Smart irrigation controllers and sustainable agriculture

By Richard Restuccia

Richard Restuccia, VP at Jain Irrigation, describes the numerous advantages of smart irrigation, and the process of deciding which controller suits your needs.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates in the Southwestern United States that 60 percent of total water use is for outdoor purposes, and typically 50 percent of that water is wasted due to inefficient watering systems and methods. It also estimates 30 percent of all water use in the US is for outdoor purposes with 50 percent of the water wasted. 

We live in a time when water is no longer cheap or plentiful, and consumers need to take steps to manage water more efficiently. World population continues to grow rapidly. Currently we have around 7.4 billion people in the world and the United Nations expects this number to grow to over 9 billion people by 2050. More importantly, the number of people living in poverty is shrinking, which means we have more people to feed and more people are eating better. 

The big take away here is we need to produce 70 percent more food in coming years to feed everyone. The amount of water in the world is fixed and less than 3 percent of it is fresh water, with less than 1 percent of that available for human use. It takes water to grow food and considering the water wasted on landscapes, we need to make changes in the way we water landscapes and what we grow on those landscapes. The best first step you can take to reducing your water use is to purchase a smart irrigation controller for watering your landscape.

What makes an irrigation controller smart?

For a controller to be truly smart it has to be able to perform five basic functions.

  1. Ability to adjust watering run times based on weather data or soil moisture data on a daily basis. Most manual irrigation controllers are adjusted four times a year by landscapers or homeowners. A smart controller makes adjustments daily amounting to thousands of gallons of water saved over a year.
  2. Ability to view and make changes to a controller from my computer, tablet, or smart phone. For contractors, managing multiple properties the ability to monitor and manage controllers without having to drive and touch each controller saves time and money. More importantly because they can evaluate data and make changes from the office, the evaluation process happens more frequently. Homeowners are much more likely to view their controllers and make changes if they can do it from their smart device than if they have to walk to the garage and adjust a hard-to-read display.
  3. It has to have the ability to sense flow. This allows users to see real time how much water is being used. It also provides the ability to measure the flow of water for better water management and access to make changes easily.
  4. It has to be able to sense high flow and shut a system down when high flow is detected and send an alert, either via email or text message to a technician to let them know there is a problem. Anyone who has experienced a high water bill as a result of a water line break that went unnoticed for days understands this value.
  5. The ability to generate reports so you can analyze data to make better decisions about water management. It is important to know how much water you used this month. It is even better to be able to compare that with how much you used this same month last year. It is best to be able to make that comparison and include ET data for both months. Good reports allow you to make that comparison.


Soil moisture sensors or weather data?

After you decide to purchase a smart controller, you are going to have to make a decision to go with a controller that makes watering decisions based on weather data or soil moisture data. Both have pros and cons; both are accurate and produce excellent saving. Here are some things to consider:

Good weather-based controllers monitor the temperature, solar radiation, humidity and wind velocity (they measure evapotranspiration) and make determinations about how much water is in the soil, then water when appropriate. When they do water, they know how much water to apply for the soil to reach 100 percent saturation, and monitor conditions to know when water is depleted by 50 percent, turning the irrigation on to ensure the soil reaches 100 percent saturation again. 

The easiest way to understand evapotranspiration is to think the opposite of rain.  Evapotranspiration (ET) is the amount of water that evaporates from the soil and plant surface, plus the amount of transpiration through the plant. Temperature, solar radiation, humidity and wind velocity all effect ET on a daily basis. Knowing when plants need water and knowing when they are full is the first step to a healthy thriving landscape. 

Under-watering and over-watering are both detrimental to your plants. The majority of plant issues seen today are a result of too much water. When you observe a plant that is not doing well the first impulse is to give it water. Often this is an incorrect step. ET helps guide us to the best time to water. Imagine if you had a way to determine the moment you were getting hungry and then were able to satisfy that hunger without overeating. You would be happy and productive. By monitoring ET we can do exactly that and have happy thriving landscapes as a result.

