terrain needs.

But all sensors share the same goals: Making sure systems run as efficiently as possible, which helps customers save money on water bills, and streamlines the service landscape and irrigation contractors provide while limiting callbacks.

Making the sale.

For some contractors, including Ed Montalvo, general manager of Sprinkalawn Atlanta, every new install comes with a sensor. In Georgia, due to water conservation requirements, basic rain sensors are already required on all irrigation systems, he says. More advanced sensors like weather stations are sold based on individual customer needs, Montalvo says.

Unless a customer is strict about their financial budget, a sensor is always included in a new install, Jardine says, who has been using the sensors in the Omaha, Neb., market for more than a decade. About 14 employees work at his company, where the focus is sprinkler system installation and maintenance for both residential and commercial properties. Annual revenue ranges from $1.2 million to $2 million. Apart from water savings, Jardine says clients appreciate the technology’s ability to manage the system automatically.

“Most people (in residential service areas) want the satisfaction of knowing they don’t have to get up at 4 a.m. and turn their sprinkler off,” he says.

In Rexburg, Idaho, where Outback Landscape is based, Chase Coates, who owns the 20-employee company that posts revenue between $1 million and $2 million annually, says irrigation sensors are a harder sell, as most residential customers have their own water wells. To make it an easier sell, Coates will use the angle of energy conservation and saving the customer money on their utility bill. Customers with wells use electricity to power the well, and with a sensor, their well won’t be on all the time and using as much power.

“Most of ours are as an upgrade,” he says. “We will typically try and sell it as a feature that will make it easier for them to take care of (their lawn).” For the large commercial property customers, the rain/freezer sensors appeal due to their liability prevention nature, Jardine says. For example, if a pipe freezes and bursts and the water keeps flowing, the water could then freeze on a walkway and someone could enter the property, slip and fall and sue.

Likewise, Coates says installing a flow sensor on a main water line helps give customers peace of mind if the line ever breaks, knowing their system will not continue watering.

Education and installation.

In all cases, contractors say sensor sales depend on customer education.

“If you come to (the customer) and it sounds complicated, they probably won’t be interested at all,” Coates says.

Landscape and irrigation specialists suggest researching the types of sensors on the market, along with experimenting with using them. They also advise to take time to compare how each sensor works with the needs of their individual customer base.

By spending more time up front educating a customer on which notifications from the sensor will necessitate a service call, Montalvo says he saves money in the long run with fewer service calls.

His company employs about 20 people. Most of their work is in the residential realm, including irrigation, drainage and landscape lighting. Revenue totals about $1 to $1.5 million annually.


A place to stay

We asked some manufacturers for tips on installing rain sensors. Here’s what they said.

  • When installing a rain or weather sensor, it’s important to make sure the sensor has full exposure to sun, wind and rain. Always avoid installing inside a gutter or in any location where immersion, runoff or contact with irrigation spray will occur. It’s also important to avoid installation near a heat source, such as a heater vent or chimney. Wooden surfaces are preferred to concrete or asphalt shingles to reduce reflected heat, and for similar reasons, installation over a planted area is preferred to a driveway or walkway. – Toro Irrigation
  • The most important thing to remember when installing irrigation sensors is the location. Keep the sensors away from down spouts, drains and air conditioning condensation. You also need to mark where they are for aeration and maintenance purposes. Don't locate a sensor in shady areas, low-lying damp areas, or on the top of slopes that dry out quickly. Don't locate it near sidewalks or driveways where runoff can affect the sensor readings. Sensors need to be placed correctly in the soil. Locate them at the level of the root zone mass. For turf, this may be 3-4 inches deep, for shrubs and trees this may be 12 inches or deeper. Make sure the soil has good contact with the entire sensor – pack it in well around the sensor. – Ewing Irrigation
  • Most flow sensors need to be installed in an area of pipe that is clear of elbows, and tees, and has a neutral grade in order to enable laminar flow before and after the sensor for an accurate reading. But, newer meters do not require straight pipe installations. Moisture sensors need to be in multiple microclimates throughout the landscape in order to get an accurate reading of the landscape. When installing rain sensors, it’s important to forecast future growth around the installation area to ensure that vegetation does not end up covering the sensor during the growing seasons. – Netafim
  • For rain sensors, do not install under the overhang of the roof or a tree as readings will not be accurate. Do not install low to the ground where sprinklers can hit the device or any other items that could introduce water to the sensor other than rain (such as a pool or hot tub). For soil moisture sensors, install in an area representative of the site (not on a hill, not in a low spot, not near concrete or asphalt). Remember that it’s still imperative to schedule the controller properly for optimal water-saving benefits. – Rain Bird


Moisture sensors are popular and accurate, but are not a one size fits all. They can only monitor one area of a landscape, Montalvo says. “You can have many micro climates within one property,” he says. On properties where a climate mix is present, Montalvo often uses a smart controller that comes with its own weather station.

Check-ups on the sensors vary by contractor. For Montalvo, he offers a packaged service that typically includes two calls per year. During those visits, sensors will be checked.

At Outback Landscape, a new sensor install comes with at least two follow up checks by a service technician to ensure it is working properly and the customer fully understands how to use the sensor. “We’ve never had one go bad in 11 years,” Jardine says.


The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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June 2014
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