Sensor savvy

Sensor savvy

Features - Irrigation Sensors

High-tech irrigation sensors are entering the market, but their primary goal is still the same as ever: conserving water.

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June 26, 2019

Photo courtesy of Hunter Industries

There’s been a steady evolution of sorts when it comes to irrigation sensors and what they can do. While the earliest ones on the market decades ago had essentially only on/off settings, eventually time and rain sensors were added. Then came wireless capability. And now, some high-tech sensors can link to weather feeds from nearby weather stations, with the newest iterations boasting Wi-Fi enabled smart controllers – able to be managed from the convenience of a smart phone.

“Last year was the big blowup year for smart controllers,” says Kelly Rozansky, partner at All Wet Irrigation & Lighting in Dover, New Jersey. “In addition to being able to be controlled on your phone, which is kind of neat, is that they have all these diagnostics and trouble-shooting notification capabilities that earlier models didn’t.”

New capabilities.

Smart irrigation sensors are able to alert homeowners – and irrigation contractors – to problems in the irrigation system right away. This helps decrease the potential for wasted water and damage to the lawn and landscaping.

“In the old days, the way homeowners would know there was a problem was the system wouldn’t be coming on, and plants are dying or already dead or, instead, they lose a lot of water and it shows up on their bill,” Rozansky says. “Smart sensors are able to send alerts to say you have an electrical problem and in what zone.”

Some sensors can even link to a home’s water meter. “If it notes an anomaly – say a zone suddenly using more water, or meter usage when the system is off, signifying a slow leak – it will send an alert,” Rozansky says.

Further, the newest sensors allow homeowners and contractors much more control in tailoring their watering to prescribed conditions. “You can tell it, for example, don’t water below a certain temperature, or to water 25 percent more if it’s above a certain temperature, or not to water if it’s rained in the last 24 hours or if it’s rained an inch in the last week,” Rozansky says. “It really ends up saving homeowners water and money in a wet year, especially.”

Some sensors can even link to a home’s water meter. “If it notes an anomaly – say a zone suddenly using more water, or meter usage when the system is off, signifying a slow leak – it will send an alert,” says Kelly Rozansky, partner at All Wet Irrigation & Lighting in Dover, New Jersey.
Photo courtesy of All Wet Irrigation & Lighting

Finding the right fit.

Modern wireless irrigation sensors, even those that aren’t Wi-Fi enabled, have considerable advantages over older, wired models.

Depending on your market though, it may be hard to justify the added expense of the top-of-the-line sensors to your clients, added Dan Koval, irrigation service manager at Aqualon by Dayton, Ohio.

“In our market, (smart sensors) are starting to be more popular, but it’s hard to sell them,” Koval says. “We use a typical rain sensor on every job, and we’ll use a smart controller that could monitor current weather conditions on a limited basis. But other sensors, which would capture system leaks or soil moisture and things like that are just not too popular in our area.”

In contrast, Brian Palmer, president of Rainmakers Irrigation in Omaha, Nebraska, has found some luck in his market by describing smart irrigation sensors to his clients as a sort of extension to their overall smart home systems.

“I think it’s just the age that we’re in, with everyone being used to connecting via their phones and tablets. People like having that power in their hand to turn their sprinkler system on and off with their phone whenever they like,” Palmer says. “And they like the freedom to do that, even when they’re traveling out of town.

“It really ends up saving homeowners water and money in a wet year, especially.” Kelly Rozansky, partner, All Wet Irrigation & Lighting

Proper training and installation.

As irrigation systems continue their evolution toward smart system integration, it’s important to update your staff on tech, Rozansky says.

“Your technicians are dirt people, they’re landscape techs. Now we’ve got them dealing with smart phones and Wi-Fi passwords. You’ve got to train your techs as often as you can,” he says. “And you’ve got to train your office staff on how to deal with questions and troubleshoot, so they know how to respond when the customer calls up and says, ‘My system is offline.’”

Rozansky suggests having a designated person on staff able to check in online on clients’ systems daily in order to monitor for any alerts or problems.

Equally important is ensuring that your crews install the sensors correctly, avoiding overhanging building structures or tree cover and positioning them in the lawn to accurately read incoming weather.

Koval says it’s best to try to stay about 35-40 feet from any overhanging limbs.

“Sensors should be installed in as open sky as possible, and they should be installed on the side of the building that most weather typically comes in from,” Funk says.

Ultimately, the recent advances in smart irrigation sensors may be just the thing to convince your clients with aging systems that it’s time to upgrade.

“It’s been a great way to get people to update their older controllers,” Palmer says. “Maybe they’d been thinking about it and were on the fence, and we’re able to say, ‘With this new controller, you’ll be able to control your system by your smart phone, no matter where you’re at.’ It’s a pretty good attention grabber for people.”