Riding the wireless watering wave

Features - Irrigation

Irrigation companies are interacting with more mobile and Wi-Fi enabled systems as the technology becomes more mainstream.

January 18, 2022

© Dzianis Rakhuba | Adobe Stock

When Scott Thompson first started with Irrigation Management Systems two decades ago, he says copper phone lines and dial-up modems were used to remotely monitor clients’ irrigation systems. Nowadays, mobile app and Wi-Fi irrigation technology makes managing those systems much easier.

“We’ve been using the technology to be out in the field to turn things off even before the era of being mobile-ready became prevalent,” says Thompson, the project manager for the Portland, Oregon-based company. “It’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing for many years and people are starting to see the benefit of it. A lot of times, systems go in and aren’t used the way they should or aren’t hooked up just right. So, we’ll go in and get things up and running or do some consulting stuff and design help for people to figure out what one’s best for their property.”

Irrigation Management Systems doesn’t install irrigation systems, but rather monitors and regulates systems for commercial clients.

Simplifying systems.

Even for traditional irrigation installers, the Wi-Fi systems are becoming more popular.

“As a contractor, you’re coming across more of them now than ever before,” says Peter Hudson, owner of Southwest Irrigation Systems in Sugar Land, Texas. “I think with service work, we come across quite a few too.”

“I like that product because you can use it both ways. You can set it the old-fashioned way with your controller or on your phone.” Peter Hudson, owner of Southwest Irrigation Systems

Hudson says his team of 40 employees always prefers to install Wi-Fi enabled systems as it makes it easy for the client to control their system with ease.

“The product ties into the weather and makes adjustments to the system every day,” he says. “It’s by zip code so they know how much rain you’ve had in that area, what the high temperature was, what the low temperature was and it makes all the calculations for you.”

And just because a system is Wi-Fi enabled doesn’t mean you can’t still control it manually if you wish — which Hudson calls the best of both worlds.

Mobile and Wi-Fi irrigation systems allow irrigation companies to perform faster, more efficient maintenance when needed.
© Kirill Gorlov | Adobe Stock

“I like that product because you can use it both ways. You can set it the old-fashioned way with your controller or on your phone,” Hudson says. “It’ll connect either way and make the changes. I really like that function.”

In Kentucky, Craig Zumdick, owner of Expert Irrigation, says he also likes the mobile technology as it takes the pressure off his customers having to keep tabs on their systems 24/7.

“I tell homeowners, ‘You don’t have to do anything because it will automatically adjust for you,’” he says. “When you’re driving, you can tell what people have this technology because their yards typically look better. It’s putting down what the plant needs and not just putting down water for the sake of watering.

“It’s much easier to use than your standard controller, because the Wi-Fi stuff is a ‘set it and forget it’ type thing,” Zumdick adds. “You can set up parameters on it, and adjust it for certain customers, but there’s really specific parameters for our area that you can set, and it really works for everybody.”

Wi-Fi enabled systems are known for being more water efficient, something irrigation companies are saying is a growing concern for homeowners.

Thompson adds that while every manufacturer has its own mobile app to control things, Irrigation Management Systems still tends to regulate its customers’ systems from their computers or another device.

“Pretty much everything we run comes from the computers in our office,” he explains. “We can connect to those from our cellphones, or a laptop or an iPad. So, even if a manufacturer’s software doesn’t have a great app or online offering, we basically go through the computers at our office anyway, and it’s almost as fast as going through an app.”

An easy sell.

Hudson predicts that as the technology surrounding the Wi-Fi systems continues to advance, so will its popularity — that’s why SWIS now incorporates it as a standard part of their installation package.

“We use it on all our installations. We actually just started putting it in as part of our package. Now it’s standard. Every system we put in the ground actually has the Wi-Fi module as part of it,” he says. “We used to just offer it as an option, but we felt it’d be growing in demand as we go forward. We just felt like it should be standard.”

After the system is installed with the Wi-Fi module, Hudson says homeowners can opt out of enabling it but likes having it already in the ground in case they change their minds down the road. “We feel like if they don’t want the Wi-Fi module now, maybe they will in the future,” he says.

While Wi-Fi capability isn’t standard at Expert Irrigation, Zumdick says he does strongly encourage it when talking with perspective clients.

“On every new install quote that we offer, they have the option to purchase a Wi-Fi controller,” he says. “We’ve tried to push it too, because it obviously makes our jobs easier from a standpoint of being able to monitor things remotely. But even when you’re out doing service work, you’re more efficient when we can turn things on and off through our phones. We’ve really been trying to push it more over the past several years.”