Weather-based smart controllers are typically easy to install, provide accurate data, and give users the ability to view programing and water use on a computer or smart device.

Soil moisture sensors have been used for many years to measure how much water is held between soil particles. Because they directly measure water in the soil many experts believe this is the best way to determine when to water your landscape.  The sensor sends the soil moisture readings to the controller, which then uses that information to automate when/how often to turn on the sprinklers and how long to run/when to shutoff the sprinklers.

Soil moisture sensors are very accurate. They are used successfully in many agricultural applications. Some of the challenges with soil moisture sensor can be calibration. Most need to learn when 100 percent soil moisture occurs. This is fairly simple for most professionals but sometimes tricky for the DIY person. Also, you may need to use multiple sensors in your yard because of different types of plant materials or exposure to sun.

One more thing to keep in mind is most soil moisture sensors need to be directly wired to the controller. This means trenching and running wires. Sometimes these wire need to cross or go under sidewalks or driveways. There are several wireless sensors available today and they might be a good solution if you need to trench across a hardscape.

Wi-Fi or cellular 

It doesn’t matter if you have a weather-based controller or moisture sensor – you need to connect to your controller to see what is happening with your water and to make any changes.  There are many choices for smart controllers with WiFi or cellular connections to access the data.

Cellular data connection especially makes sense in commercial situations where you have multiple controllers spread across a commercial campus or Homeowners’ Association. It also provides access easy in places that don’t have Wi-Fi connections or have technology departments that don’t want to allow an outside device connected to their network. Cellular connected controllers do have an extra monthly charge for the cellular connection, but the dollar savings of the smart controller more than offset the cost. 

For most homeowners who have control of their Wi-Fi networks a Wi-Fi connected controller is going to work best. The cellular connect fee varies but typically runs from $15 to $20 per month. You pay more than that for your Wi-Fi connection at home, but typically most homes already have this connection so it is not an additional cost. This is an economical way to connect your controller. Just make sure you get a good signal at the installation location of the controller.

That is a lot of information to digest just to make a decision about what to use to water your plants. There is good news: the EPA completed a ton of research on the decisions you need to make before you make a selection and you can find all the information here. EPA has selected certain controllers for WaterSense label. To earn the WaterSense label, landscape irrigation controllers must be able to adequately meet the watering needs of a landscape without overwatering.
Rising rates

Clearly, there’s increased demand for water management expertise. Increasing water rates are one of the key drivers. Water rates are increasing across the country so companies and people 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.

A smart irrigation controller is a responsible first step to improving water management. Good Wi-Fi controllers for your home can be purchased for around $200. One of my favorites, Rachico, at times goes on sale at Best Buy for $159. In many places water agencies offer rebates for purchasing a smart controller, sometimes as much as half the cost of the controller. You should check with your local water agency before purchasing a smart controller to determine if it has rebates and what the rebates cover. The cellular connected smart controllers that work well for large properties like HOAs or commercial sites typically are priced higher. Spending $3000 - $5000 per controller installed and programmed is not unusual.

HydroPoint manufactures several controllers meeting the needs of HOAs and commercial properties. However, considering how much water can be saved, the money you save on water often covers the cost of the controller in less than two years. Matching a smart controller with drip irrigation in your yard is going to provide even greater savings while improving the overall look of your yard, because plants grow much better when they receive the right amount of water spread over a long interval. Just think how much a great looking landscape adds to the value of your home in terms of enjoyment and resale value.

Each day it becomes more important to proactively manage the water we have. Smart controllers offer homeowners, landscapers, building owners and managers a better way to manage their landscape water. As the price of water continues to rise technological solutions become more affordable and we see water savings paying for the technology we need to manage water in a short period of time. The water situation looks bleak at first glance, but with the technology available today and what will be introduced in the near future, most of our water issues will thankfully be resolved.


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