Watering intelligently

Watering intelligently

Features - Irrigation

Smart controllers, in various forms, continue to catch fire as a go-to irrigation option.

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January 15, 2020

Photo courtesy of Hunter Industries

When Ross Heinen first tried smart irrigation controllers nearly a decade ago, he and his company were unimpressed.

He found the products to be inconsistent. Email alerts never came when systems were failing, or working out the bugs in systems brought more fatigue than implementing the systems was actually worth. Explaining the potential perks to customers was also difficult, especially when the systems overpromised and underdelivered.

But now, Heinen says he’s hopped back on the bandwagon because the technology has progressed so much. At his company, Puryear Farms in Gallatin, Tennessee, Heinen – the operations manager – and his team are even pushing smart controllers at the front end of their sales pitches. The smart controllers used to be just an add-on where you could take a stab at selling it and see if customers would pay extra; now, they can show how water savings over time pay off for the end user.

“Web-based connectivity is the biggest thing. Now, it’s on your phone, it’s on the computer, six guys can have access to it if they need to. It’s actually portable now,” Heinen says. “Yes, this is going to cost you a couple thousand dollars up front, but we can save you a couple hundred dollars every month on your water bill, so it pays for itself quickly.”

A CHANGING LANDSCAPE.

The wave of interest in smart controllers is definitely powered by technological advancements, but those aren’t just limited to irrigation tools. Clients are seemingly upgrading everything in their homes: Whether it’s monitoring a security camera or turning on their favorite TV shows, many things can be done on cell phones.

“It’s the way things are going,” says Jason Pyle, who works in franchise support at Conserva Irrigation. “Everyone wants what they want and they want it now. Just having connectivity at your fingertips, being able to access everything on your phone. You can turn your lights on in your house for crying out loud, open your garage door. There’s no reason why you can’t operate your irrigation controller.”

Mark Morgan, Jr., the account manager at The Morgan Landscape Group in North Carolina, says his company really started installing smart controllers in 2017. Now, he estimates 90% of the clients he pitches on smart controllers will go for it, which is especially nice given that his client base is largely high-end residential. He also says almost all controllers he replaces for his long-time clients are now smart controllers.

He’s noticed a majority of his customers who buy into smart controllers are younger, though he also adds that assuring clients they won’t need to do any additional work makes the sell easier. For his crew, it’s easier anyway to make adjustments remotely rather than arranging a time to have the client let them into their property to tweak fault systems.

“It’s a pretty easy sell, honestly, and it makes our jobs a lot easier on our end,” Morgan says. “We say, ‘Hey, we can install one of these and we never have to bother you again.’”

KEEPING UP.

Pyle says that some think the market is too early to adapt smart controller technology because of a lack of clarity. WiFi can be a buzzword and people think they understand it even if they really don’t.

“Some people say smart controller and don’t know what it means,” Pyle says. “The ambiguity comes with a lack of education and from people not taking the time to want to sell it.”

What’s more, there’s so many options now to the point where it can be tough to keep up. Mike Strick from Carefree Lawn Sprinklers in Illinois has been in the business for 32 years and has seen lots of different controllers. He says in the late 80s or 90s, there was a new product option every five or 10 years. Now, there’s something different on the market every few months.

The trick is to maintain a good relationship with the manufacturers, Strick says. They might let you test out some of their new products and decide what works best for your company.

“It’s nice to see what’s out there, what we can anticipate, but learning about it and staying current is much more difficult than knowing if it’s something’s going to be around long-term,” Strick says. “There’s a fine line between being leading edge and being too far ahead.”

Morgan echoes this advice, adding that the support has been outstanding from his manufacturers. Any time he has a question, the manufacturers will get back with him the same day if there’s an email. They also update their settings and software based on suggestions or questions from the users.

“If I have an issue setting it up or adding a user, they’ll help,” he says. He’s a pretty tech-savvy guy and can fix most problems, but he knows he has limitations – he jokes that he’s definitely not a member of Geek Squad.

“They update the app and have continually added things,” Morgan says. “It’s like you’re getting a new controller almost.”

WHAT’S AHEAD?

Smart controllers aren’t perfect, of course. Heinen says he longs for the day when smart controllers could be connected to other systems. Once the decoder is in for their two-wire systems, they’re married to that brand of smart controllers. Meanwhile, Morgan says sometimes customers can get too handsy with their systems and over or underwater their properties based on their own ideas of what’s best for their lawns.

“It’s their house, their property, they can do what they want, but I tell them, ‘Hey, I’d hold off on doing that extra watering,’” Morgan says.

Strick says that when there are issues, they often arise because of connectivity issues. When a controller loses connection, some will reboot automatically while others won’t.

A customer expects irrigation technicians to monitor their systems, but sometimes, they won’t know something is wrong until a few days later.

“It’s a reliability issue. Just like everyone’s cell phone, there are some places where you’re without service. We’ve found that there’s a lot of finger pointing going on,” Strick says. “Customers are looking for something that’s always going to be 100%. We’re not there.”

Ultimately, Strick also adds that these problems are far better than the alternative of not having smart controllers at all.

He’s been impressed with how many different choices there are in smart controllers now, and he encourages anybody who is interested in diving into using them to sample their products first.

“When they were getting started, customers were looking at it as a gadget. They were looking for one more thing to add to their smart home,” Strick says. “But then the customers realized that these controllers have the ability to do a lot more with water savings, making you aware of problems before your yard turns brown. Everybody’s got something that’s a little bit different now, so we’ve got to give the customer more than one option these days.” L&L