And with more contractors installing Wi-Fi systems, and controlling them remotely, Thompson says it has opened up a whole new revenue stream for his company.

“It’s much easier to use than your standard controller, because the Wi-Fi stuff is a ‘set it and forget it’ type thing.” Craig Zumdick, owner of Expert Irrigation

“On the monitoring side, now more and more maintenance companies are adding in the service that we used to uniquely provide for years,” he says. “So, it’s kind of opened up our training and troubleshooting work. It gave us some new opportunities.”

Thompson says they’ve been called upon to help several companies learn the ropes when it comes to monitoring these systems en masse, which can be daunting. “Usually, there’s not a day that goes by where we don’t find something wrong somewhere,” he says.

Making mobile mainstream.

Out of the 800 residential customers Expert Irrigation has, Zumdick says about 130 accounts are using Wi-Fi controllers. “And five years ago, that number would have been zero,” he says.

While there are plenty of reasons for its increase in popularity, Zumdick says water consciousness and a move toward reducing water waste are really at the forefront of it.

“It all stems from the need and want to control water use. That’s why all this Wi-Fi technology came out, because it gives you the opportunity to tune into your local weather station,” he says. “For our purposes here in the Midwest, I think the Wi-Fi technology is really nice because our weather changes so frequently. So, when we have 20 degree shifts in weather, it’s nice to have something that will make adjustments automatically.”

Rising water rates are also a contributing factor for his commercial clients, Thompson says.

“With the cost of water going up, I think a lot of companies have bought in to the technology and like to have supreme control over their systems,” he says. “When it comes to watering in the rain or other common problems, I think people are more aware that there are ways to prevent that from happening now.”

Additionally, as more millennials are buying homes, and thus installing irrigation systems, Hudson says they expect the technology.

Connectivity issues are common with Wi-Fi enabled systems, but those are easy obstacles to overcome.
© Kirill Gorlov | Adobe Stock

“The younger generation is all on board,” he says. “People are thinking more about water, water waste and the simplicity of it. It’s really easy. You’re on your phone and you can just sit there at night on your couch and do your settings. You can be wherever and run it.”

Yet, Hudson says there are still plenty of people who aren’t on board with the app-based lifestyle.

“There still are a lot of customers who don’t want anything to do with it. They look at it as a complication issue that causes problems and costs them more money,” he says.

“You still have your people who say, ‘If it’s not broken don’t fix it.’ And then you have others who are up on technology and want to do anything they can to save money on water, and anything that can make their lives simpler,” he adds. “You have two different groups of people there.”

Connections and other confusion.

Despite the technology making the process easier for irrigation companies and customers alike, there are still come common challenges caused by the Wi-Fi enabled systems.

“There are some connectivity issues when it comes to Wi-Fi if you’re not close enough,” Thompson says. “We don’t have a ton of Wi-Fi systems because a lot of these commercial sites we take care of don’t have Wi-Fi out there. If we did have the ability to connect with Wi-Fi, we would probably do it more. For homeowners, it’s a great way to connect because there’s no ongoing cost — you’re already paying for your Wi-Fi.”

Connectivity concerns also creep up with residential systems.

“Depending on where everyone has their router in their house — that can be an issue,” Hudson says. “A lot of times, they need a booster because they have the router on one side of their house, and you can’t connect outside. So, that has been an issue we deal with. But we let the customer know upfront there may be a connectivity issue, but it’s able to be fixed. We can work through it.”

“More and more maintenance companies are adding in the service that we used to uniquely provide for years. So, it’s kind of opened up our training and troubleshooting work.” Scott Thompson, product manager with Irrigation Management Systems

User error is always something irrigation companies come across, but Zumdick says it’s especially prevalent with the Wi-Fi systems.

“For that, it’s nice to make adjustments remotely and not have to go out and fix it,” he says.

Hudson says that when crews do have to go onsite to fix an issue, it can be uncomfortable to request access to a homeowner’s phone or tablet to check the system.

“They just have to make it simple for someone who is servicing the system,” he says. “It can be kind of awkward to have to get on their iPad or smartphone to service the system. But companies have worked through a lot of that. Now, (customers) can just send (access) to you and you can accept it and get on their system and run it.”

Thompson says there’s one other common hesitation when it comes to Wi-Fi systems, and it’s been the same for some time — the price. He adds he expects that as the technology advances, the price will decrease.

“Anything we can do to make it easier for people to use and bring the cost down, I think that will help,” Thompson says. “Cost is just a big factor right now.”